Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Why Leaders?

As NASA prepares its astronauts for yet another adventure in space, what instructions do they give on how to interact with the ‘natives’ on other planets? Years ago it was suggested their first priority would be to demand: “take us to your leaders!” Yet this presumes that all viable societies, even those on other planets, do have leaders.

In our own society, that is certainly our experience, for better or worse. A sporting team will have its captain, a plane its pilot, an army its general, a business its CEO, a political party its ‘leader’.

And for months now - it seems like years! - the British Tory party has been trying to discover who among its ambitious, backstabbing and seriously incompetent MPs should inherit the poisoned chalice of implementing ‘Brexit’, Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Whoever is finally to emerge as the new Prime Minister will be ‘leader’ of a fractured party which was able to attract less than 10% of votes in the most recent election when some of their supporters voted for the new Brexit Party while large numbers voted for anti-Brexit parties. Cometh the hour, cometh the man! Long before the Tory party faithful could cast their ballots, the message from the DAILY TELEGRAPH’s Alison Pearson was loud - and confusing:

Oh, thank God, the overwhelming sense of relief! ... When Boris Johnson enters a room, the molecules rearrange themselves to make room for the sheer force of personality.
There is a palpable frisson of expectation. It’s hard to define chemistry but, boy, do we know it when we see it

Cometh the hour...

Around the world we seem to be living in another age of Fascism, with dictators, puffed-up egoists and megalomaniacs strutting the global stage, as they did back in the inter-war 1930s.

The United States has Trump whose personal ‘philosophy’ was summed up in one of his many tweets: “<It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep” (28 Feb. 2016). And the political zoo is well stocked with other “lions”: men such as ex-KGB Putin, China’s President-for-life Xi, Kim - 3rd in N Korea’s brutal ruling dynasty, Erdogan the Turk, India’s Muslim-hating Modi, Duterte - killer-in-chief, al Sisi - ruthless army chief and dictator, the murderous Saudi Crown Prince, to name but a few.

Then there are scores of second-rank would-be rulers of a ‘populist’ flavour, nationalist at best, usually racist and xenophobic, with thuggish alt-right and neo-Nazi followers. Such is the flavour of today’s dangerously poisonous politics, dominated by the ‘cult of personality

’. A hundred years ago, the end of the first World War brought about a global recession, a collapse in support for democratic institutions, and a political vacuum which opened the door to opportunistic crowd-pleasing demagogues, like Mussolini and Hitler.

Both of these - when convenient and likely to attract support from the gullible - posed misleadingly as ‘socialists’, a socialism which was hardly even skin-deep. As Hitler argued: “The broad mass of a people ... will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one” (MEIN KAMPF, 1920).

To be a successful leader, clearly deception is among the essential tools of the trade. Yesterday’s allies and friends can be unscrupulously ditched. As Stalin suddenly became best friends with Churchill, World War Two (which we were told was to defend democracy and freedom) was fought in cynical alliance with a murdering totalitarian despot.

Along with deception, political leaders rely on our self-deception, our credulity, our willing suspension of disbelief. No person can hope to be a ‘leader’ unless there are ‘sheeple’ keen to act as mere followers.

But Socialists know we have no need for a leader to show the way, like a Moses leading god’s chosen people to the promised land.

The Trump Phenomenon

When Trump, a dodgy real-estate developer, a failed casino operator, a Mafia-linked, tax-dodging, womanising, TV celebrity, decided to run for President, his track record in US politics was nil and few rated his chances as remotely credible.

So too was Hitler’s status as he emerged from obscurity and jail, backed by anti-Semitic mobs and Big Business funding, to become the new ‘Leader’ of Germany.

It may have helped that he believed he had some sort of a divine mission, as he said in a 1936 speech: “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleep-walker”. Likewise, Napoleon thought himself immortal: “the bullet that is to kill me has not yet been moulded”.

Trump’s crowd-pleasing rhetoric and the backing of America’s slave-state racist groups, brought this enfant terrible to the White House. Since then, his endless Twitter rants have been put at the top of US ‘news’ reports, so he has been able to dominate media reporting, even without abolishing the ‘free’ press. In terms of free publicity and ‘brand recognition’, this may well be what is meant by a ‘Great Man’ in today’s world.

But the ‘Great Man’ in history is supposed not just to dominate the daily news reports by eccentricity or force of personality but to influence the events of the period, the course of history. At least, such is the theory. The reality is rather different.

In his 1898 pamphlet THE ROLEOF THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY, Plekhanov argued that there are limits to what even a great man can achieve. Such a man is himself the product of social relations and his power to change the course of history is limited, determined by how far his activities conform to the requirements of the time. Plekhanov warned against over-estimating the powers of any leader or ‘great man’:

A great man is ... not a hero in the sense that he can stop, or change, the natural course of things ...
No great man can foist on society relations which no longer conform to the state of these [productive] forces, or which do not yet conform to them. In this sense... he cannot make history.

As for Trump and the political hacks who noisily promote themselves as would-be party leaders, these are just so much flotsam and jetsam, like scum on a polluted river. They are here today and gone tomorrow, but the problems facing the working class will remain.

Whoever runs a government, it is the capitalist class whose interests determine government policy so the outcome is unlikely to favour the working class, as our interests are opposed to those of the capitalists.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |