Wot no leader

Socialists are wearily familiar with the bewildered reaction of people on first learning that our party has no leader. No leader!


Shock, incredulity, horror and finally amusement are among their emotions as they struggle to come to grips with this white blackbird, this finless fish or headless horse.


For never in his wildest nightmares did John Bull conceive of a society that was leaderless. Not even Walter Mitty— striding intrepidly, the only white man ever in that place, through the dense Brazilian jungle or across the burning sands of Arabian Deserts, when he found his way barred by hordes of dusky warriors—not even Walter Mitty could think of any formula more magically talismanic than “Take me to your leader!”


And one feels reasonably certain that if American or Russian spacemen landed on a planet where there was organic life and met a group of animate beings, they too would confidently demand, “Take us to your leader.”


But to Socialists leaders are a useless anachronism, about as relevant to society’s present needs as the prophets of the Jews or early Christians, the witch-doctors of Africa or the oracles of Greece and Rome.


From a purely practical point of view, the Socialist sees many arguments against leadership. It is undemocratic in principle; it is unhelpful in the task of arousing class consciousness and a sense of the dignity and strength of the working class; it therefore tends to demoralise the “rank and file” and leads to a spirit of competition rather than co-operation; it can also be a direct cause of factionalism, intrigues and splits caused by personal ambition and group rivalry developing into hostility . . . All these points can easily be illustrated by examples from British history within one’s own lifetime.


Another way in which the leadership cult can be detrimental to a political party is due to the leader’s “charismatic” personality being identified with his party’s policy. Thus the public, learning of the “deplorable” private life of the Irish leader, Parnell, threw the baby out with the bathwater—rejecting the policy along with the personality.


Even if the leader leads a blameless life, has courage and intelligence, is unbribeable and unbreakable, his opponent has only to put him in jail or an early grave, for his party to suffer a crippling blow. Thus, to take a recent example, when the charismatic East Pakistan leader, Mujibur Rahman, was interned in March, his party (Awami League) reacted for a long time like the legendary headless hen: it ran in circles and went through the motions but was in fact dead from the neck up.


What is worse than a bad leader is surely a good leader. We need neither.


What we do want is the support of intelligent men and women the world over, committed to destroying the rotten fabric of capitalist society, not patching the old threadbare curtain of fraud and exploitation any more but tearing it from the window to let the clear light of a new day shine through, exposing in stark reality the squalor and misery, famines and wars, bigotry and xenophobia, and other prize exhibits of this twentieth century Chamber of Horrors.


Let us see the leaders too as mere painted waxworks and tailors’ dummies, propped up to simulate life before the TV cameras: a pantheon of heroes for spellbound children to gawp at. But, to quote an earlier writer, now we arc grown-up and have put away childish things. So we can and must decide our political destiny for ourselves, taking full responsibility on our own shoulders and not leaving the burden of decision to selected individuals. For the “leader” is no better than his flock and may well be a good deal worse. As Oscar Wilde observed, “The Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and they always take their heroes from the criminal classes“.


Leadership, hero-worship and élitism are contrary to the democracy of the Socialist movement, incompatible with the egalitarian nature of a Socialist society and are utterly inimical to the mass movement of class-conscious workers to abolish the old privilege-ridden society.


Charmian Skelton