The concept of a leadership ‘vanguard’ runs through a section of the anti-capitalist left like a solid strand of DNA. This concept keeps replicating itself across generations and despite trying to evolve to fit into the changed environment it now finds itself in, its advocates are steadily shrinking. After an early 20th century rapid growth and domination, this ‘vanguard’ concept now increasingly finds itself facing a slow extinction. Of the originators and promoters of this concept on the anti-capitalist left, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin stand out as the most celebrated advocates. They were the middle-class giants of the early 20th century anti-capitalist left who passed on this concept to future generations. Since their deaths, numerous modified variations of this species have appeared, but none have proved viable in the modern socio-political environment.

However, an alternative, species of anti-capitalism, previously crowded out of the anti-capitalist socio-economic environment, by this once dominant ‘vanguard’ leadership concept, has now an opportunity to develop. The human embodiments of this alternative are best described as ‘facilitators’. The intellectual giants of this alternative species of anti-capitalist activism are none other than Fredrick Engels and Karl Marx. In the Communist Manifesto of 1849 appears, the following perspective, stated negatively. Anti-Capitalist activists do not;

“..form a separate party opposed to other working class parties….They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” (Manifesto page 49 Peking Edition.)

The whole point of the Leninist/Trotskyist/Stalinist leadership model of the anti-capitalist left is to form a separate party and to shape and mould those working class and oppressed forces which its advocates seek to lead. Over a decade after the above noted extract, the rules of the 1st International commence with..“..the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” This assertion by Marx and Engels, was no isolated example for in responding to an alternative manifesto promoted by three members of a Zurich commission in 1879, Marx and Engels wrote;

“The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes.” (Circular Letter. September 1879.)

These repeated assertions over thirty years clearly refute the concept and consequential ideology of a vanguard leadership. Elsewhere I have produced evidence of the distortions introduced into the anti-capitalist struggle and post-capitalist construction in Russia by the adoption of this Bolshevik vanguardist model. [see ‘The Revolutionary Party’], Here I will argue that the activist model suggested by Marx and which is still the relevant one for the present and in the future, is one of facilitator. For Marx then, no separate ‘Political Parties’, no ‘sectarian principles’ and no patronising leadership help needed from the upper and lower middle classes. So if this is the case, how should anti-capitalist activists who have rejected the Bolshevik leadership model relate to the working classes and their struggles? Marx again;

“…we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle; here is the truth kneel down before it. …We do not say to the world: cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it doesn’t want to…..” (Marx/Engels Collected Works. Vol 3 page 144.

The paragraph from which the above is taken continues by advocating that anti-capitalist activists explain to those around them – if this is needed – the “meaning of their own actions.” In other words anti-capitalists following this model ‘facilitate’ the understanding and actions of those they support in their struggles. They do so in three practical ways. First by offering to share their knowledge and understanding alongside and with those in struggle. Second by stressing the importance of the existing collective knowledge of the group or community. Third, by assisting in practical ways the fulfilment of the tasks identified by the collective. This means seriously listening to workers in struggle, recognising and acknowledging what they wish to achieve and bringing to that struggle any knowledge and skills which appear to be missing. Such a role includes pointing out any reactionary or sectional potentials which the aims of the struggle may involve.

Some practical contrasts between the concepts of ‘Leader’ and ‘Facilitator’.

Leaders mostly use their knowledge in order to tell people what to think, what they should do to change things and what the implications are.

Facilitators use their knowledge to ask people what they think, suggest how they could change things and also discuss the implications of such change.

A group or movement based upon leadership principles usually have members come together to listen to their own leaders knowledge and experience before returning to activity.

A group or movement based upon facilitators will usually have members come together to collectively discuss and learn from each others knowledge and experiences before returning to activity.

Leaders want and need followers.

Facilitators do not want or need followers.

Leaders seldom really try to empower ordinary members or people.

Facilitators always try to really empower ordinary members or people.

Leaders frequently are/or become part of an elite. They are potential or actual Captains of whatever ship they manage to board.

Facilitators are (and stay) part of the group. They join as, and stay as, part of the crew when they get on board.

Leaders desire and often demand that others should follow their particular viewpoint.

Facilitators explain but never demand that others should follow their particular viewpoint.

Leaders try to make themselves indispensable.

Facilitators try to make themselves dispensable.

Leaders are inconsistent collectivists within their own groups – they often pull rank.

Facilitators are consistent collectivists within their groups – they never pull rank.

Leaders frequently mislead and then try to rationalise this rather than apologise.

Facilitators rarely mislead and openly apologise if on rare occasions their input proves wrong or counter-productive.

Leaders rarely seriously or openly evaluate the results of their suggestions or actions.

Facilitators always seriously and openly evaluate the results of their suggestions or actions.

So anti-capitalist ‘facilitators’ are also active and not passive. They seek out those whose struggles they identify with, ally themselves with them, studiously listen and ask questions. Only then do they offer information and assistance. A group of facilitators wishing to support a struggle would meet after listening to workers and others to discuss how they can help. They would not meet before to get their group line sorted out and then try to impose it upon the workers either individually or at their meetings. There will be times when decisive initiative needs to be taken within a struggle, but this will not be the rule for facilitators and where it occurs and the activist facilitator is involved, the action would be quickly explained to the others and presented for ratification, alteration or rejection.

To sum up.

The vanguard leadership model of Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not – and never could have – assisted the complete self-activity of the working class. Indeed, the leadership model in general assumes the working and oppressed classes cannot ’emancipate themselves and must be freed from above’ by those who have beforehand declared their own candidature and appointed themselves for this position. Even ‘leaders’ drawn from within the working class will want to do the thinking for the working class and lead them – as so many have already done in the Trade Union Movement and Political Parties. In this way they help maintain the dependency of working people which is part of the ‘muck of ages’. In the coming struggles, the independence and self-activity of the working and oppressed classes is something anti-capitalists need to facilitate not inhibit.

Finally! The task of facilitating is no less demanding than that of ‘leadership’ and indeed it is perhaps more demanding in that it requires a blend of subject knowledge, patience, self-criticism and humility. To me the concept and practice of facilitating therefore also holds to two allied principles taken from philosophy and science. The first is that guideline of all rational thought ‘whenever you are sure of something; maintain it with doubt‘: for new evidence may surface which may alter the certainty you previously supposed. The second is derived from really accepting the collective nature of all knowledge and reasons that in a disagreement; ‘others may be right and I may be wrong or vice versa, or we both may be wrong; but only in respectful discussion and reflection on practice will we be likely to really enhance our collective knowledge.

R. Ratcliffe (March 2013.)

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  1. Tony Taylor says:

    Thanks, Roy. I’ve linked to this piece on the In Defence of Youth Work Facebook page, where I say : Roy Ratcliffe, the author of this piece, was an innovative youth worker and prominent CYWU activist across the 1980’s. Whilst this blog is aimed at the Left in Britain its argument resonates across into youth and community work. Indeed I’m sure Roy would acknowledge that his outlook has been influenced significantly by his engagement with the facilitative spirit at the heart of a democratic youth and community practice.

  2. crvenitalas says:

    This argument against leaders is nothing new in the anti-capitalist camp and it arises out of a fear that a “leader” will take sole control of the movement, either before or after it comes to power. However, a leader, or leaders, are necessary for any political movement whose goal it is to attain political power because not only do they embody and represent the ideals of this movement, but they also provide direct guidance to it. Of course, it goes with out saying that the movement must have democratic controls in place to limit the powers of the leader and to remove them if they breach the trust given to them. There are definite distinctions between a leader and a dictator and who fails to realize this is a political novice or even an anarchist. Let me give you some examples from history: when Lenin returned to Russia after the February Revolution, he, as the leader of the Bolshevik fraction, presented the April Thesis in spite of the fact that most of the leading Bolsheviks were against a change in policy and insurrection. Later, in 1918, he called for immediate peace with Germany whatever the costs; almost all of the CC was against him, from Trotsky to Stalin, but in the end, they voted in favor of his proposal after he threatened to resign from the CC and government. In both of these instances, history has proven the decisions of Lenin, the leader, to have been the correct ones. Let us now look at more recent events: in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was the sole recognized leader of the Bolivarian Revolution; this is unquestionable. He spearheaded virtually all of the initiatives and policies, with the support of the populace and the rest of the members of his government. With the passing of the leader, many people, inside and outside of the country, are unsure which direction the revolution will head. In Egypt, the people who brought down Mubarek did not want an Islamic regime to replace the tyrant, but that is exactly what happened. The MB was organizing underground for decades and had a clear chain of command, when the revolution came, they were prepared. Now, the secular opposition is just now building up its organizational structure, with leaders, of course.

    • Hi crvenitalas
      Thank you for your response. I guess we will just have to disagree. However, it is interesting to me that your reply embodies much of what the article is about. Your dogmatic assumption that it is ‘fear’ which prompts a negative view of anti-capitalist ‘leadership’ and not a studied evaluation of it. Another related one is the patronising way you ‘give me some examples from history’ as if I am ignorant of precisely that history. The further implication that people who hold such views are political novices or anarchists to make such a point is also wide of the mark. I think it would perhaps be more rigorous to read more of my articles, particularly ‘Marxists against Marx’ and ‘The Revolutionary Party’ before making such assumptions. Regards, Roy

      • crvenitalas says:

        Thank you also, comrade Roy, for publishing my comment and responding. I think that it is necessary for those of us on the left to engage in constructive debates. I must admit that I am very new to blogging so please do not take offence to my tone because I have respect for your considerable experience in the left movement. I have not had the opportunity yet to read some of your other articles, but I will take a look and respond. I would also appreciate it if you also take a look at my site (commentariopolitica.wordpress.com) and offer your thoughts on the subjects that are raised. I am of the opinion that the adherents of the worker’s ideology should come together and discuss their views because with such discussion we are able to take better positions on the issues. This being said, I believe that a cult of the leader existed for a long time in the left-wing movement as a result of stalinist influence and, in rare cases, persists even today. With the discreditation of this line of thinking, through academic critiques and practical experiences, many have adopted the totally opposite view that leaders are not only unnecessary, but harmful. Thus, the debate seems to center around two extremes and extremes are seldom the best solution. We should acknowledge that leaders do and, quite frankly, should exist, but their roles need to be more clearly defined and controls put in place to make them answerable to their constituents and make it impossible for them to misuse their position.

      • Your welcome crvenitalas.

        I too welcome serious comradely discussion and I will certainly look again at your blog and make comments in the same spirit. Another couple of articles I have written that cover the ground I think we are discussing are; ‘Totalitarianism: Religeous and political’ and ‘The Riddle of history solved’. My own experience as a trade union activist, shop steward and later as youth and community worker convinced me of the dangers of leadership and that this ‘position’ is uneccessary and counter-productive. When a facilitative role is adopted it allows other people from the group/community to take a lead in certain aspects/areas without ever necessarily becoming a ‘leader’. I therefore make a distinction between taking a lead at times and the established role of ‘leader’. And taking a lead and encouraging others to take on responsibility is absorbed into the role of facilitator without that danger unfolding. My historical research into Bolshevism convinced me further that such self-appointed ‘leaders’ in revolutions did far more harm than good. I have written a very long well-researched book on this very topic which covers more evidential ground than my articles.

        Good luck with your blogs and your efforts, the more of us engaged in this spirit the better. If workers are to overcome differences in age, gender, ethnicity, race, nationality to engage in solidarity actions then anti-capitalists should at least provide an example of overcoming their difference over a few ideas.

        Regards, Roy

  3. SteveH says:

    Roy is mixing up Leadership with Sectarianism. Marx and Engels spoke about leadership and the importance of it all the time. they were not naive enough to simply wish leadership away.

    Marx and Engels could be pretty conflicting in their attitudes to organisation. I think Bakunin forced Marx and Engels to adopt a less ‘statist’ position. See their programme for the German communist party and compare it to the later French workers party programme as an example of the shift.

    What a left organisation should seek to do is make the structure as horizontal as is practically possible. But a left organisation should at least adopt the principle of from each according to his/her ability.

    • Hi SteveH. We will have to disagree again. I don’t think I am mixing leadership up with sectarianism. In fact I haven’t come across anyone who has analysed sectarianism as seriously as I have. If you read ‘Sectarianism and the question of a General Strike’ on this site and can do any better then please enlighten us all. Regards, Roy

      • Tony Taylor says:

        I don’t think Roy is mixed up at all about the fundamental dilemma posed for any would-be emancipatory/revolutionary organisation by the fixation on hierarchical leadership. Over the years we have been involved in the Left, sometimes together, this obsession, the need for our leaders to hang on to power, come what may, has eaten away at any prospect of genuine change from below. Let me just propose one demand in relation to the emerging Left Unity initiative. As I understand it there is a self-appointed steering group of the great, good and ugly, including Ali, Galloway, German etc… As a minimum acknowledgement of the need for accountability and authentic democracy I propose that everyone of the present steering group step down after one year – job done. I have no doubt that across those supporting Left Unity there are many, competent and conscious enough, to take up the reins. I can already hear the cries of protest from the self-anointed leaders of the struggle. How can we possibly go forward without their charisma, their experience etc? However it’s a simple and necessary call. Genuine leaders aspire to be redundant. Authoritarians, careerists and opportunists hang onto supposed power, whatever the cost, What chance Galloway and Co. will exit the stage quietly and gracefully? Sod programme, the test for any would-be radical organisation is its notion of democracy, hence its understanding of leadership.

        And , just to add, perhaps revealing my faltering faculties, the last thing we need at the moment is the channelling of dissent and anger into the quest for a Left party.

        Best as ever


  4. Edgar says:

    On the leader-facilitator comparison, to create facilitators and not leaders requires an environment to be created where facilitators are allowed to facilitate and are not systematically forced into leadership. This is very difficult to create in our hysteria era, where every human weakness is used to destroy people and people are at war with each other.

    • Hi Edgar!

      Thanks for commenting. You are right it is not always easy, but it is possible. An important factor working against this possibility is the assumption that the leadership model is the correct one. As I discuss in the article ‘Totalitarianism: Religious and Political’and the one entitled ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’there are religious and bourgeois assumptions which have been uncritically adopted within the anti-capitalist movement. Criticism of this model to my mind is essential as well as recognising the facilitative model and the consequent enhancement when used of the self-activity of those who engage in struggle. Regards,Roy

  5. nerd says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will
    be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.

  6. Hi, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility
    issues. When I look at your website in Opera, it looks
    fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.

    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, superb blog!

    • Hi there!

      Thanks for the heads up and for the positive feedback. Unfortunately I am not proficient enough to sort that out. So apologies but hope you will persist in visiting the blog. Regards, Roy

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