Do we Need Political Leaders?

Do We Need Leaders: Political Parties and the 'Iron Law of Oligarchy'?

There are many books which came out of the Cold War which were published to show Marx was "wrong", "utopian" or, worse, led to Lenin / Stalin / Mao, etc. Many are still in circulation, published by conservative think tanks, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Mises, Hayek and Popper lead the field followed by Acton and Berlin.

Another less known, but still widely circulated anti-Marxist author is Robert Michels. His best known work, still on many academic lists for sociology undergraduates, was POLITICAL PARTIES: A SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY OF THE OLIGARCHAL TENDENCIES OF MODERN DEMOCRACY, published in 1911. He might be a third-division anti-Marxist, on the grounds that he eventually joined the Italian Fascists, but his pernicious ideas are still in circulation, still being used against socialists.

Did Michels influence the SPGB?

What was his alleged influence on socialists? Since Michels's Political Parties was not published till 7 years after the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded, it clearly did not and could not have been an early influence. This Party was established in 1904 by Socialist workers, without leaders and without a bureaucracy. The SPGB was from the start a repudiation of Robert Michels's argument.

If you look at the Contents page of the Michels book, you find near the end a section on the "Oligarchal Tendencies of Organisation" and a chapter on the "iron law of oligarchy" (pp.342-356). The supposed conservatism of "the masses" and their assumed need for leadership are often cited in academic attacks on Marx, and the ability of the working class to establish socialism without leaders is denied.

Michels was originally a member of the Social Democrats in Germany which did have a leadership and cloying bureaucracy. The Social Democratic Party was originally radical, paying lip-service to the ideas of Marx, but became a reform party, and in 1914 voted for war credits. Post-war, the SDP helped form an openly capitalist government in 1919 with the formation of the Weimer Republic. Socialist it was not.

Michels argued that any social or political organisation of any size is bound to have a bureaucracy and leadership, and he also picked up the phrase "political class" and adopted this concept too. Today that phrase is commonplace in the mass media 'commentariat'.

But to a Marxist, the term class is a fundamental economic category: - it has to do with the ownership and control, or lack of it, of the means of production and distribution, which is miles away from the ideological world of the political commentators and the politicians that they comment on.

From Michels to Lenin

Michels's ignorance of Marxism is clear, and of course he cited the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which Lenin later leaned on and distorted in his book TTHE STATE AND REVOLUTION (1916-1917).

Indeed, in What is to be done? (c. 1902), Lenin had much earlier argued for a pyramid-style of political organisation, led by a 'vanguard', a leadership, with as in an army a General Staff, officers, NCOs and other ranks. We tell you what to think and say, when and where to have a revolution, and you, the masses, follow our inspired leadership, and do as you are told.

That was not Lenin's own original idea (it is really hard to find any idea he advocated which actually was original, not borrowed) but an idea common among some other Russian revolutionaries of that period, especially Tkachov. It is known that Lenin had read Tkachov, and that he strongly recommended his work and his ideas to fellow-Russians that fetched up as exiles in Geneva.

Nevertheless, it was this Leninist idea of a vanguard party which left an evil legacy in the Bolshevik principle of 'the leading role of the party', which meant the domination by Party apparatchiks of every sphere of life in the Soviet Union. This political idea is still prevalent in China, North Korea, Belarus, etc

As the SPGB argued for decades, the Soviet Union was a dictatorship of the party, not of the proletariat. In fact, from the start it was a dictatorship over the working class in Russia by the Bolsheviks, one which did not allow workers to form independent trade unions, did not tolerate independent publications, or a free and independent socialist party. In Russia, the 'leading role of the party' has even outlived Lenin’s party, and its legacy is still omni-present, e. g. in Putin’s control over the mass media.

Michels, Bakunin and Fascism

Michels's dishonesty - or was it just ignorance? - is revealed in his reference to Bakunin as "Marx's pupil. Anyone who knew of the way Bakunin deliberately set out to destroy Marx's reputation, including splitting the First International, could never have written that.

Contrary to Bakunin's smear, Marx was no "statist". From the start, he and Engels argued that the state was a coercive class institution, and saw - as Bakunin did not - the need to take political action so as to end the class system and, with that, the existence of the state. Bakunin only willed the end - he failed to see the means and, as a result, the various rash revolts he backed all failed.

What of Michels's flirtation with Fascism? Decades later, the Socialist Party of Great Britain in the inter-war years was arguing there were two fascisms, both to be opposed - Black Fascism and Red Fascism. So far as we know, the SPGB was the only political party to take up this position.

The Left were easy enough about Red Fascism - and utterly opposed to Black Fascism. They still are. After the disaster of the Soviet Union, particularly for the working class, there are still today some who support Stalinism, just as there are those who follow the ideas of Trotsky. The Tories, Liberals and others took the opposite line - opposing Russian Red Fascism, but easy about Black Fascism, from the Nazis and Hitler, from Italy's Mussolini to Spain's Franco and the Portuguese Falangist, Salazar, and so on.

The many military generals and juntas who have ruled in South America, Africa, the Middle East, etc. as dictators are all heirs to this legacy of fascism, as are many modern authoritarian states like Hungary, Turkey and Egypt, etc. To the extent that the US's politics are dominated by the influence of the MIC, the powerful 'military-industrial complex', the US too can be said to be a de facto fascist state.

Ironically, British capitalism and Russian capitalism formed an alliance with the United States during the Second World War, with Roosevelt, Churchill and Attlee becoming uneasy bedfellows with Stalin. Again, this was a war that the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed on grounds of class. The working class had no interests to defend - no colonies, no trade routes, no oilfields or gold mines, etc.

War also meant increased nationalist propaganda, further dividing the working class. But from the start, it was known that the world's working class needed to unite, as Marx and Engels had argued in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains - you have a world to win!"

Why did the Socialist Party of Great Britain reject the capitalist political concept of leadership? We doubt if it was only because of the autocracy and authoritarianism of Hyndman. Indeed, it is hard to find any Continental socialists or social democrats of that period with an egalitarian outlook. Even those who later opposed Leninism as undemocratic - e.g. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky - were not opposed to leadership.

Equality as a principle

It is possible that the SPGB founder-members may well have been influenced by earlier English - and Scottish - writers, e.g. men like Tom Paine (in COMMONSENSE he argued against a monarchy, especially the idiotic and dangerous idea of a hereditary monarch) and Robert Burns ("a man's a man for all that").

Generation after generation, working people have held onto the principle of equality. In England, the 19th century movements for an expanded suffrage were founded on strongly held ideas about equality: 'Orator' Hunt, the radical speaker at Peterloo in 1819, argued, well ahead of his time, not only for universal male suffrage, even for the poorest, but also for women to have the vote.

Look too at the history of the commons and popular resistance to enclosures. Look too at the 17th century Civil War period - and movements like the Diggers and the Levellers. When Gerrard Winstanley and Everard, met General Fairfax to discuss the Digger community at St George's Hill, near Weybridge, they refused to remove their hats for, to them, Fairfax was "but their fellow creature" (Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials, Oxford 1853 p. 18).

In medieval England there was the so-called Peasants' Revolt, and the popular rhyme "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" was passed down the generations, an heirloom.

Much later, a refusal to "doff the cap" would then be natural for those in 1904 aiming to overthrow this class exploitation system.

For our predecessors, those founder-members of the SPGB, another source would have been Marx's revolutionary proposition that socialism/communism must be the work of the working class themselves - "...the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). This statement precludes leadership or the emergence of an elite or controlling 'vanguard'.

We have long held that "democracy" is not something we can be given - it is something we do. Democracy - as something socialists do - became apparent in the Party from the start in our organisation, and in all our social and political interactions and practices. Hence, however knowledgeable, eloquent or charismatic, none of our members was ever seen as a leader of the party. For that, there would have had to be socialists willing to be the led, rather than working together as comrades.

With any sort of democratic practice, there has to be not just the idea but the reality of equality. In ancient Athens, eisonomie - which means "equal status" - was the principle underlying the idea of a fair trial.

And that same ancient principle is at the heart of many social, and even many political, institutions, even now. But under capitalism that principle is inevitably flouted and trampled on.

There is sometimes talk in Labour Party circles about 'social justice'. But we argue that you can never have socialist distribution while you retain the private ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. In the hands of the Labour Party, 'egalitarian' social and economic reforms can never succeed. Capitalism simply cannot be reformed in our interests.

To the extent that workers fail to object and resist when this system brings injustice, they will continue to be burdened with the chains and shackles of class exploitation. We experience these whenever we have to pay for what we produce - paying for food and housing, etc. We experience these too in the poverty we experience in our everyday life.

If you read up on the history of workers' struggles or the struggle for slave emancipation - "Am I not a man and a brother?" - this theme of egalitarianism and equality is always there. As in the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, equality and fraternity are inextricably linked to the fight for freedom.

The SPGB founder-members clearly understood that socialism as a social system based on common ownership and democratic control would have to operate on the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" - and that must imply an egalitarian system, without any hierarchy.

As a result, the party they founded has lasted - for over a century - without any leaders or leadership, and without any bureaucracy emerging. Something Robert Michels and his latter-day followers, and modern Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc. would no doubt find utterly incredible.

Back to top

Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.