From the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
On 23 April, one of the most comprehensive criminals in recent history died. Cunning and unscrupulous, he was a liar, this blackmailer, pimp, cheat and murderer - his name was Richard Milhous Nixon. From the ambitious opportunism of his collaboration with the Senator Joe McCarthy, his actions blighted countless lives. Yet he has been buried with honour, praised by Billy Graham and portrayed by much of the media as a "nice guy" president with a few human failings but a brilliant talent for foreign policy. (How could we all have misunderstood him so badly?) Even more astonishingly, tens of thousands of his victims were mourners at his funeral.
There is, of course, a commonly-shared reluctance to speak ill of the dead until a decent interval has elapsed. Partly because our genuine capacity for love and forgiveness but also because of a deeply-felt hope that similar discretion will prevail following our own demise. Without the constraint of this tradition many funerals would almost certainly engender scenes of excruciating unpleasantness and possibly violence.
Should a popular entertainer, royal or political leader expire, however, the level of cant becomes positively nauseating. Most especially in the case of the latter when particularly imaginative elaborations are normally required to imbue the corpse with virtue. The purpose being to induce a degree of public forgetfulness sufficient to maintain the illusion that the deceased had somehow contributed anything of use to society.
Later, when it becomes necessary to deflect awkward questions concerning the probity of the new leader, it may be deemed advantageous to release details of a few choice indiscretions that severely impugn this posthumously-granted sanctity.
Although the idea of the philosopher king or benign dictator has always intrigued political writers, the concept of an altruistic leader is clearly contradictory. Power, authority and privilege - the spoils of leadership - inevitably embrace corruption and it may reasonably be assumed that anyone possessing the integrity to make an honest leader would never seek to become one. At the very least it implies a sense of superiority. As H.L. Mencken explained: "I am strongly in favour of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office."
Putting the same point from a different perspective Simon Cameron, a 19th century American politician declared: "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."
A recent poll revealed that most people hold an extremely unfavourable opinion of politicians and view their promises with considerable suspicion: a number expressed contempt. This is hardly surprising since not a day passes that new examples of duplicity transpire. Unfortunately, so pervasive is the myth of the indispensability of leaders that the usual response to these disclosures is resigned acceptance rather than outrage - it is simply fulfilling expectations.
For rulers, such resignation represents a significant capitulation to centuries of suppression, exploitation and "education". Providing welcome confirmation that they are moving ever closer to the Machiavellian ideal of a controlled, if occasionally complaining, majority lacking the self-belief to challenge authority. Socialists, though disappointed by the apparent extent of working-class indifference, regard such a conclusion as premature.
Consciousness cannot be privatised, nor its evolution contained by the narrow dictates of political expediency. For as long as human beings exist so does the potential for radical change and if rulers think otherwise then it is they who are most seriously deluded.
The inability of capitalism to deliver the goods and its harrowing social consequences increasingly disturbs the apathetic calm. Understandably, the reactions provoked stems sometimes from frustration and despair but it would be foolish to dismiss them as merely negative since often they provide a necessary stimulus for fundamental reappraisal.
The dubious and unprovable proposition that most human beings are "natural" followers and that leaders are, therefore, essential is a claim serving only the convenience of those who wish to lead. Indeed, such evidence that does exist would surely elicit the conclusion that the absence of leaders, far from creating chaos is a prerequisite to end it.
The Socialist Party has no leaders and argues that the only possible basis for a truly democratic society in which things are produced for need rather than profit, is the voluntary cooperation of free and independent individuals. Whether or not leadership is the oldest profession it is assuredly the lowest and in a Socialist society nobody would be required to do such filthy work.