1930s >> 1934 >> no-360-august-1934

Dangers of Leadership

Leadership has always been an accepted fact in social movements and particularly in movements concerning workers. William Lovett has much that is bitter and to the point to say about it in his autobiography which covers that part of the last century when independent movements of workers were beginning. Of late years leadership has gained perhaps even more prominence owing to the Bolshevist movement and the various dictatorships. In fact, it would appear as if leaders have at last really come into their own.

For centuries it has been taken for granted that some few people in all walks of life are specially marked out to lead their fellows. The source or foundation for this view is the one constant factor that has been present in society across ages, and in spite of different forms of social organisation. This constant factor has been the existence of private property in the means of living. The development of private property gave some people a privileged position in relation to their fellows. It gave them the opportunity to exercise power, and it also provided them with the leisure and the means to acquire knowledge that in turn gave them a higher standing in the eyes of their less fortunate fellows. It was owing to this that the famous people of olden times could spend their lives orating, poetising and philosophising, while those who provided them with subsistence spent laborious days.

It may therefore be noticed to begin with that leadership is an attribute of property. Some adherents of the leadership idea have sought to prove that it is an attribute of humanity, or even a biological attribute; as a proof of this it has been urged that the leader is a regular feature of herding animals; the bull that is lord of the buffalo herd being brought forward as an illustration very much to the point.

One simple fact, however, disposes of this view without the need to go further, and it is that leadership, meaning one who directs, controls and is followed, is unknown to primitive people. Lewis Morgan has shown this in his book, “Ancient Society” by his description of the method of government practised among the Indian tribes with whom he lived. Elliot Smith, in his “Human History,” makes the following remarks on the point, which are worth quoting:

    “Amongst really primitive peoples in which there is no social organisation except the family groups, there is no hereditary leader. In fact, the circumstances of life were so simple and uncomplicated that there was little scope for leadership. When decisions have to be made, one of the old men takes the lead, or several of them form a council of elders. As the social system develops there are councils of elders for the village, and a combination of such for the clan, and representatives of the clans form a tribal council, which governs the whole community ” (page 298).

Elliot Smith’s testimony about primitive peoples is particularly useful, as he bases his book on the view that “great men” are responsible for shaping the destiny of the world.

Leadership, then, is associated with the development of private property, and it is so because the institution of private property provided conditions in which the domination of man by man became possible. Leadership is a form of domination.

The constant wrangling by leaders of opposing factions who put forward contradictory explanations and solutions for the various social problems exposes one of the weaknesses of leadership and also disposes of the idea that leaders obtain and deserve their domination on the ground that they are experts in their particular fields. A glaring example of this is the free trade leader versus the protectionist leader, each putting forward an opposite policy and each claiming his remedy as the only one that will meet evils that are identical. As one of them, if not both, must be wrong, the only way to know is to find but for yourself—which means that you do not need their guidance.

At present there is an excellent illustration in the world at large which makes plain the weaknesses of leadership. World leaders with great reputations as economic experts are at loggerheads over the methods to deal with the commonest evils that capitalism breeds. Even the crises that occur at more or less regular intervals are still an unsolved riddle to them. Statisticians have gathered multitudes of figures, volumes have been written on the subject, and yet these experts are still at sea.

It is urged, for reasons that need not be gone into at the moment, that leadership is essential to the working-class movement. A short time ago an unemployed march on London was organised. Just before the marchers reached London, two of the important figures in the business, Pollitt and Hannington, were arrested. In the true spirit of leadership they complained that the Government did this foul deed in order to defeat the object of the marchers, which apparently could only be reached through their good offices. If this is so, then how easy it would be for governments to defeat any working-class movement—all that need be done is to clap the leaders in jail and the followers would wander hopelessly like lost sheep.

Where a movement depends for success upon leadership it is only necessary to cut off the head to defeat the movement. The physical-force Chartists learned this to their cost nearly a hundred years ago, when the government of the day called the bluff of Feargus O’Connor during the attempted mass presentation of the Great Charter. O’Connor hurried away from the scene of his discomfiture, and left his followers in bewilderment to a tame and despondent dispersal.

This weakness of leadership has been demonstrated on numerous occasions from that day to this—and most disastrously in the various Communist, Syndicalist and similar movements.

It is true that economic ills give leaders their opportunity, but it is not true that remedies can be devised and applied by means of leaders. In fact, the numerous examples, such as those of Burns, Briand and MacDonald, strongly support the view that the remedy for the workers’ ills will have to be applied in spite of leaders.

Another thing to notice about leaders in the working-class movement is that these leaders lead from behind. That is to say, they can only follow the course the mass agrees to follow. The first thing a leader must do, therefore, is to convince the mass that the course he proposes following is the best one for the mass. Out of this dependence on the mass arises rivalry and antagonism amongst leaders, each striving for support; the building up of cliques and the existence of mutual backscratching.

It is this also that has helped on so considerably the intrigues and internecine warfare that plays a prominent part in labour politics, certain features of which provide post-war writers of memoirs with ample and spicy material.

The fact that leaders must lean on masses has developed a complex technique in the art of getting and holding office. But the crowd is fickle, and no leader can be sure of security unless, like Shackleton, who became Government Labour Adviser, or Middleton, who became an Ecclesiastical Commissioner, he obtains a permanent government job free from the influence of people or party.

Leaders do not necessarily start out with the idea of making a career or tricking their followers. What generally happens is that they gradually drift into a position where their interests are not identical with those of their followers. Leaders who have sprung from poor circumstances dread the possibility of falling back into the ranks of those looking for employment, and consequently they do all they can to keep in existence trade union and political jobs, and to hold on to the jobs they have obtained. Any attack upon the job either by erstwhile followers or budding rivals is bitterly resented. At times, where circumstances dictate it, the interests of followers are sacrificed to the interests of keeping the job. The callous way in which many who have risen to position on the backs of followers and have then abandoned those followers for a political job is a sufficient illustration of this job hungriness.

This job business is also a consideration when the question of strike action comes up for decision. In general, leaders who have “got there” favour arbitration rather than strikes, because strikes tend to deplete union funds and limit the capacity of unions to provide jobs for officials. Perhaps it has also influenced the scared and bitter attitude towards such movements as Fascism. Leaders who have professed anti-war sentiments for years are now prepared to go to war in the event of Fascism being the enemy—a point the capitalists will bear in mind for future use, and maybe England’s future antagonists will be vilified as Fascists instead of Huns!

The tendency of leadership is also towards conservatism—to keeping things going as they are. Hence they resent criticism. They are often in a better position to obtain a grasp of the situation than the rank and file, and this tends to give them an inflated idea of their own capacity. Routine work develops caution and irritability at anything that is not customary. Further, they do not want any change in conditions that appear to guarantee them security, and hence they look with suspicion upon anything new.

The position of working-class leaders also puts them in touch with a social sphere that was formerly unknown to them, and one that is in close touch with many of the desirable things of life. They are made much of in this new sphere and get the reputation of being practical and respectable, and they strive, at first without deliberate intention, to live up to this reputation.

Leaders, of course, are of various kinds, and since the labour movement has grown large, offering well-paid jobs to its higher officials, it has attracted young men from the universities who are quite plainly only concerned with a career.

The qualities that make leaders are also of various kinds. In some cases it is merely oratorical powers, in others a capacity for intrigue, and in others again, a capacity for routine work. Hard cheek is also a helpful quality.

Frequently a leader commences his career as a firebrand and then gradually drifts into the “respectable” camp. Aristide Briand, the late French Prime Minister, was at one time a fiery advocate of the General Strike, and John Burns, sometime Liberal Cabinet Minister, was also a prominent strike leader in his early days. If one were to credit Briand and Burns with sincerity one could hardly credit them with capacity and foresight as leaders of a working-class movement when their attitude underwent such a revolutionary change. They could not have it both ways.

It is also well to reflect that some of those in the present National Government, pursuing a Conservative policy, once claimed to be leading the workers against the capitalist coalition—in fact, they have simply led their supporters into the capitalist camp.

The position of leaders, with the adulation it brings, is itself a barrier to their success as levers for working-class emancipation. Apart from the reasons already put forward, there is the constant: friction between leaders of which the Press gives ample evidence at times. They are jealous of each others’ popularity, they get huffy at not receiving what they consider a sufficient measure of praise, and anyhow, the prizes to be won bring forward many contestants. Cliques develop which put a barrier around the available jobs, and a great part of the life of each is taken up with this side, instead of pushing the workers’ interests.

How prospective leaders view the matter was given startling prominence over twenty years ago. Ruskin College was established to train students for work in the Labour movement. In March, 1909, the students went on strike. They struck because their professors gave sociology and logic a more important place in the curriculum than oratorical exercises! (Westminster Gazette, March 30th, 1909.)

While some leaders succeed in retaining a hold on their followers for many years, others are less fortunate. The battle-cry of the old leader is often outdone by that of a newcomer, and the popular idol of one day disappears and is replaced by another to follow the same path. In the Communist movement, for example, leader follows leader with bewildering frequency, and each appears to bring with him a new slogan that involves a new policy. While action by the mass of workers depends upon leaders and leaders depend upon masses there is bound to be this instability.

Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley are glaring examples of the craze for the spectacular that is generally a great part of the make-up of leaders. Extravagant denunciation and extravagant promises impossible of fulfilment are also part of their general stock-in-trade.

A glance at the various political movements inspired by working-class distress in this country shows what a large part the personal feelings of leaders have played. The Labour Party, the old Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party, have all been rent and full of turmoil due in great part to these feuds between leaders. Long ago, H. M. Hyndman, who was not dependent upon politics for his living, resigned from the Social Democratic Federation in a huff because he would not tolerate criticism of his dictatorial ways. His worshippers ate much humble pie in order to persuade him back into the fold again.

What is probably the chief evil of leadership is the way it dulls the critical faculties of those who rely upon it. When people habitually rely upon others to solve their difficulties they are loth to go to the trouble themselves of thinking out problems. They expect the leaders to do the thinking, and when awkward situations develop they have lost the capacity to appreciate the fact. As they have relied on the leaders to bring success they blame them for failure. Repeated failure develops apathy, and the feeling that success is impossible.

As the actions of leaders are limited by the outlook of the majority of the workers, it would be necessary for the majority to understand the position clearly in order that the leaders might act effectively. But when the majority do understand what is required they will no longer need leaders to tell them what to do.