Leadership and the student movement

by Sadie Robinson

Socialist Worker found itself at the centre of discussions about the recent student movement over the Christmas period.

The student protests were magnificent. Their militancy and confidence smashed the myth that people in Britain are apathetic or incapable of radical action.

Some people have seized on the protests to say that politics is now radically changed, and that political organisation and leadership are irrelevant.

So Laurie Penny wrote in the Guardian before Christmas that, “The young people of Britain do not need leaders.” She condemns what she calls “the old deferential structures” of the unions and says that Socialist Worker sellers are similar to “cockroaches”.

In an article that condemns infighting and sectarianism on the left this is somewhat amusing.

But there’s a serious argument here that has also emerged from the UK Uncut protests against tax dodgers – that the organisational structures of the left are outdated and damaging.

The idea is that anyone on the left who argues their political position openly is either dividing the movement, stifling spontaneous action, or both.

This is wrong. Pretending that only the organised left has any politics allows anyone who isn’t part of an organisation to hide their political position. But the ideas of people who are leading movements – even when they claim no leaders exist – fundamentally shape those movements.

For example, UK Uncut recently floated the idea to hold an event called “The Feeling is Mutual”, a celebration of businesses like John Lewis on the basis that other corporations are worse.

UK Uncut has organised some great protests. But to channel the energy of those who want to make the bosses, not ordinary people, pay for the crisis into pro-business events would squander the radical potential of the protests.

After the recent protests, NUS president Aaron Porter denounced people who took part in militant action at Millbank. Students could have said we don’t recognise him as our leader so it doesn’t matter.

Boosted

But it was right that students rounded on Porter and forced him into a partial retreat – he then began visiting occupations to try to prove he supported the fightback.

And it was important that the NUS and the UCU called the initial protest in central London over fee rises – it made Millbank possible.

When that old dinosaur, the TUC, called for co-ordinated industrial action last September it boosted workers’ confidence and put strikes back on the agenda. It matters that the TUC has called a mass demonstration on 26 March.

What that protest will be like, and its impact, depends on ordinary people. That’s why Penny is correct to say that people shouldn’t simply “take orders” from leaders, but she’s wrong to say that those leaders don’t matter.

In every political action, however small, there is a choice about which direction to go in.

Socialists argue for effective strategies that can win and give confidence to ordinary people – broadening struggle even further.

The dominant ideas under capitalism are those of our rulers. They include sexism and racism, and the idea that ordinary people have limited power.

Failing to put forward a socialist strategy allows such ideas to dominate. Rather than dividing movements, concrete political debate strengthens them.

Like Penny, we don’t want movements to descend into pointless bickering and endless rows. But we do want democratic political debate. Penny says that there are “hundreds of thousands of voices” in the student movement and that’s true.

Clear political leadership isn’t about stamping out spontaneity or the diversity of opinion that exists in mass movements. It’s about fighting for strategies that can win.

We want to argue for a mass, militant struggle and to make this struggle part of a broader resistance to the capitalist system itself. We also want to put forward a revolutionary socialist alternative to the chaos, war and poverty of the present system.

Socialist Worker

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