Leadership: Lessons From the Past

To appear on a public platform for the Socialist Party is usually enough for some members of the audience to appoint you the leader—in spite of your indignant protests and denials. That a great deal of practical experience helps foster this delusion is indisputable. The teacher in the class-room; the lecturer at college; the captain of a ship, or the conductor of an orchestra. Aren’t they leaders? “A single violinist is his own Conductor. An orchestra requires a separate one” (Karl Marx). In most job-processes involving group co-operation a supervisor, foreman or group-leader is required. What about the surgeon in the operating theatre, or the consultants? Aren’t they leaders? Even the SPGB has a General Secretary! isn’t that leadership? It is even claimed that, in defending the real teachings of Marx against the distortions of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and others, the SPGB is elevating Marx to the position of a leader.

What was later to be the Socialist case on leadership was well-known and explicitly set-down by a group of workers in London, on 16 June 1836, when forming The London Working Men’s Association. From the outset, the LWMA was thoroughly democratic, eschewing all forms of secrecy at a time when conspiracy and intrigue were commonplace (due to the influence of the French Revolution). It refused to countenance violence or illegal activities of any kind, pinning its faith entirely in the developing consciousness of the workers; and therefore advocating universal suffrage, the Charter (of which its Secretary, William Lovett, was the author), the establishment of free public libraries, and an educational system—but, above all, deliberately renouncing all Leaders. All this is to be found in the book, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, the LWMA’s first secretary. Lovett, who in the 1820s tramped from Cornwall to London seeking work, taught himself cabinet-making while living on a half-penny loaf a day; refused admission to the Cabinet Makers Union, he later became its General Secretary.

There is much quoted in Lovett’s autobiography about leadership which socialists would agree with. Let Lovett speak for himself:

    “We had seen enough of the contentions of leaders and the battles of factions; to convince us, that no sound Public Opinion, and consequently no just Government, could be formed in this country as long as men’s attention was constantly directed to the useless warfare of pulling down, and setting up, of one Idol of Party after another.” (P. 90).

    “The masses, in their political organisations, were taught to look up to “Great Men” (or to men professing “greatness”) rather than to great Principles. We wished therefore to establish a political school of self-instruction among them, in which they should accustom themselves to examine great social and political principles, and by their publicity and free discussion, help to form a sound and healthful public opinion throughout the country.” (P. 94).

    “We have not wished, neither do we desire to be, Leaders, as we believe that the principles we advocate have been retarded, injured or betrayed by Leadership, more than by the open hostility of opponents. Leadership too often generates confiding bigotry, or political indifference on the one hand, or selfish ambition, on the other.

    The principles WE advocate are those of the peoples’ happiness, and for these to be justly established, each man must Know and feel his Rights and Duties. He must be prepared to guard the one; and perform the other with cheerfulness. And if Nature has given to one Man superior faculties, to express or execute the general wish, he only performs his Duty at the Mandate of his bretheren; he is therefore the “Leader” of none, but the equal of ALL.” (P. 192).

How well these “ordinary” working men, who never graced a school classroom, nor entered the hallowed portals of any great “seat of learning”, knew that the “superior faculties” of some were no barrier to the general welfare of all.


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