After the massive and militant student demonstration last month, and the responses to it, Esme Choonara looks at the question of what sort of leadership we need to take the struggle forward.
Photo: Geoff Dexter
The old maxim that we get the leaders we deserve was dramatically disproved during the magnificent 50,000 strong student protest in London on 10 November.
Even as hundreds of students occupied the Tory HQ in Millbank Tower, giving expression to the anger of millions facing vicious cuts, the leader of the National Union of Students (NUS), Aaron Porter, was already on the BBC denouncing the occupiers. He was followed by a more muted "regrettable" from UCU union general secretary Sally Hunt, and by Labour's Ed Balls who denounced the protest as "vandalism and violence".
The failures of leadership seem not just to come from those at the right of the movement such as Porter. Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack, one of the left wing trade union leaders who called action against the Tories, called off the two-day strike planned by London firefighters to start on Bonfire Night just as the militancy and determination of the union's membership were growing.
Even with a markedly new combative tone in the speeches at this year's TUC congress - a call for a demonstration in March and talk of coordinated strike action - the response of the union leaders to the biggest post-war assault on the welfare state is frustratingly slow, to say the least.
Frustration with the union leaders can lead to two opposite dangers for the left. Activists can draw the conclusion that if the officials won't lead a fight, there is nothing we can do but denounce them from the sidelines. The opposite danger is to decide that the union leadership is irrelevant and so we should ignore it and just call our own initiatives.
Both of these positions are wrong. As SWP founder Tony Cliff explained in 1988, "We can fall into the trap of believing that either the bureaucracy is omnipotent or that it doesn't count. In fact it's neither the one nor the other. If it's omnipotent then we might as well forget about rank and file action. If it doesn't count then we just do everything from below without putting any demands on the union machine."
Union leaders can be pushed into action. The scale of the Tory assault means that even the most conservative union official has to be seen to put up some kind of a fight or risk their position becoming untenable. A mixture of the depth of the cuts, anger from below and the competition between different union leaders themselves opens up the possibility of struggle, or at least some decent fighting talk, from some union leaders. Every call for action from the top is an opportunity for agitation on the ground. Having a Tory government also means that those union leaders affiliated to the Labour Party may be more likely to fight.
The fact that the student demonstration was called by the NUS and the UCU, and that the NUS in most universities actively advertised the protest and put on transport, meant that it was 50,000 strong with a much wider layer of students involved than if it was just called by left groups.
When the Scottish TUC called a demonstration after the Tory spending review some 25,000 turned out - the biggest protest in Scotland since the G8 protests in 2005.
But the student protest also illustrated that the direction and momentum of the movement can't just be left to the officials. In fact what was so brilliant about the protest was that while the official backing helped to create a critical mass and a focus for student discontent, the anger and independent activism of the protest went way beyond what the organisers planned or expected.
This combination of the official and the unofficial shows how they can feed off each other, rather than being counterposed. Similarly the TUC demonstration on 26 March 2011 can become a focus for the anger and desperation that millions feel.
Sometimes the left does have to initiate protests or action without backing from union leaders, but we shouldn't be under any illusion that official support doesn't make a difference. The Right to Work protest at the Tory party conference was a case in point. The impetus for the demonstration came from left groups, union branches and individuals who were determined to get some opposition to the Tories going.
But activists also worked hard to win the official backing of a number of national unions, which helped to get an impressive turnout of 7,000 from around the country. The protest cut through the idea that resistance isn't possible and brought together the most advanced sections of the movement. But had the TUC or a couple of major trade unions put their full weight and operational machines behind the demonstration, it could have been on a different scale altogether.
Why does official backing make such a difference? The reality of life under capitalism and the different specific experiences that people have mean that, short of a revolutionary situation, the majority of working class people believe that change should come within the framework of capitalism - they are reformists. Reformism is dominated by the idea that our official leaders make the decisions and change things on our behalf. The experience of struggle can dramatically change this as people sense their own power, grow in confidence and organise themselves. But first they have to get involved in struggle.
Even in the countries where there is already a much higher level of rank and file confidence and organisation, the position taken by union officials still makes a big difference.
Of course, it would be much better for the left if we could just bypass the union leaders altogether, but unfortunately there is no such short cut. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky made this point in 1922, when explaining why revolutionaries have to work in united front campaigns with reformists: "If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us."
Trade union leaders occupy a distinct social position between bosses and workers. They have to represent the anger of workers to some degree to maintain their position, but at the same they have a privileged position in comparison to their members. Cliff described the union bureaucracy as "neither employers nor workers" but a layer that "presents two faces - it balances between the employers and the workers".
That is why union leaders vacillate - sometimes calling action but then becoming scared of the movement when it gets out of their control. But that is not to say that we can treat all trade union leaders as the same. It is better to elect left wing leaders who articulate the need to fight back and can give confidence to those who want action. They can also help to put pressure on more right wing leaders to oppose attacks on the working class. But their material position means that they too will vacillate and the only way to hold them to account and to challenge them where necessary is still through strong rank and file organisation.
The contradictions don't just exist in Britain. Looking at the struggles in France and Greece, it can seem that they are simply more militant nations or have better leaders. In reality the same problems exist. In both France and Greece there is, of course, already a much higher level of confidence among workers, but many of the challenges the movement faces are the same as in Britain. In fact, the higher the level of struggle, the starker these political battles become.
As Nikos Loudos explained in his article on Greece in this magazine last month, resistance is not an event, but a process. In Greece that process has been uneven - with smaller strikes by local union organisations putting pressure on the national unions to call more widespread action. When the Greek TUC leaders called national strikes, in the hope of containing the movement, the opposite happened - the protests grew in size and militancy. As Loudos reports, the left has played a key role in driving the movement forward, trying to use each shift in the struggle to take things further.
Similarly, in France, there has been a contradictory and uneven process behind the mass strikes and demonstrations. Union leaders were forced to call strikes and protests against the raising of the pension age in order to retain their credibility with the workers' movement in the face of such a general assault. Union militants and left activists used the opening provided by union leaders to push for more action. In some areas they have also used the strikes to build rank and file organisation through coordinated strike committees. The entrance of school students into the struggle electrified the movement.
Yet after seven days of mass strikes and demonstrations that brought several million people onto the streets, as well as continuous strikes in some industries, the union leaders still showed the same signs of prevarication and conciliation we know so well in Britain.
Instead of leading the growing struggle on to confront the government, union leaders have attempted to wind the fight down, calling off the strikes at France's oil refineries and trying to dampen down the protests. As soon as the pensions bill passed its key stages in parliament, Marcel Grignard, one of the leaders of the CFDT union federation, declared, "Our responsibility as trade unionists is to construct compromises that make sense, not to threaten the legitimacy of politics."
On the million strong protest of 6 November, CFDT leader François Chérèque outrageously told the press that the battle was already lost. "If I said today, 'We're going to force the president to back down,' no one would believe me. People would say, 'That guy there, he's dreaming'," he said.
But the battle is not yet over. The continuing groundswell of anger means the unions have been forced to call further days of action. The key question will be whether the rank and file organisation developed in the strikes and protests is strong enough to keep the movement on track.
So what can we learn from France and Greece? In both countries pressure from below has pushed union officials into action. The possibility of success in both cases rests on the strength of rank and file organisation. And the left in both France and Greece has played a key role in pushing the movement forward.
It is also clear that struggle and politics are interlinked. In Greece one sign of the political instability was the expulsion of three members of the governing Pasok party who voted against austerity measures. In France the start of the recent phase of struggle coincided with a political crisis for Nicolas Sarkozy and protests against his deportation of the Roma.
In Britain the surprise election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, based on the decisive vote from the unions, expressed the feeling in even the top layers of the labour movement that there should be a break from Blairite policies. And the student protests here have added to political instability in the governing coalition, in particular by increasing tensions among the already discredited Lib Dems. Political instability can in turn fuel the confidence of people to fight.
Another important lesson from the European struggles is that while resistance is a process, it does not proceed in a neat linear fashion with steady incremental growth. There are sudden moments that transform the struggle and shift the consciousness of thousands of people - the mass strikes in Greece or the school students walking out in France, for example.
In Britain the student protest marked such a turning point: a mass protest that showed the sort of militancy that increasing numbers believe is necessary to stop the Tories decimating our lives. The challenge for socialists is how we build on this moment. We can neither ignore the union leaders nor simply wait around to see whether they will call anything.
Part of answering the challenge we face is to understand how to both pressure the union bureaucrats and use every official event to focus and strengthen resistance, while seizing every opportunity to build an independent and militant rank and file.
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