In Defense of Leaderless Revolutions
Cihan Tugal (“The End of the “Leaderless” Revolution” July 10, 2013) effectively picks apart the populist and premature claims of a successful revolution in Egypt. Yet he goes further to use the evident flaws in the leaderless revolutions that have been a hallmark of the early 21st century to discredit the very concept of leaderless revolution. In doing so, he opens the way for an amnesiac backslide to the much more flawed authoritarian revolutions of the 20th century, in the process committing some of the same errors that must be criticized in the ongoing revolts.
In order to build up a continuity of critique that benefits from awareness of all our past failures—a rich history indeed—we need to compare the failings of the leaderless revolutions with the much greater failings of the authoritarian revolutions of the past, rather than cover up those failings with the facile neologism of “leaderful” revolutions.
Ajamu Baraka, in “Requiem for a Revolution That Never Was” (July 18, 2013), is correct in challenging the pretensions of the Egyptian revolt to being a revolution. He sets the bar necessarily higher, stating: “A revolutionary process is a process by which structures of power are created by a broad mass of people that allow them to eventually transform every aspect of their society — from the structure and role of the State and the organization of the economy to inter-personal relations — all with a view to eliminating all forms of oppression.”
I would differ sharply with the idea that simply changing the structure and the role of the State is compatible with eliminating oppression, as every State in history has advanced the exclusive interests of the ruling class it unfailingly creates, necessarily blocking the full freedom of action and self-organization of its subjects. In fact no one has advanced a convincing argument about how a State could possibly do anything else, and the proponents of such apologia have most often been the ones to actively disprove the proposition of a benign State.
Nonetheless, we can take this as a starting point: a revolution seeks to profoundly transform social organization and eliminate oppression. If we acknowledge that populists were premature in declaring a revolutionary victory in Egypt, we should also accept that Tugal is premature in declaring a failure.
What revolution that ran its course was not preceded by insurrections that were crushed? In Russia there was the failed 1905 revolution. In China there was the Autumn Harvest Uprising, and in Spain the insurrections at Casas Viejas in 1933 and Asturias in 1934. The Cuban Revolution was preceded by the attack on the Moncada barracks. And the American Revolution owes much more to the thwarted Conspiracy of 1741 in New York than most historians are willing to acknowledge (given that the eventual leaders of that revolution were looking to avoid, rather than realize, the dreams of early insurgents).
Revolutions are not an event, but a process, and a major part of that process involves learning from our failures, developing more adequate theories and analysis, and building up the capacity to defend the spaces we seize and the germinal social relations we create.
In Egypt, the forces that obstructed this learning process were the revolt’s would-be leaders, populists hoping to mobilize the masses with empty slogans. These leaders were unwittingly complemented by direct democracy activists who thought it was enough for people to take to the streets and participate in assemblies. They were happy to have created a vessel, no matter how superficial the content that filled it, no matter how undeveloped their new structure’s capacity for self-defense.
In the plaza occupation movement in Spain, directly influenced by the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets chanting, “the revolution begins here.” Most of them were sincere, but they also held a media-corrupted view of what revolution actually means. The experience with a leaderless revolution forced many of them to question their assumptions and deepen their analysis.
Behind the façade of popular unity that the many commentators helped to create, these movements contained important conflicts. In Spain as elsewhere, there were the authoritarians and the movement politicians who parroted horizontal, anti-party rhetoric so as not to scare away their potential constituency. And there were the activists who believed in an ideology of horizontality and direct democracy in and of themselves. Both of these groups coincided in their desire to hide and suppress the internal divisions in the movement. They spoke of unity and hoped that everyone would rally around lowest common denominator positions. But there were also the marginalized, who were not content with any movement that would sate itself with mere reform. Many of them kept coming back to the streets because of what they found there, a spontaneous, self-organizing collectivity that promised a future community based on everything that is lacking under capitalism. And among the marginalized were the radicals, who specifically and unceasingly criticized the false unity, the democratic populism, and the at best superficial analysis of capitalism.
The movement politicians tried their best to ignore these radicals. The media suggested they were outside provocateurs, even though they were there from the beginning. But an increasing number of people began to listen to them, and collectively the movement as a whole deepened its analysis and sharpened its practice. This is why the largely middle-class, populist “indignados” of the spring of 2011 gave way to the anticapitalist, diverse, and numerically superior strikers and rioters of the general strike one year later.
In Egypt as well, anarchists and other radicals were in the heart of the recent uprising, opposing the Morsi government as well as a military government, and spreading critiques of the power structures that underpin both. For now, the military has prevailed, but this gives people in Egypt a chance to learn lessons and strengthen their practice. A population that has been subdued by military dictatorship for decades has little chance to develop the analysis and the tools of self-defense they need to overcome one of the most heavily funded militaries in the world in just two years, but in such a short time, they have come a very long way.
The leaderless revolution must overcome centuries of conditioning that teaches us that we need to be ruled. This is its central conflict. Setbacks in Egypt and elsewhere should underscore this conflict, not justify running away from the greatest struggle we will ever take up.
What becomes clear with experience is that it is not enough to take to the streets and protest, no matter how many figureheads we topple, because power runs deeper than that. It is not enough to implement democratic debate, because the right answers have already been precluded by the very way our lives have been structured.
Tugal is dead wrong when he writes about “the fallacy that the people can take power without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders.” That someone can still talk about taking power as a liberatory proposition without getting laughed off stage, in the face of so many historical examples that show what taking power actually means, shows how deep our collective amnesia runs.
It is no surprise, however, that some people keep sounding the call for unifying behind leaders and a platform in order to take power. In an authoritarian revolution, academics and other intellectual and cultural producers often move from their middling rung in the capitalist hierarchy to the top tier. It is in their class interest to advocate for authoritarian revolution. The rest of us just need to learn to tune them out.
The idea that we can address the economic alienation of capitalism without addressing the political alienation of the State is absurd. It is no coincidence that all the authoritarian revolutions that billed themselves as “anticapitalist” proved to be nothing more than shortcuts back to capitalism. The greatest promise of the leaderless revolutions is their ability to create a synthesis between economic and political liberation, but only if they also reject the democratic populism that Tugal and many others have criticized. But an analysis critical of both capitalism and populism already exists in the heart of the Egyptian revolt, as it also did in the Spanish plaza occupation movement and even Occupy.
These leaderless revolts do not need to be rejected. We just need to cut through the veil of unity, hollow discourses like that of the “99%” or “people power”, acknowledge the conflicts that exist within these movements, and take sides. Not to advance the correct platform, the correct agenda, and the correct set of leaders, inevitably setting off a carnival of sectarianism, but in a spirit of pluralistic debate.
Bowing down to the need for leaders, “an” (read, one) ideology, and a common platform would obstruct the most important line of growth for these revolutions, which is self-organization. A prerequisite for self-organization is that the outcomes cannot be predetermined as they are when we all have to toe a party line. Once most people know how to take the initiative in their own lives and put their plans into action, once the practice of self-organization intensifies to move beyond making abstract decisions, people will be able to create new social relations and collectively organize the material aspects of their lives—how to feed, clothe, house, heal, and generally provide for themselves. If this happens, leaders will be obsolete and we can begin to earnestly talk about revolution.
The worst problem with authoritarian revolutions is not that they produce “a cult of the leader,” the only glitch Tugal finds to criticize, but that their existence requires them to obstruct the self-organization of the people by any means necessary, a dynamic that Voline documented in the Russian Revolution and that has proven to be the case in every authoritarian revolution since.
The revolts in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, and elsewhere are an important start. But wherever we participate in leaderless movements we need to argue passionately against reformism, for a radical critique of capitalism, and for a committed rejection of leaders. Eschewing leadership provisionally, rejecting only the current leaders, will only lead to a takeover by populists, opportunists, or seemingly neutral structures like the military, as happened in Egypt. But if the rejection of leadership solidifies, Tamarod or any other group will not be able to rally people behind a leadership that appears to be neutral, or convince them to stuff their dreams into a ballot box.
If these revolutionary movements grow and successfully resist co-optation, they will come into greater conflict with the State. Leaderless insurrections in recent years in Egypt, Brazil, and Greece quickly overcame the ability of the police to contain them, raising the specter of a clash with the military. How can a leaderless revolt adapt to such a conflict? Fortunately we have historical precedents.
The most important historical lesson warns against the militarization of the conflict. Many revolutionary movements have had to overcome the military force of the State, but they ended up defeating themselves when they subordinated social questions to matters of military organization. In combat, large groups of people often need to arrive at unified decisions in the shortest time possible, meaning that assemblies don’t cut it. The forms of organization and leadership that develop in the sphere of martial conflict must therefore never take precedence over the social character of the ongoing revolution.
In recent times, the Zapatistas have taken great pains to avoid a militarization of the conflict or subordinate their social activities to the military leadership. The results of their efforts remain to be seen.
In the Spanish Civil War, anarchist and some socialist militias organized with elected and recallable officers, and these militias had no authority in socio-economic matters. The revolution was lost when it was subordinated to the military question (“win the war first, then make the revolution later”) and the militias were forced to join the regular armies.
In the Russian Revolution, the anarchist Makhno led a highly effective partisan detachment comprised entirely of peasant volunteers that wreaked havoc on the authoritarian White and Red Armies. For his part, Makhno refused leadership in the revolutionary assemblies that were established in the liberated territory. He stuck to military matters, and told workers or peasants looking for guidance to organize themselves.
Kim Jwa-Jin was a similar figure in the Chinese Civil War: leader of the Shinmin Commune’s army, he left all political decisions to the federation and the local assemblies, where an anti-authoritarian spirit were the order of the day.
Nanny led the maroons in Jamaica in the battle against slavery. And in their victorious wars against Spanish attempts at colonization, the Mapuche of South America chose tokis to lead them in battle. But Nanny and the tokis had no power on the community or household levels, beyond their own household and their own community, nor were they integrated into any power structure that governed those other social levels, as are military leaders in a compartmentalized state structure.
For most of us, the eventuality of military conflict is still a long way off. Even in Egypt, where a civil war is an imminent possibility, the movement still has so much work to do to get to a point where it could hope to survive such a conflict. Ultimately, we will cross that bridge when we get there. But it is good to know that we won’t be the first ones to carry the dream of an egalitarian revolution and a world without hierarchy or oppression.
We have no need to listen to those who sound the call to retreat, back to the hopelessly flawed model of authoritarian revolution that marred the 20th century. The leaderless revolution is an ongoing experiment, an endeavor that challenges us to abandon our authoritarian baggage, to convince those who are new to struggle that a simple reform is not enough, to spread an understanding of how power actually functions and to see the connection between every form of oppression.
The widespread mistrust of leaders is one of the few things we have gained from our long history of revolutionary failure. Let’s not give that up just because our struggles are not immediately successful. Rather, we need to turn that mistrust into a principled position. A hundred years ago, millions of people cried out, “The liberation of the workers is a task for the workers themselves.” This is true of everyone who is exploited and oppressed, whether their oppression plays out on lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. They will know better than anyone else how to liberate themselves.
Peter Gelderloos is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and the newly published The Failure of Nonviolence: from the Arab Spring to Occupy. He lives in Barcelona.