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Moulding the New Nye Bevans

Today’s labour movement struggles to create leaders with the politics or influence needed to take us forward – to change that, we need to rejuvenate the workplace and community institutions which shaped yesterday’s fighters.

Credit: Joseph McKeown / Getty Images

Today, the Left suffers from many organisational problems. But one of the most important is a lack of skilful leaders with significant political credibility in the movement. The left-populist wave of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and Pablo Iglesias provided a brief impression that once again we could count on trustworthy figures who might inspire and mobilise the public. This had followed many decades of unease around leadership – with more horizontalist philosophies predominating in the late 1990s and early 2000s anti-globalisation milieus and continuing into the post-crash movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados.

These movements, for all of their influence, were limited by an internal focus and often struggled to communicate their message effectively to the wider public, or to take decisive action when faced with political developments. With the emergence of new party-political alternatives to the establishment, it felt like we could do away with this anti-leadership sentiment as there were finally leaders who could represent ordinary people. The Left had leaders who ‘spoke things as they really were’, as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya MP Gabriel Rufián said of Iglesias after his recent resignation from the leadership of Podemos.

That wave of left resurgence in the West, forged in the anger of the Great Recession, produced many different kinds of leaders. There was the younger guard of the anti-Troika parties in the European South, not only Iglesias but Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras too, who were influenced by the populist discourses of political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe which had been popularised by the Latin American ‘Pink Tide’. But there were also the older, socialist leaders — Sanders and Corbyn — who embraced more traditional discourses about class and economic inequality. Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France seemed to fit somewhere between the two, his party formed in a split from the Parti Socialiste but embracing a very Laclauian populism.

This wave now seems to have been exhausted. In its aftermath, it has become apparent that the Left sorely lacks political personnel in both quantity and quality. While in the USA, young charismatic figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of ‘the Squad’ offer some reason for hope, they are few and far between. We must also accept that their popularity is a long way from the widespread appeal once garnered by the insurgent Bernie Sanders. Nor do they command the same authority he did across the broader left. Cultivating a new generation of competent, convincing leaders has become an urgent task for socialists.

Why Leaders Matter

Leaders are essential to mass politics of any form of ideological persuasion. Once you move above the scale of the small group, the challenges of social coordination and aggregation make the presence of common reference points an inescapable necessity. Sigmund Freud provided a psychological explanation of this tendency, arguing that social groups are formed and held together by uniting around an ‘external object’, upon which they can collectively mirror themselves and recognise their collective interests and purpose. This external object can be many things—a symbol, a flag, an ideology—but it is almost invariably a person, since it is natural that human beings are likely to identify in other human beings.

This necessity of leadership is painted all over political history, from the times of Alcibiades and Pericles in ancient Athens to contemporary televised and social media- enabled ‘hyperleaders’. It is telling that so many of the left-wing movements of recent years—from the United States to Britain, Spain, Greece, France, and beyond—are identified with specific individuals despite the fact they share such international similarities. In fact, we even go so far as to turn them into schools, such as you can see in discussions of ‘Corbynism’.

But it is not a new phenomenon. For decades, the Left has been defined by schools: Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism. Even beyond this, its great debates have tended to be summarised by individuals, such as the contributions made by Luxemburg or Connolly to the early discussions of nationalism and colonialism. Even its great movements and moments of the decolonial era itself tended to be associated with individual leaders, from Nehru to Nkrumah to Ho Chi Minh. And who would talk about the end of apartheid in South Africa without mentioning Mandela? Even steadfastly horizontalist movements such as the Zapatistas had their charismatic leader in Subcomandante Marcos.

The most idealistic, collectivistic movements have found their embodiment and inspiration in charismatic leaders and their deeds. In fact, often when movements present themselves as leaderless, the reality is—as highlighted by the pioneering 1970s feminist Jo Freeman in The Tyranny of Structurelessness—that leaders still exist but they are simply invisible and unaccountable. But besides the ‘big’ leaders at the top, successful movements require a serious amount of distributed leadership: an army of cadres capable of adapting political strategy to local conditions, who can skilfully facilitate ordinary people’s participation in collective efforts in ways that are open to the many.

Clearly, one aspect of the question of leadership is the question of authority. There are leaders within organisations, who can command the respect of activists, but there are also leaders in wider society, whose actions resonate with ordinary people. This latter category provides its challenges – for instance, how can such leaders ever be made accountable to organisations? These should not be underestimated. But they also provide an ability for organisations to influence the masses, to bring people into political activity and, over time, to shape collective behaviour towards common ends. The Left’s lack of such leaders today speaks to a more general disconnect with the working class as a whole.

Being a leader may seem to be something related to innate personal features that are by their nature extremely rare. Robert Michels, the great sociologist of political parties, famously included that among the virtues of a leader lies not just charisma or the ability to communicate and organise, but also a strong sense of independence, stubbornness, and self-reliance. In fact, many of these characteristics are not inherited at birth; they are won through struggle and experience, victories and defeats. People become leaders when they can prove themselves and be recognised by others as leaders. Hence, the cultivation of leaders is heavily dependent on political opportunities, events, campaigns, organisations, and meetings in which the individual potential for leadership can be actualised and socialised.

Socialist Leadership

The history of socialist movements is the history of many people who made use of these opportunities and rose to the top of political organisations, often starting from humble beginnings in ways that are short from miraculous if approached with contemporary fatalistic eyes. Consider the case of Labour Party figures such as Keir Hardie, Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee, and Ellen Wilkinson – figures who, having originated from working-class families, found in the labour movement a formidable organisational ladder to rise to the top. Having proven their mettle in the workplace, or in recruiting people to the party and winning seats, they went on to make key decisions in the future of the working-class movement. It was a true ‘meritocracy’, if ever there was one.

Besides this trajectory, socialist movements offered more formalised educational and training opportunities. Evening schools for workers and workers’ clubs, summer schools, socialist societies, and other educational opportunities were crucial in nurturing working-class leaders and cadres. In Britain, the Workers Educational Association, the Left Book Club, the Labour Research Department, and scores of other bodies produced publications dedicated to workers and organised all sorts of educational activities. This investment in political education was important in leftist movements around the world; this includes gigantic organisations like the Italian Communist Party (PCI), whose permanent political school in Frattocchie on the outskirts of Rome—which was established as early as 1944—was where many who went on to fulfil the roles of functionaries and local administrators were formed.

On the Right, this need to nurture leaders is not as much of an urgency as it is on the Left. Their ranks are populated by people with a taste for command, and the sense of privilege to impart orders already comes in abundance. Public schools, political science degrees at Oxbridge universities, and stints in corporate boards, the tight old boys’ networks that unify the rich, and the inevitable intermarriages provide a steady source of Conservative political personnel, bound by a sense of class solidarity.

On the Left, however, we fail to foster this same sense amongst our own. Many traditional avenues for acquiring leadership skills appear to be broken. Having become ever less militant and ever more corporatist, as well as being deprived of a sense of a broader ‘labour movement’, most trade unions today appear ill-suited for forging leadership figures that can then go on to prove their worth in the political arena. The typical trade unionist these days is more of a professional negotiator than an agitator, someone more accustomed to sit in the office than delivering fiery speeches to crowds of workers. As for working-class educational opportunities, most of them are mostly gone; or as in the case of the Workers Educational Association, they have become greatly ineffectual.

It is true that in recent years there have been some attempts to redress this lack of educational opportunities. Furthermore, movement institutions like Young Labour have proven a fertile ground to nurture a new generation of activists, but the results of these energies will take years to come to fruition. In the meantime, it is apparent that there is a generational gap between older socialists such as Corbyn and McDonnell and new potential leaders grown from Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader.

Those who wield the most power—people in their forties, fifties, and sixties—came to political consciousness in the Blair years, and are mostly hostile to a socialist agenda. Much political, educational, and training work remains confined to an activist core. What is missing are more outward-looking efforts – the long-term political, social, and educational initiatives in working-class communities. It is here that new leaders organically rooted in the class should be sought.

Restoring the supply chains of leadership—through unions, social movements, and educational initiatives—is a tall order. But it is only in this way that the new Hardies, Bevans, Lees, and Wilkinsons can be found. The alternative is relying on alternative pipelines from which career politicians have been sourced during the phase of decline of social democracy: selective grammar schools, NGOs, Oxbridge, and the world of business and professions. The problem is that these sources of leadership often fail to meet fundamental criteria for a political leadership that can adequately represent the people: loyalty, and at least a partial commonality of interests, with the social base that our movement fights for.