The Question of Leadership and 21st Century Socialism


The U.S. government has recently inaugurated a new president with all the pomp and flourishes that accompany the election of a president in this country.  All of the ceremony and ritual conveys a particular understanding of leadership developed under capitalism here in the U.S.  Likewise the example of leadership displayed in the various revolutionary parties and the attempts to establish socialism in the world has been stamped into the pages of history.  Although there were many heroic and outstanding examples of leadership, the prevailing image is that of the “cult of the personality,” or a predominantly male-led gerontocracy at the helm, and the leadership of the party often mandating by decree.  There are of course many theories of leadership.

It is understandable that activists have recoiled from the idea that the revolutionary movement needs the leadership of a revolutionary organization.  Instead some revolutionaries have taken up a view that depends almost totally on what they perceive to be the spontaneous activity of the working class and oppressed.  It’s true that leaders do come forward in various movements.  Many of you who are reading this article are those leaders who came forward in those movements.  The question for us in the 21st century is not whether or not we need revolutionary leadership and organization.  The question is, what style of leadership and type of organization do we need in service to the revolutionary process?

In this article I won’t go into all the different theories of leadership.  First we need a general definition of leadership.  Then we can look briefly at leadership and the leadership role of organizations in the 21st century.

Revolutionary Leader as Facilitator

A leader is anyone who influences a group toward obtaining a particular result.  Revolutionary leaders by extension influence groups and individuals toward making revolutionary change.  That leadership can be formal or informal.  Historically the difference between formal and informal leadership in social movements such as the black freedom movement, the anti-war movement and in the communist movement for example has been gendered.  Men tended to hold formal leadership and women exercised informal leadership if any.  Due to the dominance of patriarchal views, formal leadership was valued over informal leadership.

While the talent, skills, and experience of individuals should be valued and treasured, the tendency to grasp at and hold on to a position of leadership should be repudiated.  Even today we don’t have to look far to see where organizations in our movement are centered around a particular individual or group of individuals rather than developing a healthier process for leadership accountability and development.  The counsel of Ella Baker is as true today as when she first said it.  We need organization/movement-centered leaders not leader-centered organizations/movements.

There are many ways that positive leadership can be given.  Fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether the leadership is formal or informal.  Revolutionary leadership should be what I will call facilitative.  Facilitative comes from the Latin word facilitare which basically means “to enable.” The revolutionary leader in some capacity possesses the ability to articulate and channel the ideas, abilities and talents of the group in a way that moves the group in the desired direction.  A revolutionary leader should value the process as well as the desired outcomes.  Being able to be an active listener is part of the process.

Revolutionary Organization as Facilitative Organization

For all the reasons mentioned above, many revolutionaries have showed a resistance to the need for a revolutionary organization.  I have reflected deeply on why we need a revolutionary organization and have identified some characteristics of what that organization would look like.  The revolutionary organization that we need is an organization that organizes revolutionary leadership.  It would be an organization comprised of the leaders who come forward from the various expressions of the struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and all other forms of exploitation.  As V.I. Lenin stated in his work What is to be Done?, the revolutionary must be

“the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

This was true then and remains the truth.  The leadership provided by the revolutionary party or organization or whatever we will call it is the kind of leadership that is what Marta Harnecker calls “an instrument of articulation.” As a facilitative organization, the revolutionary party would strive to put forth a project that in some way unites the various progressive social movements.  Briefly speaking, social movements are sectoral and are subjected to the ebbs and flows of the movements’ struggles for reform.  The revolutionary party as a facilitative organization would articulate a national project that would strive to unite revolutionaries from various movements to form a new transgressive identity.  That transgressive identity is formed out of the new consensus built in the struggle against the prevailing hegemony of the ruling class.

The problem is not that the revolutionary party is in the vanguard.  Vanguard simply means to lead, to be in the forefront of a movement.  The problem is the idea that a small sect totally separated from the day to day struggle of the people would have the audacity to declare itself a vanguard.  To simply declare oneself the vanguard without the recognition and acknowledgment of the people is the height of arrogance.  If the leadership provided by the organization is truly facilitative, its leadership will be recognized without the need for a declaration.

The organization internally would cherish and safeguard the ideas, views and talents of its members.  The level of centralism within the revolutionary organization should always be based on a concrete analysis of the conditions and challenges that it faces.  What we continue to learn from group practice -and dynamics, and especially from feminist and queer practice, is the importance of building consensus and the need to insure that all voices and ideas are valued and respected.  The revolutionary organization as an organization engaged in action must be able to act in a unified manner, but in a way that is respectful of the minority view.  On the other hand, decisions reached in a democratic manner cannot be stymied by a minority.  In the current period we have plenty of room for lively and rich debate.  Unified action must be based on the effort to build the political unity of the membership rather than on bureaucratic commands.  Working bodies like work teams and commissions are essential to this process, as are organs for discussion and debate like journals, bulletins, etc.

There is monumental task before us.  We need the ideas, gifts and talents of all who come forward to make a new world that values humanity over greed and profit.  The leadership and movement we are building in some ways must prefigure the socialist society we strive for.  We must be patient with one another because the reality is that we can only build the new society out of the one that we have.  That means that we have all the baggage and negativity of the capitalist society to contend with—not somewhere out there, but within ourselves.  Let us in this regard struggle but be patient with one another.  This article does not exhaust what is needed for revolutionary leadership in the 21st century.  It does touch on some essentials.  Without them we have little hope for success.


Badili Jones is an African-American gay Marxist socialist, was involved in the Black Student Movement and African Liberation support work since his early teens. He came through the New Communist Movement. He studied philosophy and the roots of Latin American Theology of Liberation. Today he is involved in the work of popular education and leadership development for grassroots community organizations on a local and nation level. BJ is also a member of the National Executive Committe of FRSO/OSCL.


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