Socialist Worker

Leadership in the struggle

Issue No. 1679

What do socialists say?

Leadership in the struggle

By Kevin Ovenden

THE capitalist view of the world divides people into leaders and led. It places the capitalists and their hangers-on at the top and the rest of us down below. Increasing numbers of people are rightly rejecting this elitist picture of society.

On a day to day level, every workplace is full of stories of blunders and laziness by directors and top managers. The healthy distrust of leaders extends to those at the top of the working class movement. We see Labour politicians and trade union leaders compromise with the bosses at the expense of those who elected them. It is tempting, therefore, to reject the idea of having any leaders at all. That would be a mistake.

Leadership is vital to winning any particular struggle against the injustices of the system, let alone to overthrowing capitalism. The socialist vision of leadership, however, is the exact opposite of the capitalist view. It starts by recognising the tremendous power and abilities of the mass of people, who those at the top of society write off as stupid.

History is full of periods where ordinary people have suddenly risen up, challenged or overthrown their supposed betters. People excluded from power and official society stormed the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 and drove forward the French Revolution.

Workers in Russia forced the abdication of the Tsar in February 1917 and went on to establish the first state in history run by workers and peasants. Bosses in Russia and across the world thought that the labouring masses were too stupid to run society and that the workers' state would collapse in a few weeks. But it held on, despite invasion and military blockade, for a decade.

Most struggles and acts of resistance fall short of revolution. All show the capacity of ordinary people to run society in a different way. When Liverpool dockers fought for two years for jobs and union rights from 1995 to 1997 they and their family members discovered hidden abilities.

Every struggle involves leadership at one level or another. The Romanian dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu, called a mass rally in December 1989 which he expected to support him. Instead the crowd began booing and started a revolt which deposed him. Someone in the crowd was the first to boo. They provided leadership. Such informal leadership is present everyday. Someone at work or college challenges a racist or sexist comment and helps create a climate where such ideas are not acceptable.

In any struggle some people have a clearer idea about what needs to be done, or are more confident about taking the first step, than others. This is not because they are naturally gifted. They may have learnt important lessons from their own experience. They may have learnt from discussions with other people or from previous struggles from history.

Socialist leadership is about drawing such people together and building their confidence and capacity to change the world. It is needed because the unevenness among people means there is always debate about how to take a struggle forward. Even among those who are most militant, some people will look to ideas and tactics which can win while others will look down blind alleys. Ultimately, those who want to defeat capitalism need clear leadership because those who defend it have a centralised state machine.

Spontaneous revolts can shake the system and win hugely important victories, as happened with the ousting of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998. But shattering the capitalists' power as a whole and creating a new society requires leadership.

The Bolshevik Party gave such a lead and guided the Russian Revolution to victory in 1917. Its founder, Lenin, said that every member of a revolutionary socialist party is a leader.

Socialist leaders do not try and win battles on behalf of other people, but try to encourage as many people as possible to break with pro-capitalist ideas and resist the bosses' system. Sometimes socialists find that workmates, neighbours or other people around them suddenly become fantastically angry at the system. Socialists can find themselves behind those who they thought they were in front of.

That is why a revolutionary party constantly has to learn from and draw in the most militant people. It has to get all its members to develop the understanding of the system and develop the confidence of those who at any one time are showing how best to build the fight against capitalism.


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Thu 13 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1679
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