Democracy and leaderships
Socialism is almost globally misunderstood and misrepresented. Socialism will be a basic structural change to society, and many of the things that most people take for granted, as "just the way things have to be", can and must be changed to establish socialism. 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. The task of capitalist ideology is to maintain the veil which keeps people from seeing that their own activities reproduce the form of their daily life, the task of socialists is to unveil the activities of daily life, to render them transparent.
Eugene Debs once 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.”
Another time he explained:
“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.”
There is one political party that takes the issue of leadership seriously and since its formation in 1904, it has had no leader The Socialist Party of Great Britain
Working class 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. The SPGB is a leader-less political party where its executive committee is solely for housekeeping admin duties and cannot determine policy or even submit resolutions to conference (and all the EC minutes available for public scrutiny access on the web as proof of our commitment to openness and democracy). All conference decisions have to be ratified by a referendum of the whole membership. Even our General Secretary has no position of power or authority over any other member. Despite some very charismatic writers and speakers in the past, no personality has held undue influence over the Socialist Party.
It is not the party’s task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants’ associations or whatever because we believe that class conscious workers and socialists are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. For the Trotskyist-Lenininist Left, all activity should be mediated by the Party (union activity, neighbourhood community struggles, etc.) , whereas for us, the Party is just one mode of activity available to the working class to use in their struggles, a tail to be wagged by the dog.
The Socialist Party is like no other political party in Britain. It is made up of people who have joined together because we want to get rid of the profit system and establish real socialism. Our aim is to persuade others to become socialist and act for themselves, organizing democratically and without leaders, to bring about the kind of society that we advocate. We reject the idea that people can be led into socialism. Socialism will not be established by good leaders but by thinking men and women. There can be no socialism without socialists.
Democracy and majority decision-making must be the basic principle of both the movement to establish socialism and of socialist society itself.
If a majority of workers really were as incapable of understanding socialism as many on the Left 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. Socialism just could not be imposed from above by an elite as envisaged by the Left. Democracy is not the mere counting of noses; it is the only principle of organisation compatible with a class-free society.
A real democracy is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of leadership. It is about all of us having a direct say in the decisions that affect us. Leadership means handing over the right to make those 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 market economy, with its built-in contradictions and conflicting interests, has massively complicated the process of decision-making itself. It has moved it further and further from the ambit of “ordinary people” as the system itself has become more and more globalised. It is this that has made the paper pledges of our elected leaders seem increasingly irrelevant and ineffectual.
Many on the Left believe strikes can be used as a lever to push the workers along a political road, towards their "emancipation." How is this possible if the workers do not understand the political road, and are only engaging in economic struggles? The answer is that "leaders-in-the-know" will direct the workers, much as a guide-dog leads a blind person. But more often than not these leaders will also try to lead the workers in the wrong direction, toward the wrong goals (nationalisation and state capitalism), as the workers later find out to their sorrow.
The socialist approach of education - rather than the non-socialist approach of leadership - is a better strategy. Through education it can be pointed out to the workers that strikes arise out of the nature of capitalism, but that they are not the answer to the workers' problems. These economic struggles settle nothing decisively because in the end the workers still wear the chains of wage slavery. It is the political act of the entire working class to eliminate the exploitative relations between workers and capitalists which can furnish a final solution. The socialist teaches the nature of both capitalism and socialism, so that, armed with this understanding, the workers themselves can carry out the political act of their own emancipation. This is the lesson of all other outbursts of class struggle among the workers. These struggles can be used as a means of educating workers to the real political struggle - socialism. They should not be used as a means to gain leadership over the workers, or to lead them along a political path they do not understand.