Ideas & Debates
Syriza and Podemos: A Necessary Balance
Syriza and Podemos emerged in Southern Europe in the context of a deep capitalist crisis and a concomitant crisis of the political regimes. Both political formations occupied the vacant space left by the decline in popularity of European social democracies, who are responsible for rigorously implementing the neoliberal agenda against workers and youth over the last decades.
August 06, 2016
This article was published in our first printed edition, A New Generation Rises Up.
The full expression of these formations was preceded by the buildup of generalized rejection of the traditional parties of the “extreme center” (in Tariq Ali’s words), which had developed an incestuous relationship with power. This, along with the resistance in the streets, fostered electoral illusions in the neo-reformist parties. A large part of the international left pointed to Syriza and Podemos as models for a new possible, renewed Left; one adapted to our times.
However, it has not taken long for both organizations to demonstrate their narrow limits and failure to become instruments of change. Confronted with the test of power, they turned into moderate social-democratic projects – a reformism without reforms. They have utterly abandoned any questioning of the status quo and the real powers of capitalism.
A Greek Tragedy
A meeting with Chinese businessmen to negotiate the terms of privatization of Piraeus, the largest port in Greece; drastic cuts to pensions and public spending in order to comply with the Troika; a joint press conference with NATO officials to defend military operations in the Aegean Sea; an agreement with Turkey to expel refugees; police crackdowns on demonstrations. These are some of the actions taken by the government of Alexis Tsipras just in the last month.
Since the onset of the Syriza government, the workers and youth of Greece have already held three general strikes, along with strikes of government employees, seafarers, and press workers, youth mobilizations and protests by peasants and retirees. Greeks are returning to the struggle, taking to the streets and fighting a party that many of them voted into power barely over a year ago.
They voted for Syriza with the hope of putting an end to decades of neoliberalism and austerity and winning back better living conditions. However, in the span of 6 months, Syriza capitulated to the Troika and adopted its neoliberal discourse of “there is no alternative.” Syriza adopted their politics, too.
On March 8, an important meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took place in Esmirna. The two reached a deal that led to the EU-Turkey agreement for the mass expulsion of refugees from Greece back to Turkey.
Since then, thousands of European police officers and agents of Turkey’s security forces have arrived in Greece to jointly carry out these deportations. The Greek government aims to evict millions of refugees living in inhumane conditions on the border of Macedonia and across the Greek islands. Refugee centers have been turned into open air prisons where men, women and children are incarcerated.
Europe has closed its borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees desperately fleeing the war in Syria. The central role of the Syriza government in this racist and criminal joint operation represents its second great capitulation.
Some of Syriza’s defenders argue that the Greek government had no other option; that it does not have the resources to accept any more refugees, given the harsh budget cuts imposed by the Troika. But the fact is, Syriza did not need to accept those neoliberal policies. Moreover, the government has not just accepted this racist agreement, but has turned itself into its defender and enforcer. This is tragic.
At the March 8 meeting, Tsipras cheerfully handed out flowers and called on people to have confidence in the treaty with Turkey. Just days earlier, the Turkish government brutally repressed protesters at an International Women’s Day demonstration. Tsipras did not utter a word about the crackdown; nor did he mention the massacre that the Turkish military is carrying out against the Kurds or the repression and the persecution of the opposition press. It seems that these topics are best left unmentioned if one does not want to lose “good allies.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Athens in April and held a joint press conference with Alexis Tsipras. The Syriza leader urged NATO to expand its naval missions in the Aegean Sea to prevent thousands of refugees from arriving on the Greek Islands and for the international institution “to show its credibility and its effectiveness” in the face of pressing challenges.
Just like Syriza, Podemos in Spain is the expression of the diversion and blockade of the rising class struggle that followed the capitalist crisis.
The Greek Left and the social movements have historically demanded that the country withdraw from NATO and shut down its military bases. The Syriza government has abandoned this program and now defends NATO operations along the Greek coast that seal off European borders from refugees.
Sweeping privatizations, pension cuts, repression and a reactionary foreign policy. The Syriza government’s abandonment of its stated goals brutally demonstrates the limits of a reformist strategy in the context of European imperialist capitalism.
Podemos, A degraded illusion
Just like Syriza, Podemos in Spain is the expression of the diversion and blockade of the rising class struggle that followed the capitalist crisis. The bureaucratic leadership of the workers’ movement and reformist political apparatus were key players in containing and diverting the resistance to “electoral illusions.” Podemos was the political crystallization of this illusion.
Since its origins, Pablo Iglesias’ party differed in many ways from classic reformism, where party structure and recruitment of working-class elements prevailed. Instead, Podemos emerged as a “broad” organization: reliant on “video politics” and well-known media figures like Pablo Iglesias. Thus from its inception, the leadership has always reserved enormous autonomy from its base. The circles of rank-and-file members have since disintegrated and lost all decision-making power. The leadership imposed a conservative revision of the party’s already moderate program, and then embraced a populist discourse and a plebiscite method of online voting. Along the way, Pablo Iglesias forced his former allies of Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA) to dissolve their organisation (which later became the Anticapitalistas movement) as a requirement for staying in Podemos. The IA’s leadership unconditionally surrendered without a fight.
The Podemos leadership was convinced that it could take power in one fell swoop, and massively overestimated the potential of its increasingly moderate discourse —one which denied the need for mobilization and class struggle as a part of the political struggle. However, despite its success at local elections and the remarkable results in the December 20 elections, the rise of Podemos was not enough to surpass the vote of the Socialist Party of Spain (PSOE). One could argue that Podemos has fallen into its own trap: the fragmentation of social mobilization has helped the PSOE to avoid “pasokification” (total collapse a la PASOK in Greece) and maintained a higher vote than Podemos was capable of.
Since its initial breakthrough onto the political scene in the European elections of 2014, Podemos undergone through numerous stages. Initially, it took the form of a pure expression of the illusion of politics: propagating the possibility to revive democracy and escape the crisis while staying within the framework of the capitalist system and liberal democracy.
On this basis, Podemos, Izquierda Unida and other “citizen” or grassroots platforms originated in e 15M (indignados) movement served as vehicles for a gradualist illusion that peaked during the 2015 municipal elections. In major cities throughout Spain, Podemos’ and other left platforms’ citizen-candidates were elected to various local governments. Soon after, their first tests of power demonstrated the insurmountable limits of neo-reformism.
With their embedded logic of controlling the State, these candidates quickly began to confine themselves to the margins of what is possible within their processes of change. Their absolute respect for capitalist legality and the “sacred” property of the banks prevents them from carrying out the social measures they pledged to implement. We have seen this in Madrid and Barcelona, where these candidates renounced their previous demands of non-payment of debt and re-municipalization of privatized public services. Moreover, these governments have directly come into confrontation with workers in struggle. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau urged local subway workers to call off their strike even before they sat down negotiate. In the last few weeks, the government has orchestrated ruthless police raids against undocumented migrants who work as street vendors – a repressive policy that mirrors right-wing governments.
After the December elections, Podemos made a qualitative leap in its “turn to moderation” when it adopted a completely conciliatory policy towards the social-liberal PSOE, calling them to jointly form a government. This failed attempt was the catalyst for an internal crisis that was only resolved with “purges” and battles within the apparatus—methods which resembled those of Stalinism and bourgeois political manoeuvering.
For two months following the elections, Podemos tried to form a government pact with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Pablo Iglesias initially wanted the Vice Presidency for himself, along with several ministries. With this objective in mind, he abandoned all programmatic principles during the negotiations and put forward a minimal social democratic terms. Ultimately, the PSOE opted for a pact with the new center-right Ciudadanos in an attempt to form a government of the “political center.” However, since no party or coalition has been able to achieve a simple majority in Congress, new elections will most likely take place in June.
In the case of new elections, Podemos has reached a preliminary agreement with Izquierda Unida (United Left) to appear on the same ticket: a marriage of convenience where no discussion takes place around the political program. What is also true is that they do not differ in their embrace of a gradualist strategy, which leaves the door open for them to form a government of progress.
In other words, Podemos may end up forming government with a party that has applied harsh cuts and neoliberal austerity measures against the working class, a party that has been one of the pillars of the political regime since 1978, and a representative of the corrupt “political caste” the leaders of Podemos once denounced.
Podemos’ proposal to join forces with the PSOE and form a “government of change” nurtures the illusion that some kind of change is possible with this social-liberal party. Furthermore, it would catalyze a bourgeois regeneration of the political regime, which is now submerged in a deep crisis. This strategy, which leads inevitably back to the old experience of social democracy, is presented as the only possible alternative, the “lesser evil” – a testament to the degradation of illusions that arose at the time of the 15M movement.
A new anti-capitalist revolutionary hypothesis
Despite their political and organizational differences and particular developments over the past few years, both Syriza and Podemos have defended a program and strategy of reforming capitalism within the boundaries of parliamentary democracy. They have appealed to an eclectic mix of ideas taken from the arsenal of Eurocommunism, old Social Democracy and Post-Marxism. But at least Eurocommunism and the reformist left of the 1970s redefined socialism as the broadening and development of bourgeois democracy, the only way to avoid falling into a totalitarian conception of society and secure a “democratic road to socialism”. The new version of reformism renounced this ultimate goal as well.
In the absence of organic relations with broad sections of the workers’ movement on top of decades of neoliberal advances and retreat of the working class worldwide, the leaders of Syriza and Podemos do not even advance the idea of socialism as political goal. They instead undertake the more narrow and senile objective of a return to the welfare state and a revival of social democracy. Although these new renditions of reformism are far removed from the bureaucratized party apparatuses of the historical social democrats and Stalinist community parties, their program and strategy contain much of “the bad” in them (starting with their reformist strategy) and none of the “good” (their implantation in the mass organizations of the working class).
The strategic poverty of the leadership of Syriza and Podemos also applies to the politics of the “critical” sectors within them. While Syriza’s dissident elements were stronger and better organized as a tendency, they still defended a return to Nicos Poulantzas’ strategy of combining positions internal and external to the State in order to advance a process of radicalizing democracy. This ultimately means being incorporated into reformist organizations and adapting to their strategy and program. This perspective erases the idea of revolution as a moment of rupture. It is the logical outcome of abandoning the insurrectional hypothesis as well as the path of revolutionary mass mobilization, the centrality of the working class, and the necessity of building revolutionary parties with an internationalist and socialist program.
Experience has shown that in a very short period, far from combatting the reformist and “statist” deviations of Podemos and Syriza, these policies have contributed to the strategic disarmament of the working-class and popular sectors when the task is to break with the machinery of the capitalist state and fight the attacks of the bourgeoisie.
With the failure of neo-reformism, it has become a vital task to develop an anti-capitalist, revolutionary project in Europe. In Spain, there are new promising initiatives like the No Time to Lose campaign (“No Hay Tiempo Que Perder”), which Clase contra Clase, independent activists, and other radical left organizations have launched together. This initiative is an attempt to regroup all those who agree with the need to take up a working-class, anti-capitalist program. No Time to Lose is a nascent and modest initiative, but with great potential to take strong steps toward the construction of a political front across Spain; one that rejects the strategy of both old and new reformism, the regime that was restored back in 1978; one which takes up the challenge of laying the groundwork for a genuine alternative for workers, women, and youth.
Translation: Juan Cruz Ferre