Skip to toolbar

Who Needs Leaders?

In 1916, in Everett, Washington State, USA, a ferry filled with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free-speech activists attempted to dock and was met by the local sheriff, along with his armed deputies. According to lore, when the sheriff asked, “Who are your leaders?” the response from the ferry was a shout from everyone aboard, declaring, “We are all leaders here.”

Visitors to various liberal and progressive website will always come across interesting articles but they will also encounter many articles that call for correct leadership and make demands for better leaders. People tend to accept as true the things they hear over and over again. But repetition doesn’t make things true. Because the truth and the facts often contradict “common knowledge”, socialists have to show that “common knowledge” is wrong.

Marx believed that, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves. The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be “spontaneous” in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about. Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary, but would come to be carried out by workers themselves, whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism.

As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” Like it or not, this is not the same analysis made by Lenin or Trotsky.

Leadership is one of those problematic words that needs qualifying. When we say “don’t follow leaders” we mean by this something very specific – a narrow political sense of the term – to denote the idea of surrendering power to an individual or group to change society on our behalf. We are not promoting the false idea that socialism is about “making everyone equal” in their endowments, abilities and so on. There will always exist those who will be better orators or write more lucidly than others. Writers or speakers are NOT leaders. Their function is to spread knowledge and understanding, as teachers. There is a big difference between those that produce information and so on, and helps promote the popular will where people accept decisions because they have been convinced by the case and have freely chosen to do so and a vanguard in the common sense of the word, meaning a party seeking to gain power over the masses. Revolution will be a process of self-education. Without the active participation of the mass of the working class in the fight for a state-free socialist society cannot even be contemplated. It was Joseph Dietzgen, described by Marx as the workers, philosopher, who declared:

“If a worker wants to take part in the self-emancipation of his class, the basic requirement is that he should cease allowing others to teach him and should set about teaching himself.”

This is quite a different concept from that one arguing that we must have leaders (great men) to direct their followers (blind supporters) into a socialist society. Socialists are catalytic agents, acting on our fellow-workers, the triggering agent that transforms majority ideas from bourgeois into revolutionary ones.

Working class self-emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership. Even if it could be conceived of a leader-ridden working class displacing the capitalist class from power such an immature class would be helpless to undertake the responsibilities of democratic socialist society. Socialism can’t be created by decree or by force by a minority and will not be established by good leaders but by thinking men and women. If workers really were as incapable of understanding socialism as some maintain, then socialism would be impossible since, by its very nature as a society based on voluntary cooperation, it can only come into being and work with the conscious consent and participation of the majority.

As the current recession within capitalism continues, squeezing and stamping down upon the working class ever more relentlessly, alongside the growing realisation of the failure of all forms of running the system; then there is definitely a growing POTENTIAL for the escalation of struggle towards the overthrow of the system. Nevertheless, how many times has the potential been there in past moments of escalated struggle and capitalist crisis only to disappear or to be channelled into reformist, pro-capitalist directions? Discontent over wages or conditions can be a catalyst for socialist understanding but so can many other things such as concern about the environment or war or bad housing or the just the general culture of capitalism. Many political organisations profess to exist only for the purpose of assisting the working class. They have drawn up hosts of programmes of social reforms which they guarantee would, if the workers would only trust them and vote for them; solve all the ills which afflict the working class.

Justifying their claim of being “revolutionary leaders”, the cadres are forever taking credit for organising the workers. It is as though they were taking credit for the rising of the sun, forgetting their basic Marxism that it is not ideas that make material conditions, but material conditions that give rise to ideas. Their case for leadership is simple. Most working-class people are too busy to engage in political action and so there’s a need for someone to dedicate their time and energies to represent working class people: professional, full-time advocates. It’s only logical that the professional politician, understanding better the decision making processes of power, represent us on our behalf. Too many people don’t have the right political consciousness, and if we let them use too much democracy they will make counter-revolutionary decisions that sabotage the revolution. The masses just can’t be trusted and have not evolved enough political consciousness to be pro-revolution. To solve the problem of widespread backward consciousness the party will organise “representatives” chosen from within its own ranks rather than freely elected by the masses.

This idea that someone with a job and family cannot really understand the needs of the working class is farcical. Workers have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders.

Some radicals despite their sincere and dedicated activism will blame the workers for their failures. Other radicals, with the best of intentions, claim impressive “successes” and “victories” in every field except one. History have proven beyond any shadow of doubt that they have not remotely convinced the workers of the need for socialism. From their activities carried on in the name of socialism, the one thing conspicuous by its absence has been any mention of the socialist case.

A truly revolutionary workers organisation will not see itself as yet another leadership, but merely as an instrument of the working class to help generalise their experience of the class struggle, to make a total critique of their condition and of its causes, and to develop the mass revolutionary consciousness necessary if society is to be totally transformed. They will reject an organisational role and instead urge people to come to the realisation that they should take over their workplaces, communities, and put themselves in a position to control all of the decisions that effect them directly, and to run things themselves. A vanguard, in the sense of an enlightened minority seeking to gain power over others, can never achieve this aim, because it would have the power, rather than people having power over their own lives, collectively and individually. They would also be assuming the arrogance to think they have a monopoly of truth, rather than certain views which face dispute and discussion with others.

A democratic leader-free movement would seek majority decision-making in local face-to-face assemblies and, where and when necessary, by fully accountable re-callable delegates. A representative is someone who makes decisions for the other people while a delegate, in contrast, carries out a mandate they have been given by the people who delegated them. In other words, they don’t act as they think best, they act as they are told. Accepting leaders means handing over the right to make decisions to someone else. We don’t vote for leaders to implement this or that decision; we vote according to our ideological inclinations to give them a “free hand” to make decisions. The point is that the very mechanism of decision-making we have today is a product of the social system we live under. The whole premise of democratic-centralism is that a central authority dictates policy to everyone else, so no matter how democratically chosen it is, it has to enforce its line and stifle dissent that makes this too difficult, which, in a revolutionary situation, there is bound to be a lot of. Democratic-centralism would exclude you from participation. In practical terms, the real vanguard would be the central committee of the Party.

Structure doesn’t necessarily mean a leader. The best examples of organisation historically can be found in the trade union movement at its best. Take the structures of trade union branches, these are a product of a long tradition of members debating, agreeing and renewing clear, transparent written rules that create a framework of mutual accountability, self-discipline and individual responsibility. They are there on paper, the responsibility of every member, to be used, contested and, once agreed, followed. That is not to deny that apathy and inertia can set in; the rules become a barrier to creative thinking and change; officials become corrupt or complacent. Yet the rules and basic principles remain.

Eugene Debs, an often overlooked socialist orator and union organiser, once said:

“I am not a labor leader. I don’t want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”

These are not times for reform and tweaking the system. Capitalism is in the process of destroying the Earth. Forget about looking for leaders. What we need is a movement that rises from the people and empowers ourselves. People need to stop looking up, and start looking around. There is an old adage, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. People need organisations, and people need to come together. But by self-organisation from the root, you will find that you have got no leaders.

Again to quote Debs:

“I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and mis-representatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

Power to no one, and to every one!