Editor's notes

Leninists? Hardly -- Occupy Wall Street protesters are all about consensus

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tredmond@sfbg.com

It's nice to see that the days when you could get away with calling protesters commies are back. CNBC says that the Occupy Wall Street activists are "anarchists" who are "aligned with Lenin." Actually, none of the anarchists I know are remotely Leninist. The communists of old were all for the creation of a powerful state. Lenin read Bakunin in his early years, but later declared that anarchists were "bourgeois revolutionaries."

But I wouldn't expect Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer and Joe Kernan to be up on their radical history. They clearly haven't spent much time with the people of the Occupy Wall Street movement, either. If they did, they'd realize that — like most of the left-wing movements that have sprung up with young people at the forefront in the United States over the past half century — the essential politics of Occupy Wall Street aren't derived from Lenin, Marx, Castro, the Sandinistas, or Hugo Chavez. It's about self-reliance, about community control and free expression, and in its purest form, it's a rejection of the old role of leaders and authority. It would have driven Lenin mad.

I grew up on that side of politics. In college, the anti-apartheid and antinuclear movements were all about consensus process, all about the rejection of any sort of power relationships. We had no elected presidents or chairpeople. We didn't vote on anything — voting disempowers the losing side. We took no action until we could reach consensus; everyone had to agree with everything.

What ultimately happened was that the people who could stick around for very long meetings, typically very late at night, where everybody had a lot to say and nobody got to tell anyone to cut it short, made the decisions. I never lasted.

When you're all at an encampment with nowhere to go, it's a thrilling exercise in real, direct democracy. When you're trying to do organizing involving people who have jobs, kids, and lives that can't fit three-hour (at best) meetings into the schedule, you leave a lot of your potential allies out.

The most interesting thing, though, is that the organizing principle of the protests, by its nature, involves distrusting government. That's been part of the young left for a long time — and for those of us who believe in a strong public sector, it's a bit, as they say, challenging.