Power to No One but to Every One

There is an old adage, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.

“There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Gandhi said (probably apocryphal.)

Rather than a leader being in advance and in the vanguard of a movement he or she is only the reflection of it. The actions of leaders are limited by the outlook of their supporters. Impossibilists see leaders as an anachronism. It is undemocratic in principle; it is unhelpful in the task of arousing class consciousness and a sense of the dignity and strength of the working class; it, therefore, tends to demoralise the “rank and file” and leads to a spirit of competition rather than co-operation; it can also be a direct cause of factionalism, intrigues and splits caused by personal ambition and group rivalry developing into hostility. Another way in which the leadership cult can be detrimental to a political party is due to the leader’s “charismatic” personality being identified with his or her party’s policy.  Even if the leader leads a blameless life, has courage and intelligence, is incorruptible, it only requires a jail sentence or an early grave, for the party to suffer a crippling blow.

What the Impossibilist movement wants is the conscious support of men and women the world over, committed to destroying the rotten fabric of capitalist society, not patching it up but exposing the stark reality of its squalor and misery, famines and wars, bigotry and xenophobia. Working people can and must decide our political destiny for ourselves, taking full responsibility on our own shoulders and not leaving the burden of decision to selected individuals. For the “leader” is no better than his or her flock and may well be a good deal worse. Leadership, hero-worship, and élitism are contrary to the democracy of the socialist movement, incompatible with the egalitarian nature of a socialist society and are utterly inimical to the mass movement of class-conscious workers to abolish the old privilege-ridden society.

Must we have leaders? Most will answer “Yes – to educate the workers politically and economically towards socialism ” But teachers are not leaders any more than erudite writers or eloquent speakers are leaders. Their function is to spread knowledge and understanding so that the workers may emancipate themselves. Quite different from the idea that we should have leaders to direct their subordinate supporters. Socialism is not the result of blind faith.

One of the astonishing things about the Impossibilist parties is their claim to be leader-free. Leaders has always been an accepted fact in workers’ movements. “Surely somebody has to lead” is the bewildered response of disbelief when people hear there are no leaders within the Impossibilist movement. Leadership is one of those problematic words that needs qualifying. When Impossibilists say “don’t follow leaders” they 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. They are not promoting the false idea that socialism is about “making everyone equal” in their abilities and so on. There will always exist those who will be better orators or write more clearly than others.

How often have we all heard that we want is good leadership to later excuse failure on the treachery of the leadership yet bringing forth the demand for yet another leader full of promises. Unlike other political parties, one of the things the Impossibilists pride themselves in is an opposition to political leadership because it is as an obstacle to the spread of socialist ideas, something most workers cannot so far conceive of.

The leadership idea has cursed the working class movement from its beginning. Political leaders have made stepping stones of their followers to advance their own careers. The Impossibilists in the World Socialist Party of the United States and the Socialist Party of Canada explain that if we are going to change the basis of society we will not do so by following professional politicians or leaders of any kind. We are going to have to act for ourselves to organize ourselves democratically to bring about a society geared towards serving human needs, not profits. Only a party whose members understand and seeks socialism can work to that end and the growth of such a party cannot proceed faster than the work of spreading socialist knowledge.

It is often asserted by the left-wing, that the workers  require the assistance and guidance of educated, intellectuals, both to direct their agitation and energies now, and to manipulate affairs. The workers, therefore, should not endeavor to obtain control of the political machinery themselves, but should place the career politician in that position of command and control and obey orders.

When these leaders sell out their followers, the excuse is made that they were “bad leaders. The role of the party, cadre or vanguard plays a large part in contemporary Left discussion. Marxism teaches that the revolution against capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of the old world can be accomplished only through conscious, collective action by the workers themselves. Revolution is not a goal in itself. Revolution is an instrument. The goal is building a socialist class-free society, the self-emancipation of the working class, and self-liberation of all the exploited.

The simple fact is that wherever people accept leaders it always provides the conditions for selling out, no matter who those leaders may be. Such is the lesson; “Trust and ye shall be betrayed”. The workers have still a fair road to travel before they will get rid of the superstition of “leadership” or the belief in “good” and “bad” leaders. Workers haven’t yet recognized we can achieve a world without masters. Socialism means self-emancipation of the working class by the working class. Forget about looking for leaders. What is required is a movement that rises from the people and empowers ourselves. People need organizations, and people need to come together. A leader may say “all that our organization has gained is because of me”. But it is not so. It is not because a leader negotiates with a government to be ameniable, but because the actions of mass movements forces the government to yield 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. The individual leader substitutes for and holds back the capacities of the led. If we rely on one leader, or a clique of leaders, we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because we can easily be mis-led. When a leader comes to symbolize an organization’s cause and it is projected on to one individual then that person’s reputation and fallibilities comes to represent and embody the cause.

William Lovett, the Chartist activist, renounced all leaders in the early 19th century:

The masses, in their political organisations, were taught to look up to “Great Men” (or to men professing “greatness”) rather than to great Principles. We wished therefore to establish a political school of self-instruction among them, in which they should accustom themselves to examine great social and political principles, and by their publicity and free discussion, help to form a sound and healthful public opinion throughout the country…We have not wished, neither do we desire to be, Leaders, as we believe that the principles we advocate have been retarded, injured or betrayed by Leadership, more than by the open hostility of opponents. Leadership too often generates confiding bigotry, or political indifference on the one hand, or selfish ambition, on the other.

The principles WE advocate are those of the peoples’ happiness, and for these to be justly established, each man must Know and feel his Rights and Duties. He must be prepared to guard the one; and perform the other with cheerfulness. And if Nature has given to one Man superior faculties, to express or execute the general wish, he only performs his Duty at the Mandate of his brethren; he is therefore the “Leader” of none, but the equal of ALL.1

There exists an assumption that without leaders, there can be no organisation. The Impossibilists’ contention is the opposite. Leaders, and the followers who create them, are holding the workers’ movement back. Each of us can be our own leader. The greatest command is that over oneself. This capitalist world, controlled by a few wealthy people and their minions, has done its best to school out of us the very things which make us such a great species in the first place – initiative, experimentation, imagination, diversity. The leaders we are asked to support represent a myth, created and maintained by leaders, themselves. They are poor examples of honesty, integrity, even of humanity. They are not interested in truth, justice, or any of the grand ideals they spout about. They exist, have always existed, will always exist, for one purpose only: to line their own pockets and empty yours. They are parasites on the social body, unwanted, unnecessary and destructive. To follow leaders is to hand over your heart on a platter, with knife and fork attached. It is an admission of defeat and an acceptance that you are inadequate, in and of yourself. It is an act of submission and indeed an act of cowardice. Relying on leaders dulls the critical faculties of people who habitually depend upon others to solve their difficulties. They become averse to working out solutions to their own problems. They expect the leaders to do their thinking, and when events take place that needs thoughtful action they have lost the ability. They blame the leadership for failure. Repeated failure develops apathy, and the feeling that success is impossible.

Rosa Luxemburg explains:

The understanding by the mass of its tasks and instruments is an indispensable condition for Socialist revolutionary action―just as formerly the ignorance of the mass was an indispensable condition for the revolutionary action of the ruling classes. As a result, the difference between “leaders” and the “majority trotting along behind” is abolished (in the Socialist movement). The relation between the mass and the leaders is destroyed.

The Impossibilists argue that to refuse to follow leaders is a liberating step, but one which the working class has yet to take. Leaders come and go, but capitalism will go on until the very people who admire leaders come to understand the social system they live under. The leaders always say that they stand for a world of peace and human dignity. But only when the system which needs the leaders is gone will these empty and cynical words become reality. People who despair of the apparently endless procession of aspiring candidates for leadership should consider the proposition that the alternative is not to switch their support from one leader to another and then back again but to adopt the Impossibilist tradition of creating and structuring political organizations where there is no role for leader.

The first thing a leader must do is to convince the masses that the course he or she proposes following is the best one. Out of this arises rivalry and antagonism among leaders, each striving for support and building up of a club of political disciples. This creates the intrigues and internecine warfare that plays a prominent part in labor politics. The qualities that make leaders are varied. In some cases, it is the power of their oratory, the ability to make fine speeches, in others a capacity for intrigue, and in others again, the ability for the back-room bureaucratic paperwork. Extravagant unachievable promises are the general stock-in-trade. Exclusive inner-circles develop, placing barriers around the available jobs, and a great part of the political life is taken up with this side, instead of pushing for the workers’ interests. Any criticism either by erstwhile followers or budding rivals is bitterly resented. Leaders are jealous of one others’ popularity. At times, where circumstances dictate it, the interests of followers are sacrificed to the interests of keeping the job. There are innumerable examples of the callous way in which those who have risen to position on the backs of followers have then abandoned their followers for further political advancement.

Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party of America’s presidential candidate but never a member of its management committees, once said:

I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and mis-representatives of the masses you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.

And another time he said:

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.  I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.

The Left-winger behaves as if he or she was Moses, laying down the commandments in tablets of stone for the faithful to obey. Left -wing propaganda offering leadership portrays the worker as incapable of thinking, organizing and acting and imbues further the master-and-servant mentality of the worker. Therefore, revolutionary ideas have to be introduced from outside the working class by all-knowing “professional revolutionaries” who will lead workers to the promised land.

The Impossibilists are unique among political parties in calling upon people NOT to vote for them unless they understand and agree with what they stand for. Those on the Left who offer a critique of the leader-free politics assume people who are fighting to dismantle leadership systems in the working class are really opposing formal leadership structures where the leadership is open and accountable, while concealing themselves behind anti-leadership rhetoric, they replace open leadership with informal, secret and unaccountable leadership cliques. The Impossibilists expects any working class body that professes democratic self-organization to possess formal rules and structures, to prevent the emergence of unaccountable, self-appointed elites, who may become the de facto leaders making decisions. They endorse Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Impossibilists are not promoting the sort of structures advocated and practised by Leninist-type organisations, which are designed to enshrine control by a self-perpetuating elite. Impossibilism favours majority decision making in face-to-face assemblies and when not feasible 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 Leninism’s democratic centralism is that a central committee dictates policy to everyone else, so no matter how democratically chosen it is, it will enforce its party-line and stifle dissent. Democratic centralism would exclude you from participation, in practical terms, the real vanguard always remains the central committee. Impossiblists are talking about structures that place decision-making power in the hands of the group as a whole, along the lines of the “principles of democratic structuring” listed by Jo Freeman. Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership referendums are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organization control that organization and, as such, key procedures in any organization genuinely seeking socialism.

Socialism can only  come about democratically, both in the sense of being the expressed will of the working class and in the sense of the working class being organized democratically without leaders – to achieve it. has good reason to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Once a member, she or he have the same rights as the oldest member to sit on any committee, vote, speak and have access to all information.

Consider what happens when people join left-wing groups. The new applicant has to be approved as being a loyal comrade. The individual is therefore judged by the group according to a range of what might be called “credential indicators”. Hard work (more often than not, selling the party’s paper) and obedience and compliance by new members are the main criteria of trustworthiness in the organization. In these hierarchical, top-down groups the leaders strive at all costs to remain as the leadership, and reward only those with proven commitment to their “party line” with preferential treatment, more responsibility and more say. New members who present the wrong indicators remain peripheral to the party structure, finding themselves unable to influence decision-making, eventually resigning, often embittered by all the hard work they had put in and the hollowness of the claims of equality and democracy.

When the workers become socialists, they will not need a vanguard party or their cadres to lead them. They will organize consciously and politically to emancipate themselves. Its bond of comradeship and unity is rooted in the barest minimum of socialist principles which may be summarized as: socialism is a product of social evolution; the socialist revolution is inherently democratic because of its nature of being conscious, majority, and political; and that socialism is based on the social relations of a community of interests between all the members of society and society as a whole. There can hardly be any compromise on these three general principles. Further, a socialist is one who recognizes and realizes that capitalism can no longer be reformed or administered in the interest of society or of the working class; that capitalism is incapable of eliminating poverty, war, crises, etc.; and that the times call for arousing the majority to become socialists to inaugurate socialism, now possible and necessary.

Let the working class shed its sheep-like acceptance of leaders and themselves set about solving the social problem. The problem and the solution are comparatively simple. no leader, no matter how honest, clever or sincere he or she may be can lead the workers out of slavery. No person or group can create a new society which depends for its success upon the knowledge and understanding of the bulk of the population. Socialism will be a society of voluntary co-operation. This means that in order to run socialism, the workers have to be aware of what is necessary to make the new society function. And it follows from this, that it will not be possible to establish a voluntary society unless those seeking to do so are in fact the majority of people in society, and those people know what is involved and can work conscientiously for socialism. Socialism can only be attained by working men and women who know what socialism means and how it is to be obtained. Therefore, it is necessary for working men and women to do the comparatively small amount of thinking that is necessary to understand socialism.

“Our philosopher” as Marx and Engels described Joseph Dietzgen said,If a worker wants to take part in the selfemancipation of his class, the basic requirement is that he should cease allowing others to teach him and should set about teaching himself.”

When they have done so they will know the steps to be taken, and will no longer need to rely on leaders. In that day, the orator of cheap, hackneyed false phrases will find his or her eloquence wasted and will depart. For many years we have witnessed the “success” of a procession of practical efforts to rally workers to socialism by clever policies. We have seen the transformation of these advocates of socialist goals into supporters of the status quo ― rebels who have been converted and co-opted into the system. Where are the convinced socialists they were going to make?

When the Revolution begins, the big question for the ruling class and their media hacks will be “Who are your leaders?”

  1. William Lovett, Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, references to 1967 edition prefaced by R.H. Tawney, page 75. []
Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement. He contributes to the blogs: Socialism or Your Money Back and Socialist Courier. Alan can be reached at: alanjjohnstone@yahoo.co.uk. Read other articles by Alan.