Leadership and Democracy

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Samuel Farber

I AM GRATEFUL to Fred Bustillo for the opportunity to expand on the necessarily brief comments on political leadership in my review of Daniel Singer’s Whose Millennium? (Against the Current 82, September-October 1999).

If we consider the working class and its allies, not abstractly and schematically but in concrete historical and political terms, we find that they do not constitute homogeneous social forces, nor are they likely to become homogeneous even on the eve of revolution. In other words, these social groups are and will likely remain uneven, whether in terms of political consciousness or organizational experience, and with divergent but reconcilable interests.

This unevenness and heterogeneity poses the need for organizing what forty years ago E.P. Thompson called the “politically active minority,” i.e. the most active and conscious workers (or members of any other oppressed group). The task of this “politically active minority” is to point the way forward, to propose political and organizational programs, strategies, tactics and initiatives, and to denounce the ideological deception and stratagems of those in power and the inevitable betrayals and sellouts by those who will often pretend to be our leaders, friends and allies.

The soviet or council form of organization, whether in its Russian or any other national form, confirms the above generalization. Whom did factory workers elect to represent them in the councils or soviets? And whom did the soviets themselves elect to be their leaders?

If Bustillo is right, then it would have made no difference if these elections had been carried out at random or by lot. Instead, workers chose their representatives or leaders on the basis of a number of criteria, most notably leadership qualities, political representation and experience, and other considerations which in our day would include race, gender and national origin.

Beyond leadership in the soviets or other similar political formations, there is also a need to coalesce programs for society as a whole, which introduces the need for political parties. This would not be the case if political views and conflict of interests were more or less randomly distributed across society.

In reality, however, differences tend to cluster, based either on certain objective criteria such as class location (e.g. skilled as compared to unskilled workers, let alone more fundamental class differences), or political viewpoint (e.g. more and less radical views of what can and should be accomplished through social and political change).

This does not mean that differences of interests and opinion require that there be many different radical and revolutionary parties. Striving for unity is a very desirable goal, particularly in a society full of cynicism and disillusionment such as ours. But this legitimate search for unity cannot be based on illusions, let alone intimidation and force.

As Leon Trotsky put it in The Revolution Betrayed (written in the 1930s): “An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history — provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality.” (267)

While these factors constitute the main bases for party formation while in opposition to the ruling class and its parties, there is an additional factor that comes into play particularly when a revolutionary party or coalition of parties have come into power; namely, the need to present systematic alternatives so a politically educated population can make meaningful choices among contending general programs of government.

Incidentally, the informed choice among organized political party programs also constitutes an answer to the common technocratic argument that modern, complex industrial society makes democracy impossible because citizens cannot become experts on every topic under the sun.

I do not need to be an expert to recognize which party stands closest to my interests and point of view. Rulers and party leaders are not experts either; that is why they rely on technical advisors of various kinds. But who controls the leaders and how? Now we are talking about democracy.

Politics and “Vanguard Parties”

At the very minimum, leadership initiatives and actions must be explicitly supported and approved by their followers. By itself, however, this would not be a very advanced or rich form of democracy unless there is an active political life that constantly involves people in decision making at all social and political levels, in the process developing new leaders to replace those who may have become too enamored of their power or simply fall out of touch with a changing reality.

There is no problem with the concept of vanguard, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “the part of an army which goes ahead of the main body in an advance, the leading position in a movement, those leading a movement.” The problem is that the “vanguard party” historically acquired the connotation of arrogant dogmatism and lack of democracy, within as well as outside the so-called vanguard formation.

Expulsions, which can be a legitimate measure to protect the integrity and security of a political organization, become a substitute for political discussion and debate of inevitable differences within an organization. Independence of mind on the part of members is systematically taken to mean that they are chronic complainers, if not disloyal.

While factions are frowned upon if not outlawed, the leadership at the center constitutes itself into an undeclared faction. This center faction creates a political machinery where full time functionaries and branch organizers become yes women and men.

In fact, the less political are those who form part of the machine, the better it is for the leadership at the center. As a result, cheerleading more than political development becomes the cohesive factor of a machine which increasingly takes the form of a clique.

Far more serious, of course, is the connotation of “vanguard” for revolutionary parties in power. Here “substitutionism” becomes the main curse: The party replaces the working class and its allies as the ultimate repository of power, and it doesn’t take long before the party itself is replaced by the Central Committee, which in turn is supplanted by the Political Bureau and eventually by the Maximum Leader.

In my book Before Stalinism, I showed at some length that while Stalinism was not the same as Leninism, “substitutionism” was already a feature of “Leninism in Power,” and that this contributed to a substantial weakening of Soviet political culture and its potential ability to resist the Stalinist onslaught.

ATC 86, May-June 2000