The Dangers of Leadership

At first glance the theory of vanguard action by a highly disciplined minority to achieve Socialism might seem to have a lot to recommend it. In a pre-revolutionary period, revolutionaries are always confronted by the twin obstacles of a ruling class armed with state power and the apathy of the masses. So any theory which suggests that the mass of the people has only a minor role to play, that their inertia can somehow be circumvented, is obviously very attractive. Like most modern political ideas this theory has its roots in the French revolution, but it was Lenin who first systematically organised a political party on this principle.

Today there are numerous organisations which, to a varying degree, draw their political inspiration from the Bolsheviks. Despite bitter disputes over the minutia of their faith, they all conform to a common pattern. Each adopts a programme of immediate demands which are designed as bait to attract working class support. It also seems to be a general rule that groups which start with a theory that the party must lead the masses, end up by developing a highly centralised leadership within the party, with the rank and file members progressively subordinated to a sort of inner party.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain from its inception has rejected this form of organisation and its related theory. The experiences of our early members in the Social Democratic Federation before the Socialist Party was set up taught them the dangers inherent in a reform programme. Inevitably a party which attracts support on this basis finds people joining it and identifying themselves with it who have no interest in getting rid of capitalism, but who are simply concerned with reforming and modifying the present social system. Faced with this situation, the party can develop in two ways. It either becomes an openly reformist organisation and the genuine socialists inside it are reduced to a minority or it may still manage to adhere to its original principles—but only at the expense of democracy, by a dictatorial clique concentrating power in its own hands.

The “International Socialism” group is worth looking at from this point of view since it clearly shows these tendencies and it also has members within its ranks intelligent enough to be conscious of their dilemma. In fact, the I.S. group and the Socialist Party are of roughly similar size and to a superficial observer there might seem to be certain similarities in our ideas (when pressed by socialists the I.S. leadership will concede that there is state capitalism in Russia and the Socialism will eventually—their emphasis—be a moneyless economy based on free distribution). Up till 1967 I.S. took the form of a loose-knit group with very little formal organisation inside the Labour Party and Labour Party Young Socialists With the slump in the government’s popularity, however, it has noisily proclaimed its independence from Labour [1]  and has been growing rapidly over the last few months, with an influx of young people—mainly university students — into its ranks.

I.S. sees its immediate task, as does the Socialist Party, as one of developing class consciousness among the workers. But there is an important distinction between the two concepts of “consciousness”. The Socialist Party is convinced that there is no basis for going forward from capitalism until a majority of people understand what Socialism entails and are prepared to take conscious action to establish it. By contrast, the level of understanding which at least some members of I.S. expect the working class to reach is indicated by the following passage, taken from one of the internal documents circulating inside their organisation prior to their recent bi-annual conference:

  It is irrelevant what the working class ‘thinks’; it is even more irrelevant what individual workers think; what, ultimately, will determine the outcome of class struggle is what the working class is forced to do, and what it decides to do. (their emphasis)

Naturally, this different interpretation of consciousness gives rise to a completely different approach to the question of presenting socialist ideas to the working class. While the Socialist Party supports the efforts of workers to improve their wages and working conditions by trade union activity, we do not as a party immerse ourselves in such work. We see our job as essentially one of drawing attention to the fact that the individual problems which make working class life a misery are all rooted in the capitalist system. Against this we pose the alternative of a world socialist community. I. S. takes a different line. Their strategy is to become involved in particular struggles over rents, wages or redundancy and—so the theory goes—support gained on local issues in this way will gradually blossom out into a fully developed grasp of Socialism among those who accept I.S. leadership.

Certain elements within I.S. now seem to be seriously questioning the value of these tactics. One lesson which a number of them seem to have drawn from their involvement in the “day to day struggle” is that the idea of the working class eagerly waiting for some group of self-appointed leaders to turn up and start leading them has no existence outside of Bolshevik mythology. At their recent conference there were various rueful accounts of tenants and others telling I.S. members in no uncertain terms where they could stick their leadership. These provoked the conclusion from one faction at the conference that “the working class is not as stupid as some people think”.

An equally important development has been the analysis which other I.S. members have been making of the shortcomings of their organisational structure. Some of them are worried by the trend towards the “bolshevising” of their movement:

   . . .  we are in the process of creating inside IS. an organisation based on ‘leadership’ where the leadership is to be trusted with central power for the sake of efficiency.

But this tendency cannot simply be explained away by references to the growth of their group and the consequent centralisation in the interests of efficiency. Its roots go deeper, down into the theoretical basis from which I.S. operates.

After all if there is a theory of a working class which needs an external leadership, the obverse organisational theory of a rank and file membership needing a strong leadership, will take hold—at the top.

Alongside this they outline the organisational form which a socialist party should take:

   What is required for a really efficient challenge to capitalism is the building up of a REVOLUTIONARY ORGANISATION OF EQUAL PARTICIPANTS IN DECISION AND POLICY-MAKING, (their emphasis)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain, of course, is organised along these lines. It is because we reject all leadership and restrict our membership to socialists alone that we can afford to be uncompromisingly democratic. Some of those who in the past have sneered at our “impossibilism” are perhaps now starting to realise that what we have succeeded in building up is the nucleus of the type of mass party which the working class can use to liberate itself. We certainly do not have any of the glamour which makes organisations like I.S. so attractive to their romantic revolutionary elements, but to those interested in the serious work of achieving Socialism we do represent a party where they will be welcomed as comrades and equals.

John Crump

[1] Too much should not be made of this. At least some l.S. leaders (e.g. Michael Kidron) have taken the precaution of quietly remaining on the Labour Party’s books. For details of their previous commitment to Labour see Socialist Standard, August 1968.