rs21 Political Weekend: What is revolutionary leadership?

Caliban’s Revenge discusses a session at the rs21 political weekend on the question of the role of ‘leadership’.

Rachel Eborall and Dan Swain’s meeting, “What is revolutionary leadership?”, was an engaging attempt to grapple with one of the most contested questions on the far left. Dan focused on the theoretical concept of ‘revolutionary leadership’. Rachel’s talk was a much more concrete discussion of what ‘revolutionary leadership’ might mean for the individual, particularly in the workplace.

Dan’s talk began by looking at the idea that the goal of revolutionary organisation is to organise those sections of the working class with “the best ideas” and posed the question – what constitutes “these best ideas”? He suggested that the answer has often been to see ‘revolutionaries’ as those with a superior understanding or strategy, or perhaps still more crudely, as those armed with a theoretical basis in a Marxist framework. Leadership seen this way is simply a matter of winning the inferior masses to these superior ideas.

Dan was critical of this view. The principle of ‘discipline’ has been seen as a vital characteristic of organisations that place themselves in the tradition of Lenin. That principle has generally been seen as a narrow question of how organisations can be co-ordinated to act and speak in an unified way. Dan’s argument was that any kind of ‘discipline’ in a revolutionary organisation could only be possible through a meaningful connection to the lived experience of the class. It is this experience of real workers, in every aspect of their lives, that should discipline revolutionary ideas, clarify them, and make them relevant.

The job of revolutionary ‘leadership’ then, is to draw out the experiences that make the exploited and the oppressed want to change the world, and point to how that may become possible. I understood Dan to be arguing that this is what constituted the appeal for ‘the best ideas’: an intelligence of the imminence of revolutionary struggle – not in the sense of ‘the great day’ being just around the corner, but as a project firmly located in the present moment, in living experience of the class.

Rachel introduced her discussion of ‘revolutionary leadership’ by pointing to the much mourned passing of Bob Crow and Tony Benn. They were, in very different ways, iconic figures of the left who had played a leading role in the working class movement. This is how the majority of the left has pictured and understood leadership. In this way, Rachel argued, we unwittingly mirror the ideas of our rulers. We adopt an idea that we can “leave it to them”, and that charismatic figures will direct the struggle for our interests on our behalf. Clearly this is a mentality from which we need to break.

Our class already contains a multitude of ‘leaders’ who are “utterly ordinary”, but none the less achieve extraordinary things. Rachel told the story of Suzie. Suzie wasn’t the union rep in her workplace, but she was the person everybody came to if they had any kind of problem, who gave advice and offered support. It was Suzie, in coordination with others, that arranged a regular “accidental” chemical spill at work to force an unofficial stoppage, giving over worked staff members the chance to take a break. She was leading in her workplace in everything but name.

But Rachel also argued that this kind of ‘organic leadership’ wasn’t enough. What makes leadership revolutionary is the fight to raise the political level. Hard questions of anti-racism, women’s liberation, the rights of LGBT workers and service users have to be identified and fought for. The “political shop steward” has to be a link between the direct experience of the work place, and the movement beyond it – not just in other work places, but across the spectrum of capitalist relations.

Above all, Rachel pointed out, we have to think hard about how we can be leaders in a period of low struggle, but also in a period where non-one can predict how or where the lines of class confrontations will be drawn. We have to have a principle of not just political sharpness, but also humility. We have to be “open minded to what we can learn from the class”,  from who we learn from and where we can learn things. Otherwise, we run the risk of missing opportunities that could come to nothing, but if grasped, could be explosive.

Many people spoke during the wide ranging discussion. Areas of contention were around questions of the continuing relevance of a “Leninist” model of leadership, although most people agreed that the object of revolutionary leadership has to be to make Marxist ideas relevant to struggle today. There was a lot of praise for the idea of humility, an emphasis on flexibility, to expect the unexpected. There was certain amount of debate on the topic of clowns. There was strong mood in the room that learning to listen, to absorb the reality of workers varied experiences, was a key aspect of leadership and one which had been sorely neglected. Rachel’s final word on this topic was that listening was indeed a vital element of leading in the work place, but nobody had ever followed a rep’ because they were a good listener.


  1. There was also the use of a ‘snake’ for the audience after the speakers had finished. This was my first experience of this and it was quite interesting. It is where you start at the back and it goes along the rows with each person in turn having the opportunity to speak. So it is instead of asking for people to contribute or ask questions. It just about got to the end in the time we had and it is meant to allow more people to speak than just the usual suspects. I’m not sure about those who chose to pass – I thought that everyone should have spoken.

  2. “There was certain amount of debate on the topic of clowns” might need a little clarification – It resulted from the use of the lenin quote “phrasemongoring and clowning” and a comment on the absurdity and creative chaos of revolutionary movements which sweep up the mass of people.


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