Back to Top

Quo Vadis, Domine? — On Leadership in revolutionary Times


I’m convinced that if any revolutionary action is to succeed, it must involve the right combination of theory and practice. Insofar as practice informs theory, the converse is also true.

This isn’t to say one is a substitute for the other or vice versa. There is no substitute for putting one’s body on the line when moral force is the only force at people’s disposal against guns and brute force, nor is one necessarily preemptive of the other. In the best of all possible worlds, both should co-exist. 

What’s equally valid, we can’t always tell what the right combination might be. The dynamic of any movement is almost impossible to foretell, for every movement has a life all its own, its own life-expectancy and its own trajectory – in short, many possible futures. All I’m asserting right now is that we mustn’t ignore this relationship, if only for tactical reasons.


It may be presumptuous under the circumstances to ascribe any value to leadership per se (a cadre or a vanguard are some of the more derogatory terms). Indeed, the very idea of leadership appears to run counter to the concept of a genuinely democratic process, including direct participation, the General Assembly, and the casting of lots, and I can’t help but concur.

And yet, when we look at the composition of the GAs across the many OWS sites, and if we’re indeed to take OWS at its word as offering a kind of pro forma, a boilerplate for reinstating real democratic practices and processes the world over, we get a different idea. We see that consensus — the most desirable end-product of the democratic process — is attainable only within small groups and that it grows incrementally.

True, we’ve seen a proliferation of many such groups, each trying to do their bit and stay faithful to their envisioned task. The question of how these groups may eventually coalesce and extend outwardly to make the consensus more widespread needn’t concern us now. Suffice it to say, an agreement can be reached only in small groups, where anyone and everyone has ample opportunity to speak and listen.


I don’t think my application of the OWS’s formula to the theoretical rather than the practical changes anything or violates the protocol. Nor do I think I should be called an elitist for suggesting what some might regard as heresy.

I can well understand the outrage of my many comrades-in-arms for my staying untrue to the democratic principles. And the usual gamut of objections would run here from accusations to the effect that I’m against any horizontal type of organizational structure, that I’m an autocrat, to God knows what else.

To which I say, my friends are guilty of jumping the gun, of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In their quite understandable desire for immediate results and instant resolution, fired besides by their revolutionary zeal, which indeed is hard to resist, they forget that any meaningful social change is a process, most often a painstaking process. It must have a respectable beginning, but it also must have a decent follow-through and a satisfying ending to stay the course.


It’s like a three-act play. Umberto Eco made this point abundantly clear when he observed in one of his essays, Language, Power, Force, that “the storming of the Bastille was but the icing on the cake. As to the satire part, the epilogue, I suppose we can all wait and see and then laugh at ourselves if and when we can.”

Consequently, I have no apology to make for my theoretical bias. Part of it is dictated by circumstances, a far larger part by natural inclination. We all must do what we can and what we do best; the revolution demands it. No effort should be demeaned or made light of so long as we’re all working for the same cause. 

And we need no litmus test to determine who is a true revolutionary or who is not, be it in terms of their ideas or their boots are on the ground. It’s precisely this kind of thinking which had led to Thermidor and the Reign of Terror in the post-revolutionary France, all in the name of purity, commitment, and whatnot – the ever-present suspicion that the fellow next to you is a traitor!

Many heads had rolled.


In defense of thought in contrast to “pure action,” let me fall back on an example or two. Lenin’s speeches, for instance, have certainly gone a long way to mobilize the Russian masses. And it was no different with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which, more so than Das Kapital, his more authoritative work, made the communist ideal alive to this very day.

I’m not defending the intellectual, only the power of the idea. Everyone has their work cut out for them, and it’s our responsibility to do what we do best. So no, I’m not going to become a purist all of a sudden just because the revolution is on. That’s not my idea of revolutionary purity or staying true to the cause. Besides, how could I stay true to the cause if I can’t stay true to myself?

Now, more than ever, after OWS has suffered its first symbolic defeat – the Zuccotti Park eviction – at the hands of an increasingly militaristic state, it’s time to take five, to regroup and to reflect. The future is always uncertain, full of all manner of unexpected obstacles, detours, surprises, and whatnot. But none of this matters, no more than a walk in the woods matters, unless you’re without a compass or a clear sense of direction. So yes, it all comes down to this vision thing, where we are and whither we’re going.

Quo Vadis, Domine?


Say what you will, but education and thinking do matter. Self-education, first, for how can we speak the truth unless we believe it is the truth? 

The second component, the communication aspect, is more tricky. Not when it concerns the oppressed folk, those who are being dominated and have suffered all manner of indignity since day one. They know the truth intuitively and instinctively because suffering and injustice sharpen your consciousness: it makes you see. 

Whom then?

That’s the tricky part, for I suppose we also must reach the “movers and the shakers,” the presumed though unacknowledged and self-effacing “leaders” of the people’s movement; and marginally, to the extent possible, even the backsliders, those who’re still on the fence.

Again, I don’t believe I’m compromising any of my principles here, only being realistic. If any movement is to succeed, it must have the critical mass behind it and a winning strategy. Truth alone won’t do it unless we preach it from the rooftops. Lenin was a first-class tactician, none better. And so was Marx. We need people like that.


The panel discussion at the New School, featuring Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, is a real treat. Let me suggest two clips: the first, starting at about ninety minutes into the presentation, the second, at about one hour and forty-four minutes. The first concerns structural problems democracy’s facing; the second, the importance of self-education as a prerequisite to educating “the leaders” and the masses. 

And this brings another topic into sharp relief, the idea of pluralism — tolerance, in effect –in the context of an open, democratic society. 

It would be a mistake to think of tolerance as a standalone virtue, divorced from any consideration regarding context. True tolerance can flourish only as a backdrop against fully-established, moral, and democratic values. In the absence of any such, the term is meaningless. 

Just like “deviance” derives its meaning from what’s generally considered as “normal,” “tolerance,” too, requires a backdrop to be meaningful. To tolerate anything or anyone must presuppose a standard, a generally agreed-upon standard. And that standard must concern a tacit or a fully-expressed agreement as to what the dominant values are.  

Concerning strategy, it may be preferable to start with the dedicated few and only then expand outwards. Before we can have total inclusion, we must have some exclusion. How else are we to turn those who are resistant or uncompliant to “true faith” if not by establishing a precedent, an example, even a form of ostracism for being defiant?

But as I said, any real revolution is a process.


As to my defense of the intellectual (or the warrior, as the case may be), let me cite from the conclusion of Seven Samurai, the perennial classic by Akira Kurosawa:

In the end, we lost that battle.


                               I mean the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.

I submit these heart-rending lines don’t demonstrate any lack of faith in the people but precisely the opposite. Once the work is done, there’s nothing for the intellectual or the warrior to do but fade away.

The people will have always taken over, and so it shall remain.

Leave a Reply

We respect your privacy and will not publish your personal details.

Powered by Site Search 360

Become a Contributor

Adrien Rain Burke


Cindy Foltyn


Gerald Plummer


Dave Nalle


Roger Nowosielski


Eric Olsen


Richard Raphael Bran Marcus


Maggie Perkins


Lisa McAllister


Recent Posts

Recent Comments