I was standing at the SPGB stall at the Miner’s Gala, talking to a member from one of the many left-wing groups in attendance, and who had been sent out to try and sell their weekly paper. He was clearly a new member, for he had not yet been told to avoid our stall – an instruction pummelled into the heads of new recruits before they attend such gatherings. I had swapped him one of our publications for his and I wondered how his comrades would react when he arrived back at their stall with our journal rolled up and stuffed in his pocket. (Perhaps as Jack’s mother did when he was sent out to sell a cow and came back with a handful of “magic” beans. They might have called him an oaf, and clouted him but they couldn’t have sent him to bed without any supper?) We’d been talking a couple of minutes when he asked:
“So, who’s in change of the SPGB?”
“In charge?” I replied.
“Your leader. I mean who’s the leader?”
“We have no leaders. We never have. We have a membership of equals who arrive at decisions democratically and who elect delegates to act on their behalf, or to administer party affairs on behalf of the membership. But no leaders in the sense that someone sits on high giving out orders and deciding on policy on behalf of a passive membership.”
He looked confused. “So who makes the decisions?”
“No one person – all decisions are arrived at democratically. We elect an Executive Committee and General Secretary each year, but these have no powers or authority that marks them out from other members. They are simply ordinary members who have been delegated to administer the affairs of the Party and in the interests of the entire membership. Other than that the party meets twice yearly for conferences and branches send delegates to contribute to whatever debate there is and to vote on behalf of their branches”
“But you must have someone in charge. What about the really big decisions?”
“Why? What can one person do that could not be done far more efficiently by the entire membership deciding together. Surely hundreds, thousands of brains weighing up a problem is a much better way to come up with the best answer than one person alone. We all know the task at hand and what is expected of a member and we all share the same stance on capitalism and how it must be abolished. The really big decisions, you mention, would be those pertaining to party policy or changes of rule and in these instances we decide by a poll of the entire party – one member having one vote and each member being allowed the same chance of input into any ongoing debate.”
He looked pensive and his eyes searched for a reply.
“Do you need someone telling you what to do, what to think,” I asked. “Is the membership of your party so incompetent, so distrustful of their own powers of reasoning that they need a leader to think on their behalf? It just seems to be to be a daft way to run a supposed revolutionary organisation. And it seems that your organisation does have a leadership making the big decisions otherwise you would not have raised the issue.”
“Well, they don’t make all the decisions. We’re allowed to decide on our own activity ourselves.”
“That’s kind of them of them. Look, I’m not being an arrogant bastard. I’m not having a go at you, but look at it another way,” I said pleadingly. “That paper under your arm – how much control does the membership have over it? I can tell you now it is zilch. If you wanted to put a contentious issue on your party’s conference agenda, just how successful would you be? Again, I can tell you you’d be lucky if you didn’t get a slap off your regional leader for stepping out of line, and even if it was accepted by your regional bosses it would then have be vetted by some central committee.”
Our conversation was cut short. My visitor spied a friend and made his excuses and left, promising to read The Socialist Standard cover to cover and to think over what I had said. He seemed a decent enough bloke and I just hoped his friends would not spy our journal in his back pocket, but that he would be allowed to read it in his own time at some point and reach is own conclusions.
This visitor to our stall was not unique. It is honestly amazing just how many visitors to our stalls, wherever we set them up, just cannot come to terms with the idea of a revolutionary political organisation having no leadership. Query their assumptions on leadership and it becomes clear they are the disseminators of a cruel myth, a popular myth, that dates back thousands of years and which echoes around the globe; and it is that wherever humans congregate, wherever they settle, wherever they organise, a certain group of people will be exclusively marked out to be the leaders; that we would be unable to look after ourselves without such leaders. The origin of this myth, regardless of the societal organisation it has taken root in, has been the existence of private property in the means of living.
With the beginning of private property and class society and the concentration of the ownership of wealth into fewer hands, certain groups found themselves in a privileged position by virtue of their ownership of the wealth they had seized. They found they had command over others. They could deprive others of the means of living – food, water, shelter, the necessities of life - and thus were in a position to get others to do their bidding. In short they realised they could control the entire village or city or country. They had power to choose who lived and who died.
They developed a philosophy to justify their rule – rooted it safely in religion to show they ruled by divine right – and hired others, at first usually the biggest and toughest, to defend their power and ownership of wealth. They became utterly convinced of their ability and right to rule and looked down with contempt upon their followers. As time passed by they became more and more powerful and people took them for granted, saw them as wise beings and blessed with an insight into affairs which were beyond the ken of mere mortals, and thus in need of palaces castles and the best of everything. The followers were only too happy to be followers of their own special leader and soon learned to treat with suspicion the followers of other leaders. They wondered how thy would ever survive without leaders telling them what to do and asked their gods to protect them.
The leaders looked around and saw the threat posed by other leaders, who might usurp their power, envied the scarce resources they controlled, the power they too had, and so declared war on them, sending their followers against the armies of other leaders. The victors became even greater leaders and acquired a wider following.
After thousands of years the myth still prevails and leaders still abound. Indeed, they are the greatest defenders of the leadership myth. They are still powerful, still wealthy and will still urge their followers go to war to further their interests. Millions idolise them, look up to them, pay homage to them, sing songs about them, sculpt their images in stone and marble and bronze, and will happily die on their behalf if asked to do so.
Of course the leaders that exist now are not the leaders that existed during the days of slavery or feudalism or when capitalism was first brought screaming into the world. The leaders then were emperors and kings and queens, generals and great landowners. Today’s leaders, though powerful, are not as powerful as the class whose interests they represent – namely the capitalist class. Today’s leaders, the world’s political leaders and their governments, serve as the executive for the capitalist class and it is the capitalist class who has the real power. It is they, like the kings and emperors of old, who control the necessaries of life, deciding who lives and dies and it is in their interests that governments will wage war and decide upon whichever piece of legislation is necessary to protect the wealth of the capitalists.
Across the world, billions still support leaders and aspiring leaders. They will argue and fight and campaign for whichever leader they think can best manage the affairs of the capitalists – though few see things in this light. Billions invest a lot of trust in leaders and are content with a set up that allows them to vote for a leader every few years, satisfied this is democracy at work. A minority – socialists – urge the followers of the leaders to think for themselves and to imagine a better world without leaders, but their efforts bring mostly derision.
The philosophy of leadership has had a bad influence on workers. Not only does it incline them to mental laziness as they distance themselves from the important issues of the day, delegating problems to others for solution, it also numbs the critical faculties, so much so that when modern-day leaders fail to deliver what they promise, it is they and not the political and economic system that is seen to be at fault. After all, leaders do not control capitalism – it controls them – so their hands are really tied. Apathy, disenchantment, frustration and mistrust ensue, and this is often reflected at election time with a bigger proportion of the vote going to the abstentionsits, who refuse to exercise their right to vote. Many workers often switch off and turn away from politics, convinced anyone standing for election is a two-faced, self-seeking scoundrel. All of which is even more exasperating for the socialist contesting an election and standing in opposition to the defenders of capitalism, who is tarred with the same brush as that used to blacken the mainstream politician, and thought of as peddling the same wares.
This is a great sadness. The working class have been led and betrayed and disillusioned for so long that they have become apathetic. Moreover they have lost all sight of their own collective strength. Workers still look up to their betters though, and will support royalty, wave the flag of their masters when asked to do so and argue over which politician will make the best leader and agree with their leaders that the leaders of other countries need to be overthrown. Workers are constantly being urged to obey and follow orders, to trust the advice of others who know better how they should organise their lives, to mistrust their own intelligence and to look with suspicion on anyone who challenges the status quo, particularly those who urge them to think for themselves.
This is a great step for many people – thinking for themselves. Perhaps that first liberating wiggle from the strait-jacket of subservience that binds the working class, is when workers look around and realise it is not leaders who run the world, but they themselves, the everyday people on the streets, in the offices and factories, the people next door. Yes, that subservient, exploited majority run the world from top to bottom.
It is we, the working class, who plough he fields and plant the plantations. It is we who dig the mines and fish the oceans, who build the factories, ships and aeroplanes the ports and airports. It is we who dig the tunnels, who build the roads, the railways and bridges, the schools, universities and hospitals, the palaces and mansions. It is we, the working class, who produce everything society needs to function from a pin to an oil rig, providing humanity with all the services it needs. It is we who fix and mend and invent, who produce the fine music and art that so many of our class are deprived the enjoyment of. All of this is carried out by an exploited majority, who thinks it is not capable of taking care of its own affairs, whose only input into the democratic process is to be allow to place an ‘X’ – the mark of an illiterate – on a ballot paper every four or five years. Everything we see around us is the product of workers applying their physical and mental abilities in order that human needs, real and imaginary, are satisfied – not thanks to leaders, but in spite of them.
Look at how far science and technology has advanced in the last 100 years! Look at the inventions that have benefited humanity. How many were dreamed up by leaders? How many dreamed up by Stalin or Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Suharto or Saddam Hussein or even Thatcher, Blair and George Bush? Isn’t it the case that inventions are the mind-work of ordinary people, thinking up faster and more efficient ways to complete a difficult, dangerous or time consuming task, improving on techniques they were taught by others who had, themselves, improved on them previously?
In spite of all this, there are some who recognise all of this – they like to call themselves “socialists” – yet still maintain that workers need to be led, that workers are not capable of thinking for themselves and deciding what is in their own best interests, and that workers can only ever achieve a ‘trade union consciousness’, pursuing minor objectives, and that they must be led by a vanguard of professional revolutionaries - a chosen few, blessed with a unique knowledge - to the promised land. Such people could be found trying to establish socialism in the Russia of 1917, by force, and in a country upon which capitalism had hardly impinged and thus defying the very historical laws they themselves claimed to have knowledge of. Their descendants can still be found today in numerous left wing organisations, ever ready to lead the way – to confusion.
These Leninists and Trotsykists believe it possible to establish socialism in one country. They claim that socialism can come about by violent revolution. They even urge workers to campaign for myriad reforms, whilst ironically holding to the view that these same workers can only attain trade union consciousness. They claim to be the most ardent followers of Marx and Engels and are wont to bludgeon their opponents with quotes from the bearded duo themselves. However, they tend to pick and choose whichever quote best serves their ‘revolutionary’ philosophy and will most certainly not be found citing a circular letter from Marx to the leaders of the German Socialist Workers Party back in 1879:“When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle cry ‘the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself.’ We cannot therefore cooperate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philosophical leaders.”
Neither will they point their listeners to a passage written by Engels in the 1895 Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France:
“The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they must act. But so the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required.”
And so to with Clause 5 of the Socialist Party’s Declaration of Principles – “That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself” – a statement socialists take seriously, and based on the realisation that socialism can only be established by a majority of the world’s people when they understand what socialism means, when they are prepared unite and work together and without leaders to further their class interests.
The Socialist Party says no more than before you can have socialism you need a majority of workers with a revolutionary class consciousness to help establish it – this entails no more than workers understanding the nature of the system that exploits them, that capitalism is not the “end of history”, as some of its apologists would assert, and that another world is possible if we organise consciously and democratically to help bring it into being.
Give us a million rifles and they will be totally useless. But give us the minds of a million workers who have at last pulled away the veil of deceit capitalism cloaks itself in and we will be on our way. A socialist revolution will never be won on the barricades, as some on the left believe, where workers squat like fugitives, the sites of their Kalashnikovs pointed in all directions, Molotov cocktails at the ready, red flags waving high and the leaders in some far off hide away directing the struggle. The battle against capitalism is to be fought on the battlefield of ideas. It is thus important that our case against capitalism must be watertight and that the workers who will establish socialism know exactly what is at stake. It is we, the working class, the exploited global majority who must work together, freely and consciously, and without leaders, to establish socialism.
The wording of one banner the North East Branch regularly attached to its stall was: “Only sheep need leaders.” If you want to be sheep, then prepare to be fleeced.