Personalities and Socialist politics
We are constantly told by new readers, especially by members of the Labour Party, that they regret what they call our “personal” attacks on the leaders of other political parties. Many individuals in the Labour Party, who say they want to see the establishment of a Socialist form of society, claim that Socialist educational work would make more rapid headway if those who carry it on would carefully avoid hurting the feelings of workers who have some admiration or liking for their “big men.” At the same time it is readily admitted that the actions of these leaders often call for criticism. But our criticism, they say, is not “fair criticism, ” it is not “helpful” or “encouraging.”
In taking up this attitude our critics are showing in fact that their disagreement with our general principles and policy is more fundamental than they imagine. It is essential to our conception of Socialist education that we should continually use the lessons of experience to sap the confidence placed by the workers in their leaders, political or trade union, Liberal, Tory, Labour or Communist; not because those leaders are good, bad or indifferent, but simply be cause they are leaders. This to a superficial view, and in the eyes of those who unconsciously have in mind the false analogy of the military discipline applied to masses of mechanically-minded soldiers, looks like treachery to the working class, and it is, therefore, our endeavour to show that our attitude is in fact an elementary principle of effective organisation for Socialism.
We are, of course, not alone in attacking the leaders of other organisations, but our methods and our aims in so doing are different from those of our opponents. In the first place it is important to notice that we do not criticise Mr. MacDonald or Mr. Lloyd George on the ground that they are corrupt or incompetent, and that we know some better leaders—ourselves. We have no leaders in our organisation, and we do not ask you to believe that we can lead you to paradise, if only you will give us your confidence. No one would deny that individuals differ. Some men would readily, and others not so readily, permit themselves to be bribed by “the other side.” The influences most likely to affect Mr. Churchill, for instance, would probably make no appeal whatever to Mr. MacDonald. There are men of whom it could safely be said that it is almost inconceivable that they .could ever be bribed, either by money, office, “honours.” or—perhaps the most seductive attraction of all—even by flattery and the offer of the hospitality and friendship of “society.”
But even if we could find leaders who in the accepted sense are incorruptible and possessed of sound judgment, we should still oppose the principle of leadership, and we should still be able to justify ourselves by reference to experience.
The typical feature of leadership is that of a man or woman standing in a position of authority, able in varying degrees to commit those whom he or she represents. Its extreme form exists in military organisation where the authority is almost unquestionable and unlimited. In the labour world it shows itself in the claim made by Labour M.P.’s to vote “as their conscience dictates,” i.e., not necessarily as may be required by their Party ; and in the practice of refusing trade unionists the right of access to the meetings of their own Executive Committees, and the almost universal custom of conducting negotiations with employers in private. These and other exhibitions of the leadership principle are tolerated by the workers because of their failure to notice two confusions of thought. Military discipline is compulsory on the soldier and is accepted by the workers in general as a necessity, even if an evil. It is truly a necessity—to the ruling class. They need a machine to enforce their policy, in defence of their interests, and they know no other or better way of organising that machine. They do not imagine that the protection of their interests, even to a politically ignorant army, will in itself serve as sufficient inducement to make soldiers sacrifice their lives. But the working class has to learn to organise and struggle for its own class interests, and it can only do this for itself. There are no leaders in earth or heaven who can relieve the workers of the twin difficulties of thinking out working-class policies and organising to achieve them. The first confusion of thought is this one of introducing military conceptions into the social struggle. The army is a force organised from above to fulfil objects to which the units composing the army may well be completely indifferent, if not vaguely hostile. It is directed by political leaders and their officer subordinates, who know precisely what they want done, and have small consideration for the lives or the wishes of those they command, except with in the narrow limits of military service. The army is a machine.
The struggle in which the workers are now engaged, and still more the struggle for Socialism, is the struggle of a class for power. It needs organisation, confidence and a comparatively high level of individual knowledge. These things can be won only by the voluntary intelligent co-operation of the workers. Leaders cannot give them, nor act as a substitute for them. The organisation struggling for Socialism must be built and must derive its strength from below, not from above. It must know its own path, and give its own instructions to its own servants, who will be neither ahead nor in the rear of the organisation itself.
This brings us to the second confusion of thought. Owing to their habitual humility towards those in authority, the workers imagine that there is some power and virtue in “office.” They think of their Labour M.P. or trade union leader as a being possessed of a power to act existing independently of themselves. There is no such power. The power of the M.P. is ultimately the power he has through his hold over the minds of his electors, that and nothing more. The power of the trade union leader is in you, the members. Bluff may serve occasionally, but everyone knows well enough that the employing class are not bluffed often or for long. It is precisely for this reason that, ever since there was a Labour movement, we have had from the time-honoured but ever juvenile institution called the “Left Wing,” a continual chorus of complaint that “our leaders do not lead.” They don’t “lead” because they realise that life is too precarious for the individual who gets ahead of the main body. Self-preservation can be secured only by-preaching as nearly as possible what is being thought by those who are seeking for guidance. This simple fact that victory or defeats rests finally with the organised workers, and not with their “leaders,” justifies our insistence on the need for the rejection of the belief in leadership altogether. Not until that has been done will the workers feel to the full their own individual responsibilities, and the recent general strike would appear to show that the workers are not slow to respond when responsibility clearly falls on them.
In reply to the objection that the workers will make mistakes if not guided by leaders, it is sufficient to point out that their leaders (apart from their own mistakes) are now quite unable to save their members from the latter’s mistakes. When the workers feel their responsibility for their own actions, they will at least be able to learn from them, instead of dismissing failure as the fault of this; or that leader. Under present methods of organisation leaders, however sound their judgment, can do little to save their members when outside influences are the immediate cause of a wrong policy being followed.
When in 1914 capitalist propaganda stampeded the workers into war fever, the very, very few Labour leaders who were not themselves swept away, could only look on in helpless despair. They could not stop the madness, and they could only take refuge in that deadly pessimism, which views the workers as hopelessly servile and ignorant, incapable of a sustained effort for their own emancipation. This seems to be the fate reserved for those leaders who do not become corrupted by the more common demoralising influences. We all regret the ease with which the workers can be moved by capitalist politicians, but we must point out that every defender of leaders and leadership is himself hindering the development of the minds of the workers to the point at which they will cease to be swayed by any emotional appeal, but will examine every statement critically, and accept no advice merely on the ground of the authoritative position of the leader who offers it.
It was remarked above that our criticism of leaders is different in kind from that of the Labour Party. In the Daily Herald (September 17th) an editorial was devoted to abuse of Neville Chamberlain. It was the kind of criticism we consider useless and dangerous to the working class. Chamberlain is said to do the “dirty work for the Cabinet,” and to like doing it. “He is singularly fitted for the seamy side of statemanship” ; he was the “most abject failure of the whole war period” ; he has never shown “a spark of ability or kindly human feeling.” But for him and a “few of his colleagues there might never have been need of the National Strike.” There is a whole column in the same kindly tone, and the, editor decides that Chamberlain is “a menace to the whole country,” and wants him sacked “to the lasting good of the nation.”
This is written according to the rules of the ancient game of politics. It is supposed to be useful and legitimate to denounce your opponents in order to win the votes of the unthinking. Possibly it serves its end, but it does not serve the end of bringing Socialism nearer. It does not hint at the necessity of dispensing with leaders, and it effectively, if not deliberately, obscures the one factor, an understanding of which alone can give meaning and simplicity to politics. It disguises the class nature of government. The capitalists are at present the ruling class. They rule with the object of preserving capitalism and defending their class interests. They govern with the consent of the majority of the workers, that consent being expressed at election times. It is our object to persuade the workers that while capitalism is good for capitalists, only Socialism can serve the interests of the working class. When this is recognised the workers will, instead of giving power to others, use their political power them selves, in order to establish Socialism. For the workers capitalism is the enemy, and Socialism the remedy of working-class economic problems. The Herald’s criticism of Chamberlain supports those, very illusions on which capitalist political control rests. It leads its readers to suppose that all will be well if “good government ” replaces “inefficient government,” and if a “kindly” Minister of Health replaces one who “has the niggling spirit of the usurer.” It fosters the belief that persons are all important and the system a matter of indifference. So long as the workers accept that view, the capitalist class will never have any difficulty in finding politicians able to play the part of “honest Baldwin” or “silent Cal Coolidge” or “clever Lloyd George” or “steady statesmanlike Asquith.” As one reputation falls so another rises. “Sack Neville Chamberlain” is the latest expression of a parrot cry which has been directed in turn against almost every Cabinet Minister for generations. Ministers come and go, but the system remains intact. Good government or bad, ministers with kind hearts or ministers with coronets, inefficients or supermen, these are all distinctions of minor concern to the workers. The thing that matters is that every government which administers capitalism does, and must, first and foremost, protect the interests of the capitalist class. Chamberlain’s activities are not a menace to the whole country. If they were a menace to capital, Chamberlain would have been dismissed long ago. If he is “kind” to his class, he must be “hard-faced” to ours; if he is a very efficient servant of our masters, so much the worse for us; if he is “niggling” towards workers needing relief to prevent starvation, so much the better for the capitalist taxpayers, who have to meet the cost of maintaining the derelicts of their profit-making system.
We are not much concerned with Neville Chamberlain’s personal merits, although it is highly improbable that he is such a vil lain as the Herald chooses to paint him. We are concerned with getting the workers to see that Chamberlain stands for capitalism, and is, therefore, bound to act contrary to working-class interests. This the Herald does not do.
We point out further that, if he were an angel, he could not do for the workers any thing material to improve their condition inside capitalism or to bring about Socialism. This applies equally to every leader of whatever political colour or personal quality. It includes Labour, Communist, and trade union organisations, and is our justification for our attitude. We claim that our criticism of leaders and leadership is necessary, and that unlike the Herald’s abuse of Chamberlain, it is based upon and helps to illustrate the basic principles of Socialism.
(Socialist Standard, October 1926)