One passage that made me sit up during Corbyn’s conference speech in September was when he explicitly placed his movement alongside Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state as part of a process of trying to build a socialism of the twentieth-first century. All three political movements emerged as response to the failure of ‘traditional’ social democratic parties which were merely managing austerity and totally failing to represent the interests of working people.
This book, written by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, contains texts and interviews from the period just before its formation in 2014 up to 2015, just after its electoral breakthrough. In June, after the second election in 6 months, it remains the third political force with 21% with 71 MPs. After the removal of Sanchez as PSOE (Socialist Workers Party of Spain) leader at the end of September it is very likely there will be right wing Peoples Party (PP) government, under Rajoy, as a result of the PSOE abstaining. A huge row has broken out at the base of the PSOE with over 60,000 members signing a letter demanding an extraordinary congress to vote on whether to do this.
Iglesias has said the time is now for opposition, getting into the ‘trenches’ and expressing the ‘pain’ of the people. Dreams of overtaking the PSOE or even of defeating the PP have been set to one side. Everybody senses the crisis in the PSOE will continue and opportunities for Podemos to grow are good. Iglesias and his party will remain important players. This book allows us to follow some of the story of this remarkable success and to examine his political ideas.
There are two main ways of understanding Iglesias and interpreting the Podemos project. Enthusiasts say that he and his friends have cleverly deployed a formula inspired by Argentinian Marxist, Ernesto Laclau – the transversal national popular project – that has created a new winning political narrative. This ‘neither right nor left’ mantra claims to make both the classical Leninist and modern movementist approaches redundant. Others say he is just another Tspiras in waiting. Look how he defended the latter’s capitulation to the Troika. Listen to his backtracking on NATO or auditing the debt. See his recent electoral pronouncements defining Podemos as left social democracy.
However a reading of his book and an overview of his political activity in the last three years shows the picture is rather more complicated and in some ways rather positive.
What are his main ideas ?
“..There is no sense in forever pursuing a discourse that puts us to the left of everyone else. Our line should be one that makes us into the standard reference and champion of democracy “ p6
Iglesias’s background is as a politics lecturer, so he is at home discussing concepts and theories. His political challenge to the regime ditches the traditional language of both the reformist and more radical left. He does not start from a Marxist analysis of exploitation or of ownership but prefers talking about the removal of people’s democratic, social and human rights. He rejects minimalist definitions of democracy and criticises the hollowing out of liberal democracy where politics is a game of selecting different elites within the same caste. He focuses on the anti-democratic nature of big corporations and their international organisations such as the IMF or the Troika which abrogate peoples’ rights and of national sovereignty. ‘Reclaiming democracy is the nub of our political struggle’ rather than class struggle. The people rise up against a caste comprised of politicians, bosses, media spokesmen, who erect frameworks for ‘stealing democracy from the people’.
Key to his thinking was his role as a regular TV pundit on programmes like La Tuerka (the screw) which allowed him to reach a wide public audience. This reinforced one of his core ideas that the error of much of the left was to focus on the ‘most ideologised, committed sectors’. This combines with an almost Fabian belief in the qualities of professional academics in, as he puts it, ‘decrypting the keys to the political and economic situation’. Although he warns:
“the world of media is spiked with perilous contradictions that must be handled with care, the media wars are waged by their own rules and one must vie for hegemony on the terrain of ideas”.
In general Iglesias, like Laclau, tends to over-ideologise society. He takes a reading of Gramsci which makes ideology the central terrain of struggle, disconnected from the way struggle in workplaces and communities can change peoples’ perspectives as effectively and perhaps more so than watching a TV programme. This can lead to downplaying the need to patiently build up mass self-organisation and as a way for people to produce their own ‘common sense’ understanding of reality. Similarly the need for a vibrant, democratic embedded party is deprioritised in favour of a party apparatus formed as a big electoral machine.
Iglesias is absolutely right in criticising the Spanish left which was not seen by the indignados 15 M movement, that occupied the squares from 2011, as a useful tool since it was badly weakened by both ‘infantile and senile disorders’. Here he identified groups like the Spanish Communist party and their electoral front Izquierda Unida (IU), which failed hopelessly to connect with the new mass movement. Activists saw IU as the ‘left paw’ of the traditional PSOE since it often went into alliance with them in managing local or regional councils even where these were corrupt. A number of far left groups also just responded to the 15 M movement with the same woodenness, rather like some groups in Britain towards the new generation in Momentum.
Hence the need for a complete break with the past and the formation of a new group with a different language that could represent the indignados. He understood that the reality of decades of defeat at the hands of a new neo-liberal ruling class and the failure of the traditional left meant a radical shift was required for a new progressive project.
Iglesias references two leaders of the Anticapitalista current in his book but doesn’t mention their key role in establishing Podemos. In the latest book produced by the Anticapitalistas, (Anticapitalistas en Podemos – Sylone 2016), Miguel Urbain gives a fascinating blow by blow account of the months he, Iglesias and others discussed establishing the new party. It cost the current a split and it consciously refused an offer to link up with the IU to go with the new project. The Anticapitalistas contributed some material resources to get Podemos started.
Another formative experience for the new Podemos leadership team was working in left electoral campaigns in Latin America – Venezuela and Bolivia. Aspects of left populism in those movements and their practical success fed into the development of Podemos. One telling point made by Anticapitalista veteran and founder of Podemos, Jaime Pastor, was that Iglesias contributed a real sense of ambition, optimism and decisiveness to the project. A common failing of small left groups is an inferiority complex, never breaking out of activist circles. Iglesias thought big, understanding that the situation gave a new group the possibility of making a significant impact. True when the polls went rocketing up in the first year he got carried away, thinking his ‘transversal’ project could directly bypass the PSOE and challenge the PP for power, but audaciousness is sometimes right in politics.
Despite emphasising the importance of ‘playing chess, the war of position’ both inside and outside the state he nevertheless accepts there will be a need for a frontal war of movement. He cites the Allende experience in Chile when a democratic government was overthrown by the CIA backed Pinochet coup and he talks about winning the government but not having power. He rejects the idea that you only achieve reform by accepting the system. On the contrary he shows how most major reforms came from anti-systemic movements.
Of course there is ambiguity in which issues you decide to foreground and which to downplay. He seems to assume that more difficult issues can be taken up once Podemos has the government. We are seeing similar debates over Trident within the Corbyn movement.
One big weakness was Iglesias’s vision of the party as a strong electoral machine based around smart interventions in the media with well-constructed messages using a new language. At the founding congress he won a very centralist and vertical structure. Members had to vote for slates so minorities are not really represented on the leadership. The Anticapitalistas proposed a more democratic framework, with more power to local circles and a structured and open debate where different currents were represented. They were supported by a key leader, Pablo Echenique.
The new reality of building opposition objectively lessens the emphasis on elections, and many circles are debating how to revitalise the organisation from the bottom to the top. One example is a grouping called Reinicia Podemos (=relaunch Podemos). It will be interesting to see if Iglesias softens his position on these questions now.
The book provides useful information about the economic situation in the Spanish state and on the nature of the ruling caste. Open the pages of any Spanish newspaper today and the front pages are full of the big scandal of the PP getting fat brown envelopes from contractors. The caste operates a ‘revolving door system’ so when someone leaves office there is a very well paid job in a bank or a state run agency.
The effects of austerity are on a different scale to here: in 2013 there were 6 million unemployed with only a third receiving state assistance, youth unemployment had reached 60% and one in four was in poverty. Local authorities in Barcelona recorded 2600 children suffering from malnutrition. Without the extended family safety net things would be far more dramatic.
Readers interested in Spanish history will find the chapter dealing with this both accessible and enlightening. I hadn’t realised that the Primo Rivera dictatorship at the end of the twenties was almost a dry run for the Franco dictatorship. The weight of the Catholic Church, the strength of the military and the regular political violence from the 1870s make the Spanish state a different political reality to countries like Britain. For younger readers it is also illuminating to just see how fascist repression, including executions, continued right up to Franco’s death in 1975.
There is little to disagree with the chapter on the post 78 transition. He argues that an alternative way forward would have been possible.
“… the power system installed by the victors of the civil war underwent a transformation that left many of its fundamental determinants intact … History is always written from the present, to fathom the present and from that standpoint we may conclude that our transition was not the only possible one; still less was it the best of all possible transitions.” p 96
This is important because the traditional left forces like the PSOE and the PCE/IU stoutly defend the major concessions they made in that period on workers’ rights and wages, constitutional arrangements or political freedoms. And although the recession is fundamental to the regime’s present crisis, it is also a crisis of the post 78 transition.
In the final chapter, (a New Left Review interview), Iglesias makes a distinction between this ‘left/right’ political analysis and the need to moderate demands on the monarchy or constitutional arrangements because the transition still has popular support. So he argues you have to frame the crisis in economic terms. Despite this he is the only mainstream non-nationalist political leader to support Catalonia’s right to a referendum on its future and he recently refused to attend the Spanish National day celebrations – so his theory does not always reflect his practice.
The final and more recently added chapters have a more moderate tone to the original book.
“Clearly in present conditions this has nothing to do with revolution, or a transition to socialism in the historic sense of those terms. But it does become feasible to aim at sovereign processes that would limit the power of finance, spur the transformation of production, ensure a wider redistribution of wealth and push for more democratic configuration of European institutions.” p 180
Is he just a new style reformist disguised by fancy concepts? Well saying that a transition to socialism is not on the agenda in present conditions is certainly accurate. This does not mean that it is off the agenda permanently. He also rightly states that the state and the bosses do not have any real margin of manoeuvre to make concessions so that even traditional left social democratic demands are unacceptable. This sort of argument also applies to Corbynism whose policies are just not something the British ruling class will tolerate.
Developments since the book was written have led to divergences with his stated positions – practical politics has regularly shifted Iglesias’s position. Take the national-popular-traversal project which is supposed to supersede the left right matrix. After the December 2015 elections, when there was a period of stalemate, Iglesias and his team proposed a government formed by Podemos, the PSOE and progressive nationalists. Hardly a transversal project. Today he proposes a battle to win the disgruntled base of the PSOE, not towards PP voters.
Iglesias is now in open disagreement with his number two Inigo Errejon who has always been more moderate. He replaced Errejon’s main man with Echenique as organisational secretary. In the press he couches their difference in terms of their personalities but nobody is fooled. Errejon disapproved of Iglesias’ hard tone when it became clear that the PSOE were not serious about a progressive government pact. If Iglesias had really supported cross class populist alliances he would not have rejected the PSOE proposal to bring in the recently created bosses’ party Cuidadanos into the proposed government.
The idea of not challenging the notion of the Spanish nation and the flag has been dropped in practice since Iglesias has forged a successful alliance in Catalonia with progressive nationalists who have a semi-autonomous role inside Podemos. In the first year it was all about Podemos being the framework for the national popular project on its own. Once the potential for linking up with the urban confluencias arose, such as Ada Colau in Barcelona, then Podemos built effective alliances there, in Madrid, and elsewhere. One of the key stumbling blocks to a government alliance with the PSOE was precisely around the latter’s complete support for the supposed integrity of the Spanish State. Nearly a third of Podemos’s MPs come from regional radical nationalist groups.
Today the task is be the real opposition to a PP government installed by a PSOE abstention so we hear less about developing a transversal, national project and more about how to rebuild and strengthen the circles and implant Podemos in workplaces and communities.
The Iglesias story shows that the positive breakthrough of new mass parties of the left like Podemos return us to the environment that existed in the First and Second Internationals at the turn of the twentieth century when reformists, revolutionaries and all shades in between co-existed and debated within the same mass parties. The Anticapitalistas in their latest book openly accept that they have rethought how they work as a result of being in Podemos. If millions of people associate PSOE as part of the caste then you have to be careful how you use words like socialist or left/right. If you are both an anticapitalist and mayor of a town like Cadiz like Kichi Gonzalez, then you have to put forward concrete proposals that aren’t in some sacred left text.
If you have a leader with great presence and popularity like Iglesias who may have veered about somewhat in developing a political project you do not automatically denounce them. So far Iglesias has not crossed any class lines whatever he might say about the need for moderation in some areas. His idea of a change government is different to the constitutional rupture being proposed by the Anticapitalistas. It’s a debate that can continue calmly between comrades. In the big debate with Errejon and on the attitude to the PSOE he has been broadly correct, in proposing a progressive government and in refusing the involvement of Cuidadanos. He has even been criticised by a leading Madrid regional MP, Pablo Padilla Estrada, for going back to talking the language of left and right (interview Publico.es 12th Oct 2016).
Podemos remains a hope for the left. It is absolutely right that radicals and revolutionaries work to build and develop it. No one knows the future political trajectory of the forces that comprise it. The lessons of the PT in Brazil or of Syriza form part of the discussion today within Podemos about how to go forward. Just being more radical on paper is no guarantee that the right decisions will be made or that Podemos will continue to be an alternative. Lula became institutionalised and hemmed in by corruption but most of the revolutionary current in the PT also lost its bearings. A certain humility and willingness to learn, through building a serious mass left party, is also relevant for us in Britain within the Corbyn movement. Engaging with the ideas and actions of people like Pablo Iglesias is something that will help. This book is a good start.