On the Common Dreams website, Barbara Ransby, a lecturer in African-American Studies, Gender and Women’s studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discusses political organization and leadership and in her article reflects much of the thinking of the World Socialist Movement (WSM).
The key paragraph is perhaps this one:
“I have found that without organizations, coalitions and leadership teams, there is no collective strategy or accountability. An independent or freelance activist may share their opinion, and it may be an informed one, but if these words are not spoken in consultation or conversation with people on the ground, they are limited as a representation of a movement’s thinking and work.
When a leader-organizer puts him, her or themselves on record as being a part of a larger whole, that group can say, "You can or cannot speak for us. We agreed to X and you did Y. We were were counting on you and you opted out just when we needed you." That is accountability.
In turn, the collective can support those who act as representatives or spokespersons at any given moment. This rough formula gets complicated the larger and more diverse a movement gets. Still, the fundamental idea works.”
As we have done often in our writings, Jo Freeman’s seminal work “Tyranny of Structurelessness” which argues “that the notion of a movement without either structure or leaders obscures and privileges in corrosive ways. In a leaderless movement anyone can name, negotiate, convene and demand while simultaneously eschewing the label and responsibilities of leadership. At the end of the day these people are beholden to no one” is quoted approvingly by Ratsby
We too endorse the guidelines laid down by Freeman that good intentions do not change the nature of organisations, and that the membership carries the responsibility for the actions of those organisations. The WSM expects any working class organisation to possess democratic self-organisation, involving formal rules and structures, to prevent the emergence of unaccountable. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to all those who selected them. Distribution of authority among as many people as reasonably possible. Rotation of tasks among individuals. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Equal access to resources needed by the group. We're not talking about the sort of structures advocated and practised by many organisations on the Left where the rules and structures are designed to enshrine control by a self-perpetuating elite. These groups are dominated by the concept of a vanguard of “professional revolutionists” who have the duty to guide and lead their followers, stirring the emotions with their “grass roots” activities of organizing demonstrations and protests on any and all questions. Their concepts of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and the “Transitional Period” are reflected in what they call “Democratic Centralism” - control of the organization is from the top, who inform the membership of “the party line.”
“Must we have leaders to obtain our object?” Some answer will “Yes - to educate the workers socialism ” But teachers are not leaders any more than writers or rators are leaders. Their function is to spread knowledge and understanding so that the workers, the conscious majority, may emancipate themselves. Debs although the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America never held an administrative or executive position within that party. This is quite different from the claim that we must have leaders (great men) to direct their followers (blind supporters) into a socialist society.
Ransby, following her mentor, the Civil Rights activist, Ella Baker, is not against leadership but against hierarchal leadership. She cites Ella Baker’s words, "Strong people don’t need a strong leader" which Baker delivered over her 50 years of racial-justice struggles, calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus-building. Ransby explains that Baker “represented a different leadership tradition altogether. She combined the generic concept of leadership—‘A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task’—and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and imagine solution. Baker helped everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change.”
Ransby’s insights garnered from the experiences of Baker are valuable lessons for those embarking upon political change. For over a hundred years, our own organisations have been advocating much the same method of collective resistance. The WSM do not see ourselves as yet another leadership, but merely as an instrument of the working class. We function 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. We reject an organisational role. What we want people to come to is the realisation that they should take over their workplaces, communities, and put themselves in a position to control all of the decisions that affect them directly, and to run things themselves. If we were to be a vanguard, in the sense of an enlightened minority seeking to gain power over others, we could never achieve this aim, because we would have the power, rather than people having power over their own lives, collectively and individually. We would also be assuming the arrogance to think we have a monopoly of truth, rather than certain views which we debate with others including amongst ourselves, coming to a better viewpoint at the end of it. There is a big difference between an organisation that produces propaganda 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 communist/stateless society cannot even be contemplated.
Barbara Ransby could have given other examples of the “leadership” she recommends, for instance, Eugene Debs who said:
“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.”
And another time he declared :
“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.”
Our own organisation, The Socialist Party, is a leader-less political party where its executive committee is solely for housekeeping admin duties and cannot determine policy. An EC that is not even permitted to submit resolutions to conference. All conference decisions have to be ratified by a referendum of the whole membership. The General Secretary has no position of power or authority over any other member being simply a dogsbody. Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership referendums are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organisation control that organisation – and as such key procedures in any organisation genuinely seeking socialism. The WSM can never grow so large that they will not be governed by the membership. They delegate administrative and procedural work to committees, but the membership, as a whole, pass on motions of conference dealing with principles and policies (not routine house-keeping matters), which are always submitted to referenda. We don’t have leaders, only spokes-persons and administrators. Despite some very charismatic no personalities, none have ever held undue influence over the party. Working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership. Even if we could conceive 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. We reject the idea that people can be led into socialism. Capitalism cannot be abolished by a political revolution prepared, organised and led by an elite of professional revolutionaries claiming to act and think in the name of the exploited majority.
Socialism will not be established by good leaders but by thinking men, women and children. The fact of the longevity of the Socialist Party as a political organisation based on agreed goals, methods and organisational principles which has produced without interruption a monthly magazine for over a hundred years through two world wars is a lesson and achievement that most organisations can only aspire towards and should learn lessons from. The WSM has never been in the business to win popularity contests and jump on any old band-wagon for the sake of recruitment and the many political organisations that did have disappeared, leaving no lasting impact. Events have only confirmed that understanding is a necessary condition for socialism, not desperation and despair. There is no easier road to socialism than the education of the workers in socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic methods.
We can finish with Ratsby’s conclusion “Rather than someone with a fancy title standing at a podium speaking for or to the people, group-centered leaders are at the center of many concentric circles. They strengthen the group, forge consensus and negotiate a way forward. That kind of leadership is impactful, democratic, and, I would argue, more radical and sustainable, than the alternatives.” Rather than describe such men and women as “leaders”, we merely but more accurately ascribe to them the qualities of being conscious fellow workers engaged in the process of educating, agitating and organizing.