Positive Cults of Personality


obey khaleesi

You may have thought the title of this piece was creepy, and in all likelihood suspected it would politically ill-informed – and yet you opened it…

Note that this is not about the impulse to be a leader, but to have one.  The impulse to be a leader merely comes from (1) bourgeois society’s hierarchical nature, where it sucks to be on the bottom, and (2) a lack of democracy in organizations, which makes people realize that the only way they can have a true voice in the group is by being in its leadership.  Instead groups should let members lead from the bottom.



 “Whether the sovereign lineage is considered to be predominantly religious, bio-cultural, or customary, it originates outside the self-reflective (enlightenment) state, and remains opaque to rational analysis. Faith, liturgy, or scripture is not soluble within criticism; communal identity is not reducible to ideology; and common law, reputational structure, or productive specialism is not amenable to legislative oversight. The deep order of society – whatever that is taken to be – is not open to political meddling, without predictably disastrous consequences.”

There’s a reason this might sound reactionary – it is one of the leading neoreactionary bloggers’ definition of what unites reactionaries.  (No like literally – an interview with him called “Organisation is Suppression”)

Indeed, a society entirely based on arbitrary authority and hierarchy is also the definition of a reactionary society.  It is feudalism, theocracy, dictatorship, caste, and class.  We need social structures which are democratic, participatory, logically articulated, defined, and based on agreed, expressed procedures rather than personalities or vague moods.

But that’s precisely why I’m focusing on it.  Reaction is a dark mirror which we must always peer into, not simply to avoid reflecting its ideas, but also to imitate the emotional depth which makes it so fascinating.  All our fantasy revolves around kings, knights, and castles.  Hitler is always dominating the History Channel.  Something about reaction seems natural because it is old.  More frightening, reaction feels intuitive, because it is not rational.  Arbitrary authority is based on faith, whereas faith is more or less arbitrary thought, or belief not requiring evidence.

Faith itself, then, ought to be opened to question.  But it also ought to be recognized for what it is – a very powerful force in the world, whether we progressives approve or not.  You may not believe in anything on faith, but you only have to be sensitive to sources of power to realize that faith still matters.  Gramsci wrote that the masses experience political ideologies mainly as a faith, probably because they’re too busy working to investigate every single claim that a political ideology is based on.  That’s real life, and it may not fit our utopian idea of a movement where everyone has read the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Someone Else.

People have different emotional makeups.  Some radical leftists have perfected the attitude of indignation and anger against their entire life situation.  They are pissed off, have nothing to apologize for, and rather insist that the world’s institutions should apologize to them.  And yet there is a frightening amount of a completely different type of person, one who believes in duty, obedience, and sacrifice.  Instead of a (justified) selfish egoism which demands more, they possess a willingness or need to dissolve themselves, to give themselves up, and sacrifice their very selfhood to something greater.  This is one critical impulse within the collective human psyche which we must learn to tame for the Left.

“Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet”  — George Orwell



It would seem that many in the “anti-revisionist” tradition probably are too eager to deify an individual, and not critical enough, whereas the more Trotskyist, anarchist, libertarian socialist and Social Democrat types are capable of emotional distance and critical thought, but find the concept of a charismatic leader awful and stand aside from its intuitive appeal.

Could a person both function as this spiritual center, while having the decency to also act as a democratically accountable leader?  Could they give inspiration while fostering independent thought?  Could they roll with it when the group votes against their wishes?  Could they stand admitting mistakes and being wrong once in a while?  Could they face being contradicted gracefully, in a way that does not undermine their charisma?

A leader who barks commands and expects to be obeyed without question may have a certain charisma in the “strongman” sense, but this procedure crosses the line from borrowing reactionary beauty’s external form, into straight-up reactionary behavior and content.  Instead, leaders should operate within the democratic structure, making proposals, but wise, creative, and insightful ones which move the cause forward.  The leader should often be somewhat gentle and consultative about the way they make proposals to avoid constantly overshadowing everyone else, given that their words already carry so much weight, but when necessary, arguing forcefully for their beliefs with fervor.

There are exceptions.  What if you were an elected leader in a group, and you knew, just knew, that people were demanding you go on the wrong course?  Perhaps this Edmund Burke quote would apply:

…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.  – Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll

Maybe there are exceptional cases when orders need to be barked.  Or maybe not.  Maybe you need to be like Eugene Debs and lead a strike you don’t even agree with.  Or maybe the reverse.  There is no universal guide; you can only know the truth in-the-situation.  It’s a tough call.

There are many times in history when an individual serves as a counterweight to a group’s bureaucratic intertia, conservatism, etc.  Of course if this becomes too necessary, there is something wrong with the culture, structure, or politics of the group.  But the leader can also intervene in an attempt to shift those problems toward a more organic, creative type of thinking and operating.

We need a maverick-leader, one who is admirable and admired precisely because they despise and denounce arbitrary authority (even while embodying it!), and continually call upon people to think and take initiative for themselves.  This would be most satisfying to both our conscious-political and unconscious-intuitive sides, because such a person is both a champion of democracy, and also personally lovable.  The ultimate example is Debs.  Some quotes:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.

When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.

The most heroic word in all languages is REVOLUTION.

While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Such a leader, self-subverting as they might be, would still be a leader.  They would still be an authority – they would be a unit of political capital.  (Debs may have had a hard time with this; I suspect he kind of emotionally squirmed in his position as being an anti-leadership leader and didn’t know how to become comfortable with the paradox.)  And we must avoid investing too much political capital in an individual, for the sake of democracy.  What would it take for people to cheer for a leader, but still boo them if they really slipped up?



A human leader can provide all sorts of practical functions for a movement.  But when they are playing the charismatic, spiritual role of leader, or even just running as a political candidate, they are more or less functioning as a human logo.  Keep in mind that a logo is a sensory, not rational, construct, since visual images appeal to visual aesthetics.  A logo can act as a signifier for a set of political principles or an organization, but can also carry its own emotional weight, either tied to other factors, or also created by the sheer aesthetic power of the image itself.

A human individual is a concrete, physical being, which makes it like a logo – it appeals to aesthetic, visual sensibilities, but also with the added dimension of appealing to social, personal, and emotional relationships and psychological projections.

Since a leader is an object substituting for articulated political principles – an intuitive rather than rational rallying-point – every leader is a composite between a concrete person, and the politics they represent.  A leaders’ fans can respect the person, understand the principles, or both.  This means that there is always an immense risk that the politics will be abandoned in favor of that individual’s personal rule.

Investing people’s identification into a specific individual is like the capital cycle – you gather resources, you sink these resources into some conduit, which in turn allows you to attract more resources.  You grow, you repeat.  In the case of a figurehead, the “resource” being invest is people’s emotional investment, people’s loyalty, and also their mere attention.  An organization could sink resources simply into building its own brand (all the same relationships in the capital cycle apply), or it could build up a person.

This means that a large amount of political capital is built up in a single individual.  As we know, individual humans can be some of the most flimsy, corrupt, unreliable creatures in the world.  It could go in all manner of disastrous directions.  The leader could break down psychologically, rendering all the investment in them destroyed, and probably ruining the credibility of whoever built them up.  The leader could turn corrupt or sell out, henceforth ignore the people who built them up, and start using their position for selfish personal gain.  They could retain their political principles but still split off from the group who got behind them, relishing in their status as an individual star or politician, and continuing their political career solo.  Or, possibly worst of all, they could become a dictator of whatever coalition, group, or movement started them off, increasingly developing a group culture of authoritarianism, cultish conformity, closed-mindedness, and command-barking instead of friendly dialogue which respects differences of opinion.

With all these horrid possibilities, why would a movement ever allow the rise of a figurehead?  First, because it just sort of happens, since real life is chaotic, complex, messy, unpredictable, accidental, and most of all, uneven.  But the real reason?  Just look at what Kshama Sawant has done for Socialist alternative!  The positive flipside is that such a figure can supercharge a movement’s appeal.

So how do we counterbalance these disastrous possibilities?  We avoid investing too much political capital in an individual, for the sake of democracy.  Sawant is a superstar but the structure and leadership of Socialist Alternative still seems completely capable of standing on its own legs, and some kind of attempt by Sawant to take over would probably fail in the face of the group’s existing culture, structures, and leadership.

We can also counterbalance leaders with other voices, leaders, and figureheads – why can’t a group have multiple giants, geniuses, and spokespeople?  Most importantly though, we must build and protect democratic structures, replace bureaucracy with alternatives like duty rotation, and most of all insist on a culture of openness, variety, disagreement, and questioning.


Commonly in political science, the rise of an individual to great extremes of political power is often seen as the recipe for tyranny.  Really it depends – what does that individual use their power for?  If they build structures of liberation with their expansive power, they would actually be a true representative.  Executive power is inherently reactionary because it is hierarchical – but even Leftist groups tend to retain the executive office, precisely because it is reactionary – a fundamental element of reaction being getting things done, and the ability for a group to respond to events in a fast, coordinated fashion without the group necessarily being consulted about the decision.

There is a historical precedent for this – Julius Caesar, and others.  It has developed into a whole tendency in politics called “Caesarism,” where an executive figure develops a power base in the workers, people, and oppressed, both empowering them by enacting populist measures, and also relying upon them for the expansion of their own personal power, leveraging the crowd’s mass pressure against an obstructive elite.  (This is how many people imagine Obama, despite him not living up to it whatsoever – whereas Hugo Chavez almost used Julius Caesar’s life as a personal blueprint.)  Political “common sense,” believing that executive power is inherently tyrannical, would view this development as an inexplicable paradox.  Instead what you have is a situation where the movement of the people and the executive power are mutually-strengthening, not opposing, forces.


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