People talk about the importance of “great individuals” or “the leadership,” often as if they were the same thing. They seem to think that a person’s “becoming politicized” has to involve, at least at first, the reference to a great leader (such as Lenin, Mao, etc.)
In doing so, they confuse two distinct ideas:
1) that the “signifier” is important, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to take on a proper name. For example, look at how the Red Square (“Carré Rouge“) functioned within the Québec student movement: it wasn’t a symbol of a person, or an “official” organization, but of an idea. Even though it represented an idea, it nevertheless it was more real than the others.
2) that individuals are important, but they are oftentimes not those that are the most “well-known.” The phrase “it takes one” (friend, acquaintance, etc. to introduce something new) takes on a whole new meaning.
[An example of this is how Louis Althusser, an academic Marxist if there ever was one, came to be a communist. He didn’t start off with finding the “greatness” of Marxism through any of the “great” texts.
“It was in the camp that I first heard about Marxism from a Parisian lawyer who was passing through. I also made the acquaintance of one lone communist. This man, whose name was Pierre Courrèges, appeared in the camp during the final months, having spent a year in a unit for incorrigible prisoners at Ravensbrück under a very tough regime. Daël [the former liaison between the prisoners and the officials] had ceased to be a trusty for some considerable time and a tall, rather colourless individual, an undertaker by profession, had replaced him. Simultaneously, certain irregularities or compromises which had existed previously began to resurface. Not on a large scale however. Though no one asked him to do so, Courrèges intervened off his own bat and in the cause of honesty and fraternity. The effect was incredible. He was straightforward, direct, warm, and natural and seemed capable of talking and acting quite effortlessly. His presence alone transformed the camp and we were totally astonished by him. All the accommodations and semi- compromises with the Germans disappeared overnight and we felt an atmosphere in the camp which had not existed since Daël’s ‘reign’. This surprising change had been brought about by one single individual acting on his own, a man who was certainly ‘different from the rest’, another ‘oddball’ (communists are ‘different’, a propaganda theme I became familiar with later on). Thus I began to have great respect for militant communists. At the same time I realized one could act differently from Daël, that other approaches were possible, other forms of action, and that the possession of certain skills was of secondary importance when one’s actions were motivated by genuine ‘principles’. There was no need to resort either to ‘sharp practice’ or trickery. Courrèges was an astonishing man and he gave me my first practical lesson in communism! I have met him since in Paris, and he is still the same warm person, though he is just an ordinary man like everyone else. But I did not believe then that he could be an ordinary man.”
[Louis Althusser. The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir. New York: New Press, 1993, pg. 110-111]