Leaders and Followers and the Coming Class War

Leaders and Followers

“Leaders” and “followers” are defined in literally hundreds of different ways. Therefore, when we use one of these words, in speaking or writing, it’s our job to make clear how we, at least on this occasion, are defining them.  

For the purposes of this essay I will use them in keeping with the thinking of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In their classic pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, they claimed that humankind always divided into two groups, the powerful and the powerless. They wrote about, “the freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman” – in short, the “oppressor and the oppressed.” As they viewed human history, these two groups were always “in constant opposition to one another,” sometimes even engaging in a struggle that ended “either in revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

,Given the clarity of Marx and Engels’s distinctions between the haves and have-nots, it requires no great leap for a student of leadership to wade into their waters. It is easy enough to equate leaders with lords, and followers with serfs; and, or, leaders with patricians, and followers with plebeians. The overarching point remains the same: that societies fracture. That they are so riven with competition between the two groups, between the powerful and powerless, that it can lead, and sometimes does, to “common ruin.”

History though did not turn out quite as Marx and Engels foresaw. While the fractions remained, capitalism did not simply give way to communism because it, capitalism, was more pliable than they anticipated. Frequently, such as in the United States and in West Europe, capitalism was able to adapt, to provide the relatively powerless with enough goods and services to preclude them from taking on and tearing down the relatively powerful. This does not, however, mean that balance invariably is a given. Sometimes, between “oppressor and oppressed,” between leaders and followers, is imbalance.

The Communist Manifesto

Marx and Engels published their manifesto in 1848, hard on the heels of, and in response to, the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution that, as they viewed it, had divided Europe into two new, though still deeply divided camps: the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. On the one side owners (or capitalists) with power, position, and money; on the other side workers without power, position, or money.

The overarching sentiment of The Communist Manifesto is struggle. A never-ending struggle between haves and have-nots, between leaders who have everything and followers who have little or nothing. Marx and Engels’s assault on the bourgeoisie – those dastardly instruments of industrialization – was relentless. Owners, leaders, were responsible for, among a host of other sins, “stripping of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.” They were responsible for tearing “away from the family its sentimental veil” and reducing it to a “mere money relation.” And they were responsible for “creating more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” – all in their self-interest, all at the expense of proletarians who toiled for a pittance for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

No wonder then that The Communist Manifesto concluded with a cry for revolution. A cry for revolt by followers against their leaders. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

Never in a million years would Marx and Engels have imagined themselves part of a conversation about “leadership” and “followership” as we in the 21st century conceive of these concepts. Among other distinctions, their conception of leaders, of capitalists, owners, and employers, was all bad, while our contemporary conception of leaders, especially as they are configured in the leadership industry, is all good. People aim to be leaders, they want to be leaders, because the leadership industry depicts them not as instruments of destruction, but as instruments of construction.  

However, to imagine that leaders are pure as the driven snow, that they bear no relationship whatsoever to their forebearers, the bourgeoisie, even as Marx and Engels conceived of them, is to imagine wrong. One could argue, in fact, that to deprive leaders and followers of class distinctions is to deprive the entire leadership industry of consequence. For in the 21st century, as in the 19th century, leaders tend to have power, position, and a pile of money, while followers tend to have no power, no position, and no pile of money. In sum, Marx and Engels live. The class distinctions they made then apply now. And they apply to any discussion we might have about leaders and followers – always implicitly even if never explicitly.  

The United States in 2020

Our natural proclivity is to focus if not fixate on individuals. Sometimes these people are celebrities, known for something they did or achieved; other times these people are in high places, known for the positions they hold, which connote power and authority. Our fixation on individuals comes to a climax every four years, during presidential campaigns, when our prolonged obsession with who will be elected president reaches near hysterical proportions.  

One could argue, however, that closing the American divide – between those who have and those who do not – has less to do with individuals than with institutions. That what we need more than good leaders are good institutions. Institutions that will contract rather than expand the schisms among classes against which Marx and Engels railed over a century and a half ago. Institutional changes would include among others reforming the Senate; eliminating the Electoral College; revising the electoral system (above all to ensure voting rights); and a taking another look at the Supreme Court, for example, eliminating lifelong tenure for justices in an era in which people live forever. In the last few decades several of our most important institutions have become less rather than more democratic, thereby exacerbating the natural antipathies between leaders and followers. Time for change, lest we find ourselves overtaken by the class antagonisms with which Marx and Engels were deeply familiar.  

It happens that President Donald Trump’s base consists mostly of angry Americans, angry at being relegated to second class status. It similarly happens that Bernie Sanders’s base consists mostly of angry Americans, angry at being relegated to second class status. To be sure, these are two different peas, but without doubt they are part of the same pod.

Both Trump supporters and Sanders supporters tend to feel screwed – tend to think of themselves, many times justifiably, as have nots. The oppressed as opposed to the oppressors. Not leaders, but followers. Americans worried about health care.  Americans saddled with debt. Americans not knowing whether their paychecks, presuming they even have one, will cover their basic expenses. Mostly their stories are similar. Stories of hard luck and hard times, in which the overriding feeling is that the American dream has betrayed them – or that the American dream is dead.

Two recent book drive home the point. The first is by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, titled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. It documents in grim, irrefutable detail how over the last three decades the rates of deaths of despair – deaths in consequence of suicide, alcoholism, and drug use – have soared. These deaths underscore, as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt points out, that “inequality has risen more in the United States – and middle-class incomes have stagnated more severely – than in France, Germany, Japan or elsewhere.” Whites without a college degree have been especially hard hit, but many of the problems afflicting the working class span racial groups. Moreover, these problems are not only financial. Case and Deaton document that “life for many middle-and low-income Americans can lack structure, status and meaning.” Marx and Engels saw the syndrome.   

The second book is by Nelson Schwartz, titled The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business. It displays the other side of the coin, the side that depicts how the rich have benefited from their power, their position, and their money. Schwartz: “There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle. This trend does not merely delight the wealthy – it also exacerbates the isolation and abandonment of everyone else.”

Is it reasonable to argue as I have, that the divide between the classes pertains now as it did then, when Marx and Engels penned The Communist Manifesto? Is it reasonable to argue as I have, that the antagonisms, the fierce and even ferocious antagonisms that Marx and Engels so vividly and enduringly described relate at least somewhat to the situation in which Americans now find themselves, one riven by class distinctions? And is it reasonable to argue as I have, that to cut from our conversations about leadership and followership the subject of class distinctions is as misguided as misleading?  

In the past I have written about what I called the leadership class. Here, for the first time, I use the word “class” as Marx and Engels did – literally. For the leadership class and the upper class are usually, or at least frequently, one and the same. An inconvenient truth that those of us in the leadership industry would do well to consider – lest one day not far into the future we get hoisted by our own petard.

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