The Necessity of Leaderless Revolutions

It is now a commonplace to observe that recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world were and are leaderless.  In all these cases, no leadership figures have emerged, neither charismatic individuals nor vanguard organisations.  These revolutions embody a degree of organisation, including on social media, but not very much; these movements are not top-down, driven by the choices of a small group or individual, or inspired by an ideological rhetoric except the common cry: enough of the old order!  They have no manifesto to declare, except the passionate desire for representation, for an end to corruption and cronyism, and for true democracy.


Some believed that individuals like Mohamed El Baradei might have stood out as the leader of the revolt in Egypt.  It was striking how the western press sought out such a figure, following El Baradei’s few (and somewhat insubstantial) utterances with close attention.  But a leader he was not.  Outsiders waited in vain for the statement clarifying the goals of the revolution.  Those on the streets sought no one to state their aims for them – that was precisely the point.  Likewise, in Libya, external powers worry that the Transitional National Council representing the rebellion is not coherent, that its objectives are not clear; indeed, who are the rebels?  But here again, it seems that the very point of such revolts is defined largely by what they are not – a singular autocracy. The pluralism that the rebels seek (if their objectives can indeed be summed up at all) is just that – a condition of many things, not one thing.  The demand that there be clear objectives, clear leaders and structure I think says more about us, and the way we think about political change, than it does about them, the rebels or revolutionaries.


One thing is clear from the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and in due course one hopes Syria and Yemen too (Libya offers a more confusing example).  This is that to succeed, one of the essential characteristics of these revolutions was that there were no leaders.  Had there been leaders, it would have been far easier for the existing powers to target them for arrest or worse, and thus decapitate the revolution.  The absence of leaders made such a response impossible.  Instead of a revolutionary leadership – a Che, or a Lenin, or even a Walesa (who was imprisoned many times) – there was no one.  The only way to have contained the revolts was bloody crackdown on everyone on the streets – a path that Syria’s Bachir al Asad seems to be following, perhaps imitating the grotesque example of his father, who had the town of Hama flattened after a rebellion there, killing perhaps 20,000.


There are lessons here of broader significance beyond the Middle East.  Structures of power are most comfortable dealing with – or opposing – entities that look like themselves: top-down hierarchical organisations.  Governments and states are most comfortable when dealing with other governments and states.  This is one reason why networked and stateless organisations like Al Qaeda are so difficult for governments to respond to; they are resilient to attack.  Even if the leadership were eradicated, the movement would remain, as Britain’s top military officer recently admitted.  The US and its allies took the path of invading other states – Afghanistan and Iraq – to combat terrorism.  This approach appears to have been a failure, and governments themselves now freely admit that the threat from AQ has if anything been intensified by these actions, not diminished.


Our current order, within our democracies, is failing those it claims to serve.  Legislation, whether of banking or oil companies, favours the powerful, rather than the common interest. Governments and states are failing to provide credible solutions to the global problems that bedevil us – climate change, terrorism and economic volatility.  Gross inequality is rising in every economy, in every society, fracturing society from within as a tiny number of the rich get vastly and rapidly richer, and the income of everyone else stagnates – and for the poorest actually declines.  No politician offers convincing answers to these maladies. In trying to prevent another devastating “credit crunch” that the global economy – and millions of workers – have suffered, disinterested experts agree what measure is needed – substantially higher capital/loan ratios.  But this is the one measure absent in the confusing reams of bills to “reform Wall Street” or financial reform legislation in the UK and Europe (with the exception of Switzerland).


The lesson of the leaderless revolutions is that to take on power and change politics in fundamental ways, we should not imitate the structures of the existing status quo, but rather choose different ones.  In a system of government where all political parties, once in power, are coopted by special interests preventing rule-making that propagates our shared interests, we cannot look to government to resolve our crisis.  No politician, no party, however well-led, however worthy, can escape the nature of the system itself.  We have no choice but to turn to a much-underused yet unimaginably potent tool of change: ourselves.


This is why I chose the title, “The Leaderless Revolution” for my forthcoming book, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in September (in the UK).  Meaningful and sustained political change requires new forms of politics, above all action by indidviduals themselves, coordinated as common goals emerge, but where the action achieves the sought-after goal.  No longer is it sufficient to ask others – whether governments or NGOs – to produce the change we seek; we must embody it ourselves: the means are the ends.  


As the Arab revolutions show, leaderless revolutions are in fact irresistible. The status quo has no tools save direct and mass repression with which to fight a spontaneous movement, driven by people’s passions and desires – and where they themselves enact the very change they seek.  To put it most bluntly, successful revolutions don’t need leaders.  Indeed, history from the French revolution to the Russian and Chinese and Cuban suggests that revolutionary movements led by unaccountable vanguard groups tend to become governments led by unaccountable autocrats.  For revolutions to produce pluralism, to produce real change, and to overturn an iniquitous status quo, the quality of leaderless-ness is not desirable, nor (as the revolts in the Middle East have demonstrated) a mere coincidence.  That quality is essential.

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