In the letters section of the current issue of the Weekly Worker there is a reference to an "SPGB leader" - a fictitious party position. This is the first in a three-part explanation of how the Socialist Party is organised and how it views leaderships.
We Are All Leaders
These are not times for reform and tweaking the system. Capitalism is in the process of destroying the Earth. The Socialist Party knows that no leaders are going to pull the workers into socialism. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. 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 that it is not a weakness but a strength, testifying to our determination not to be followers.
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 – 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 sometimes pretend that they know best and that the movement depends on them. But they can do this only by with-holding knowledge and denying power from others. This is why it is important to make organisations as democratic as possible. The individual leader substitutes for and holds back the capacities of the ‘led’. If we rely on one leader, or a group of leaders we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because we can easily be misled. Nor is there a leadership to be bought off. A leader comes to symbolise an organisation’s cause and projects it on to one individual that his or her reputation and personality comes to represent and embody the cause.
The working class have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders.
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.
Structure doesn’t necessarily mean a leader. The best examples of organisation historically can be found in the trade union and labour movement at its best. Take, for example, 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, always available.
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 labor 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, mis-count and steal votes, plus resort to a thousand and one other political tricks, 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.
We are all leaders.
In 1916 in Everett, Washington state, USA, a passenger ferry loaded with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech activists attempted to dock. On the dock, the local sheriff, along with armed deputies and armed guards hired by local businesses, attempted to block the ship from docking. 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.”
The relation of "the party," to the masses plays a large part in contemporary Left discussion. The importance and indispensability of the vanguard party are taken for granted. The militants who call themselves the vanguard believe that one or the myriad parties must direct the class struggle (or in the case of some syndicalists, the unions)
The Trotskyist/Leninist Left may remix the song over and over again all they want but the tune remains the same: leaders and the cadres of the vanguard can find the answer; the mass movements of the people cannot liberate themselves. The case for leadership is simple. Most working-class people are too busy to have opinions or engage in political action. There’s a need for someone to dedicate their time and energies to adequately represent working class people. Instead, we what really need is professional, full-time advocates for our interests. It’s only logical that the Trotskyist vanguard, understanding better the decision-making processes of power, represent organised resistance on our behalf. Ensuring we have a united position is more important at this stage and what does solidarity mean if not getting in line behind strong leadership - even if that leadership isn’t always sure what its principles are? 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 is the clear conclusion. If the masses don’t have an evolved enough political consciousness to be pro-revolution, then would elect people as their representatives who reflect their backwards political views. If the masses don’t have advanced enough political consciousness, this is going to sabotage the revolution one whether through counter-revolutionary decisions being made via direct democracy via electing counter-revolutionary leaders via representative democracy. This would be the point where the vanguard party strategy would suspend even representative democracy. They attempt to solve the problem of widespread backward consciousness by implementing a one-party dictatorship with the “representatives” chosen from within the party rather than freely elected by the masses. If most people don’t have a sufficiently advanced political consciousness, the revolution will fail whether a vanguard party is used or not. And if a totalitarian vanguard party succeeds in stealing power from the not-revolutionary-enough masses, the revolution will still fail – because tyranny in itself is counter-revolutionary.
The idea that someone with a job and kids can really understand the complex needs of the working class is farcical. Workers have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders. Socialism means that people have taken their destiny into their own hands. Socialism can't be created by decree or by force by a minority. It can only be implemented by the majority of the people taking over the economy (taking over their workplaces, streets and estates) in concert with the capture of the State machinery and reorganising them as they see fit. But being against vanguards is not the same as being against organisation. A vanguard is a particular type of organisation, with specific aims and to reject vanguardism is not to reject organisation.
The Socialist Party 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.
We favour majority decision making in 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. 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. How could it not? 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. So whilst it pays lip service to the idea of the vanguard as the most conscious sector of the proletariat in practical terms, the real vanguard is the central committee.
Power to no one, and to every one!