Socialist Worker

Does the movement need any leaders?

Colin Barker asks whether giving leadership is elitist

Issue No. 1861

'WE DON'T need leaders.' 'We're for the widest democratic participation - leadership stands in its way.' 'Leaders betray, only the rank and file is reliable.' We often hear such ideas in movements today. I think they involve a mistake, but a very understandable one.

A century ago, left wingers like Daniel De Leon and Rosa Luxemburg identified a new problem, emerging out of the developing organisation of working class movements. Professional leaders were coming to dominate the internal and external life of national unions and socialist parties.

At one and the same time they reduced members' control over their organisations, and they softened opposition to the ruling class. Indeed, they became openly anti-revolutionary. The problem was not peculiar to the US, or Germany, but reappeared all across the advanced capitalist world - not least, of course, in Britain.

To explain this, a cynical right wing German socialist, Roberto Michels, invented what he called 'the iron law of oligarchy'. According to the deeply pessimistic argument of his book, Political Parties, bureaucracy was inevitable. Furthermore it made socialism impossible. No movement, he said, could succeed without organising itself, but organisation necessarily meant bureaucracy, and bureaucracy would always prevent democracy. Thus a really democratic society could not be achieved. There was, he concluded, no way out of this trap.

A hundred years' experience with the Labour Party and with social democratic parties in Europe might seem to prove his point. So might the past century's experience with the trade union leaders, right up to Andy Gilchrist and the firefighters' FBU union's recent dispute with the government. Gilchrist seemed to have learned all his tactics from the Grand Old Duke of York.

If Western European and US experience suggested that Michels was right, how much more did so-called 'Communism' in Stalinist Russia and Eastern Europe seem to strengthen his case? Leaders there didn't just let their followers down - they tortured and murdered their critics.

All in all, it sounds as if leadership is a bad idea! And opposition to it is pretty understandable. But then there are some problems. For one thing, Michels based his case on the argument that most people are gullible, which is why leaders always get away with it. Indeed, for him it's inherent in the human condition that there are a lot of stupid sheep and just a few wolves. His own case is deeply elitist at its core.

He allows no space for rank and file resistance and organisation. Yet such resistance has been so prevalent during the 20th century that one of Michels' critics suggested that beside his 'iron law of oligarchy' we should place another - and opposite - 'iron law of democracy'. Two utterly opposed 'iron laws'? - that begins to sound what we Marxists like to term 'a bit contradictory'! Second, Michels and those who agree with him never really think through what 'leadership' means, and how it is not the same as 'bureaucracy'.

What's the best way, as socialists regularly argue, to limit and defeat union bureaucracies? Short answer, and the correct one - mobilise the rank and file. But doing that also involves 'leadership'. In the FBU, for example, Gilchrist and most of the union executive wanted to lead in one direction, but the supporters of Redwatch - an unofficial paper for militant firefighters - wanted to lead in another. Opposing one lead means offering another. There is no escape from this logic. Within movements you sometimes hear people say, 'We don't want leaders' - the difficulty is, in saying this, they're offering leadership!

Every time we have a conversation with anyone, we engage in leading and following. Making a suggestion is giving a lead, agreeing is acting as a follower. Trying to persuade someone the earth is not flat is attempting to lead. In everyday conversations, leadership may move back and forth from person to person. But that doesn't make it go away. Nor does it make leadership opposed to democracy. Rather, it makes it part of democracy.

If we shift the terms of the debate in this way, we can start to discuss more rationally about the more important questions. How do we keep leadership accountable? How do we ensure that everyone with something to say gets to say it? What kinds of leadership strengthen the critical powers of those who meet it, and what kinds of leadership keep other people in dependence? Democracy - a crucial principle and goal for socialists - involves ongoing argument. Argument means leadership - successful or otherwise. To deny it is a mystifying trick.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1861
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