Three dimensions of social movement leadership

The following explores three salient features of ideal-typical SM leadership.

Leaders, followers, actors

It has been widely observed that leadership depends on the correlative role of followers or ‘followership’. Particular leadership qualities reflect complementary tendencies of followers to approve or respond appropriately to those qualities (Burns 1978; Little 1985). But the relationship between leaders and followers is significantly qualified in the informal context of social movement politics. In part, this results from what we have described as the formative nature of social movement politics. Since a SM does not have a pre-existing constituency or membership, the first task of SM leadership is to encourage people to become followers, to identify themselves as members of a movement (cf. B below).

The recent context of ‘new’ social movements further qualifies the leader-follower relationship through the widespread suspicion of leadership associated with the ‘new’ politics. Of course, formal and even strikingly hierarchical organisations have played a prominent role in some contemporary movements — Greenpeace is an example familiar from the green movement. But more distinctive of NSMs is a suspicion or even hostility toward hierarchy and leadership. The ‘affinity’ groups of the May 1968 Events in Paris, the ‘consciousness raising’ groups of second-wave feminism and anarchist elements of the anti-globalisation movement limit or dispense altogether with leadership roles on principled grounds (Bookchin 1974; Rowbotham 1979). Also influential was the New Left, which canvassed criticisms of Soviet ‘democratic centralism’, bureaucratic labour organisations and Leninist parties of ‘activists’ charged with ‘organising’ the masses of workers and peasants. Strong leadership and hierarchical organisations were, in other words, implicated in the authoritarian politics of ‘actually existing socialism’.

The ‘new’ movements sought to avoid the authoritarian fate of the Old Left by encouraging more active and widespread involvement of members. A fully active membership will better be able to control leading figures of the movement. Active members will also be ‘empowered’ — gaining confidence as well as technical and political skills — through their involvement (West 1990). Rather than being a passive ‘constituency’ or interest group ‘represented’ by its leaders, members of SMs are therefore more accurately described as actors or agents. Not passive ‘followers’, these actors are the true bearers of the movement. Indeed, in contrast to formal organisations and institutions, a social movement can only be said to exist at all to the extent that there is an ongoing and widespread pattern of collective activities. ‘Subject group’ may be a more appropriate term to refer to the collectivity of actors constituting the movement (Laclau and Mouffe 1985).

The more active role of movement participants has implications for the relationship between leadership and representation. If the representative acts not only on behalf but also instead of those she represents, representation substitutes for, rather than complements the active involvement of movement actors. Deleuze and Foucault speak in this context of the ‘indignity of speaking for others’ (Foucault and Deleuze 1977). In fact, SM leaders (and organisations) have been criticised, because they are unable to make binding commitments on behalf of their ‘followers’ (Offe 1985). But this is to misunderstand the relationship between movement leaders and participants in terms more appropriate to the context of formal representative organisations. What is more, the strength of a movement may be increased, when its actions cannot be easily controlled or predicted. Movement leaders may be co-opted by the ‘system’, but they are less able than their institutional counterparts to ‘deliver’ the movement as their part of any bargain.

It follows that informal leadership will require different qualities (or a different weighting of qualities) than is the case in formal leadership contexts. SM leadership implies, for example, the ability to ‘inspire’, ‘activate’ and ‘empower’ rather than qualities of decisiveness or authoritative command. Military qualities and corresponding metaphors of ‘militants’ and ‘mobilisation’ are inappropriate. The institutional leader may be able to decide when to order his followers to act; electoral parties are only periodically concerned with attracting and ‘getting out’ votes in electoral contests. By contrast, SM leadership is always concerned, first and foremost, with generating and maintaining participant activity.

Significantly, SM leaders also aim to inspire actions with a greater degree of autonomy and initiative than in formal contexts. Hierarchical organisations have typically valued obedience, loyalty, solidarity and, at the extreme, the sacrifice of individuality and autonomy for the sake of the cause (cf. Arendt 1952/1958; Koestler 1950). The strength of movement, on the other hand, is increased when actions proliferate both numerically and qualitatively as a result of the plurality of relatively independent centres of thought and decision. Change may occur less through a unified course of action imposed from above than from a ‘contagion’ of actions and reactions (Guattari 1984). On the other hand, this contagious quality also represents a challenge for SM leaders. Cascading political actions may violate the moral norms — and so diminish the moral capital — on which the broader authority and impact of the movement relies (Philp 2007: ch. 8).

A deeper investigation might consider how the to-us-familiar opposition of ‘leader’ and ‘followers’ serves to distort our understanding of political action. According to Hannah Arendt, the ancient Greek understanding of action acknowledged the differing roles of ‘leader’ and ‘followers’ without obscuring their interdependence in an essentially cooperative enterprise. This recognition has been lost in the subsequent evolution of our political vocabularies (Arendt 1958: 189; 2005: 45). Something like Arendt’s more cooperative understanding of action is particularly relevant to the experience of contemporary social movements. Indeed, renewed focus on social movements brings us closer to the ‘original’ understanding of action.

Moral, cultural and ideological innovation

The nature of SM leadership is further qualified by the role of creativity and innovation in social movements. Social movements, as we have seen, are not concerned so much with the pursuit of existing interests or issues as with the emergence of new interests and issues, new political identities and cultural patterns.

There is a problem, therefore, with theoretical approaches premised on fixed assumptions about interests and motivation. For example, rational choice approaches such as ‘resource mobilisation theory’ portray the task of SM leadership as predominantly concerned with the organisation of political resources and incentives in order to mobilise self-interested utility-maximisers with a given array of interests. The leader is a political ‘entrepreneur’ searching for new (political) market opportunities (Taylor 1982). Whilst their conclusions may be valid within the limits of their own assumptions, such approaches neglect the essentially creative role of SM leadership. Rather than simply ‘packaging’ existing interests and resources into more politically potent combinations, SMs succeed by transforming interests and identities.

The creative demands of SM leadership require a different range of leadership qualities. Ideological and cultural innovators play a significant role in SMs. SMs leaders flourish, accordingly, on the basis of rhetorical skills, moral suasion and cultural inspiration as much as organisational skills or decision-making. By implication, too, there are diffuse boundaries between SM politics and other areas of social life, such as the arts, cultural activities and even science. A work of literature or philosophy may make a crucial contribution to the emergence of a SM. This helps to explain the acknowledgement of a writer like Oscar Wilde as a leading figure of the gay movement, Frantz Fanon as an icon of anti-colonialism, or Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone as leading feminists. Scientific ecology and other sciences have played a similarly important role in the rise of ‘green’ and environmental movements. The porous boundaries of politics and the political reflect the particular role of SMs as significant agents of politicisation, which involves transgressing these boundaries.

Social movements and the public sphere

The porous borders of politics are also manifested in the relationship of social movements and SM leaders to the public sphere. SMs obviously have an important relationship to the emergence of the modern ‘public sphere’ in western societies. Both SMs and the public sphere rely on and reflect key dimensions of ‘modernity’ — including industrialisation and urbanisation, expansion of printing and news media, improving means of transportation and communication. Both develop in complex interaction with parliamentary politics and broader processes of democratisation (Tilly 1978).

But SMs should also be recognised as active agents in the formation of the public sphere, not simply as players within it. The democracy movements in communist Eastern Europe before 1989 can be understood, in this way, as laying the foundations of a previously non-existent (or fragmentary) public sphere and civil society (Keane 1988). Even in liberal democracies with established civil societies, NSMs have broadened the agenda of public discussion along a number of dimensions. Previously neglected issues and constituencies — relating to gender, sexuality, racism, peace and the environment — have been introduced to the public sphere as a result of their activities since the 1960s. NSMs have contributed to the increasing complexity and responsiveness of the public sphere — or, more accurately perhaps, they have contributed to the proliferation of a plurality of public spheres (Habermas 1981; Fraser 1997).

The relationship of social movement and public sphere(s) has implications for informal leadership. The public role of SMs means that they and their leaders never simply address a confined constituency of ‘members’ or ‘supporters’. They must always strive to reach across the boundaries of their ‘subject group’ to a wider public of potential participants and supporters. Even opponents are an important ‘counter-constituency’, especially when movements represent nominally minority interests and so must depend on their support or, at least, acquiescence. The complexity and heterogeneity of the ‘audience’ of SM leaders means there will often be tensions between public and ‘movement’ responses to particular statements or actions. The public context of SMs means, finally, that the movement as a whole itself exercises a kind of leadership role within the wider society.