No one likes despotism. Well, I suppose those who derive auxiliary power to enforce the despot’s will might think it’s okay, but if we look at a dictatorship from behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance, then it is certainly not an optimal form of government. Generally authoritarianism, as the imposition of one person or group’s will onto the rest of society, is frowned upon with swathes of historical evidence showing why it might be politically gauche.

In Western culture today, the common authoritarian bogeyman is Donald Trump, who speaks of cracking down with full state authority on dissenters, journalists, and satirists in a picture-perfect representation of tyrannical authoritarianism. What about those attempting to resist Trump’s foreboding ascension? Progressive movements today have a complete disdain for authority, often avoiding leadership of any kind, as they attempt to revolutionize the practices of their country.

In Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution, he says:

The anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.

When looking at the Russian communist revolution with this quotation (and many others from that book, holy) in mind, it is of little wonder that Joseph Stalin’s subsequent regime was so brutal. However, Lenin raises an important point. The very act of revolution is by its nature authoritarian. Even if your future utopia is a stateless one, as Lenin’s indeed was (though he did not consider it utopian), then achieving it will require the annexation of conflicting beliefs through some means or another, and then further displays of authority to maintain that foothold. One cannot be wholly anti-authoritarian and expect to make social change.

Considering how extreme the early communist rhetoric was, it is fairly simple to challenge it even in revolutionary terms. The more educated may cite ‘power-with’ as their response to the traditional, authoritarian ‘power-over’, where one utilizes whatever social authority they possess to work with those who hold less social power to ameliorate their position instead of simply demanding they follow certain criteria in order to conform to societal norms. However, if we consider this practice in the terms of social change, working with someone until they conform to the new paradigm sounds more like 1984 indoctrination rather than its touted anti-oppressive modality; an option not much improved over violent enforcement.

Slavoj Žižek chastises left wing practice in this capacity as a worse form of totalitarianism than its traditional counterpart. The example he uses is of a child not wanting to visit their grandmother. The traditional approach would be to force the child to visit their grandmother without regard for their feelings, but this new approach is different; Žižek dramatizes, “You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless I’m not forcing you to visit her; you should only visit her if you freely decide to do it.” Couched in this approach is the underlying pressure that not only must this child conform to the action that is demanded of them, but they must also want to conform. They must become the person who would willingly perform their social role.

Consider Kim Davis, the woman who refused to license same-sex couples. She was punished in the traditional sense, but the real vitriol was reserved for her characteristics as a person. Her failure was not so much in purposefully breaking this new law, but in her values. In order for her to truly belong within the new societal paradigm, she must not only license same-sex couples, she must want to do it as well. One may claim that these social movements are based on unalterable truths to which anyone could become enlightened should they receive the prerequisite education, but purporting a divine truth merely turns the process into a crusade rather than a simple revolution. There may no longer be rifles, bayonets, and cannons, but the authoritarianism is still present, with much bolder goals in mind.

Though it may sound like it due to the negative connotations of authoritarianism, this is not a condemnation of contemporary progressive movements. As Lenin says, change will always require some degree of authoritarianism. The condemnation occurs when the authoritarianism is obscured, dismissed, or ignored with the results being hypocrisy, delusion, or ineffectual soapboxing respectively. If we wish to avoid the devastation of Leninism, then rather than pretend it doesn’t exist, authoritarianism must be acknowledged and driven along a path that does not lead to a destructive state.

The biggest mistake of Leninism was the us-versus-them dichotomy from which a “proletarian dictatorship” (his words) was the outcome. Separating society into enemies and allies can only lead to oppression and bloodshed. This divisive dyad is still prevalent in the black versus white attitudes of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the women versus men attitudes of popular feminism. Even the term ally is indicative of this mentality; an ally against whom? The faceless Other who must be defeated. If we understand the intrinsic nature of authoritarianism within social change, the presence of this dichotomy is a serious concern. Inclusivity within social change is therefore paramount.

In addition, focusing on policies and practices would alleviate many of the dangers of authoritarianism. Most movements today prefer to prioritize personal identity and expression, again making the paradigm about the values and characteristics of the individual more so than the actual structures of society. The ostracization and shaming of a county clerk only becomes an arm of oppression after the structural foundation of the paradigm shift has been cemented in place. Of note: though Trump has declared gay marriage to be safe, it is important to bring up the potential damage he might cause against Planned Parenthood. Perhaps you might wonder if society had done more to silence pro-lifers when it had the chance, this structure would not be in jeopardy. This is true, but what kind of society would that be? If abortion is good for society, this can be shown through data on women’s health and autonomy, poverty and crime rates, and myriads of other information that could be attributed to the legality and availability of abortions. If it is not, perhaps on the grounds of morality or family cohesion, then there would need to be a weighing of the variables. In none of these instances is a shutting down of dissent necessary.

Alternatively, a path might be available that I will call skeptical authoritarianism. In it, I might recognize that in trying to create change I am imposing my will on others, just as those who seek to maintain the status quo or implement other forms of change are trying to impose their wills on me. If I maintain skeptical attitudes about the infallibility of my position, I may be able to, through dialogue, compromise with the Other. At best (from my perspective), I may make incremental change toward my ideal, but I may also in turn realize other truths that would be unavailable to me if I remained within my own echo chamber.

Fear of authoritarianism within a social movement is nonsensical. Leadership is not an inherent evil, nor is relativism an inherent good. Understanding the nature of change will lead to improved methods of implementing it. Failing to do so, or remaining purposefully oblivious, will either lead to further cycles of traditional revolution, totalitarianism, or annihilation.