The view from the top table



On an occasion in the last couple of months, I was speaking at a public meeting alongside a senior official of the trade union movement. His tone was folksy, with deliberate and repetitive swearing, declarations that he could speak openly “among friends”, and a loudly-announced disinterest in the detail of the latest government attacks on unions (“I don’t need to tell you, you all know how much they hate us”). These were of course details which his audience, almost entirely made up of  trade union reps rooted in local workplaces, needed to know if they were ever going to successfully resist them.

He made a passionate appeal to his listeners not to put too much pressure on the TUC to call co-ordinated strikes or even prepare the ground for them (it will, he said, be a decision for affiliated unions not for the TUC which has no members to call out), and he criticised those from the rank and file who were making demands of their leaders.

“Everyone in the room is a leader”, he insisted – not that he was going to lead us anywhere – “it is up to you to deliver the change, in education, in collective bargaining, in voters’ minds about the economy, which alone will improve workers’ lives.”

I am intrigued by this concept of leadership, not because of the  individual who expressed it but because it feels so familiar from the group of which I have been a member these past 20 years.

I will be writing more, over the next weeks, about the years I have spent in the SWP. I will save for another, longer piece the great moments, the times and the people that so inspired me of the possibility for revolutionary ideas to become the common sense of hundreds of thousands of people that I chose to remain a member, even though even at the age of 20 I could see, as we all could, that the leaders had clay feet

But here I wanted to convey how proud I have been to be a member of a group in which for long periods of time I was only slightly active – when I would go to meetings I had not organised, and I watched new people coming through.

When I rejoined the SWP in 2008, I did not become a branch secretary, I was not a full-timer nor was I a regular contributor to the group’s publications.

For two years, my main contribution was to book speakers for a North London branch, which had not met, in any sustained way, for more than five years.

My comrades seemed to appreciate that by the radical innovation of actually booking speakers for meetings every week, and thinking about different topics we could have, we were able to “grow” a small branch so that at one time it had around 3 people at meetings every week, and at another time, the number was more like 15.

This was a mundane task, not the sort of anything that anyone will put on their imaginary “activist CV”. But when we combined it with asking people at sales if they wanted to come to meetings, the dual effect was to bring a few people into contact with socialist ideas, who had never heard of them. Bringing new people and longstanding comrades together was not “the revolution” but it felt good.

I say all of this only to express my regret for those people in the SWP who form our national leadership, and who in several cases have not been part of that process, sometimes for decades. For them, the SWP is an office in Vauxhall where those who hang on long enough through every bureaucratic intrigue are guaranteed, eventually a senior position. And it is a series of meeting rooms (of admittedly, declining numbers) where a permanently revolving set of grey-bearded comrades listen quietly to their talks, laugh at some of their jokes (although there are many fewer even of them than there used to be), and then let the speaker depart, whereupon thode audience members presumably clear all the chairs away. If you only interact with people as an audience, you can have a very bad sense of what people think – even the people who continue to vote for you.

You can become frustrated with them, and (as we have seen repeatedly in the last ten years) bored of their activities. You can start to wish – frankly – that they would all go away and leave you to the more important task of meeting the General Secretary who is in the news, or recording an interview with Russia Today, or finishing the article that you’ve never written which would prove once and for all how much more you know about a topic than Owen Jones

There is a kind of leadership which says “every one of you is powerful, if only you can find the right opportunity you could be part of changing history, and I will give all my energy to try and inspire every one of you in the hope that individually, you, could be the person who at that key moment, makes the contribution which moves everything”. And there is a kind of leadership which says “I’ll go through the motions but don’t bother me, don’t you see I’ve got something more important to do.”

Each style can satisfy itself with the slogan “we are all leaders; you are leaders too”, but the two types of speaker mean different things by it.

3 responses »

  1. I’ve subscribed to your blog for quite a while now, & have both enjoyed & learnt from many of your posts & the discussions that have arisen, although, surprisingly, these have been far fewer than deserved by the content & the questions they raise. Maybe the scary door is real, & not a fetish.

    But when you wrote above that you were “intrigued by this concept of leadership” I knew I had to put something together because it’s something I’ve being trying to think thru too.

    To put my conclusion first: we need to speak readily not simply of leadership, nor even of leadership-followership, but leadership-followership-fellowship, with the last-mentioned being the condition sustaining the very possibility of a healthy relationship between the other two.

    Although I’m probably treating fellowship as a synonym of comradeship, that it’s the same concept, given the perverse contortions the term ‘comradeship’ has been twisted into, I find it somewhat liberating to use a different word, if only to try & think about all this in a new light, & so hopefully in a more productive way. (It’s the same if you have to think without other vogue words or phrases, like ‘essentialism’, ‘social construction’, ‘the body’, ‘dialectic’, ‘combat party’. Comfort words & blankets are not conducive to thinking, only sleeping.)

    So I ask the reader to focus on what ‘fellowship’ denotes here, & to put aside any connotations evoked for them by the word, which for me are Oxbridge & Christianity. Although it may seem matey, pretty male, strictly speaking it’s neutral, unlike brotherhood or sisterhood, fraternity or sorority. For those who know their history, the USA had socialist fellowship organisations from the end of the 19th century, & in Britain the Lawrence-Healy group split from the Revolutionary Communist Party, entered the Labour Party, & was at the birth of Socialist Fellowship co-founded by Fenner Brockway & Ellis Smith.

    So returning to our triad, any element, on its own, is one-sided. (For those who must, then call this non-dialectical.) I think that not just recent history shows that an undue stress on leadership – & its obverse, obedience – is corrosive, demoralising, ultimately destructive, necessarily infantilising the membership, rendering them passive, stunting their development, & preventing some of them growing into a possible alternative leadership.

    It should be noted in passing, that be it management trainers or party trainers, there are always leadership schools, never followership schools or fellowship schools. It seems genius has to be cultivated, but being a drone comes with the genes, & don’t even think about a comradeship school – what do you think we are, revolutionary socialists or something?

    Moving on, a conceptual improvement on considering just one element is to investigate a relationship, the leadership-followership relation. This, at least, admits the possibility of reciprocal determination. So instead of an all-knowing, all-seeing view from the top table, supping claret with Archimedes, we can envisage that the followers may themselves come up with interesting & seemingly useful ideas, that can be tested, thereby taking the lead themselves. It raises the possibility of institutionalising the cultivation of such a relationship with a special . . . school.

    But I suggest that something more is needed, the recognition of the force of fellowship, its powers & susceptibilities, the virtuous possibilities within it, bringing alive, bringing health to what too often is a mechanical, top-down relationship between leaders & followers. The living of fellowship, rather than just followership, is enlivening, it’s invigorating, it excites, it can even bring warmth & joy into our political work. And how often do we hear that kind of talk or feel those emotions? Not too often, I would suggest, especially these days.

    The reason why fellowship adds a spark is because it gives ontic depth to the living of the followership-leadership relation, it allows us to get away from a flat ontology (Roy Bhaskar). When members are organised not just as leaders, as followers, & by the leadership-followership relation so that sometimes they lead, other times they follow, but also are organised in & through fellowship, then the affective bonds between members improve their quality of life, including their political work.

    Fellowship helps sustain a healthy followership-leadership relation, not least by encouraging sanity in the organisation (no small feat), realistic expectations, a sensible pace of working, reducing the chances of burn-out, accepting that one can be a life-long militant & vary the intensity of involvement without experiencing shame & guilt, & in general lead a balanced life that doesn’t harm physical & mental health. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, do you? (Bless us & save us!)

    So it would set off the loudest alarm bells if some ruler of an office, a bureaucrat, completely off her head, were to declare in a party bulletin that in the upcoming debate one side would have 40 minutes & the other one 17 minutes. How could a fellow treat their fellow member in such an inegalitarian way? It would strike everyone as madness, pure & simple. It wouldn’t be accepted in the workplace, or the union branch, so why would it be acceptable within the party? Sheer madness, nothing less.

    I’ll finish by speaking to the principle of limited terms of office. I’ve always respected Julius Nyerere for not dying in office, but stepping down. Even the US presidency is limited to two terms. But British revo soc organisations? Peter Taaffe 49 years & counting, Sean Matgamna 47 years & counting, Alex C . . ., those that are to come . . . Does it really have to be this way? (I can feel a song coming on.)

    Well, no. Left Unity, at its Founding Conference the other day, decided to have in its constitution term limits for occupants of nationally elected posts:

    “No member may hold a nationally elected post within the party for more than three consecutive years, following which s/he may not stand for election to that post for two years.” (clause 4b, page 2)

    That’s an example of fellowship, supervening above the leadership-followership relation, mediating it even perhaps beyond the immediate co-interests of leaders & followers. This clause means that Left Unity has to continually produce people with ideas & confidence adequate to the task. There are no guarantees that this strategy will succeed, but it is a bold attempt to give fellowship a chance, & by thinking thru how it can be involved at all times in our work it will necessitate us changing our organisational forms, our norms of behaviour, even our expectations of one another. As they say, we have a world to win – just maybe not in our own lifetimes, though.

    • Hi JH, you’re always welcome to post here – I’ve seen your stuff previously on SUN, and enjoyed it. Personally, I would probably use comradeship rather than fellowship (in my case the immediate association is Tolkien, but that is just distilled Oxford Christianity), but on the substance yes of course – we have a long way to travel to reclaim the register of some earlier generations of socialists who were much better at fraternity and solidarity (and also at visual metaphor, sport and culture in its broadest sense) even if their polemics lacked the analytical precision of our own left epoch. If you feel that the discussion is taking place somewhere else, yes, it generally is – either face to face, within the SWP diaspora, or (increasingly) on facebook. Not that electronic comradeship is an substitute for a flat hierarchy of comrades, bound together by thick ties of friendship, solidarity, and common experiences of campaigning…

  2. I was struggling to give some complexity to the ‘flatness’ of leaders-followers, even when backed up with followers-swapping-places-with-leaders, & maybe it was just alliteration driving me on but I thought of fellowship, even though I had only really known the two referents I gave, the disaggregated Tolkien. (I had a vague recollection about socialist fellowship but I had to read it up.)

    It was only when drafting last night that it dawned on me that I was using ‘fellowship’ more or less as a synonym of ‘comradeship’ – then my heart sank: not coz I thought I had lost some novelty but coz, f, that word we have held so dear has been so corrupted, debased so much, we no longer recognise it with the ease we once did. That’s what angered me.

    Just on the late 19th-early 20th, there’s the whole temperance movement against the brewers & the demon drink. Not to come over all puritanical, but it’s an index of a certain class consciousness, a consciousness of the hope for a future society, one that in terms of deferring immediate gratification doesn’t compare with today. (Re-reading this maybe I should open some Ernst Bloch & read about fairy tales.)

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