“What is direct action?” 5/9/2016;
“The vanguard party model” 5/10/2016;
“Connecting to the needs of our people” 5/11/2016;
“Herbert Marcuse Revisited” 5/12/2013; and
“The New Left and its errors” 5/13/2016.
Mitchel is opposed to “the vanguard party/social democrat ‘consciousness raising’ construct” that leads to organizational structures that are “hierarchical,” “elitist” and “anti-democratic” (Cohen 2013:174, 179, 307). He maintains that our task is not to organize ourselves to get out the Truth to the masses, with the presumption that the masses are ignorant (Cohen 2013:189, 207).
In rejecting the model of the vanguard party as an arm for leading the people to the taking of power and effecting a revolutionary transformation, Mitchel mirrors the strong tendency of the Left to distrust authority. The tendency is a consequence of confusing authoritarianism and authority, and it has been a historic strategic error of the New Left.
The New Left, like the rest of US society in the 1960s, had good reasons to be fearful of the ever present threat of authoritarianism, for it had major manifestations during the twentieth century: the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Spain, and communism in the Soviet Union after Lenin; and the authoritarianism of the military dictatorships of Latin America and newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. Mass murder, concentration camps, torture, disappearances, arrests without cause, and the suppression of political parties are their legacy.
But we must be careful here. In the first place, the Left has the obligation to formulate an historical social scientific understanding of the emergence and the characteristics of authoritarianism/ totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Secondly, and more importantly, we must maintain a distinction between authoritarianism and authority, with appreciation that no human society or social organization can function without structures of authority.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to exercise one’s will, even over the resistance of others. Authority, he maintained, is legitimate power, that is, it is accepted as reasonable and justifiable even by those over whom it is exercised. He further maintained that in human social organization, there have been three types of authority: (1) traditional authority, which is vested by tradition in a chief or a king or queen; (2) rational-legal authority, with strictly defined limits, exercised by a president or prime minister in a constitutional republic, or by the director of a bureaucratic organization with defined goals; and (3) charismatic authority, exercised by a leader with exceptional gifts who calls upon the people to follow new goals and norms, drawing from traditional and constitutional understandings, yet forging new proposals.
In studying and observing the revolutionary process of the last 100 years, I have seen that the concepts formulated by Weber are confirmed. Charismatic leaders with exceptional gifts emerge, and authority is conferred on them by people, who have the intelligence and capacity to discern their exceptional gifts. From this dynamic, vanguard organizations emerge, which possess charismatic authority among the people, but which also have structures of rational-legal authority. When the revolution triumphs and forms a government, it must establish social order, and it develops constitutional definitions of authority, in accordance with revolutionary principles; at the same time, the charismatic authority of the leader and the vanguard party continues to be present, educating the people and exhorting them to support the new constitutional order (see various posts in the category Charismatic Leaders).
When the New Left emerged in the early 1960s among white students, it was influenced by the anti-authoritarian climate of the US political culture. However, the New Left was concerned not only with authoritarianism, but also with the abuse of authority by holders of government office. It was influenced by the oft-repeated phrase: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If power corrupts, then any person who holds a governmental position, even if he or she possesses purity of heart and mind at the time of assuming office, will become corrupted by the possession of legitimate power, and he or she will begin to abuse the constitutionally-conferred authority. This moves us beyond fear of authoritarianism to distrust of power, even when it is legitimate and necessary for the attainment of social goals.
The New Left distrust of authority became the frame for viewing political power in the world. It was believed that political candidates make promises to the people, but once they are elected, they ignore their promises and attend to their own personal gain. And it was believed that revolutionary leaders proclaim a new vision to the people, and the people lift them to power; but once in power, the revolutionary leaders exploit and oppress the people, in a form similar to the deposed rulers.
The betrayal of the people by politicians and by “revolutionary” leaders is a common phenomenon in the world. But let us analyze its source. The attaining of political office in representative democracies requires financial and political support from the wealthy, so successful politicians are those that are skilled in appearing to support the interests of the people while fulfilling their obligations to their rich supporters. Successful politicians were seduced by wealth and power as young men and women, before they attained political power. Rather than power corrupting individuals, it is the system itself that is corrupt, and successful politicians were morally compromised from the outset by their participation in it.
With respect to Third World “revolutionary leaders,” Third World movement leaders are unavoidably divided between a moderate sector, which tends to be tied to international capital and foreign corporation; and a revolutionary sector, composed mostly of members of the petit bourgeoisie that have cast their lot with workers, peasants, students and women. Although both present themselves as defenders of the interests of the people, the moderates from the outset were connected to the interests of international corporations. Thus the “revolutionary leader,” like the successful politician in representative democracies, is not corrupted by power; rather, he or she was corrupted before the attainment of power.
On the other hand, there are numerous examples of revolutionary leaders, tied to the people and lifted up by the people, who faithfully fulfilled their commitment to the people until their final days: Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Nasser, Fidel, Lumumba, Che, Salvador Allende and Chávez, to name a few. And there are leaders today who have shown every sign of continuing on the path of fidelity to their last breath: Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Nicolas Maduro, Cristina Kirchner, Lula, and Dilma. When such charismatic leaders are brought to power, the people do not know if they will be faithful at the decisive moment when they take power. But if the charismatic leader continues at that decisive moment to cast his or her lot with the people in opposition to the elite, the bond between the leader and the people becomes greater, so that the political and physical survival of the leader completely depends on the continued support of the people. In such a situation, rather than power corrupting, the arrival to power deepens the relation between the charismatic leader and the people. The people can see and appreciate this dynamic, and they see the leader as a personal symbol of the revolution, for whom and for which they are prepared to sacrifice.
The triumph of popular revolutions and the permanent fidelity of revolutionary leaders is not a general phenomenon, as a result of the power of national and international sectors opposed to the people and its interests. However, it is a phenomenon that has been repeated on various occasions. We of the Left must cast aside the maxim “power corrupts,” because in fact, the exercise of power by a charismatic leader in defense of the people, denouncing the powers-that-be like the ancient profits, is a part of the human story, and it is a glorious thing to behold.
In the 1960s, the US Left celebrated and supported the revolutions led by Ho Chi Minh and Fidel. But it did not study these revolutionary processes, and thus it was unable to arrive to understand the legitimate exercise of power by a charismatic leader and vanguard organization, whose authority is validated by its connection and fidelity to the people. It could not discern that the remedy to the abuse of authority is not the rejection of authority itself, an idealist conception that could never be the foundation of a just and democratic society or an effective revolutionary organization. It did not discern that the abuse of authority is overcome by the taking of power by leaders committed to the moral exercise of power in defense of the interests of the people.
The US Left must cast aside its distrust of authority. It must analyze the social sources of authoritarianism and the abuse of authority, so that these phenomena do not confuse our people into thinking that authority itself must be rejected. It must explain the role of charismatic authority in the process of revolutionary transformation, as well as the nature of authority in socialist society, based on the examples of socialist revolutions that have triumphed.
Authority can be abused. Indeed, a central problem in the socialist and progressive governments of Latin America today is corruption in the middle levels of authority. The transition to socialism is a long and complex process, and the formation of persons with new ways of being is not accomplished overnight.
And false prophets can emerge, as the emergence of fascism in twentieth century Europe demonstrated. The battle of the twentieth-first century is between fascism and socialism; between, on the one hand, the exploitation of the fears and anxieties of the people by false leaders that are supported by powerful national and international sectors; and on the other hand, the calling of the people by charismatic leaders to the construction of a dignified national project and a just, democratic and sustainable world-system. In the struggle between fascism and socialism, we socialists cannot possibly prevail, if we have disdain for structures that are necessary for leading the people to revolutionary transformation.
In my criticisms of the direct-action strategy and its assumptions, my intention is not to be dismissive. I believe that a popular movement in the United States ought to have vanguard political parties that formulate analyses of history and programs of action and that call the people to participation in a movement for an alternative national project; but the vanguard party also should support direct action strategies and the formation of direct action communities of resistance.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Key words: authoritarianism, authority, direct action, participatory democracy, charismatic authority, revolution, socialism