Radical Philosophy and the Question of Leadership

By Rowan Sylva

On Saturday I attended the 2015 radical philosophy conference in Berlin. Held in the House of Culture and the World, the conference drew a sizeable crowd. I attended two panel discussions: Animalities andOrganisation.


Animalities focused on the animal world in capitalism, the first speaker, possibly my favourite of the day spoke about the philosophical move away from a behaviourist view of the animal world, arguing instead for an approach that viewed animals as individual political actors with their own desires and consciousness.The speaker used the examples of habitat, a word that is usually assumed to denote a set of ecological conditions in which a species can live, the speaker argued that such a position was flawed because animals often have a connection, even an attachment to a specific place. The second speaker reiterated the position of the “animal turn” during the seventies, arguing for its continued validity and rejection of the use of animal products. The third speaker laid out a Marxist analysis of animals in human communities, arguing that they were the ultimate “proletariat” and discussed the ways in which working animals have resisted their exploitation. Though the third speaker had a good rapport with the audience, I felt he stretched his point a bit far.
By the time the second panel discussion, Organisation, was under way it became clear to me that the whole conference was really a Marxist symposium that had lured much of the audience to the event on the pretence that it was about general radical philosophy. The odd non-Marxist on the panel were, it appeared, simply straw-men for the Marxist organisers. Nevertheless the discussion on organisation did raise interesting points and ones that do indeed apply to the global left and can be applied to the climate action movement in particular.


  •         The premises from which the panel debated were as follows
    1.  Leninism traditionally provided a successful strategic model for left wings groups wanting   to take power.
    2.   Leninism and its various twentieth centuries off shoots have become widely discredited.
    3.  In response to the rejection of Leninism, (and I would add Marxism generally) the global left has centred on mass decentralised movements e.g., Occupy Movement, Ferguson protests, Anti austerity movements in Europe etc.
    4.  These movements, though laudable, have failed to keep up their momentum and ultimately fizzled out, failing to produce any meaningful social change.
    5. They failed because they lacked the leadership to carry them forward.
    Conclusion: A rethink of leadership structures in left wing movements is needed if they are to compete with the rising popularity of the new extreme right.

In looking for a solution to this leadership problem the first speaker’s solution was to look back, before Leninism, before Marxism, back to Hegel, and the concept of the Hegelian monarch, the idiot monarch. His argument posited that in order to galvanise people a figurehead was needed, somebody like an Obama but with credibility, who through having a common appeal could unite people and appeal to the masses, even idiots, as he could be an idiot himself. The charismatic appeal of this kind of leader would hold the movement together and take its momentum forward while getting around the abuse of power that springs from Leninist centralisation by absolving the leader of any real power, he would be a unifying symbol a figure head, while the real organisation of the movement would be in the hands of more decentralised and democratically organised cells.  The Hegelian model has a kind of Taoist essence that appeals to me – “the greatest leaders are those that do not lead.”
The second speaker, had more contemporary and less theoretical content, he pointed to the South American, “Bolivarian,” approach to leadership, where left wing movements maintained a focus on leadership and personality, and combined this with the, “yes we can,” slogan co-opted by Obama from the South American movements. According to this speaker this combination of positive campaigning and strong leadership had built the strongest left wing movements in the world and that they had arisen from the ashes of the brutal Monroe doctrine (from the sixties to the eighties US installed regimes waged a political genocide on the South American left.) This “Bolivarian” approach, the speaker argued, had inspired the strategy and organisation of the hugely successful Podamos party in Spain (the name of the party translates as “yes we can”). Podamos is a far left party that grew out of the Indignado Movement – a protest movement with links to Occupy – they have however taken the momentum forward, and placed a heavy electoral focus on their charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias. They are currently the highest polling party in Spain, were only founded last year and are now poised to win the general election in December.
As Andrew Dobson, author of the comprehensive Green Political Thought, demonstrates ecologists – with the exception of some thinkers who advocate a kind of green authoritarianism arising form a frustration with anthropocentric liberalism – are deeply suspicious of centralised power. Most green thinkers advocate the diffusion and decentralisation of political power as a central tenet of the sustainable society. There are myriad reasons why and this article is not the place to expound them, surface to say that a glance at twentieth century history shows a strong coloration between centralisation and environmental destruction; while successful conservation efforts tend to be on the part of mobilised local communities.  Decentralised localism is a strand that connects much deep ecological thought e.g., bioregionalism, transition towns. This model has had notable successes (the Bougainville war, where native tribes successfully threw out an international gold mining company is my favourite example).
Climate change, however, poses problems for the localised model of organisation. Though it has both local causes and local effects, it is a global problem and requires a global response. Perhaps climate activists, like the Marxist philosophers hosting the conference should re-examine their organisation and the role of leaders. Perhaps they and the green movement generally could learn from the “yes we can” movements of South America.