The necessity of leadership
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
To change the world, we need a movement. This movement must be made up of millions of people and thousands of organizations. These organizations must build and push the movement forward. How do we get to this point? We have to start with leadership.
From 12 to 155
As a union organizer, I train workers to lead their shop floor and industry wide struggles. In the case of my union, we call the leaders in the shops “committee members.” These folks organize for fights with bosses, deal with issues on the shop floor, and negotiate contracts.
Every June for the last five years there has been a major citywide rally on behalf of all of the members of my union. For my part, I was responsible for organizing workers at one of the major food service companies in Chicago. All the workers of this company are part of the union. For the big citywide action on Michigan Avenue in 2007, only 12 out of 650 workers showed up. Not even half of the committee came.
The union committee did the day-to-day work of running the union. There were no qualifications for membership in the committee. Everyone who wanted to be on the committee was welcome; no one was ever turned away. If you joined the committee, you were not given any clear expectations. The committee was comprised of twentyfive volunteers who were neither the most respected nor trusted workers in the shop. And they were the ones expected to move the union forward?! The organization of the union was catch as catch can. It was a weak union, and that’s definitely not what we needed.
Twenty-five individuals that did not have the ability to mobilize their co-workers, did not have any responsibility, and did not have the skills or the knowledge to win issues on the shop floor, produced a weak union.
One year later, the same march takes place, and workers from the same shop come out to Michigan Avenue. This time, 155 workers came.
This was made possible by a strong and fighting union. This union has a committee that pushes co-workers to fight; a committee that both carries out the daily functions of the union and believes in a long-term class-based political program; a committee with members trained to become better leaders, who can target and recruit new committee people. The union needed committee members who would constantly challenge each other to be stronger and better organizers. In other words, leadership was needed.
We can build a successful movement by developing leadership skills and leaders who can be held accountable.
The worker-led organizing committee shrunk to twenty, with some workers from the first committee, and some were new members. The philosophy and expectations of the committee members changed. Committee members agreed to a minimum set of requirements: they had to have the respect of the group, and the desire to lead their co-workers. Each committee member agreed to take responsibility for organizing a group, to attend meetings, to recruit more leaders, to get training, and to do the work of building a movement. Those that did not agree and those that did not live up to the responsibility got off the committee. The committee was changing from a hodgepodge group of volunteers to a body ready for leadership.
I recently sat on a panel at the “Platypus Readers and Writers Forum.” The discussion was supposed to focus on how the Platypus Review could become a better newspaper. But, the panelists and the audience were interest in having a different conversation. The forum moved in the direction of the age-old debate between “theory” and “practice,” or between “thought” and “action.” After three hours we all agreed that both were necessary in a radical movement for social change.
Everyone on the left has heard and said it before. We are all wrong. The problem today is not about theory, the “right line,” or militant action. The problem is one of leadership. The question should be: how do we get more people to accept our theories and to take part in our actions, so we can build enough momentum to be able to actually accomplish the goals of our movement?
It is impossible to build real organization, to direct our actions, thoughts, and goals into a single vision, in a Left when “leader” and “leadership” are treated as dirty words. Those in leadership roles (official or unofficial)— even in large organizations—are treated with disdain, disgust, even as enemies.
On the Left today, the concept of leadership is synonymous with authoritarianism, dictatorship, oppression, and control. This antipathy towards leadership has stalled our efforts: we waste time working to limit the power of our own organizations, instead of figuring out how to use the power of our organizations against the current system. As a result, constant infighting and petty personality disputes destroy our ability to achieve our actual goals.
This negative vision of leadership has produced broad acceptance of “diversity of tactics,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “consensus decision making.” These and a host of other leftist ideas were a rejection of the centralized leadership and bureaucratic structures of the left before the 1960s.
Students for a Democratic Society, founded with exactly these concepts in mind, once had 100,000 members nationwide. In 1969, it gave way to the Weatherman Faction, which in turn became the Weather Underground. The potential for a strong organization was lost; the radicals that could have led SDS ended as a few dozen people isolated from any broader movement. This story has become far too common throughout the history of the left.
Today, the movement has no structure and no power. Because of the ever-shrinking and splintered organizations, it’s impossible to think beyond our own small circle of friends or “affinity groups.” Some Chicagoans who participated in the 2008 Republican National Convention reported that during the planning for blocking traffic, certain affinity groups couldn’t even commit to the rest of the organization to hold certain intersections, in case they “felt like going somewhere else.” This has become the norm, the views of every small group is of equal importance, and every person within that group is allowed to opt in or out at anytime.
Activists no longer view their roles as leaders of a movement, nor consider themselves responsible to organizations. Individuals are not expected to, nor desire to, recruit others into organizations or activities. Recruitment and training are not priorities. Discipline and planning are limited to one-off actions, not long-term organizational plans. Individualism has run amok, and the outcome is libertinism, not political power for the masses of humanity.
This sentiment is not just anti-leadership, it is anti-organization, and ultimately it is anti-power. This is not due to a political theory, either; it is merely the product of our own internal fear. In the face of constant defeat, the vast majority of the left, regardless of label, has adopted this anti-power ideology. We have complacently accepted our own situation, resigned ourselves to symbolic protest and resistance, and accepted our minority status. We are being held back by our own fear of being right, of being wrong, of winning, of losing, of anything. We are afraid of looking over the edge, seeing the abyss before us, and having to leap. We are more afraid still of leading others off that cliff into creating a new world. We are terrified of the responsibilities and burdens of that leadership.
This must change. We must learn to be leaders.
This is not the leadership of unaccountable government leaders, top-down and based on patronage or the power of the law. Nor is it the self-appointed ideological leadership of communist parties. The position of leaders in a real emancipatory movement must come solely from one factor: the ability of the leaders to lead those involved in the organization into a struggle for liberation and power. Taking responsibility and leadership is the ultimate act of believing in your politics. It is the ultimate act of believing in yourself. You must create the new or it will never come. And we are more afraid of the new than what we know.
Timothy’s path to leadership
I will never forget meeting Timothy, one of the first members of the new committee in my union. He was on the prior committee and had worked there for seven years. Like so many of us, Timothy felt his life was out of his hands, and just wanted to talk about his problems. His wife was robbed, his daughter had asthma and frequently ended up in the hospital, and he’d been in and out of prison.
Timothy wanted to be safe. He wanted to have control over his life. But Timothy had only fought for himself; he had never been challenged to act like a leader and challenge his friends/co-workers to stand up.
It would have been easier for me to just accept the history of this shop, and just say this is what “the workers” wanted. Instead, I chose to challenge him and to push others to do the same. I made him reconsider the role he and his co-workers could play. Along with workers’ strength, we talked about his life and what kind of man and father he wanted to be.
Timothy wanted his union to fight, although he wasn’t sure what that meant. He did know, however, that only a handful of people in the shop floor would talk about the problems, that nothing ever got fixed, and everyone felt weak for way too long. Timothy agreed to get trained and to challenge his co-workers to organize toward their common goals.
At a certain point, Timothy decided he was going to lead and organize a new area of the site because the company was cutting people’s hours and giving more work to certain “favorite” workers. He got four more committee members to start a petition; they convinced the whole department to sign it and deliver it as a group. The night before the delivery, the committee leaders called their coworker followers to make sure that they would be there.
They trusted the leadership’s decisions, and, despite their fears, 76 of them gathered to present the petition as a group. Timothy and four other committee members confronted the General Manager with the petition. Within twenty minutes, the Manager agreed to pay them thousands of dollars for the time the company had cut.
Leadership and the future of the Left
Finding and developing new leaders at the shop was not easy, but it proved that a strong organization, and a strong movement, is only possible through the development of leadership. Developing leadership for the movement requires creating long term plans for the growth of an organization, recruiting new members, training a new generation of leadership, and planning and carrying out campaigns for short-term victories.
A leader’s priority is to widen the base of support, train people to carry out necessary tasks, and immediately give newly recruited people responsibilities. Without training, and short-term goals, the membership will slowly decline and leadership will inevitably fall off. By planning and accomplishing things together members both old and new will learn to trust each other and the power of the leadership. As members go through the ups and downs of campaigns, wins and losses, they will learn the effectiveness of their own organizations and learn to trust in the leadership of those that are taking the bold step of leading people into difficult struggles. Larger goals become attainable, and more people will have been through difficult struggles and will have learned how to fight and win.
Timothy did just that, he became a man that was respected and built an organization that was feared. As he moves forward he will be able to change dozens—and will ultimately lead hundreds—of working class people. This has also allowed Timothy to build a better relationship with his wife and daughter. It taught him restraint, planning, patience and respect. When working class people learn to feel respect in their own lives, and feel power in the places of work and the community, we have advanced the possibility of real transformation.
We must not fail to recruit people into our organizations. We cannot be afraid to directly ask a person to recognize that they have a stake in changing the world, and share our vision of struggle with them. Many people on the left are just waiting for the revolution to come. We cannot just assume that someday the workers of the world are going to flock to our ideas. The revolution will never come by itself. A revolution will only be possible by the organized actions of the Left.
I lead people. I’m proud of leading people. I think leading people is the most important thing I can do in my life. I do not lead everyone. I don’t lead people in every area of their lives. I don’t lead people to do things against their self-interest. I am not unique in my leadership ability. But I can and will lead people in a social movement.
Each one of you gets to make the same choice I made, the same choice Timothy made. Who do I want to be? What is the better me? As you answer those questions, believe that it is our duty as revolutionaries to make sure other people can answer them as well, and can realize their visions. Everyone wants a better world, but it is up to us to get the world there.
Two dominant ideas on the left today are used to treat leadership negatively and not as a necessity: “we are all leaders” or “we have no leaders.”
The left is wrong and will continue to lose until it recognizes that fact. It is imperative that we learn to take leadership seriously and work to develop it. There is only one thing that should be avoided on the left, and that is losing. It is time to do something different. It is time to lead. |P