Why We Oppose Labour Leaders
The attitude of the Socialist Party toward leaders and the following of leaders seems to create a deal of mental disturbance, ranging from gentle indignation to double-distilled essence of Satanic malevolence, within those whose peculiar constitution demands a leader to look up to, worship, and follow.
Such injured innocents, and such injured people who are far from being innocents, seem to imagine that our opposition to leaders and followers is prompted by sheer cussedness and spleen, and grounded upon anything but reason and judicial consideration.
But it may be possible to give, within the limits of a short article, some reasons for our undeniably bitter hostility to all that savours of leadership, which will be sufficiently cogent to modify in some degree the criticism levelled against us, even if they fail to convert immense numbers to our view.
Now in the first place, the movement for working-class emancipation is unique in this respect—it is a movement for the emancipation of the only class in society that remains to be emancipated. The significance of this is easily grasped. So long as, in the struggle of classes, the class immediately seeking emancipation was not the only subject class; so long, that is, as there a class below them, the achievement of the particular revolution of the period by no means depended upon the class-consciousness of the majority of those fighting for it. On the other hand, in such circumstances there was always a class to be made the tools of those seeking emancipation, and therefore to be kept in ignorance of the true interests of their class.
In such case, while the success of the revolution depended upon the class-consciousness (or knowledge of their class interests) of the revolutionary section of society, it found either a helpful or a stumbling block, in the class below.
For this reason the revolutionary class had much to gain from leading their dupes into battle on their account, but this did not absolve the former from the necessity of themselves attaining class consciousness, as a class, before any very serious effort could be made to attain social domination.
With the modern working-class the thing is entirely different. They have no class below them on whom to foist a fraudulent conception of class interests, and from whom to draw support and assistance in the struggle. All their strength must be of themselves and in them themselves. All their militant might must be based upon the knowledge of their class position and the logical course dictated by that position.
Therefore at the very outset it is seen that the need for leaders does not exist. Only those who do not know the way require to be led, and this very fact makes it inevitable that those who are led will be entirely in the hands of those who lead.
The working class can only find emancipation through Socialism, which implies the overthrow of the present ruling class and their social system. The only possible human instruments in the prosecution of the struggle for this end are those who understand the working-class position in society, realise that only Socialism can lift them from that position, and who desire that the proletariat shall be so lifted. Broadly speaking, only members of the working class will come in this category.
The class-unconscious mobs, therefore, whom the “leaders” place themselves at the head of, can never be effective factors in the struggle for working-class deliverance. It is often said that the leaders are in advance of the led, but in the broader sense this is not true. Lading, after all, must be by consent. So it happens that the “leader” can only lead where he is likely to be followed. Hence, so far is the leader from being in advance of the mob, that he is only the reflection of its collective ignorance.
As it is true that men’s political actions are, broadly speaking, determined by their conception of their economic interests, it follows that would-be leaders must persuade those they would lead that the interests of the latter lie the direction they desire to lead them. Here is the crux of the whole business. The political activities of the “leaders” will be determined by their economic interests—and what guarantee is there that these interests will coincide with those of the mob they invite to follow them?
It is not to be supposed that the interests of all members of the working class under all conditions and in all circumstances are identical. The shipwrights on the Tyne, for instance, are the competitors to those on the Thames, and the interest of every unemployed worker is, up to a certain point, opposed to those who are taking the wages he aspires to take.
In like manner the economic interest of the “labour leader,” as such, may be opposed to that of those he “leads.” The interest of the latter is certainly their emancipation from wage-slavery by the only road—the institution of the Socialist system of society. The interest of the “labour leader,” as such, lies in his maintaining his position as a labour “leader.”
Granted that these interests have not been shown to be necessarily antagonistic. It is not essential to insist that they are. It is sufficient that they may be, and this no logical person can deny without doing violence to his convictions.
No what are the facts concerning the economic interests of labour “leaders”? In the first place their bread and butter, in typical cases, depends upon their activities as labour “leaders.” It is to their interest, therefore, to remove as far as possible the element of doubt and insecurity concerning their livelihood by constituting themselves the bosses of their mobs, instead of being their servants. This they contrive to do by the simple expedient of dividing their followers against each other. Hence they dare not assist their followers to arrive at a true conception of their class interest, for that, if it did not result in their immediate overthrow by the vast bulk of ignorance on which they batten, would replace confusion with unanimity and knowledge that would never submit to be bossed or “led.”
So in actual fact the interests of leaders and led are diametrically opposed, insomuch that the knowledge which is essential to working-class emancipation must inevitably abolish leaders, and establish working-class effort on the faith and confidence in the intellect and ability of the working-class.
It is part of the necessary work of a Socialist organisation to point out this divergence between the interests of the workers and those who aspire to lead them, and to seize upon every instance and opportunity of illustrating and proving the contention that labour “leaders” are, and necessarily must be, misleaders.
The Socialist and the true Democrat does not place faith in leaders. He knows that the only hope lies in the intelligence and courage and energy of the working class as a class, and all his hope, all his faith, all his trust, rests in the working class.
A. E. Jacomb