Is ‘Podemos’ the Spanish Syriza?

Dangers of “moderation” and domestication

Danny Byrne, CWI

Greece’s election of a Syriza-led government has encouraged anti-austerity Left forces throughout crisis-ravaged Europe and beyond. Nowhere is this more the case then in Spain, where a force widely seen as the ’Spanish Syriza’, Podemos, goes from strength to strength.

Opinion polls repeatedly put Podemos in first or second place with over 20%, threatening the survival of the Spanish two-party system, based on the right-wing PP and ex-social democratic PSOE, who fail to muster up 50% support between them. Over 100,000 people filled the streets of Madrid in Podemos’ “march for change”, in an impressive display of strength on 31 January.

In what will be a year of many elections in the Spanish state, it will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Regional elections in Andalucia in March will see its first eruption onto the scene as a major force, followed by local and regional elections in May, possible Catalan elections in September and general elections in November. Podemos’ plan for the year is that these elections will see its vote inexorably rise, to the climax of taking power in November. While the possibility of an overall majority, at least at this stage, seems slim, Podemos’s rise could force Spain’s two main capitalist parties – conservative PP and ex-social democrat PSOE – into a “grand coalition” to put a brake on its advance. Of course such a move would only accelerate the death spiral of these two parties, especially PSOE.


The Spanish Syriza?

In a similar way to Syriza, Podemos has been identified in the minds of millions as a potential tool to end Spain’s austerity nightmare and reclaim a dignified life, following 6 years of degradation. Spanish capitalism’s crisis has put the whole regime – known as the “regime of 1978” – ushered in following the fall of Franco into question, reflected not just in the collapse of the traditional parties, but also in the Spanish state’s national and territorial crisis, especially in relation to Cataloni. The rise of Podemos reflects this tendency towards fundamental change. But can it deliver?

Podemos featured heavily in the closing rally of Syriza’s electoral campaign in Greece, with its leader Pablo Iglesias joining Alexis Tsipras in giving the final keynote speech to chants of “Syriza, Podemos, Venceremos (We will win, in Spanish)” from the Athens crowds. However, Podemos differs from Syriza in its origins. While the former arose as an alliance of Left groups, Podemos emerged as a new movement, separate from the traditional left parties.

Roots in failures of Left and union leaders

Indeed, in many ways Podemos’ success is a product of the failure of the traditional organisations of the Left and the workers’ movement. The leaderships of these organisations – especially the United Left (IU) and the main trade unions – failed to recognise that the crisis had ushered in a new period of intense class struggle and radical change. They continued with the age-old failed policies of collaboration and deals with the system and the bosses’ parties. This was especially shown by the United Left leaders’ disastrous policy of entering coalition governments with PSOE, thus tying the organization to the implementation of –albeit, in a “lighter” form – austerity.

The same leaders also refused to open up their organizations by promoting a more meaningful unity of struggles, and respond to the massive mood in favour of more rank-and-file democratic control and participation which has characterised all of the most important movements and struggles of the last years. This strengthened the impression of wider layers that the traditional workers’ organizations were ossified political structures and strengthened the appeal of Podemos’ so-called “new way of doing politics”. For example, the IU leaders’ refusal – despite huge pressure from below – to organise open primaries, allowing its periphery of activists in the social and workers’ movements to participate in decision-making, was an important part of Podemos’ appeal at the time of their breakthrough in the European elections.

This meant that to millions of those struggling against the “regime of 1978” – especially those hailing from the “Indignados” movement – the traditional Left and the unions seemed more like a part of this regime than a force leading the fight against it. This opened the way for something else to develop and fill the void, something new.

In short, the control of the right-wing bureaucracy over the IU and trade unions, and their continuation with the failed policies of class collaboration following the onset of the crisis produced a situation in which the active and radicalised sections of the working class were to the Left, more radical, than their so called leaders and organizations. As Alberto Garzon, new lead candidate of IU for the year’s general elections – from the Left of the party – has put it: “We could say that society changed faster than our own organisation did internally”. This is fundamental both to the current deep crisis of IU and the unions, and to the success of Podemos.

“Podemos is the people”

Podemos emerged as an alternative force with an anti-austerity Left agenda, and a programme to repudiate illegitimate debt and undo the austerity of the last years. It employed much of the phraseology and demands of the indignados’ and other social movements, and lacked “baggage” of having managed the system in the past, which made it attractive to a new generation.

Based around Pablo Iglesias and other Left-wing academics, it emphasised the existence of “la casta”, a corrupt political ‘caste’ of capitalist politicians which had enriched themselves and the Spanish ’oligarchs’ in government since the fall of the dictatorship. This tapped into a mass mood of rejection of politicians, which was expressed by the indignados’ in an anti-party mood. Iglesias and co took this to the next level. Podemos claimed to represent the entry of “the people” into politics, over the heads of the discredited politicians.

Its leaders put it forward not as a party in the traditional sense, but a “participative space” through which the people of Spain can get their political voice heard as a whole. Its main organisational foundation is thus not a network of branches or rank-and-file committees, but the “citizen’s assembly” open to all Spanish citizens which elects the leadership of Podemos through open primaries on the internet, as well as voting in online consultations in the future on some important policy questions. More than 300,000 people have signed up to participate.

This means that “Podemos is the people” according to its leaders. However, there are some contradictions in this idea and in the way Podemos seeks to represent “the people”, as a whole. Are there not “people” who instead of wanting to end austerity, support it? For sure, there are people who benefit from it – the big bankers and shareholders to whom the odious public debt is paid, for example. Understanding that the “people” needing a political voice are the working people, the unemployed, youth, pensioners, in other words the wider working class whose interests are up against those of another “people” – the super-rich capitalist class, is a crucial necessity for the anti-austerity movement.

Secondly, the organisational structure of Podemos, while in theory based on the people, doesn’t fully involve people in politics in a meaningful sense. For socialists, involving working people in politics means getting them active, in democratic structures which discuss debate and decide on the policy and strategy of the movement. This means more than simply an occasional click in an online primary election or referendum.

Podemos does have hundreds of ‘circles’, or branches, around the country but these have only a symbolic role in its functioning. The absence of mass circles or assemblies in neighbourhoods and workplaces which serve as building blocks of Podemos means that in practice it operates in a very top-down manner, with a narrow leadership – based around general secretary Iglesias – which decides on everything once it has been elected in the primaries. This way of operating, though cloaked in democratic phraseology, assigns a passive role to the mass of people, and is an obstacle to the building of a really mass democratic political force for the Spanish working class.

This was also shown in the mass mobilisation of 31 January, in the “march for change”. Tens of thousands turned out on the streets only to be sent home afterwards, and told to vote for Podemos when the time comes! Such a mobilisation should have served as a starting point for a sustained mass movement of protests and strikes to bring down the government and end austerity. A potential electoral victory would be one part of this.

This is not an academic question, given the clash with big business and the Troika that the necessary measures would provoke (as shown in Greece). Any left government can only apply the policies which it can also defend in the streets and workplaces. The mobilisation and self-organisation of working people is valuable preparation for such an eventuality.

Dangers of “moderation” and the domestication of Podemos

Podemos’ leaders, in a way mirroring those of Syriza, have also moved towards the right as their support has grown. Podemos’initial programme was a radicall left-wing one, which promised a universal decent income for all, the right to housing, the raising of wages as well as the nationalisation of the strategic sectors of the economy, among other radical measures. However, in recent months its leaders have moderated their rhetoric, dropping key promises such as a retirement age of 60, and the non-payment of the debt. Whereas its initial programma stressed the need for a break with the regime and status quo, its leaders have recently described its programme as “social-democratic”, and compared their plans to those of Lula in Brazil. This turn has been carried out in the name of “realism” and an international “context” which makes such measures impossible.

If it reaches government, Podemos will ultimately be judged by the extent to which it can satisfy the demands of the working class. These demands, though modest – bread, jobs and homes, as demanded by the 2 million-strong “March for dignity” last year – are unacceptable to the ruling class in the context of the current capitalist crisis, as we see in Greece. A genuinely Left government would have to be prepared to face down the blackmail of capital and pursue the interests of the majority in a determined fashion. This would mean facing down the Troika and imposing a policy of shaking off the illegitimate debt burden, and taking control of the banks and the wealth to fund a real recuperation in living standards. Trying to square the interests of the people with what is acceptable to the Troika and Spanish capitalism can only end in crisis for a Left government and mass disappointment.

It is of course true, that there is a “context” which acts against the measures necessary to end the misery of workers. This context is the continued domination of the multi-national companies and bankers, whose markets and institutions (both national and European) will work against any government which tries to govern in favour of the people. However, instead of accepting this “context”, and adapting programme to what is possible within it, the mass movements of the working class against austerity need to fight to transform this context! Only the organisation and mobilisation of the working class and a Left government with a revolutionary socialist policy to replace the dictatorship of the markets with workers’ democracy based on public democratic ownership of wealth can face up to this task. Such a government could link up with the working people of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the whole of Europe and build a socialist federation from the ashes of the capitalist EU.

The establishment of a revolutionary pole throughout the genuine left and workers’ movement, to resist the threat of “domestication” and fight for a revolutionary socialist policy, is a central task to which Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) is dedicated