Socialist Worker

Do we need leaders?

Some activists think that "leadership" means a minority imposing their ideas on the movement. But, as Esme Choonara writes, leadership is an inevitable part of struggle

Issue No. 2140

Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow airport debate tactics with a trade unionist bringing solidarity from another company during their 2005 strike.  (Pic:» Jess Hurd/re

Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow airport debate tactics with a trade unionist bringing solidarity from another company during their 2005 strike. (Pic: » Jess Hurd/re

For many people the concept of “leadership” is a dirty word. This is hardly surprising when you consider the state of world leaders and what a destructive and unequal society they preside over.

From the economic crisis, to spreading war, to climate change – those at the top of society have led us to the brink of disaster.

Many people also know from experience how the bosses’ promotion of “corporate leadership” or “team leaders” are just more schemes to keep workers in line.

These forms of “leadership” rightly repel most people. They aim to reinforce the inequality that currently exists and the exploitation of working class people.

Socialists, like many others, want an end to a world in which “leadership” means dominance. And we don’t believe that history is merely created by charismatic individuals.

But leadership doesn’t just exist among the elite of the world. It exists within every movement of resistance and campaign.

The question of leadership is unavoidable because any time that people take action, decisions are made and there is some form of direction.

Of course lots of acts of resistance or rebellion are sudden and surprising. And history has repeatedly shown that the most radical form of rebellion – revolution – is something that erupts unplanned and often unexpectedly.

But even if there is no official leadership and we never know the names of those who make crucial decisions, that doesn’t mean that there are no leaders.

In every one of the recent student occupations, for example, a group or an individual had to convince others that they should take such a radical form of action. Those making such arguments were giving a lead to all those who were angry over Israel’s war on Gaza by pointing to things that students could do to resist it.

At the most successful occupations this meant the number involved grew as the action went on – as increasing numbers were convinced to follow that lead and join the occupying students.


The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci made the same point when he argued that there is no such thing as “spontaneous” action. He wrote, “In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no document.”

This does not mean that they did not exist. As the recession mounts the question of trying to direct the resistance to it in a particular direction – “conscious leadership” as Gramsci puts it – can make a big difference.

Fear and anger over the crisis exists everywhere – but there has only been resistance to job cuts and closures at a handful of places so far.

There have been a scattering of unofficial walkouts at car plants and car component factories in recent weeks, albeit on a small scale.

Many factors influence whether groups of workers will fight or not – the history of struggle in particular workplaces, the specific circumstances of the workers, or the role of the union for example.

But one important factor is whether a worker or a group of workers expresses the existing anger and leads action in response to cuts.

This sort of leadership is very different to our current rulers “leading” the ruled. It is about giving a voice and a direction to anger.

Yet the question of leadership in the movement is not just important in sparking action. It is also key when the arguments about how to take things forward – about strategies and tactics – arise.

Movements create leaders, not the other way round. And as these leaders are thrown up, the question always arises over accountability. Here democracy becomes central.

The German revolutionary Karl Marx said that, “Every revolution begins with flowers.”

In other words, most social explosions begin with an outpouring of united anger and forward momentum.

But every movement inevitably brings arguments, which can intensify as the level of struggle and the stakes rise.

In the anti-war movement, for example, there have always been key arguments about the demands of the campaign and the strategy it should pursue.

Even the highest points of united struggle involve critical debates.

The mass Stop the War demonstration of 15 February 2003 – the biggest demonstration in British history – has taken on something of a legendary status as a symbol of unity.

But in the run up to the protest there were arguments in Stop the War groups across the country – do we really need another national demonstration? Shouldn’t we do something more local? Would other actions be more high profile?

Every mass movement and campaign is punctuated by such arguments – and these arguments would arise whether socialists are involved or not.

But debates over strategy and tactics reflect wider differences in outlook – and this is why socialists have something specific to say.

For example, because socialists believe that change should come from mass action and that ordinary people have the potential to transform the world, we generally argue for strategies that reach out to involve wider numbers of people, such as the 15 February demonstration.

This contrasts with currents that focus on smaller or secretive forms of action – tactics that are often based on a pessimism about winning wider numbers into activity.

Revolutionary socialists are also internationalists – we see a common interest between workers of all nations. This is why we have argued against the “British jobs for British workers” slogan that was dominant in the recent unofficial strikes on construction sites and oil refineries.

Some activists try to duck the question of leadership by arguing that we should keep politics out of the movement.


At Manchester university for example some activists argued to make the ongoing student occupation a “clean space” with no politics or organised left wing parties.

These ideas often get a hearing among people who are understandably suspicious at the betrayals of top-down politics from parties such as Labour or the horrors of Stalinism.

But any action to change the world involves politics. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed out, everyone is a philosopher – everyone has a view of the world and assumptions about how things works.

Any attempt to deny this and to exclude overtly political organisations doesn’t remove politics from the situation – it merely allows a different form of politics to dominate.

That is why socialists should be upfront about our politics and defend the need for debate as part of activity.

A revolutionary party groups people together who share a world view – that we need an alternative to capitalism and that working class people must be at the heart of creating a new society based on need, not profit. It brings together people who on a strategy of the activity to achieve that.

Gramsci pointed out that even where there are no official parties, unofficial parties tend to form with movements grouping together people who have a similar outlook. He argued that these “parties” tend to form around questions of reform or revolution.


Organising as an open revolutionary party is an honest and effective way of participating in that argument.

This is not about dominating the movement but about winning – or losing – a position in open debate.

Of course not all differences are resolved in debate – often different strategies need to be tested in practice. So sometimes leadership means proving to others that a form of action is possible.

And people learn far faster from their own experience of struggle than just reading books or having debates.

But this concept of leadership in the movement means putting arguments in the most open forum possible. To do that effectively means listening as well as talking – learning from others’ experiences and opinions.

This is also why a revolutionary party, although being united and “centralist” in action, has to be highly democratic internally and involve as much debate as possible in order to learn and generalise from the experiences of workers, students and other members.

Revolution is about working class people taking control of the world’s resources and forging a new liberated society. This means socialism is about extending mass, meaningful democracy.

It also means a revolutionary party has to be full of “leaders” – people who can take initiatives, think on their feet and learn from the real battles that they are part of to take the struggle forward.

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Tue 24 Feb 2009, 18:21 GMT
Issue No. 2140
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