“My friends, never put your trust in, and never follow after, men who pretend to be able to manufacture a revolution. A revolution, a rolling away of the whole from evil to good, from wrong to right, from injustice and oppression to righteousness and equal rule, never yet was manufactured, and never will be manufactured…” – Joseph Raynor Stephens, Chartist
There is an anonymous saying that a leader is only necessary when the led are vague in their demands. A purposeful demand will of itself act as a leader.
These are not times for reform and tweaking the system. Capitalism is in the process of seriously damaging the environment. The World Socialist Movement understands that no leader is going to pull the workers into socialism. Change will not come if we wait for someone to act for us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
Mainstream politics cannot comprehend the absence of leaders in the movement and view it as a weakness, not as a strength testifying to our determination not to be followers.
Forget 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 organisation, and people need to come together. But by self-organisation from the root, you will find that you have got no leaders – and do not want them because you do not lead them.
A leader may say “all that our organisation has gained is because of me”. But it is not so. It is not because a leader persuades the government to be nice, but because the actions of mass movements force the government to give back some of what has been taken from us.
Leaders, indeed, will often pretend that they know best and claim that the movement depends on them. But they can do this only by withholding knowledge and denying power to others. This is why it is important to make organisations as democratic as possible. The individual leader substitutes for and holds back the potential of the ‘led’. If we rely on one leader or a group of leaders, we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position because we can so easily be misled. Nor is there any leadership that can be bought off. Too many times a leader comes to symbolise an organisation and its cause so one individual’s reputation and personality come to represent and embody the cause.
The working class have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders.
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 personal qualities, capabilities and so on. There will always exist those who will be better orators or write more lucidly than others.
A functioning structure doesn’t necessarily require any leader. The best examples of organisation historically is the long tradition of discussions, debating, agreeing to clear, transparent written rules and principles to create a framework of mutual accountability, self-discipline and individual responsibility.
People talk incessantly about “The System”. “The System is rotten”, “The System must be changed”. “Vote for us, because we are going to change The System”.
What system, exactly?
The original theory of democracy envisaged popular participation in the running of affairs, what is called “participatory democracy”. This is the sort of democracy the World Socialist Movement favour but we know the most we will get under capitalism is the right to vote, under more-or-less fair conditions, for who shall control political power— a minimalist form of democracy that at least provides a mechanism whereby a socialist majority could vote in socialist delegates instead of capitalist politicians. This form of politics is an effective antidote to bureaucratism, radical in the sense that it is not simply concentrating on the issue of democracy but upon the whole concept of leadership. Socialism is not the result of blind faith, followers, or, by the same token, vanguards and leaders. Nothing is more repugnant to socialism than clever strategies and conspiratorial tactics. Socialism is not possible without socialists.
Political action must be taken by the conscious majority, without depending upon leadership. It is upon the working class as a whole that the working class must rely upon their emancipation. Valuable work may be done by individual teachers, writers and speakers, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to individuals that the working class must look. The movement for freedom must be a working-class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of the revolution there can be no emancipation for them. Democracy and majority decision-making must be the basic principle of both the movement to establish socialism and of the socialist society itself.
The lure and fascinations of protests, occupations and making demands are very attractive. It indicates how deep-rooted discontent with capitalism really is, and it demonstrates the latent strength of socialism once the masses wake up to the need for changing the system instead of adjusting to it. The bond that makes us as one and inspires us is the recognition that capitalism can no longer be reformed or administered in the interest of the working class or of society, and the understanding that conditions are now ripe for socialism, which is the solution for society’s problems. All that is lacking is a socialist majority. This is the essence of our principles. The socialist movement is not only heart but is a combination of heart and head.
What the World Socialist Movement says is that democracy can and does change things, that it is not democracy that is the problem, but rather that it is the system underlying the democracy, that makes it imperfect. What we have to do is push for more democracy, not less. We want to protect the idea of democracy but not the idea that voting someone into power will solve your problems for you. Nor the idea that voting for something is in itself enough. We protect the idea of democracy by propagating the case for it and by practising it. It is not merely a formal majority at the polls that will give the workers power to achieve socialism. It is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, is decisive.
The easiest and surest way for such a socialist majority to gain control of political power in order to establish socialism is to use the existing electoral machinery to send a majority of mandated socialist delegates to the various parliaments of the world. No doubt, at the same time, the working class will also have organised itself, at their various places of work and in their communities, in order to keep production going, but nothing can be done here until the machinery of coercion which is the state has been taken out of the hands of the capitalist class by political action. The political process is the real centre of social control – not made so by capitalist rulers but developed and evolved over centuries and through struggles. It is on the political field that the widest and most comprehensive propaganda can be deliberately maintained. It is here that the workers can be deliberately and independently organised on the basis of socialist thought and action. In other words, the socialist organisations can proceed untrammelled by ideas other than those connected with their revolutionary objective.
To repeat once again the WSM case, the institution of parliament is not at fault. It is just that people’s ideas have not yet developed beyond belief in leaders and dependence on a political elite. Control of parliament by representatives of a conscious revolutionary movement will enable the bureaucratic-military apparatus to be dismantled and the oppressive forces of the state to be neutralised, so that socialism may be introduced with the least possible violence and disruption. Parliament and local councils, to the extent that their functions are administrative and not governmental, can and will be used to coordinate the emergency immediate measures to transform society when socialism is established. Far better, is it not, if only to minimise the risk of violence, to also organise to win a majority in parliament too, not to form a government, but to end capitalism and dismantle the state. Political democracy is not just, a trick whereby the capitalist class get the working class to endorse their rule; it is a potential instrument that the working class can turn into a weapon to use in ending capitalism and class rule.
Capitalist democracy is not a participatory democracy, which a genuine democracy has to be. In practice, the people generally elect to central legislative assemblies and local councils professional politicians who they merely vote for and then let them get on with the job. In other words, the electors abdicate their responsibility to keep an eye on their representatives, giving them a free hand to do what the operation of capitalism demands. But that’s as much the fault of the electors as of their representatives, or rather it is a reflection of their low level of democratic consciousness. It can’t be blamed on the principle of representation as such. There is no reason in principle why, with a heightened democratic consciousness (such as would accompany the spread of socialist ideas), even representatives sent to state bodies could not be subject – while the state lasts – to democratic control by those who sent them there.
Many workers imagine that they must have a leader to look to as a guide to follow. Workers have been brought up with that belief and have been taught that they are dependent upon their betters and that without a leader decisions cannot be made and directions cannot be followed, so, therefore, they instinctively look for a leader. We have depended too much on leaders and not enough on ourselves.
The World Socialist Movement doesn’t want you to follow it but rather that you acquire self-reliance. As long as you can be led by an individual you will be betrayed by an individual. That does not mean that all leaders are dishonest or corrupt but many of them are deluded themselves, a case of the blind leading the blind. The most dangerous leader is not the corrupt leader, but the honest, ignorant leader. That type of leader is just as dangerous as the one who deliberately sells you out. There are leaders whose good intentions are the paving stones to hell. Daniel DeLeon’s classic phrase, to describe them was “the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
Far from even fomenting class war, too many leaders have been almost too anxious to secure permanent peace between the wage-earners and their employers and forget that under existing conditions the capitalists always have the whip hand. They preach that there is no basic conflict of interests between the bosses and the workers, between the capitalist system and the interests of the working class.
Reformers claim that a “promised land” can be brought about only if the capitalists and the working class are “reasonable”, if only we all “work together in the national interests”. With such slogans, they paper over the class nature of the system. They cover up the inevitability of class conflict. They are for class collaboration, not class struggle.
A socialist party must be a party of no compromise. Its mission is to point the way to the goal and it refuses to leave the main road the side-tracked that lead into the swamp of reformism. Nor does a socialist party advocate violence in the labour movement because it knows the capitalist class has the advantage. It is not cowardice but common sense and it is not heroism that makes a fool rock a boat in deep water, it is idiocy.
The capitalist class can gerrymander elections, miscount and steal votes, plus resort to a thousand and one other political chicanery, but such is simply to tamper with a thermometer, it cannot change the temperature. And the temperature is the organised power of the working class.
Power to no one, and to everyone!
“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”– Eugene V. Debs