Can Europe Make It?

Leaderless no more

The rise of new left leaders such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Pablo Iglesias in Spain reflects a new desire for leadership and political representation at odds with the neoanarchist culture that has for long dominated the radical left and influenced the movements of 2011.

Paolo Gerbaudo
11 December 2014
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Alexis Tsipras. Demotix/Giorgos Christakis. All rights reserved.

The rise of new leftwing leaders such as Alexis Tsipras, the 40 yr-old secretary of Syriza in Greece, and of Pablo Iglesias, the 36 yr-old figurehead of the 11-month old Podemos party in Spain, provides an interesting political conundrum. If Tsipras is now tipped to win in a snap election in 2015, and if Iglesias' party has recently been polled as the first in Spain, it is because of the way in which the two political personalities have managed to surf the wave of popular discontent manifested in the so-called “movements of the squares”: the indignados who occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and the aganaktismenoi who occupied Syntagma square in Athens during the Spring and Summer of 2011. 

But - here lies the paradox - the movements from which these leaders have drawn so much energy, are precisely those which together with their US cousins of Occupy Wall Street have popularised the ugly term “leaderlessness”, in the sense of absence of leadership, as their fundamental ethical principle. So how have we gone from “leaderlessness” to the current love for leaders? And what is the political meaning of this return of “personalised leadership” on the left? 

To crack this enigma we need to take into account two factors. First, the discourse of leaderlessness and horizontality proposed within the movements of the squares, was far more contradictory than many anarchist intellectuals would have liked to believe. Second, the organisational limits of the movements of the squares, and in particular the blatant inefficiency of popular assemblies in making decisions and providing a direction for the movement, have put the question of leadership on the agenda once again.  

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Pablo Iglesias. Demotix/Hugo Ortuno. All rights reserved.

In calling themselves “leaderless” the protestors of 2011 were not necessarily espousing the dogmatic anarchist belief that all leaders are evil, as argued recently by authors such as Mark Bray. Rather they were often expressing more of a populist distaste for the leaders currently on offer. Similarly, by chanting such slogans as, “they do not represent us” - protestors were not necessarily subscribing to the ultra-left belief that representative democracy is just a farce. Rather they were asserting that the parties available at the time were not representative of popular demands. Despite their evident anti-authoritarian flavour, such expressions of non-conformity have ended up setting the groundwork for the development of new forms of leadership and representation, capable of forcing on the political agenda the demands of economic equality and political justice which the movements of the squares raised in the occupied squares of 2011. 

Besides the complex nature of the anti-authoritarian discourse adopted by the movements of the squares, one also needs to take into account the learning process many activists have undergone, through their participation in this protest wave. The problems encountered by these movements, and in particular their incapacity to structure themselves in an efficient manner, have convinced many of the erstwhile believers in “leaderlessness” and “horizontality”, that sometimes a clear leadership structure is necessary. Scores of veterans of these movements have come to agree with Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the leaders of Podemos, in thinking that while the popular assemblies, which were the hallmark of these protest movements were “radically democratic”, they were also “radically ineffective”. In the aftermath of 2011 the focus of activists' concerns has shifted from legitimacy to effectiveness, from the search from a new political authenticity to a pragmatic desire to have a concrete impact on society. This is why many veterans of the movements of the squares have come to see the rise of new left leaders such as Iglesias and Tsipras, as a positive development.  

While many anarchists are no doubt grumbling at seeing many of their comrades supporting Iglesias, Tsipras, and other emerging leaders (is Russell Brand the UK's farcical equivalent of Iglesias and Tsipras?), those hoping for radical political change in Europe and beyond have many good reasons to celebrate this development. This shift from “leaderlessness” to the rise of new political leaders fighting for the demands raised by the movements of the squares is a demonstration of the “wisdom of the crowd”, of the fact that social movements and their supporters are capable of learning from their mistakes and evolving accordingly. Yet, it is apparent that this return of strong “personalised leadership” within the leftwing also raises some serious political questions for activists.  

Some people fear that Tsipras and Iglesias will repeat the same mistakes that have made the word ‘leadership’ so toxic on the left. Criticism has been particularly pointed with Tsipras, whose party is accused of being bureaucratic and opportunistic, allowing little space for participation from the grassroots. In the case of Podemos, which has tried to integrate much of the participatory spirit of the indignados movement, and has adopted online voting mechanisms to decide on its charter and to choose its citizens' assembly – things are different.  But in this case too there has been criticism against Iglesias and his allies, accused of wanting to monopolise the party, and to use online voting more as a plebiscitary stamp of approval, than a genuine arena of deliberation. 

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Russell Brand. Demotix/Natasha Quarmby. All rights reserved.

As these polemics highlight, many are the challenges that lie ahead in the development of new forms of political leadership on the left. The risk is that in this age of moral extremes, we might shift from the naïve idea of leaderlessness, which has hampered many recent social movements, to its opposite, an uncritical acceptance of leaders, whoever they are and whatever they do, in the name of the ultimate ends.

However for the time being the rise of Tsipras and Iglesias provides a very important lesson for the left and social movements. Despite the cynicism that has for several years been accrued by the notion of leadership, we continue to need leaders: individuals capable of guiding us and inspiring us, and of giving us a unified voice in the public arena, beyond exceptional moments of mass mobilisation as those seen in the heydays of 2011. 

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