by Anne Archist
There has been a perspective (at least superficially) missing from the recent ‘horizontalism vs hierarchy‘ debate triggered by the student movement’s decentralised self-organisation over the past few months. On the one hand there have been some (mostly newer) activists, politically unaffiliated students whose involvement in the movement is more limited, plus a few left-communists and anarchists influenced by the anti-organisation trend. On the other hand there have been Leninists and some pre-existing activists from other political traditions.
The former are concerned with preventing centralisation and bureaucratisation, widening informal networks and so on; they don’t, however, seem to be particularly interested in building solid organisational and practical links between the occupations, student assemblies, and so on. I get the impression that their vision is one of many different groups doing different things and linked together by a common cause but no real process of coordination or means of ensuring accountability beyond a very local level. The latter are concerned with making the movement more accountable and responsive at ‘higher’ levels, putting structures in place to regulate and coordinate local bodies, etc. I get the impression that their vision is one of national committees competing for real ‘leadership’ of the movement, with institutional structures and hierarchies extending down towards local anti-cuts groups and heavily permeated with full-timers and lay-activists from Leninist groups.
The missing perspective, then, is one that acknowledges the need for organisation and structures without creating professional ‘leaders’ and buying wholesale into structures that will inevitably lead to a process of calcification. Leninists are (overly) fond of pointing to the famous pamphlet by Jo Freeman, which actually arose from the feminist movement, as a critique of anarchist organising methods. Of course, Jo’s critique can be applied in large part to structured organisations as well, and the remedies she suggests are compatible with anarchism. Incidentally, the response puts across the impression Cathy Levine hasn’t actually read Freeman’s essay, so I wouldn’t really recommend it in relation to this debate.
It is sadly commonplace for debates to polarise, especially when they are conducted in non-ideal conditions (such as under time constraints, in a stressful situation, or across language barriers). I’ve got a long history of writing about this problem as applied to anarchism and Marxism, and I don’t suppose it will be resigned to history anytime soon (I’ll be taking part in a discussion at Cambridge’s Marxist Discussion Group on the topic next term, in fact). We shouldn’t be surprised that the middle-ground hasn’t been given much space in the debate. As part of their relentless drive towards over-simplification to the point of absurdity, some of the intellectual-gutter elements of the left have tried to assert that there are only two options: rigid, committee-based national organisation exercising formalised links with local committees and so on; or else utterly ‘anarchic’ individualist voluntarism whereby hundreds of conflicting statement and tactics will proliferate until the vast majority give up altogether. This is simply not true, and nor does it adequately differentiate between the many factors involved in a successful movement (such as the difference in structures needed for organising a march compared to those needed for publicising it).
Those of you who know me will recognise this as another call for honest but open-minded discussion aimed at understanding our differences but also our similarities, and working ourselves away from extremes of knee-jerkism and towards more considered balancing acts. In short, then, the real challenge for the student movement right now is to find ways of formalising and structuring the relationships within the movement without creating a caste of professional and unrepresentative ‘leaders’, to find ways of ensuring accountability of those taking executive action without also surrendering important decision-making power to them rather than larger bodies, to work out the right attitude to take with NUS and allies like the trade unions that both appreciates their appropriate roles and puts pressure on them to fulfil those roles more closely in line with the interests of society.
The NUS, for instance, is a mediator and a representative – but not of the politically engaged and active ‘student’ movement (which is not really a student movement at all, including as it does parents/staff/etc, but merely a sectional vanguard of a broader anti-cuts sentiment that the left cannot help but see coming). Its actual role (whether we like it or not, and whether we wish this to change over time or not) is to perform a regulatory and mediating function – it works as much for the state as it does for us in some senses – and to act as the voice of all students. We have to understand this function in order to know how to relate to the NUS as it currently is and see what it can do – and what it cannot or should not do – for our movement.
If we cannot find ways of building a democratic, accountable movement that has enough structure to prevent ‘personality-makes-right’ mentality, that organises marginalised or sectional groups with due respect for their needs (such as the women’s section that the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts has been organising since some months before the movement exploded into the news media), and that still allows mass-participation with differing levels of involvement and communication between different localities/sections/etc, then quite frankly we’ve got little hope of winning this struggle. The Leninists are right to assert that relying on groups of friends tweeting and throwing things at the police won’t help us win, but nor will imposing top-down leadership and subjugating our movement to the tempo and whims of the Labour movement. I should point out that of course I’m not implying that all Leninists are calling for this any more than all anarchists are calling for affinity-group streetfighting – if pushed to take a side in the argument, I’d suggest that generally the Leninists understand the importance of bottom-up leadership of ideas better than their opponents understand the importance of accountability and structure.