Editorial from the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Much ink has been spilled over the American presidential election and over the battle to elect the leader of the Labour Party in succession to Callaghan who may, if the Thatcher government continues as at present, find himself Prime Minister rather sooner than he now expects. The issue under debate, in America and among the Parliamentary Labour Party, has been leadership.
The first assumption in the debate, the common ground on both sides, is that the personality, the background and the abilities of a leader is of such significance that the election should turn on it. Was Carter too indecisive and erratic? Is Reagan too old, too belligerent, a Hollywood cowboy out of his depth?
Has Michael Foot really recovered from his time of callow leftist loonery and in any case would this man who habitually wears sports jackets and anoraks pay proper respect to the ceremonial roles of being Prime Minister?
It is on such matters that workers vote for or against a leader—which means that they vote for capitalism, under the delusion that by changing a leader or two they are changing the system for the better. Thus American workers are now congratulating themselves, that Reagan will bring them security and prosperity (as well as showing the Iranians who is boss). Labour MPs are hoping that Foot, when the voters allow him to try, will so effectively grapple with the crises of British capitalism that their party will hold power for evermore.
If there was any realistic basis to those ideas, capitalism would have a very different history. We can assume that political leaders are aware of the problems which plague capitalism (indeed Thatcher seems unable to talk about anything else) yet clearly they are powerless to eliminate those problems. If leaders were successful, each one would be part of a progress towards a safer, abundant, stable world. In truth, each new leader is confronted with the same mess as their predecessors. And as each one relinquishes leadership they hand on to their successor those same problems: thus Callaghan has handed to Foot the same parcel of despair as he inherited from Wilson, who took it over from Gaitskell . . .
To make some sense of this it is necessary to look to the basis of the situation. It is not to state the obvious — because to most people it is not obvious — to say that leaders exist only by virtue of their followers. They exist because the overwhelming majority of the working class shrink from recognising their own knowledge and experience of society, preferring to put their faith in others who, it is assumed, have some special knowledge and ability.
Workers in this frame of mind, who do not admit to their capacity and their achievements in organising and operating modern society, are workers who support the class privilege social system of capitalism. In most cases, they can conceive of no other way of running human affairs and are suspicious of anyone who discusses a world without poverty, war — and leaders.
But capitalism cannot exist without its inevitable problems; it traps its leaders just as surely as it does those who are led. Even if a leader may wish to be different, to stand out for some apparently novel policy, they are similarly ensnared and quickly exposed for their inability also to climb out of the trap.
Yet all the time there is a way out, the propagation of which has been the work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain throughout our existence. As a first step out, the world working class must recognise that they have the knowledge and the ability to administer and operate a modern society — its machinery of production, distribution, communication. They will then realise that in fact they do all of this already, but in the interests of a minority ruling class when they could do it in their own interests, to the benefit of the majority.
From this basic knowledge it is but a short step for the working class to see that they must act for themselves in the overthrow of capitalist society and its replacement with socialism. For this, because it will be the act of a conscious majority, no leaders are necessary — indeed, socialism cannot be imposed on the majority of society by a minority of allegedly better equipped leaders.
Socialism will be a democratic, participatory method of organising human affairs. It will be a society in which all human knowledge will be freely available to help the decision making processes; its democracy will be real and meaningful, ensured by the very consciousness which brought socialism into being.
These principles are operating, as far as it is possible under capitalism, within the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the only political party in this country which insists that its membership understands and supports the principles of socialism. The Socialist Party is without leaders; it is a democratic party whose members cooperate and participate in the work of socialist propaganda in equal standing.
Workers who despair of the apparently endless procession of cynical, futile leaders and candidates for leadership should consider the proposition that the alternative is not to switch their support from one leader to another but to join the socialist movement, where in the struggle to bring in the society of common ownership and free access they can have, and express, full confidence in themselves.