Charisma and its pitfalls


I was listening to Radio Galloway last night, mostly because there was an excellent discussion on filthy hospitals, with a typically thoughtful contribution from John Lister, as well as an ex-nurse giving a critique of nurses’ training I’ve heard from several old-school nurses in recent years. But this led me to ponder on the fact that, whatever the immense reservations I have about George, he’s one hell of a communicator. I couldn’t help thinking of Alex Callinicos’ recent performance on The Moral Maze – the good professor was nearly picking his testicles up off the floor by the time Mad Mel had finished with him.

But there was another thing that came to mind. That was this extraordinary article that appeared in Socialist Worker last September, during the split in the Scottish Socialist Party, whereat Chris Harman puts up a rather limp and shamefaced argument in support of the SWP’s defence of the Tangerine Man. This takes the form of Chris, someone who has spent decades arguing for “socialism from below”, praising the role of charismatic leaders. There is a cheap shot there about Chris Harman and charisma, but I’ll let Chris speak for himself:

Often when a new movement is developing, certain figures emerge who seem to many new activists to embody what it stands for. For instance, in the late 1960s the new mass movements of students and workers found its first figureheads in people like Danny Cohn Bendit in France, Tariq Ali in Britain and Bernadette Devlin in Ireland.

Quite, and I’ll come back to Bernie in a second. But go on, Chris:

Once such personalities begin to have a prominent role there is, of course, the danger that they will later use their prestige to mislead the movement – as Fausto Bertinotti has by entering an Italian government that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But socialists cannot, out of fear of what might eventually happen, simply turn our back on their capacity to stimulate the growth of a movement.

We have to throw ourselves into building that movement, knowing that as people become part of it, they can begin to discover their capacity to take control of things without relying on individuals.

In doing so, they can create an environment with its own democratic structures which are the only protection against individual personalities going in the wrong direction.

What is remarkable here, apart from the fact that Chris could write a defence of Sheridan while failing to mention what Sheridan had done, is that the only argument he can put is an instrumentalist Heineken one. That is, that often a charismatic leader can reach the parts that, oh, a small left sect can’t. You may mock the Gorgeous One’s showbiz antics, but his talkSPORT show has a listenership hugely in excess of the circulation of Socialist Worker, and his profile is so high that even those daft twins from Big Brother know who he is. But the problem here, as Chris seems to realise, is that a movement built around a charismatic individual can easily go astray. What he seems to be arguing for is that first you use George or Tommy to build a movement, then you discipline them.

Let me take you back to an argument Chris would be familiar with, when in 1968-9 the International Socialists decided to adopt democratic centralism. The previous loose structure had meant there was little of the draconian regime that would later characterise the SWP, but on the debit side it meant Cliff could very much do what he liked. Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins, amongst others, reckoned that the adoption of democratic centralism would give them an opportunity to discipline Cliff and force him to work as part of a team. Cliff on the other hand saw democratic centralism as a way of getting the organisation to more effectively do what he wanted. Well, we know how that turned out.

And so it is, decades later. Chris may have held out the idea that you could build a party around Sheridan and then make him act in a disciplined way, but the SSP already did that and it didn’t stop Tommy fucking them over and trying to destroy them. The Scottish SWP will learn that a second time if they stop paying obeisance at the court of King Tommy and Queen Gail. And so it is in Respect, where Rees and co may have thought that George was a figurehead and they were the power behind the throne, but they should now know that the power dynamic doesn’t work like that.

We have of course had some experience with this sort of thing in Ireland. Much as I love Bernie McAliskey and recognise her talents, anybody who knows Bernie will tell you she isn’t a team player. Like many charismatic figures, boy does she realise she’s special. This was evident early on, when she rejected Peoples Democracy in the hope that she could build something even broader and looser around her own personality. It was evident in her falling out with Costello, who was a bit of a prima donna himself. And that’s why she has never stayed any length of time in an organisation.

You could say something similar about the late Nollaig de Brún. During the Mother and Child row in 1951, Dr Browne gained a reputation as a principled and idealistic man that he never managed to lose, despite being through multiple parties including Fianna Fáil, Labour and several personal vehicles. The old SLP existed as much despite the leader as because of him, for the simple reason that Noël didn’t want a living organisation, he wanted gofers who would secure his seat. How the SLP had as much substance or longevity as it did, the deity alone knows.

So that’s what you get when you stake everything on a charismatic individual. If you’re extremely lucky, you get Fidel Castro. More often, you get Tommy Sheridan. Here endeth the lesson.

Thanks to Korakious for the scary image.


  1. Madam Miaow said,

    October 13, 2007 at 11:06 am

    SS, that picture nearly had me throwing up my porage oats. Good grief. Did that pic actually go out? And the hacks STILL defended him?

    Harman’s rationalisation … and this from one of the Greatest Minds on the left? When the comrades were scrambling for fame and I was asking them to kindly remove their boot from my face, a buddy of the ruling clique who’s now on the National Council, told me yes, “ego and self-interest will always have a part. So what?”. Shame they don’t mention that in their recruitment drives.

    Callinicos on Moral Maze? Anyone got a transcript or a link to the prog?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 13, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Apparently he’s now on the team:

    But he’s no match for Mad Mel.

    As a comrade likes to say, Harman has one of the best brains on the left… just a pity he doesn’t have a spine.

  3. Alex Nichols said,

    October 13, 2007 at 11:15 am

    The temptation to run a caption competition is almost overwhelming.

  4. Red Squirrel said,

    October 13, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    By Odin’s Eye Splinty. Visiting your blog is one of the first things I do during my coffee accompanied first Internet stroll in the morning. Do you realise what this image did to me, seeing it only minutes after I woke up?

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 13, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    “Instrumentalist Heineken”… class. Kudos to you Splintered.

    And entirely agree about all the above. I saw it over in WP/DL with De Rossa, albeit on a smaller scale. Although the 1989 Euro Election poster – which believe it or not I had a very very small part in producing – played well with certain constituencies beyond the WP core vote as well come to think of it. Many a comment of ‘handsome’ P D R was on the doorsteps subsequently…

  6. Madam Miaow said,

    October 13, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Jeezas! Just saw the date on Red Squirrel’s original pic – 29th September? The one just gone? As in, all this time and screaming ab-dabs later and he’s STILL happy to look like an a-hole?

    What the frack is wrong with these people?

  7. cameron said,

    October 13, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Not that the SWP are alone in becoming bag carriers for certain individuals. The various strands of the old IMG in Britain are masters in the art. Whether it be for Benn or, more ludicrously, FISC’s doorkeeping for Scargill and Socialist Action’s servicing of Livingstone.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 13, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    OTOH, being willing to look like an arse is his main selling point these days. But the comrades will still back him to the hilt.

  9. October 13, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Shouldn’t the title be “Charisma and its pratfalls”..

    When I looked quickly at the pic of swinger Sheridan and the missus, I saw the headline “free” and “working class hero”. Put them together and you get me shouting..”Noooooo, take him back please, I’ll take capitalism….”

  10. Red Squirrel said,

    October 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Not that the SWP are alone in becoming bag carriers for certain individuals.

    In no way are they the only ones. Besides, CWI gleefully followed Tommy Sheridan, the one whom they had been so long denouncing as a left nationalist reformist.

    Further, I must say that our own (SSP) leadership, was quite complicit in creating the Tommy myth and of course, failing to discipline him.

  11. October 14, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    […] Charisma and its pitfalls that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon. But socialists cannot, out of fear of what might […]

  12. Cian said,

    October 14, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Stephen Rose could often get the measure of Mad Mel and Ms “I’m a Marxist actually” Fox, though I think he was a bit hampered by the fact he couldn’t believe they were really serious. He seems to have been replaced by Jules Pretty, who’s an interesting guy, but I can’t really see him as a public intellectual.

  13. Renegade Eye said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:24 am

    George overwhelmed Norm Coleman, at his US senate appearance. Even Hitchens praised his UK style polemics, which was something the US senate didn’t know how to deal with.

  14. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 9:13 am

    Isn’t this a problem without a solution? You do probably need charismatic individuals and speakers, if you’re outside the mainstream media and the mainstream left (or “left-of-centre”, as they say these days) political organisation. You have to have people who will attract people to meetings and you have to have people whose books people will read. But what’s to be done?

    As for debating on the media – the trouble is, it’s probably an advantage to be irrational. I saw Russell Grant wipe the floor with Pete Atkins (a sort of mini-Dawkins) on Newsnight once on the question of – horoscopes. Reason isn’t just not enough in that field, it’s almost irrelevant.

  15. Cian said,

    October 17, 2007 at 7:50 am

    “George overwhelmed Norm Coleman, at his US senate appearance.”

    Yeah, but that was more a reflection on how self-important and mediocre US senators are. And nobody much in the US noticed (I have family there; they weren’t even aware that it had happened).

  16. October 17, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    […] Charisma and its pitfalls that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon. But socialists cannot, out of fear of what might […]

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