Crisis and Leadership: A time-tested blueprint for today’s leaders

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In the 1960s, when I was a teenager in the United States, it seemed like a day didn’t go by without a city boiling over in protest. The Civil Rights movement had erupted out of the South, and African Americans’ struggle for basic democratic rights had spread across the country. Conscription for the Vietnam War had galvanised the student movement into opposition to that bloody imperialist conflict. And the Women’s Liberation Movement opened up another front in the revolt — against the deep-seated sexism that underspins capitalism. Native Americans also entered the fray, demanding self- determination and land rights. On the other hand, the growing presence of fascism was palpable — in the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, the rantings of the John Birch Society and the Presidential candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater.

As the stifling “certainty” of the ’40s and ’50s went up in flames, the question on everybody’s lips was “why is this happening now?” In fact, the analysis had already been written.

Crisis and Leadership came out of a decade-long struggle by a minority group of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) against that party’s flight from revolution to reformism. Written by Clara Fraser and Richard Fraser, it originally appeared as two companion documents for the 1965 National Convention of the SWP. You might ask what relevance it has for the 21st century. Plenty! While the form of the global class war might have changed, its content has not. The circumstances which gave rise to the revolts of the ’60s and which prevented them from growing over into a revolutionary confrontation still prevail. Transcending time and national boundaries, Crisis and Leadership is important, gripping reading for all who struggle today for far-reaching change.

The State as the corporate strong arm. Some of the most vivid and shocking images of the ’60s are those of official brutality. Student protesters gunned down by troops at Kent State University; cops bludgeoning demonstrators at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago; the murdered Black revolutionary, Malcolm X. These events were not peculiar to a period in U.S. history; they were systemic. They happen today, as recently as last November, when Seattle was put under military occupation to protect the WTO from well-organised mass protest.

The book explains the reasons for the State’s brutality:

“By virtue of governmental arms budgets, monetary manipulations, deficit spending, tax cuts, investment credits, and dozens of other forms of direct and indirect subsidy, all backed up by the huge reservoir of liquid capital made available by mass taxation, the State, in effect, has socialised the process of capital accumulation, including the risks and losses involved therein. Only the profits remain almost wholly private.”

To protect corporate wellbeing, the U.S. State is prepared to crush rebellion by any means necessary —  bombing countries into radioactive rubble, turning its own cities into armed fortresses and filling its death rows with revolutionary leaders such as Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Crisis and Leadership educates about the nature of the State. As an imperialist power, Australia deploys troops to make places safe for investment. At present, this means the occupation of East Timor and gunboat diplomacy in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. Like the U.S., “our” government is adept at brute force. Just one example: the infamous police riot at the Richmond Secondary College which made the TV news across the world. In September, Sydney will be an armed camp as the local State power marshals all its forces to protect the corporate Olympic Games.

No stake in the system. In the United States, the racist underpinning of that country’s society placed African Americans on the centre stage. Clara and Richard Fraser brilliantly show the Black liberation struggle’s proletarian character: “[it] shows what is best, most vital in the American working class; it even offers hope that the American proletariat, propelled by its most persecuted and conscious sector, will rise en masse to the historic revolutionary mission.” Black struggle, the authors conclude, is pivotal to the alternatives of social revolution or fascism for the United States.

African Americans, they explained, were not imbued with Yankee chauvinism. They felt the solidarity of peoples fighting for freedom throughout the world —  and they expressed it in their own struggle. While reading this part, I was reminded of one of the most memorable films I’ve ever seen: Fidel Castro addressing a congregation in a Harlem church. Castro’s speech about liberation and socialism struck a very deep chord with his African American audience. The mutual identification and inspiration in the huge, packed-out hall was electric.  

Up against white, male supremacism and the Southern police state, the Black woman worker was objectively the most conscious and daring leader for all movements in the 1960s. Sexism in the African American movement, racism in the women’s movement and both sexism and racism in workplaces and the union movement maintain formidable roadblocks to class unity. Removing them is the historic task of the most conscious layers of these great movements. Said the authors: “The intimate connection between the woman question and the future of American labor — a connection today provided not only through women in industry but through women in Black struggle — must not be underestimated.”

In any society, those most systematically brutalised have the potential to be the most radical of revolutionary fighters. They have so little to lose, and so much to gain through the overthrow of capitalism.

Denying the obvious. So then, why did the revolt fizzle out? Apart from the FBI’s murderous repression of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, it was because the foremost revolutionary organisation in the U.S. — the SWP — turned away from radicals and aligned with the most backward and reactionary elements of the union and Black movements. As the eruptions of the ’60s accelerated, SWP National Secretary, Jack Barnes, announced: “We are not going to see the development of some sort of nonwhite or nonmale vanguard.” In fact Barnes and his cronies had seen just such a vanguard, which threatened their hegemony over the party and their “influence” in the mass movements. All the radicals were tossed out, or left before they were targeted. Today, the SWP is a shell — a reminder that, as Marxists have said for the last century, the crisis in the workers’ movements is a crisis of revolutionary leadership. In the U.S. this means capitulation to the Democratic Party, in Australia a failure to challenge the Australian Labor Party.

New leadership steps forward. Life is full of fascinating conjunctures. From wondering back then what the hell was going on, I’m now reviewing Crisis and Leadership as a member of the organisation founded by its authors. Clara Fraser, Richard Fraser and the entire Seattle branch of the SWP formed the Freedom Socialist Party. The first of its kind, the FSP is a socialist feminist, revolutionary international party.

Forged in the crisis of the ”60s, the FSP holds that leadership is key to the coming global revolution. That leadership will not come from the current hierarchy of the union movement, nor from the “femocrats” and the growing layer of co-opted functionaries-of-colour. It will come from the grassroots of the movements, those with only their labour to sell and their chains to lose.

Underpinning the FSP’s program, Crisis and Leadership is a must-read for today’s generation of fighters for a better world. I wish I’d seen it thirty-plus years ago, when I was trying to identify the problems. It would have given me much more time being part of the solution!

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