The Common Questions Answered series from the October 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard
Q: You say there is no place for leaders in the socialist movement, but why do you attack the whole idea of leadership just because some leaders are enemies of the working class?
A:We don’t object to leadership because we want to be cussed, but because we see it as one of the biggest obstacles to the spread of socialist ideas. Capitalism has developed to the point where workers (all whose livelihood depends on selling their energies) run society from top to bottom. Owners of capital need not play the smallest part in the undertaking which produces their rent, interest or profit; they can even have their wealth added to while in a lunatic asylum. Yet still most workers haven't seen the possibility of a world without masters, a world which would be run in the interests of all mankind instead of those of a capitalist or “leading” class. There are no leaders in the socialist movement because there will be no leaders under Socialism—there can be none in a society based on equality of status and the willing co-operation of all in production solely for use.
Q: But surely there have always been leaders in all forms of society? What makes you think that under Socialism it will be any different?
A: Leadership only makes sense when there is a ruling class and a ruled class, and it implies that most people are incapable of organising affairs in their own interest and so must accept the dictates of a few. Ours differs from all previous revolutionary movements in that it doesn’t aim to replace one ruling class by another but to abolish classes altogether. You say there have always been leaders, but you must realise that their existence has been and is bound up with the institution of private property. All leaders are placed in a privileged position by their followers, who either agree with the policies laid down or think they can do nothing about them. By contrast, Socialism means that nobody will be placed in a position of governing others.
Q: Don't you think that those who have qualities of leadership can help to build up a following for the socialist movement? What’s wrong in doing that?
A: Leadership does not work out that way. But the fact is only those can help to establish Socialism who understand their class position in society and are determined to end it. If there are leaders then there must be the led, but there cannot be much difference between their ideas, since a leader can only offer to lead where he is likely to be followed. He is not really in advance of his followers, as you seem to think, because if he stops leading them in the direction they think is the best open to them they will soon desert him for another who will. People who are easily persuaded to think one way by a powerful personality can usually be persuaded by a more powerful one to change their minds. Socialist ideas do not depend on such barren methods for their propagation.
Q: It’s obvious that most people prefer to leave political thinking to others. How else than by leading people, in the sense of showing them the way, do you expect to get them interested in Socialism?
A: One of the main reasons for people acquiescing in the continuation of Capitalism, is that they are led to believe it is the only possible system. It is just because they are so used to being told what is good for them that they are often puzzled when we say “We can’t lead you to Socialism—you must understand and build it yourselves.” The blunt truth is that if people want leaders they want class society, and if they want class society they cannot want Socialism. But more and more of them will become interested in Socialism because they are faced with the same problems as we are, and failure to solve them within Capitalism will eventually lead them to see the necessity of abolishing it. We do our best to point out the road to Socialism and to encourage others along it, but there can be no substitute for their knowledge of what is needed to achieve the goal.
Q : Don’t you think it would be a good thing if you could work out a definite plan for Socialism that people could easily understand? That way you would give a lead to others without giving power to individual leaders.
A: We are always eager to help people to understand our case and to discuss with them the difficulties and objections they have concerning it. From our understanding of the past and the needs of the present we try to show what the future classless society will look like. But what you propose is that we should work out all the details in advance, and present them to the as yet non-socialist majority as a sort of pill to be taken for their sufferings under Capitalism. If we did that, however, we should be acting no differently from the reformers who offer to lead the working class to better conditions and consistently fail to do so. The lesson is that no matter how well-meaning you may be, once you are given political power you must follow where events lead and, without a majority of socialists, that cannot be to Socialism.
Q: You admit you’ve got to send delegates to Parliament before you can overthrow Capitalism, so why baulk at having democratic leaders now?
A: You have only to look at the Labour Party to see why. In its early days quite a few of its leaders were no doubt sincerely in favour of abolishing Capitalism. But they thought that the working class would have to be led to it, and the means they adopted were those of getting into Parliament on the votes of reformists in order to advocate Socialism. So they stood for Parliament, but when they were elected the means (political power) became the end in itself. Thus we see that as such leaders push themselves forward their “Socialism” recedes farther into the future and is eventually lost altogether. You must not confuse such leaders of the working class with the delegates the socialist movement chooses to carry out its will. The former have no mandate to abolish Capitalism even if they wished to do so—the latter are the instruments the majority in society will use to institute Socialism. To think in terms of political power without political knowledge on the part of those who make up that power is to oppose all that Socialism means.