Friday, January 8, 2010


Leadership is a complex phenomenon. On the one hand, it involves initiative and leading by example, and the authority earned in the process. On the other hand, it requires accountability, and the diligence of a loyal employee, from the leaders in question. On an organisational level, we have to find structures to facilitate both sides of the coin. Leadership is a two-edged sword, but sadly this is rarely acknowledged by those who are cutting themselves on it.

At its worst, leadership becomes an end in itself. Given that the left has been mostly unsuccessful at providing the broad community (working class) leadership role I defined above for most of the last 20 years that I’ve been in it, there is an inevitable tendency to look inward. The necessary task of organising study and education for members becomes the central tactic in the propaganda-circle style of organising. “Leadership” becomes the inertial force maintaining the inward looking status quo.

In a group that has just overturned its status quo – the Socialist Alliance, post the winding up/total merger of the DSP, its largest affiliate – I have some concerns that the best intentions may not be enough to avoid the pitfalls of faulty leadership mechanisms. I generally agree with the concerns raised by David White in Alliance Voices. However, I have broader political views on problems of leadership in socialist groups which I want to explain here. Having argued and voted (quite unsuccessfully) against the changes to leadership structures at the latest Socialist Alliance conference I will also suggest some alternative ideas in a future post.

Who makes up the left groups?
The changing social makeup of society (and therefore the left) over the past two decades as neoliberalism has tightened its grip in Australia is often treated as an irrelevant detail in abstract and eternal schemes of leadership building. Yet it partly explains the current failure of the ideological sect or grouplet, the self-selecting vanguard, that is being witnessed in all of the Australian far-left groups. This failure is witnessed in declining numbers of active members (or less active active members) and a difficulty recruiting new members.

The left, and especially its “leadership” are overwhelmingly from educated backgrounds. Until at least the 1990s there was fairly easy access to welfare and free or cheap education, giving the option of being a de facto full time activist whilst living on welfare payments or as a perpetual student. The left’s organisational forms have developed on the back of this luxury. But welfare has become workfare – work for the dole, Centrelink breaches, the treadmill of unpredictable and disruptive casual work. The increasing financial and academic pressure on students (and the smashing of student unions since the late 1990s) adds to the impact. Even full time workers are under more pressure – with overtime, shift work, casualisation. The days when anyone could take an easy “Commonwealth holiday” (ie. go on the dole) to organise the left are gone.

The lack of time that everyone has reinforces the centralism of the organisation: discussion is delegated higher up the chain. But this is at a time when the opposite is needed. Not just due to the difficulties of recruiting activists. The global financial crisis and the global warming crisis are sinking deep into popular consciousness (especially the latter, which has the beginnings of a mass movement developing). It is the time for the left to reach out and encourage people to take the initiative themselves for action.

In general, the left are only responding reflexively without analysing the nature of the problem: our reliance on a luxury that was never going to last, i.e. free activists, educated and confident and available enough to draw straight into the “leadership”.

Loose Cannon
I am inherently skeptical of theories of “leadership building” and “organisational theory” on the left. The leadership requirements of a small isolated group of socialists are too removed from the broader situation, and become impossibly abstract when theorised. Timeless, eternal theories can seem very attractive, but only seek to draw the group’s attention further from the reality they (at least nominally) aspire to influence. Internal logic too easily replaces the need to correspond to reality. This is what has happened to the left’s organisational methods over the last 20 years or so. At worst, you end up with a cult-of-the-organisation, and there are seeds of that unattractive outcome in all the existing organised left.

To name one bad political influence, many have misused an insight of the 20th century US socialist James P. Cannon on leadership. In “Factional Struggle and Party Leadership”, Cannon wrote that “I believe, that just as truly as the problem of the party is the problem the working class has to solve before the struggle against capitalism can be definitively successful – the problem of the party is the problem of the leadership of the party.”

Cannon’s insight may be true in some senses, but if you interpret it in a reductionist sense (meaning all we have to do is train a party leadership) you end up with a introverted sect believing its day will come and it just has to prepare the leadership for that day. Not all the left groups study Cannon, but most still practice some version of this error.

The difficulties imposed by reality (neoliberalism) are having enough impact to wake some the organised left from its introspective drift.

Retreat inward?
There are potentially two opposite directions to head in if we are to resolve this problem. The largest left group on campuses today is Socialist Alternative, and they appear to have resolved the problem by paring back activity to the bare essentials of propaganda, recruitment and education. This has maintained their recruitment such that they have not shrunk when everyone else has. However, it has a very high cost: the group is isolated from most activist campaigns, and has little to offer them just when they most need left involvement (even, dare I say it, leadership).

Further, SAlt seems so inwardly focused that it acts like a cult. Members are apparently instructed not to talk to other left groups (and especially the DSP, who are “Stalinists”, so look out for their ice-picks!). Members who leave with disagreements are berated and yelled at by mobs of loyalists, seemingly to intimidate them into leaving activism altogether rather than joining a competitor group. People who act like this have no right to casually fling around the term “Stalinist” at other leftists!

The opposite direction to Socialist Alternative’s simplistic resolution of the problem is not immediately apparent from the other left groups. Most of them engage in some work building campaigns and movements, but that isn’t novel. There is some evidence of the ability to work together with other leftists without manoevres to gain petty advantage in recruitment stakes, but that basic level of collaboration isn’t enough to hold up as a new way forward either. Significantly, the Socialist Alliance has not held together the organised left groups, even though it remains much larger than the historical membership of the DSP.

Turning outward clearly means non-sectarian building of struggles and political movements. In fact, as Labor has moved so far from left politics there is no shortage of issues and struggles to campaign on. The difficulty is that they are mostly small and atomised, and neither the unions nor the Greens Party are attempting to lead or knit together social movements. How can socialists fill this gap? We can’t proclaim ourselves the leadership, but we can take the initiative to build this movement and build a progressive leadership in the movement.

Who wants to be a follower?
One of the more amusing moments of the DSP’s recent faction fight was when Melbourne branch assigned one minority and one majority supporter to work together in a campaign. The minority supporter demanded to know which of the two was “heading up” the DSP’s intervention. So if you ask two socialists to work together, they need to know who is in charge… wouldn’t the anarchists love that one!

The practical outcome of the “leadership-building” theory is that a section of the organisation are reduced to being followers: you can’t have leaders without followers. That term is of course avoided: they are up-and-coming leaders, leaders in training, loyal members doing our work. Of course our leadership is “inclusive”. We can even pay lip service to the IWW aspiration that all members are leaders, but in practice what happens is that a heirarchy is established with leaders and followers. It’s not about authoritarianism (although that can develop); it’s about where and how the decision making discussions happen.

At worst, the leadership can act like a clique (or permanent, undeclared faction) which manipulates the structure to maintain its position. Ideas are formulated at the top level, who then go to convince or instruct each lower body of their correctness, right down to the general membership. Of course, any member can voice a different opinion, but when you have the weight of a huge leadership pyramid coming down behind an idea, an individual member is unlikely to change much in a meeting.

And the leadership pyramid often is huge. Branch executive bodies in the DSP have often comprised half or even more of the active branch members. Too many chiefs, not enough indians! This leadership group formulate the proposals to put to the branch and act as a bloc in branch meetings. This method is common on the left. Actual clique activity was not the norm within the DSP leadership as far as I could see in my 17 years of membership, but the leadership structure and methods tend to replicate clique leadership problems regardless.

Since the internal leadership of a left group is usually so powerful (and often self-important, collectively if not individually), it can also hand-pick who is let into its own ranks in the same way it can swing the members behind its decisions. All the rhetoric about “inclusive” leadership and the most democratic of elections in branches do not negate the pressure of argument coming down from the leadership above in discussion and decision making and even voting. Having said that, the problem is not usually who gets elected, but how the elected body functions after that. It is a discussionocracy: those most involved in the discussions tend to be those most comfortable with the long discussions of leadership bodies, with the time or articulation skills, and they motivate to their ranks those most like themselves. But this does not necessarily reflect the most activist members, leading in struggles.

In “normal times” all this seemed inoccuous. New members were trained to take responsibility, the organisation trundled along, the rank-and-file kept themselves busy, why worry? But our traditional supply of easy recruits, especially the “instant activist” variety, has dried up. If we don’t want to retreat to the minimal propaganda activity, the “Sunday-School” or “Debating Club” variety of activism, we have to find better ways to involve people. Even including those like me who are increasingly allergic to group-think and top-down decision making!

Homogenised... and pasteurised?
The DSP took pride in its long period through the 1980s and 1990s without serious faction fights, and in the level of “ideological homogeneity” which it had maintained. As the group on the left that paid the most attention to intensive Marxist education, with a one-month Party School (and schools of up to six months in the 1980s, held in a dedicated party-school building) ideological homogeneity is to be expected in some degree. But ideological homogeneity – a common reading of the ideas of Lenin, or the course of the Cuban revolution – can’t explain the homogeneity of practical discussion in branches where reports from the leadership are nearly always adopted without serious debate, where alternative proposals from the “rank-and-file” are rare (and even more rarely followed through).

The amount of attention paid to ideological “homogeneity” has its own overheads: it takes a lot of time to educate members on matters of history and theory. Yet as useful as a knowledge of history is, it does not automatically produce the ability to understand and relate to the present. And there is always the risk that the chosen historical lineage might be missing something. As a Philippine revolutionary once explained, in the Communist Party of the Philippines members were only ever allowed to read Lenin “with a Mao condom”, i.e. as quoted and interpreted by Mao. This problem applies to a lot of the left if you replace Mao with Cliff, Cannon, or whoever.

And in this atmosphere of homogeneity, real debate – over history or over current tactics – is difficult. Many leave left groups without ever really giving their reason: it’s hard to break out of group-think, it’s hard to know where your genuine disagreement trails off into negativity and many would rather just leave it behind them. Others who do express differences are often excused by, or accused of, “demoralisation” meaning that their opinion is allegedly worth little because of its subjective coloration. That denigrating response is called “poisoning the well” and is considered a dishonest ad hominem method of debate, but sadly, many of the leftists educated on so much detail of Lenin and Trotsky are not aware of such “everyday” subtleties. (I think even football players know it – having coined the phrase “play the ball, not the man!”)

Ideological homogeneity is a hallmark of left propaganda groups. In the best cases, it is achieved through rigorous education, but when idealised, it is another false friend: if real-world, current-day differences arise, it suddenly becomes apparent that the most ardent Leninists and Trotskyists and so on can come up with as many different assessments of the situation as individual members.

Propaganda with the narrow aim of self-promotion, and an heirarchical “leadership” cult-of-the-organisation go together. They share a commitment to the abstract ideal rather than the living experience. A young inexperienced activist can become an instant “leader” because of the organisation’s decision, because of their ability to organise their co-thinkers in the group, and articulate its propaganda, without needing any ability to relate to normal people outside. Insofar as this gives new members confidence, it is useful, but without the corrective of political interaction outside the organisation such “leadership building” is mostly an exercise in building a house of cards.

Break out!
I’m convinced that to find the way forward, the left must be lay to rest its hierarchical notions of leadership-building and the inward-focused routines of socialist propaganda that we keep falling back on.

We need to develop leadership, or organising/working bodies, that reflect the on-the-ground leadership, not who’s at a loose end with time to kill, or who is the latest greatest promise, or popular with the existing leaders. We want to develop working class leaders, leaders in the sense that I defined at the outset: people who inspire the confidence and progressive aspirations of others into taking action. We want leaders who are part of the community they are trying to relate to. We want our leaders to be spending their time trying to take our ideas to that community, not hiding in internal group politics. Internal leadership has to be geared to the external role we play.

Importantly, we don’t want to develop followers. This isn’t just rhetoric, it means overturning the leadership-building ideology and the structures that it has created. It means devolving responsibility to the people who are actually carrying out the work in question. Elected leaders must be facilitators and co-ordinators, to use the more fashionable and descriptive terms of today.

A radical and democratic model of leadership would be inclusive on a day-to-day basis. There are certainly times where central representative bodies need to make decisions, but this should not be the main place that decisions are made. Certainly this should not be where all initiative stems from, nor should central bodies routinely override the “lower” units of the organisation.

As an interesting aside, it appears that the hallowed father of Organisational Theory, Lenin himself, was in favour of allowing autonomous local initiative in the Bolshevik party’s branches. I say it’s an aside, because we should not need quotations from authority to authorise an idea that stands on its own obvious merit. But it’s worth reading the interesting article by Paul Kellogg in Links magazine if you’ve ever considered yourself a “Leninist” – or an “anti-Leninist” for that matter.

Accountability and hidden leaderships
It has been protested that by heading towards “flat” organisation structures, that is, without the leadership pyramid over the organisation, the real leaders will remain but be less accountable because they will not be subject to election and potential recall. This is a red herring. Of course, accountability and transparency are paramount. Sadly, most of the methods of the leadership-cult are accountable in form, but not in practice, as I have outlined above.

Real accountability means decisions made collectively are followed through and assessed collectively. Certainly, elected positions and executive bodies are necessary. I’m not advocating a “flat” structure. The necessary degree of “levelling” I advocate is only from a political correction to the notion of “leadership”.

Instead of electing generic “leadership” positions, specific offices (treasurer, editor, campaign work convenor etc) also increases accountability without increasing the number of “leadership” positions. Clearly defined roles also means elected leaders have to do their job, the other part of accountability. Delegates who represent a specific body (a branch, or a movement work caucus for example) are more accountable because there is a body they must report to and bring ideas from. Unfortunately, this argument often is met with spurious arguments against “federalism”. It is not federalism: it is accountability.

Socialist Alliance has begun using some of these more accountable forms, and they should be built upon as the DSP integrates fully into the SA. I’m not going to argue that the SA already had the best and most accountable structures going into the latest conference, but I think several of the changes adopted headed in the wrong direction. Of course, not all will recognise this. In positive times when general agreement and common understanding are the norm, weaknesses in democratic structures are unlikely to be apparent. It is only when disagreement, confusion, and differing understandings become dominant (as they inevitably will at some time) that the democratic structures are really put to the test.

How useful are we really?
Olivier Besancenot, the well-known French leftist, recently said “It’s in these times of economic crisis that we will have to show just how useful we really are.”

We rarely judge our actions by how useful they are for the struggle; more often by how useful they are to our own organisation.

If you set your aim as having a rally, you will probably succeed in having one in some form – so it is hard to see it as failure in those terms. But if you aim to have a rally that measurably advances its cause, it is very different.

Building the party is like that. If your aim is just to build a party, you may do better or worse but you will probably progress to some degree, you will build a “party” – of some kind.

The sad reality is that many of the left’s “leaders” are trained to think in this kind of self-perpetuating circular agument. People who know everything about the party’s activities, but don’t necessarily have any experience or judgement in matters of the broader movement and working class. This leads to make-work, and blinds us to many of the serious opportunities for advancing struggles, which go well beyond the petty accumulation of cadres and the homogenisation routines of the left.

While m any of the arguments in this article are made with the internal debates and problems of the DSP and Socialist Alliance in mind (because that is where I am at) I think the problems I identify are visible in a more developed form in groups like Socialist Alternative. Of course I’m not a member of SAlt, and perhaps people who are members can provide some information to show that I am wrong, but until then I stand by that description.

I remain committed to building the Socialist Alliance, which still includes many of the best left leaders (in the positive sense) and I hope the other left groups will rejoin the alliance in some fashion and contribute constructively. The formal structures of the SA are (at this point) still being tried out and may turn out to work well. But there is also the potential for DSP members (or others) to carry over the vestiges of the leadership-building errors that were never fully addressed during the DSP’s existence.

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