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Not Syriza, Not Podemos, But a Working-Class Party Fighting for Socialism

What lessons can U.S. socialists draw from the experiences of Syriza, Podemos, and other broad left parties? Nathaniel Flakin and Jimena Vergara of Left Voice respond to Andrew Sernatinger of Tempest.

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Maddie Abuyuan / BuzzFeed News

I would like to thank Andrew Sernatinger of Tempest for his thoughtful response to my polemic about broad left parties. This debate is certainly helping me think through these complicated questions. I’ve asked Jimena to join me in writing a response. While we began by discussing the experiences of Podemos, Syriza, and the FIT in Argentina, comrade Sernatinger’s argument really poses the question: How can we build a working-class party that fights for socialism in the United States?

In this response, we’ll continue looking at the limits of broad left parties, and then we’ll try to be more explicit about what lessons U.S. socialists can draw.

Class Independence

Comrade Sernatinger and I agree on some basic premises regarding class independence. As revolutionary socialists going back to Marx and Engels have argued, we need to support every concrete step by the working class toward political independence, no matter how inadequate it may be. In each situation, we should put forward myriad tactics, but always attempt to move toward forming a revolutionary party.

The history of the U.S. socialist movement provides dramatic examples of this flexibility. When the Trotskyists set out to found a new revolutionary communist party in the 1930s, they didn’t just proclaim one. Instead, they fused with the American Workers Party, an independent formation that was moving to the left. Then, when a mass radicalization took place inside the reformist Socialist Party, the Trotskyists dissolved their own organization to enter the SP. When they were expelled from that party, taking most of the youth with them, there were discussions inside the CIO about founding a labor party. The Trotskyists declared that they would be willing to join a labor party as well, as a revolutionary minority. (This never came to fruition, because the CIO leadership eventually aligned with the Democratic Party.) It was only as a result of these many experiences alongside vanguard sectors of the U.S. working class that the Socialist Workers Party was finally founded in 1938.1For an overview of U.S. Trotskyist history, see the interview with historian Bryan Palmer on the latest episode of the Left Voice podcast All That’s Left.

On a much smaller scale, our trajectory as Left Voice has shown some of the same flexibility. Some of our comrades joined the DSA, for example, calling for a break with the Democratic Party and fighting for revolutionary socialist ideas — not too different from Tempest. We have initiated very broad coalitions, also alongside members of Tempest, to organize big actions for abortion rights.

But we firmly believe that real class independence can only take the form of a revolutionary party. If we all agree that the interests of the working class are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists, and that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” then only a party that seeks to topple the capitalists and their state is really on our side. It’s about being not only organizationally independent but also politically and ideologically independent — which is possible only when our class is actively fighting to topple the bourgeoisie.2Leon Trotsky wrote, for example: “The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party.” He added that the “progress of a class toward class consciousness” is synonymous with “the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat.”

The need for a revolutionary party is shown throughout history: we have seen countless revolutionary processes crushed by the capitalists, or diverted by reformists and Stalinists. In moments of revolutionary upsurge, the existence of a revolutionary organization with a certain amount of influence in the working class is the decisive condition for victory.

We will certainly experience further uprisings and revolutionary crises in our lifetimes. Throughout the neoliberal era, which was proclaimed to be “the end of history,” discussions about revolution seemed far off and even utopian. Now, however, we are seeing new global conflicts and increased class struggle — a return of the era of crisis, wars, and revolutions.

Even in the United States, the belly of the imperialist beast, there have been rumblings. The Black Lives Matter uprising, the new labor movement, and the growth of the DSA show that there is potential for independent socialist politics. Yet the Democratic Party has been, as it always is, a machine for co-opting movements. What could a step toward class independence look like?

What Kind of Party?

The experiences of Podemos in the Spanish State and Syriza in Greece keep coming up in debates in the U.S. Left. Syriza and Podemos reached mass influence as a result of protest movements. It was the Indignados or 15M movement, occupying public squares in the Spanish State in 2011, that gave an impetus to Podemos, while it was 32 general strikes against austerity in Greece that led to Syriza’s rapid growth.

Stathis Kouvelakis of Syriza’s left wing said that his party “captured … the imagination of the people by providing a political translation that so far had been missing from the pre-existing situation.” And this politicization of the social movements is exactly what socialists aim for. But Syriza did not present a political strategy for how the workers and youth could stop austerity. Quite the opposite: they directed the energy of the masses toward an election campaign for a “government of the Left.” The subsequent Greek government, a coalition of Syriza with a right-wing party, did not stop even a single austerity measure. Something similar happened when Podemos joined the Spanish government as a junior partner of the social democracy.

It’s surprising that such parties are being held up as a model. Yet Tempest did a public event arguing that revolutionary socialists should have been part of Podemos in the Spanish State and other broad left parties. At a recent panel discussion about the DSA, Stefan Kimmerle of the group Reform & Revolution similarly praised the example of the group Anticapitalistas in the Spanish State, “launching together with others Podemos and fighting for a Marxist course there.” Kimmerle added that revolutionaries should have been part of Syriza as well. He conceded that this orientation “didn’t work out,” but at least they “built the Anticapitalistas themselves.”

But how is it possible to launch Podemos — a nonsocialist, multiclass party, whose explicit goal was to administer the government of an imperialist state — and to simultaneously fight for a Marxist course, which is the exact opposite? Both Syriza and Podemos did attract a layer of youth who hated the traditional parties and wanted to change society. As a result, it was fundamental to have concrete tactics toward these parties. But such a policy would aim to build revolutionary factions based on radical opposition to the reformist and electoralist program of the leadership.

And Anticapitalistas never acted as a revolutionary opposition inside Podemos — they were among the founders of the party and the most enthusiastic supporters of its leader Pablo Iglesias. In this way, they helped create a new party that co-opted social movements and led them into bourgeois institutions.3For a longer discussion of the reasons for Syriza’s betrayal, see Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte, “Marxism and Military Strategy,” Left Voice, July 16, 2018.

Neoreformist Parties

We use the term “neoreformism” to indicate that these parties are not just a repeat of classical social democracy or the workers’ parties of the early 20th century. Syriza and Podemos were never workers’ parties — they aimed to represent an atomized “citizenry” rather than a class. They did not increase class consciousness because they were not class-based parties. Of course, these parties were made up primarily of wage earners — but that is true of almost any party in a developed capitalist state. They were not based in organized workers’ groups, like unions, nor did their program draw an essential distinction between workers and capitalists. They also never said their aim was to create a socialist society, even on a reformist path. Instead, they promised to restore democracy and put an end to neoliberal policies.

Neoreformist parties tend to be electoral apparatuses without much of an organic base in the working class. Their intention is to build a mass base of passive support that can be mobilized in elections. Leaders communicate to their supporters primarily through the capitalist media. Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias, for example, liked to have decisions made by online “referenda” — but he was the only figure in Podemos who could formulate the questions or propose possible answers. This is nothing like workers’ democracy — it better resembles a certain billionaire’s Twitter polls. Neoreformist parties are actually even less democratic than their social democratic forebears. And these organizations certainly do not promote the self-organization of the working class or of social movements — they instead encourage passivity.

A few decades ago in Europe, there were still reformist parties that organized hundreds of thousands or even millions of workers. Syriza, in contrast, never had more than 30,000 members on paper, even when it was winning national elections. The party could get millions of votes, but would often show up at demonstrations in Athens with contingents of just a few hundreds.4Yes, if you check Wikipedia, Syriza currently claims to have well over 100,000 members, but this is only because it allowed anyone to sign up on the internet. Syriza has never been anything like a mass workers’ party. The life cycle of reformism has also gotten much faster. Old social democratic parties took many decades to go from radical opposition to ministerial seats. Now parties like Podemos and Syriza are betraying their founding principles within just a few short years of formulating them. First as tragedy — then as farce.

These broad left parties — with a multiclass base centered on the petty bourgeoisie and a reformist program that promises to end austerity without ending capitalism — were always going to sell out the working class. As Marxists, we can and should be clear about that. Yet when such formations bring together larger sectors of workers and young people, we use different tactics to interact with them, without giving any political support to reformism.

Despite what comrade Sernatinger argues, it is one thing to launch a reformist party, and something very different to join an existing party as a revolutionary opposition. Anticapitalistas provided a lot of the infrastructure to set up Podemos, and they never proposed a fundamental alternative. They departed from Podemos only months after their party had joined an imperialist government. This was not a revolutionary break — instead, they publicly announced an “amicable divorce” with Iglesias, Spain’s second deputy prime minister.

If the goal is to win people to revolutionary socialist politics, we need to be clear that we are opponents of Iglesias and his reformist project. He is now responsible for evicting working-class families, denying the right of self-determination to oppressed nations, and sending imperialist troops all around the world. This was always Iglesias’s goal — and revolutionaries had nothing to gain by supporting him.

A Foregone Conclusion

While we of course agree that Syriza and Podemos both led to demoralization, comrade Sernatinger maintains that broad left parties can be potential steps toward class independence. We have seen how Podemos went from the occupied squares of 15M to government. But, perhaps, in a slightly different reality, could it have given an impetus for forming a revolutionary party? This seems like pure speculation — all the historical evidence shows these broad left parties dragging revolutionaries to the right, rather than drawing masses toward revolutionary ideas.

The comrade proposes an analogy to 1886, when Friedrich Engels expressed his support for a new labor party in New York: “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party.” (We’ve highlighted an important part here.) Parties like Syriza and Podemos were launched in countries where reformist workers’ parties had existed for decades, or in the case of Spain’s PSOE, for well over a century. Did the creation of additional neoreformist parties result in greater political independence for the working class? Podemos and the PSOE are now together in an imperialist government — is either one independent of the bourgeoisie?

Both Syriza and Podemos always said that in order to win parliamentary majorities, they would have to form coalitions with bourgeois parties. They were calling on their working-class supporters, who were engaged in different processes of struggle, to unite with representatives of the bourgeoisie — and in this sense, they were reducing class independence. Even at its best, reformism is only a very partial form of class independence, as reformists call on the working class to accept bourgeois rule.

Tempest and Reform & Revolution say that we should have supported these parties because their development wasn’t a “foregone conclusion” or “inevitable.” We would counter: Yes, it was! Iglesias always stated his intention to become a minister in His Majesty’s Government — he could have succeeded or failed, but he never for a second considered leading a revolutionary struggle against the Spanish State.

If we assume this wasn’t a foregone conclusion, then it’s all the more urgent to draw a critical balance sheet. Anticapitalistas helped launch Podemos, while Trotskyist groups like DEA were among the founders of Syriza. These neoreformist parties brought only betrayals and demoralization — so what should these groups have done differently to avoid such a terrible result? It seems the only lesson drawn is to launch more such parties in the future.

Comrade Sernatinger compares Left Voice to the ultraleft who joined the Communist International after 1919, and specifically to the radical suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. This is disingenuous. When Pankhurst spoke of “independence of reformism,” she meant that communists should refuse any kind of unity in action with reformist leaders. In his response to the ultralefts, Lenin was calling for communists to work in bourgeois parliaments, to work in reformist unions, and to fight for united fronts of the entire workers’ movement. We already do this, and the comrade knows that because we often do it together with Tempest. Lenin was never, to our knowledge, calling on communists to found reformist parties so that they could be a Marxist wing within them. Quite the opposite: we can find hundreds of quotes by Lenin calling for communists to form parties completely independent from reformists and centrists.

Comrade Sernatinger quotes Lenin to the effect that the masses of working people will draw revolutionary conclusions only once they have learned, from their own experience, that reformism cannot deliver on its promises. This is doubtless true, then as now. Revolutionaries therefore need tactics to accompany and hasten such experience — this means unity in action with reformist parties and unions, common experiences in class struggle, and placing bold demands on reformist leaders that would advance class struggle.

Unfortunately, this Leninist logic has, over several decades of retreat by the revolutionary Left, morphed into a stageist strategy. Since the 1990s, many revolutionary socialists decided that some kind of broad left party would be an inevitable first step toward an openly revolutionary organization. (This was the strategic logic that led the old ISO to campaign for the Green Party for several decades, for example.) This leads to a rather strange political conclusion: revolutionaries must first build a reformist party that will inevitably betray the masses, who will then suddenly turn to those same revolutionaries who had and campaigned for the reformist traitors. This is a terrible plan — and experience has confirmed it. The former left wing of Syriza has almost entirely disappeared, and Anticapitalistas appear no stronger than before they helped create a new party to govern Spanish imperialism. Anticapitalistas’ leading members might be somewhat more famous, but they are known as friends of Iglesias.

In this context, the example of the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U) in Argentina is important. It highlights a coalition of independent revolutionary organizations that has existed for more than a decade and has won more than 5 percent of votes in national elections. Alejandro Vilca, an Indigenous sanitation worker from the city of Jujuy, won up to 23 percent in his particularly poor province. Comrades like Myriam Bregman sit in the National Congress and have not only been in the front lines of the struggle for abortion rights — they talk very openly about ending capitalism.

Comrade Sernatinger doesn’t draw on the example of the FIT-U because of “completely different conditions in the United States.” Are conditions any less different in Spain or Greece? Every country is different. We should look closely at the example of Argentina, where revolutionaries can reach millions of people under the banner of class independence. Thus far, Tempest has chosen to highlight Podemos rather than the FIT as a model — we hope the comrades will organize a similar event where we can discuss lessons for us from the experience of the FIT. There are also example of revolutionaries uniting on the basis of class independence, without reformists, in Chile, Mexico, and Brazil.

To Be or Not to Be

Although we have many agreements with Tempest regarding their intervention in the DSA, we would argue something similar in the DSA. There was a time, a few years ago, when revolutionaries could work fairly openly in the DSA. But the organization’s attitude toward class independence was always wishy-washy, and almost no one argued against campaigning for the Democratic Party politician Bernie Sanders.5One of the very few exceptions was the Socialist Feminist Working Group in NYC DSA. The DSA’s brief radicalism was always going to give way to voter registration campaigns for Democrats. The excuses for Sanders’s imperialism prepared the ground for worse betrayals, like AOC on the railway strike and Bowman on the Iron Dome. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, the question of reform or revolution is the “to be or not to be” of the socialist movement — and the DSA chose “not to be” a long time ago. There was never going to be a peaceful evolution from reformism to revolution — our best hope was for a revolutionary rupture.

Tempest and Left Voice agree in broad strokes that socialists can work in the DSA as a radical opposition by campaigning to break from the Democrats. Both publications have talked openly about limits to that orientation as the DSA becomes more deeply entrenched in the Democratic Party. That’s why we believe it’s time to discuss a campaign for a working-class party that fights for socialism. This would not be the same as a broad left party like Syriza or Podemos. We would be highlighting the centrality of the working class and the goal of socialism.

The way we see to build this party is not to simply “raise the red flag” — even though that’s not a bad start — but rather to unite the struggles of our class and to politicize them. This means fighting austerity, imperialism, systemic racism, the Right, and its attacks, and fighting for the rights of workers to unionize, for free and universal healthcare and education, for full rights for immigrants, and for so much more. The role of revolutionaries here is to intervene in every process of class struggle, pushing for self-organization and connecting it to the perspective of building a different society.

To return to an analogy: Back in 1886, Engels expressed his support for a new workers’ party in New York. Today, 137 years later, we are seeing exciting new processes of organization and radicalization among New York workers. We support every strike and unionization campaign at Starbucks, Amazon, UPS, etc. — and we encourage these workers to take up political demands. In the same spirit, we also fight for self-organization in Black Lives Matter, to fight NGO-ization and co-optation by the Democratic Party. These would be real steps to turn the energy of Generation U into a political voice.

The DSA can still be a dynamic phenomenon where it represents sectors of youth who are unionizing and fighting oppression in their workplaces. But at a recent panel, comrade Sernatinger pointed out how continued betrayals by Democratic Party politicians who are members of the DSA are demoralizing the organization’s rank and file. Bernie Sanders, once a hero to millions of young people, now collaborates with Biden’s administration. Against this demoralization, we need to fight to radicalize the thinking of young people inside the DSA, so that broad sectors draw the conclusion that a break with the Democratic Party is possible and necessary. We support any step in this direction — such as the call by DSA Boise and the Red Labor Caucus — while agitating for a revolutionary program.

But radicalization means more than just breaking with the Democrats. We also need to explain why the reformist policies of Podemos and Syriza were always going to lead to a dead end. Instead, we should be clear that we are fighting for a very different kind of party.

Notes

Notes
1 For an overview of U.S. Trotskyist history, see the interview with historian Bryan Palmer on the latest episode of the Left Voice podcast All That’s Left.
2 Leon Trotsky wrote, for example: “The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party.” He added that the “progress of a class toward class consciousness” is synonymous with “the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat.”
3 For a longer discussion of the reasons for Syriza’s betrayal, see Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte, “Marxism and Military Strategy,” Left Voice, July 16, 2018.
4 Yes, if you check Wikipedia, Syriza currently claims to have well over 100,000 members, but this is only because it allowed anyone to sign up on the internet. Syriza has never been anything like a mass workers’ party.
5 One of the very few exceptions was the Socialist Feminist Working Group in NYC DSA.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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