No.11 Summer 2016

Podemos and left populism

The rise of Podemos in 2014 shook Spanish politics to its core.

Emerging from the ashes of the Indignados movement, Podemos posed a radical challenge to the discredited Spanish establishment, and channelled the mass hostility to the neoliberal assault on the welfare state. It inspired millions, and less than a year after its formation was polling upwards of 25 percent, absolutely unprecedented in the Spanish state. Little wonder then that there was widespread talk of it replacing the Socialists as the main left party, as its ubiquitous leader, Pablo Iglesias, became one of the most recognised figures in Spanish politics.

What seemed so exciting about this project was that it appeared to offer a new way forward to mass influence. Podemos eschewed the patient accumulation of cadres and activists and traditional socialist discourses and practices; in fact Iglesias cultivated an explicitly hostile relationship to the existing left organisations, attacking them as tired, dogmatic and redundant.

But the triumphant rhetoric of 2014 is already sounding shrill. Despite a strong showing in national elections in December 2015, a growing number of activists have been critical of the party’s political moderation as well as its undemocratic internal regime. These debates are set to intensify as Podemos wins a larger presence in institutions of the bourgeois state, and potentially even backs a government led by the neoliberal Socialist Party.

This article provides some background to the rise of Podemos and puts forward a critical analysis of the theory and political strategy that inform its leadership, namely the ideas of post-Marxism and left populism.

Spanish context – crisis

Spain’s entry to the EU in 1999 coincided with a period of apparent prosperity and economic boom, an experience shared by many of the advanced capitalist nations. As has been documented elsewhere, the high growth rates of this period were largely illusory, based on global credit and property bubbles that had their origins in low profit rates in the core sectors of the economy.[1] Some sections of the working and middle classes benefited from this process in the form of jobs growth, particularly in construction, due to the increased capacity to leverage cheap credit. Others, particularly the youth, were locked out of the market by exorbitant prices. However the real winners in this period were construction companies, property developers and other large investors. The GFC destroyed this model, as tightening credit markets led to falling house prices and a slump in construction, which then combined with a host of other problems to produce a profound economic crisis.

For much of the boom the Spanish state was ruled by the social democratic Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE). A party similar to PASOK in Greece, the PSOE was the party of the transition from military dictatorship to liberal democracy in the 1970s, and was deeply embedded in the institutions of state. Despite being led by the uninspiring figure of Zapatero, the PSOE had been popular following its decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, legalise marriage equality for LBGTI couples, ease restrictions on abortion rights, and so on.

Zapatero initially endorsed a Keynesian approach to the GFC, promising that he would “never make workers pay for the crisis”.[2] However after two years of jittery financial markets, European disdain and personal lobbying from Barack Obama himself, the PSOE adopted a more typical bourgeois response, announcing increases to the retirement age, big cuts to public servants’ pay and a host of radically regressive reforms to welfare and disability payments.

These measures produced tremendous anger in Spanish society. In an early election called in 2011, the Zapatero government recorded the worst ever result for the PSOE, which received just 28.8 percent of the vote, leading to a big win for the right wing People’s Party (PP). But far from being a right wing shift, it represented mass working class disillusionment, as both abstention rates and support for the Communist-dominated United Left (IU) increased substantially.

Unfortunately this rejection of the PSOE did not lead to an immediate upsurge in working class struggle. There were some impressive set-piece demonstrations, a number of sectoral strikes and even a very successful one-day general strike in September 2010. But no ongoing movement emerged, due to the passivity and right wing politics of the union bureaucracies.[3] In fact this initial wave of resistance ended in an inglorious defeat in January 2011, as the main trade union federations did a shameful deal to back the government’s neoliberal reforms. Despite its electoral gains, the bureaucratic politics of the IU meant it lacked an orientation to building a street or workplace movement against the cuts, and the non-Stalinist left was far too small to have an impact. Thus the situation was characterised by mass hostility to austerity, but a lack of real political leadership and coordination from any of the established organisations on the Spanish left. Meanwhile unemployment soared to over 20 percent, and wages declined for those lucky enough to maintain their jobs.

Anti-politics and the Indignados movement

It is only by understanding this context that we can see how a call for a rally by a tiny group called ¡Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!) could inspire what eventually became the biggest social movement in Spain since the fall of Franco. The day itself, 15 May, became an historic turning point, as the frustration felt by hundreds of thousands of students, workers and other oppressed groups finally found political expression in enormous demonstrations and street occupations across the country.

The politics of the Indignados movement can be usefully characterised as a form of anarcho-liberalism. Like many of the movements that erupted around the world in 2011, it drew on anarchist themes and styles, in particular a belief in participatory democracy and direct action. Though the politics of the camps varied, the element of lifestylism was particularly dominant in places where the autonomists were strong, as activists sought to establish the occupations as spaces of free exchange, communal living and importantly, consensus decision-making. As many critics of horizontalism and the anti-democratic consensus approach argued at the time, this often led to paralysing debates and endless meetings that tended to exclude those with fewer resources.[4]

The autonomist influence also meant that the movement displayed a deep hostility towards the organised left, which applied even to some of the more organised anarchist groups. Unions were barred from displaying their insignia in the squares, and some union rallies had to be re-routed to avoid confrontation with the Indignados. Almost a year after the movement began, some sections still refused to engage in joint action against cuts with the unions, though eventually some of this sentiment broke down, most notably during the miners’ strike of 2012. The far left received a similarly authoritarian treatment, their banners and flags banned from the squares for a whole period, as was the selling of left wing newspapers and literature.

While the protests took a radical form, the politics that informed the movement were actually quite moderate. The movement railed against the corruption and nepotism of the ruling elites which had been exposed most notably in the Gurtel case.[5] Its language and slogans consisted of an angry rejection of the whole political class and the “system” behind it. However the basic existence of capitalism was never seriously challenged, at either a rhetorical or theoretical level. Instead activists generally emphasised the need to restore genuine or “real” democracy as a solution to the social and economic crisis in Spain.[6] Understanding the underlying liberalism inherent in this anarchistic form is important in understanding subsequent developments, including the rise of Podemos.

This characterisation of the movement is far from uncontested. There is an ongoing debate on the left about the extent to which the politics of 15-M, Occupy, and other radical movements of 2011 represented a political rupture with the bourgeois order. Two main arguments have been proposed by those who believe 15-M was more radical than has been credited above. Liz Humphrys and Tad Tietze are among those who emphasise the radicalism of the 15-M, using the term “anti-politics” to describe its character. Like others on the left, they argue that the hollowing out of liberal democracy and the convergence of political elites has led to a disconnection between what they call “civil society” and “the state”.[7] In particular they emphasise the integration of social democracy – in the form of political parties and the trade unions – into the neoliberal project as a key element of this process. This has had the result of alienating the working class from its traditional institutions, leaving the bourgeoisie with fewer means of influence and control. Drawing on early Marx and the work of Gramsci, they suggest that this disconnect is historically progressive, as it clarifies the true nature of “political society” as the means by which the ruling class achieves hegemony over the working class and the population more broadly.

So far, there is little divergence from traditional Marxist analysis. However Humphrys and Tietze go further than most in arguing that far from being a perspective shaped by neoliberalism and defeat of the working class, anti-politics is an expression of a radical truth about society that is basically anti-capitalist. Luke Stobart, a London-based member of Podemos, argues that the anti-political character of the Indignados represented “a mature challenge to the system that is free of many of the social-democratic illusions of previous movements”.[8] Elsewhere Humphrys and Tietze assert a binary between “uncritical participation within the logic of capitalist politics [versus] social struggles that seek to challenge that logic”.[9] From this perspective, the Indignados movement was the clearest expression of a progressive global trend that seeks to bypass establishment parties and reformist institutions, skipping directly to an anti-systemic form of social struggle.[10]

This conclusion has many weaknesses. For one thing, it has led proponents of anti-politics – despite their caveats – to largely dismiss the traditional left institutions such as trade unions and political parties. In an article in International Socialism Humphrys and Tietze argue that:

Under capitalism all politics is necessarily “capitalist politics” precisely because “the political” only exists as a separate – and alienated – sphere in modern, bourgeois society. This is why we say that a consistent strategy of social revolution must be “anti-political”: because by ending the capitalist state and moving to replace capitalist social relations with an organisation of freely associated producers, the social revolution will remove the material basis of a separate politics.[11]

It is true that the division between economics and politics is a product of bourgeois society, and that politics as we know it today will be abolished under socialism. But Humphrys and Tietze fail to see that only social revolution can abolish this really-existing antinomy between economics and politics, the political and the social. French Trotskyist Daniel Bensaïd aptly describes this intellectual error in another context: “One fetishism thus drove out another: the ‘illusion of the social’ replaced what Marx had called the ‘political illusion’, without however managing to go beyond their formal antinomy.”[12]

Up to the point of revolutionary crisis, the onus is on the left to transcend this antinomy by understanding that the ideas that social actors hold about economics and politics are dialectically related – views on politics shape strategic decisions in class and social movements, and the social movements – most importantly, the class struggle – shape interventions into the political realm.

After decades of defeat, workers and the oppressed currently have few connections to the ideas and traditions developed at the high points of the workers’ movement. We should therefore expect that the politics of the broad left and the newly politicised will tend to be more or less bourgeois. This cannot and will not be turned around overnight. Humphrys and Tietze have a fundamentally different assessment, which is that decades of neoliberalism have smashed workers’ illusions in the bourgeois politics:

Crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less ‘representative’ of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’s actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent.” Further, it is the separation of the state from civil society that “creates the appearance of representation, one that masks the underlying social relations of domination. It is this appearance that is now breaking down.[13]

That is to say, the working class can and has spontaneously overcome the reification of class relations in the state and political realm, without any mass struggle. Rather than accept this decidedly non-Marxist conclusion, we should take seriously the insights provided by Lukács and Gramsci, who in complementary ways explain how alienation and reformist consciousness can only be fully transcended in the process of revolutionary class struggle led by a mass workers’ party.[14] In the meantime, there will be myriad stages and gradations in the development of mass consciousness, all of which will be unavoidably political in the bourgeois sense of the word.

What this means is that while anti-political sentiments can reflect a healthy rejection of bourgeois elites, they’re a deeply limited source of strategic vision. For one thing, there is nothing inherently left wing about opposing “the establishment” – as evidenced by the rise of Pegida in Germany, UKIP in Britain, or the more long term growth of the National Front in France. But even when these sentiments develop in a left wing direction they are hardly a guide to revolutionary policy. Most notably, anti-political moods risk feeding ultra-left abstentionism, as was seen in the early days of 15-M; unions and elections are part of the capitalist system after all. This is particularly dangerous in the advanced capitalist countries where the union bureaucracy and parliamentarism are key planks of bourgeois hegemony. Defeating these institutions, and the reified consciousness upon which they rest, will require conscious political intervention by revolutionary forces. They cannot be ignored or bypassed.

The proof of this is also the most telling failure of the anti-political thesis: the emergence of a number of political movements in the aftermath of the failed social struggles of 2011. Take the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the US, the surge of the Scottish National Party and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the rise of Syriza in Greece. All these examples strengthen the classical Marxist argument that any primal rejection of the state and electoralism will inevitably end up as support for state-centric bourgeois politics, if not channelled in a clear revolutionary direction.

While Humphrys, Tietze and Stobart maintain a radical stance in response to these developments, they are rather atypical. The more common experience is that those who once championed movements like the Indignados are now reconciled to a more traditional reformist approach.

Paul Mason is probably the clearest example of this tendency. He is best known as the author of a book published at the height of the Arab Spring, titled Why it’s kicking off everywhere. He locates the rise of an international wave of protest movements around that time in the intersection of two distinct processes – austerity and economic crisis on one hand, and the social transformations resulting from the widespread use of the internet on the other. Drawing in particular on the network theories of Manuel Castells, he optimistically suggests that “horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements.”[15]

Related to this alleged horizontalism is his description of the politics of these new movements. Like Humphrys and Tietze, Mason celebrates the anti-political attitudes of the Indignados and other protesters of 2011. “They see the various ‘revolutions’ in their own personal lives as central to the change they’re trying to make” which is why “all exhortations to ‘formulate demands’, embrace structure, or turn to ‘everyday life’ miss the point: the activists’ unwillingness to engage is precisely what has allowed them, up to now, to disrupt the timetable of official politics”.[16] Yet at the same time as he applauds this political ethos, he warns that it is self-limiting. Thus he argues in the same piece, “The real changes desired by those who protest are still only achievable by those prepared to wield hierarchical power: be it Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei, President Obama or Greek leftist leader Alexis Tsipras.” Putting aside the dubious comparisons between the three figures, he uses them to make a positive case for shifting the struggle from the streets to the halls of power: “[the protest movements] will probably be forced to engage with the things they despise: compromise, parliamentary politics, the art of the possible”. Unlike Humphrys and Tietze, Mason is aware of the fundamental limitations of anti-political movementism, but rather than identifying the need for revolutionary politics, he promotes an unashamedly reformist strategy. This defence of the “art of the possible” explains why Mason was supportive of some of the most deplorable compromises made by the Syriza leadership after their election in 2015. This includes the signing of the third memorandum, which despite some soft criticisms, he defended as “basically redistributive”.[17]

Thus we see the two main errors that the left can make in relating to the anti-political sentiments so influential in the current period. One is to impute a non-existent radicalism to the movements that emerge in response to austerity and oppression, which carries the serious risk of failing to prepare both organisationally and ideologically to combat the liberal reformism that lies beneath the radical forms the protests have taken. The other response is to see the weaknesses of these movements and therefore encourage a turn to bourgeois politics and the inevitable pragmatic negotiations with traditional elites. As we shall see, Podemos leaders place themselves firmly in the latter camp.

Rather than fall into either of these traps, the left can and should develop slogans and tactics appropriate to each moment in the oscillation between anarchistic activism and liberal reformism. The exhilaration that any revolutionary feels at the high points of struggle must be tempered with a serious analysis of the political context in order to avoid depression or confusion when the movement retreats. To be successful, this can only be based on a balanced analysis of the political situation, which is summed up well by Josep Maria Antentas, a Trotskyist active inside Podemos in Barcelona:

[W]e are in a complex and contradictory context. Today’s re-politicization comes after decades of de-politicization. The resumption of self-organization cannot easily overcome the historical breakdown of traditional political and workplace forms. Great social unrest is paired with a low level of political consciousness, while social radicalization is still confined to a capitalist-consumerist horizon.[18]

Having provided this important qualification, it is important to return to the fact that the protests that developed from 15-M were the biggest and broadest since the fall of Franco. The youth were undeniably the vanguard, driven to action by years of unaffordable housing, precarious employment and the endemic corruption of the political class.[19] Workers and the oppressed of all ages quickly came to identify with the movement, seeing hope in this much needed fightback against austerity, unemployment and the failure of the post-transition model of political representation. The main slogans of the 15-M rally, “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” and “they don’t represent us” perfectly expressed this broad anti-establishment mood. In October of 2011 a poll in El País found that 73 percent of Spaniards thought that the 15-M movement was right, and 65 percent wanted it to continue.[20] In the same poll, a staggering 20 percent indicated that they had participated in a demonstration associated with the Indignados.

Sadly, the occupations of public streets and squares could not last forever. The occupied plazas quickly became focal points for dynamic political organisation and debate, open to new recruits and established activists alike. For a while these spaces effectively substituted for the radical union networks and party structures that had been so weakened by decades of neoliberalism. However unlike such structures, this organising method depended on the activists having permanent access to physical space in the heart of urban centres. This left the movement vulnerable to attack by the repressive forces of the state. So after some not-so-gentle encouragement by the police, activists voted to abandon the central camps and began organising in local areas around issues such as housing, health and so on.[21] And while the campaigns around these issues are impressive, they have not made headlines or inspired public participation in the same way as the now defunct Indignados.


It is clear now that the Indignados movement provided the conditions for the emergence of a left political response to the crisis of Spanish society. To begin with, it was the established United Left (IU) coalition that benefited from this situation, rising from a low of around 3 percent popularity in 2008 to an impressive 14 percent in mid-2013. However it was always an uneasy fit. IU is dominated by the Spanish Communist Party, which lacks both the politics and the organisational culture to relate fully to the youth radicalisation. Its role in managing one of the conservative union federations, its participation in a range of neoliberal regional governments alongside the PSOE and its implication in corruption scandals undermined its ability to position itself as the political representative of the anti-bureaucratic 15-M movement.

So when Pablo Iglesias and a group of academics at the Complutense University in Madrid decided to form Podemos, many thousands quickly joined what seemed to be a party of a new type.

Iglesias was already a counter-cultural figure in the Spanish state, known for his talk show La Tuerka, which presented left wing perspectives on current affairs. He and the team behind the show leapt on the opportunity to form Podemos in January of 2014, after a manifesto calling for the creation of an anti-austerity party to reform the EU was signed by 30 prominent figures on the Spanish left.

The project began by involving existing activists in party “circles” – notably the Trotskyist organisation Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left, IA), but also fellow academics, former Indignados, people from anti-eviction struggles, defectors from IU and other sections of the broad left.

Very quickly, however, Podemos expanded beyond the dreams of these original activists, achieving a significant profile in the mass media and a “networked” model of organisation that allowed 100,000 people to join the party within just 20 days. In the European elections in May 2014, it received a staggering 8 percent of the vote, just four months after its creation, immediately eclipsing IU. At its first conference in October 2014, an impressive 100,000 votes were cast (using online voting systems) in debates about the party constitution, leadership structure, policies and so on.

The mass response to Podemos indicated that it had emerged at just the right time to tap into the sentiments created by the rise (and fall) of the Indignados. Having quickly achieved notoriety and mass support, debates emerged regarding the program, strategy and tactics of the organisation.


Given the regularity in which Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are cited by Iglesias and his team, and that they are likely to be unknown to many readers, it will be useful to briefly sketch the outlines of their theories.

Laclau and Mouffe were the founders of the “post-Marxism” tradition – one of the more conservative schools of thought that emerged from the French Communist Party in the late 1970s. In their landmark work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe dismiss the capacity of Marxism to explain the complexity of bourgeois society. However, given their origins in the left, they feel the need to throw their erstwhile comrades a bone. So it is suggested that the brilliance of Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci and other key Marxist thinkers was their ability to transcend the economistic categories of historical materialism and grapple with the fluidity of real life. Thus they recognise the importance of Marxist concepts such as hegemony and Luxemburg’s insights on the mass strike. Typically they see Gramsci as the least reductionist of all due to his exploration of culture, language and morality in the Prison Notebooks.

However in wholeheartedly embracing the worst aspects of post-structuralism, Laclau and Mouffe reject our capacity to understand society as a whole. They thus dismiss each of the high theorists of Marxism, accusing them of economism, which becomes a term of abuse applied to anyone who believes in the existence of socio-economic classes.[22] Laclau and Mouffe go even further, turning their back on “the rationalism of classical Marxism, which presented history and society as intelligible totalities constituted around conceptually explicable laws”.[23] This is an obvious capitulation to the Foucauldian trends of the time; Marxism is rejected because it assumes the world can be explained rationally, based on an analysis of economic processes and all that flows from them. It should be apparent that this criticism goes well beyond a rejection of Marxism. Any theory that posits a “grand narrative” of society based on the existence of material or social factors can be dismissed as essentialist, reductionist and worst of all, closed.

Instead, Laclau and Mouffe insist that we understand society as an “open” field; a blank map with no pre-existing continents, landmarks or distinguishing features of any kind. They argue that this perspective has the advantage of being a more accurate reflection of the social experience, as identities and loyalties are in a constant state of flux. In any context the relative salience, nay, even the existence, of class, race, gender and so on cannot be predetermined or presupposed, but must be contested and constructed. From their perspective, class, gender, race and so on are purely linguistic-cultural productions with no connection to material reality. In this world there are no inherent social interests, and therefore no real basis for solidarity or unity.

In later more directly political works, Laclau in particular has built on this postmodern theory of society, suggesting that the task of the left is to develop a discourse that can unify “the people” against the establishment. The theoretical basis for this perspective is summarised in the following passage:

If society were unified by a determinate ontic content – determination in the last instance by the economy, spirit of the people, systemic coherence, or whatever – the totality could be directly represented at the strictly conceptual level. Since this is not the case, a hegemonic totalisation requires a radical investment – that is, one that is not determinable a priori – and engagement in signifying games that are very different from purely conceptual apprehension. As we shall see, the affective dimension plays a central role here.[24]

So while it is still possible to unify the disparate aspects of the social world, this unity must be discursively developed through a “radical investment” in linguistic “games”, not through theoretical and scientific engagement with the objective reality of society. The mechanism by which this unity is constructed is the development of what Laclau calls “floating” or “empty” signifiers. Out of the fluidity of society, Laclau argues, emerge certain demands which express the desires of certain groupings of people (unfortunately how and why these would emerge is left unexplained, perhaps because they cast doubt on the denial of objective interests). These are defined as democratic demands. However, the theory has already precluded the possibility of a single democratic demand applying to everyone, or even a significant majority. How is it possible then to unify these various groupings? It requires one of the democratic demands, a signifier (e.g. “the people want the fall of the regime”), to become generalised and adopted by all those with grievances against the state, becoming a floating signifier. In this process, the slogan loses its original meaning and is emptied of all content; its political content is filled in by each group that adopts it.

But it is difficult for slogans to act in this way as they generally retain some specific meaning. This semantic baggage can only be a barrier to creating a maximum unity between groups with no real shared goals. So a new aspect is introduced here, that of a strong, charismatic individual who seeks to embody in their person the diverse and often contradictory demands of the populace. The idea is to speak to the hopes of the people in “transversal” ways that cut through traditional identity categories and other frames of social demarcation; in other words, to redraw the lines on the social map.[25]

Finally, the explicit goal of this populist movement is to capture the state in order to affect a democratic transformation in the interests of the people. And although such directly political reference points are largely absent in their major texts, Laclau and Mouffe are clearly inspired by Peronism in Argentina and a reformist reading of the Chávez and Morales experiences more recently.[26]

So by denying the existence of classes and social categories of any kinds, post-Marxists place themselves firmly in the post-structuralist camp of Foucault and Derrida. As with so many before them, a rejection of historical materialism preceded a theoretical slide into liberal reformism. What is perhaps unique about Laclau is his theoretical justification, even celebration, of the authoritarian streak in Latin American politics.

Party and class: Iglesias and left populism

We can return now with greater clarity to the strategy of the Podemos leadership. Centred on Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, the theoretical heavyweights of Podemos identify strongly with the post-Marxist tradition. I will trace its implications on two central issues: the internal structures of Podemos and the party’s relationship with the working class and its allies, and the strategic approach to the state and social transformation.

Drawing heavily on Laclau and Mouffe, the Podemos leadership see themselves as engaged in a sophisticated left wing marketing exercise to construct a popular base on new lines. This relationship is a familiar one; the masses are to be the consumers of this new discourse, with the party leaders the salespersons. The first clue to this is their extraordinary obsession with communications and the media, which they identify as a key site of political struggle. Iglesias has repeatedly stressed the importance of his now famous television shows, declaring that their carefully crafted media presence was an important means by which he has been able to reshape public discourse by popularising a series of populist dichotomies.[27] Errejón explains this project similarly, arguing that “from [our] point of view, politics is not only about listening; we must also speak and create.[28] The form these dichotomies took is also drawn from post-Marxism; Iglesias and his team sought to depict the PP and PSOE as part of the old, corrupt, oligarchical caste, while they represented all that was new, democratic, citizen-driven. These binaries were deliberately chosen to be broader and more inclusive than the traditional categories of left and right, worker and capitalist, and were drawn from the slogans and signifiers produced by the Indignados movement itself.

The new party also sought to push Iglesias to develop a public profile in order to fulfil the role of charismatic leader. Podemos has cultivated an image of Iglesias as a leader with the common touch, in contradistinction to the corrupt, out of touch elites. Hence the long hair, unbuttoned shirt, carefully selected idioms; Iglesias has revealed that the form and style of his media appearances are heavily workshopped, and get updated continually in light of feedback.[29] The cult of Pablo Iglesias even meant that Podemos used his face instead of the party logo on the ballots in the 2014 European elections. The argument for this highly individualist approach, rare on the left, was that it was the most recognisable image of a still relatively unknown party. But there is a deeper reason for this strategy based in the populist theories of Laclau; the image of an alternatively dressed man with a ponytail is supposed to become an empty signifier, a symbol of a new form of politics counterposed to all that came before. Iglesias sums up this overall perspective in a recent article for the New Left Review: “[Our] task, then, was to aggregate the new demands generated by the crisis around a mediatic leadership, capable of dichotomizing the political space.”[30] Errejón goes further, declaring boldly that “the use of the media leadership of Pablo Iglesias was a condition sine qua non of the crystallisation of political hope”.[31]

Now on one hand, messaging and style is not an unimportant question for the left. It is a constant challenge to translate the accumulated theory and historical insight of Marxism into language and forms that make sense to new audiences. This is especially the case in situations where the left is seriously attempting to reach a mass audience.

However focusing on style over issues of political substance is fundamentally undemocratic and elitist; it assumes that the audience is incapable of complex thinking and political argument. It also provides an extremely dubious explanation for how and why the left has been able to win a mass base of support in the past, and how it can be done again. To use a classic example, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were loved despite the fact that Lenin himself spoke in blunt political language unadorned by rhetorical flourishes. More recently, it was not the good looks of Alexis Tsipras which led to the dramatic increase in Syriza’s popularity in Greece. The reasons for the growth of the left in each case are to be found in the realm of politics – both parties adopted clear pro-worker, anti-rich messages, participating wholeheartedly in the class struggle and other social movements. In Spain, the reason Podemos has gained a hearing has less to do with Iglesias and his smart casual dress code than the Indignados movement and the social and economic crisis which triggered it. If its leaders forget that, they will undermine their party’s reason for existence. As we shall see, this process has already begun.

A separate but related issue concerns the relationship between the leadership and rank and file of Podemos. The Leninist conception of a party is that of a living organism, where a constant dialogue is going on between the party and the class around it, as well as between different sections of the party.[32] Ideally this creates a system of fluid discussion and debate which allows the party to orient and reorient itself on the basis of the widest possible discussion. Through honest and open discussion among an actively engaged mass membership, the leadership has access to detailed information about the situation on the ground via the rank and file. A culture of internal discussion and debate also means that party members have the capacity to change the direction of the party – including the makeup of its leadership – if the party makes errors and isolates itself from its audience.

In contrast, the structure of Podemos is one where information flows purely from the top downwards. Here too we can see the pernicious impact of Laclau and Mouffe. If politics is a competition between brands and communication strategies, then controlling the message is extremely important. Podemos activists – especially those who were previously involved in the left and protest movements – have been increasingly frustrated by the displacement of decision-making away from party circles towards the executive. A number of prominent figures have left the party as a result; recently the secretary of the Cordoba region resigned when he discovered that the preselection of candidates for the national elections was essentially to be decided by the party leadership against the wishes of the local circles.[33] It’s not only on electoral issues that the central leadership has immense power; the party constitution allows for the General Secretary, Iglesias, to appoint and modify the party’s highest leadership body without reference to the rest of the organisation.[34] It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the populist, presidential model proposed by Laclau, and reinforced by Errejón and Iglesias’ experience as advisors to Latin American governments, has undermined the most basic premises of internal democracy. In May 2014 a group of researchers from the Observatorio Metropolitano described the outcome of the process whereby the party circles were bypassed:

Voluntarily sequestered from its organizational base, Podemos has made a succession of decisions based solely on opinion polls, talk shows, and electoral polling…

This [method] is even more calamitous in a party whose own principal success, up to today, continues to be the audacity of having broken with the political impasse it met after the 15M. If the movement’s founders had had their eyes glued to the polls during that time, Podemos would not exist.[35]

One of the key elements undermining democracy within Podemos is the plebiscitary decision-making model that combines online voting with an enormous passive membership. This was first implemented at the founding conference in 2014, where the proposed voting system gave votes to every registered online member. This seemingly democratic procedure actually resulted in the centralisation of power in the hands of the top leadership, as huge numbers of uninformed and passive members repeatedly (and predictably) sided with the celebrity leadership against the lesser-known activists of the left wing. The result was that 90,000 people voted to give Iglesias extraordinary executive powers to choose the party’s highest body, with just 14,000 supporting the left in calling for proportional representation.[36] Once established, this model of online voting has been impossible to shake, and results in easy victories for Iglesias and his team at every juncture against the opposition of the anti-capitalist left. Of course, the other advantage of this mass, passive membership structure is that it helps with electoral goals of the party. Like the more traditional reformist parties, Podemos primarily mobilises its members for electoral campaigning, and having 300,000 members who feel some involvement in the party by virtue of online voting and continual social media engagement can help to inspire them to get involved during crucial electoral contests.

Reformism in the 21st century

As stifling and conservatising as these undemocratic party structures are, they are only half the story. Pointing to a lack of internal democracy is an insufficient basis for a thoroughgoing critique of any political party. Instead, following Lenin, we should attempt to draw the links between organisational form and the more fundamental issues of program, politics and perspective. In the case of Podemos, it is important to see that the problems identified so far arise from a fundamentally reformist approach by the party leadership.

Once part of the far left, Iglesias and his team have made a total break with the ideas of Marxism and class struggle. In various interviews and speeches they scornfully dismiss the socialist argument for revolution, and echo the popular argument that the working class has lost its power.[37] In the place of class struggle they call for a “dialectic” of top-down and bottom-up change, with the goal of capturing and wielding the bourgeois state apparatus as a means of social transformation. Again, this is taken directly from their understanding of the Bolivarian revolutions, which Errejón describes as being “driven by new national-popular majorities that required profound political changes demanding access to power and…the conquest of the state”.[38] Iglesias admits that the goals of this conquest are far from revolutionary: “[Podemos is not] for a transition to socialism…we are being more modest and adopting a neo-Keynesian approach, like the European left, calling for higher investment, securing social rights and redistribution.”[39] Thus for Iglesias, as for Laclau, the construction of “the people” is not a prelude to mass mobilisation or revolutionary rupture, but merely a stage in a parliamentary road to a more humane capitalism.

It will be obvious to most readers of this journal that there are a number of problems with this perspective. Obviously the radical left needs to take elections seriously. Any left party with some mass support, be it reformist, radical or revolutionary, has an obligation to fight for votes and political influence in one of the major events in a nation’s political life. Election results can reflect and shape changes in class consciousness, and continue to be a useful, though imperfect, method of assessing the balance of political forces. Victories for the left can trigger new waves of struggle, while defeats can set it back for years. On the other hand, revolutionaries must conceive of electoral contestation as just one aspect of the overall class struggle. From this perspective, electoral interventions must be carefully weighed and subordinated to a broader revolutionary orientation, planned and implemented with the knowledge that the state won’t let itself be used to fundamentally challenge the interests of the capitalist class. Given this, parliamentary tactics should be judged by their capacity to empower workers to take action on the streets and in the workplaces. Any engagement with electoral politics has to be based on an extremely concrete analysis of the situation, and a judgement as to whether or not a particular campaign or parliamentary manoeuvre will help to organise, mobilise and radicalise the class, or alternatively encourage passivity, cynicism and opportunism.

From the outset, the perspective of the Podemos leadership has been to focus all energy on the national elections. Their vision of a party is that of an “electoral war machine” that can win a majority rapidly.[40] They have described their approach as a blitzkrieg strategy; they hope to win an election without the historic effort of building up cadres or the loyalty of significant sections of the class. As is often the case with Podemos, this strategy has been concocted by the leadership, and to this point it has never been seriously up for debate. But regardless of the way in which it was decided, the major criticism that Marxists should have of this electoral approach is that it does not involve members in class struggle or other forms of political campaigning, which is of course the main way in which workers can gain political confidence and develop a radical and ultimately revolutionary consciousness. What’s worse is that even as it became clear that Podemos would not realise its stated goal of eclipsing PSOE, its leaders never considered a reorientation to a more activist approach. Their solution to their electoral woes in the lead up to the election was yet another round of bureaucratic manoeuvres, whose sole purpose was to build broader electoral fronts with various left forces on the best terms possible for Podemos.

A by-product of this electoral strategy has been the abandonment of the radical economic agenda Podemos adopted in the 2014 European elections. Since then the party has dropped the proposal for a universal basic income, given up on reducing the pension age and conceded that suspending home evictions is more or less impossible. Perhaps worst of all, it has abandoned the slogan of cancelling the government debt and unilaterally abandoning the repayments to parasitic lenders. Having witnessed the experience of the Syriza government, it is now clear that the question of debt acts as a proxy for more general issues of governmental strategy. Unilateral action on this issue necessarily entails a direct confrontation with the national and international capitalist class – which is why it was avoided so desperately by the moderate forces in Syriza. That Podemos has given up so much ground even before winning a majority is deeply concerning, and indicative of a similar approach. This was confirmed by Iglesias in an interview in 2014 in which he naively predicted the possibility of collaboration with Spanish capital:

[W]hen we sit down and explain to [big business] that one of the keys to prosperity is to reduce inequality and having resources for expansionary policies, large companies will understand that it is much easier to do business in a prosperous country than one that is sinking.[41]

As a student of Latin American politics Iglesias would be acquainted with the history of attempted coups, economic sabotage and destabilisation efforts directed against left governments in Venezuela, Chile and elsewhere. In this light, his comments are either a dangerous delusion or a pre-emptive promise of class collaboration.

This electoral perspective also informs the Podemos leaders’ refusal to identify as a left wing party. Drawing again on Laclau, they see strength in this ambiguity. In an article in New Left Review Iglesias argues:

On the symbolic terrain of left and right, those of us who advocate a post-neoliberal transformation through the state…have not the slightest chance of electoral victory. When our adversaries dub us the “radical left” and try, incessantly, to identify us with its symbols, they push us onto terrain where their victory is easier. Our most important political-discursive task was to contest the symbolic structure of positions, to fight for the “terms of the conversation”… This has nothing to do with “abandoning principles” or “moderation”, but with the assumption that unless we ourselves define the terrain of ideological struggle, it will limit the discursive repertoire at our disposal.[42]

In other words, like many others, Iglesias understands that the left has been soundly defeated through the neoliberal era, and that our political and organisational roots in society are tenuous. Rather than engaging in the difficult process of fighting to rebuild a working class left, he seeks to bypass the left/right axis altogether in favour of a new “symbolic structure of positions”. Yet it is not so easy. Whether Podemos likes it or not, it will be continually asked to take positions on economically charged questions – welfare policy, tax policy, labour laws and so on. There is no discursive paradigm that can convince capitalists to join the “people” against their own economic interests, and appeals to neo-Keynesianism will inevitably fail to capture bourgeois imaginations, as they have elsewhere.

This desire to avoid being placed in the same category as the “failed left” also informs their decision to avoid issues such as self-determination for Catalonia and the other regions, abortion rights and the monarchy. These are all traditionally divisive issues in the Spanish state, with clear lines drawn between left and right. In the same article quoted above, Iglesias goes on to defend this policy of non-engagement:

When we insist on talking about evictions, corruption and inequality, for example, and resist getting dragged into debates on the form of the state (monarchy or republic), historical memory or prison policy, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a stance on those issues or that we’ve “moderated” our position. Rather, we assume that, without the machinery of institutional power, it makes no sense at this point to focus on zones of struggle that would alienate us from the majority, who are not “on the left”. And without being a majority, it is not possible to get access to the administrative machinery that would allow us to fight these discursive battles in other conditions, while intervening with public policies.[43]

This is not at all how the situation has played out, a fact that will be dealt with later. But even assuming it was possible to hide one’s radicalism and reforge the electoral terrain in this way, it is a doomed strategy – to say nothing of how elitist and undemocratic it is.

Once again the lesson of Syriza is instructive. The extraordinary level of pressure placed on the party and its leaders could not be withstood by ambiguous formulations and a “get elected then see” approach. Instead we’ve seen an historic capitulation, followed by the implementation of one of the worst structural adjustment programs in history.[44] This has been exacerbated by the fact that none of the major currents in the party, aside from the small revolutionary left, had a real orientation to the mass mobilisation and class struggle tactics needed to put serious counter-pressure on Tsipras. There is a connection between these two factors; a mobilised, self-confident class is much harder to mislead and betray than a passive one. And though working class passivity is not necessarily the conscious goal of all reformists, it is the inevitable by-product of the electoral strategy for social change shared by the majority of both Eurocommunist and Stalinist tendencies within Syriza and Popular Unity.

The same process has been unfolding within Podemos, despite the fact it has had no chance of winning an election in its own right. But perhaps it is fortunate that this is the case. Given that Podemos is far less rooted in the traditions of the left than Syriza, that the Spanish working class has been significantly less militant than its Greek counterparts, and that Iglesias and his team have built the party on liberal-authoritarian premises, the situation following a Podemos victory would be far worse than that which faced the left in Greece last year.

Results and prospects

There is a range of factors shaping the situation going forward in Spain. The first relates to the economy. Although the general situation in Europe remains unstable, the fact remains that the Spanish economy has been growing since mid-2013; in the third quarter of 2015 it even reached an annualised rate of 3.4 percent.[45] This growth has had mixed impacts on the lives of the working class. Unemployment rates remain over 21 percent overall and a disastrously high 46 percent for young people.[46] Meanwhile Spanish GDP and average household incomes have more or less returned to their pre-crisis levels.[47] While many still suffer, the sense of immediate crisis and economic collapse has eased.

This economic stabilisation has had a concurrent political effect, slowing the decline of the two major parties in Spanish politics. Much was written about the impending “Pasokification” of the PSOE in 2014, as many hoped the centre-left party would disintegrate rapidly, like PASOK in Greece. These hopes have been only partially fulfilled, with the PSOE obtaining solid results in regional elections in Andalusia and Catalonia, and a sizable vote in the December national elections. It is undeniably weakened, polling 6 million fewer votes than it did in 2008, and only 500,000 more than Podemos. However its condition is not yet terminal. The contrast with Greece is striking. While it would take further research to explain this fully, it presumably reflects the superior economic conditions in the Spanish state, the relative dearth of social struggle compared to Greece from 2008-2012, and crucially, the fact that the PSOE was in opposition rather than on the front line of implementing the cuts. This divergence from the optimistic predictions of much of the international left should remind us to exercise extreme caution in making generalisations without taking into consideration the full range of mediating factors specific to particular times and places.

On the right the fragmentation has been more dramatic, as the media-hyped Ciudadanos has emerged from its cocoon in Catalonia to contest the PP for the right vote. As a party it combines a populist style and slightly more socially liberal policies with neoliberal economic policy, a penchant for technocracy and a strong opposition to separatism and regional autonomy. Generally then, Ciudadanos presents itself as a more youthful, less corrupt version of Spanish nationalism. It has grown rapidly this year, receiving 9 percent in the regional election in Andalusia in May 2015, and an unprecedented 18 percent of the vote in Catalonia a few months later, up 10 percent from the previous ballot. Its main base is among those of the neoliberal right who are angry at the corrupt and socially backward PP. Worryingly, the party also appeals to large sections of the PSOE voter base, with one poll finding that 61 percent of PSOE voters prefer them as a party of government over just 25 percent for Podemos.[48] And while there is little evidence that significant numbers of Podemos voters have switched to Ciudadanos, its arrival on the national level has constrained the ability of Podemos to hegemonise the protest vote and install itself as the unrivalled third party of Spanish politics. This strategy of creating a “Podemos of the right” has been driven by the bourgeois press and sections of the Spanish establishment, and has been reasonably successful.[49] In the end it only received 14 percent of the vote, but it remains a block to Podemos in the medium term, and is likely to continue to play an important role in regenerating conservative forces and stabilising the political system.

The factors described so far are beyond the control of the Podemos leadership. But it would be wrong to underplay the strategic errors made by party leaders in the past 12 months. Their increasing moderation has already been discussed, and has clearly had an impact on their potential supporters. But there have been events which have served to highlight and multiply the effects of this moderation. Most notable of these was the resignation of former party heavyweight Juan Carlos Monedero who, alongside Iglesias and Errejón, was central to the foundation of the party in 2014. In his resignation statement he explained his decision as follows: “Podemos is falling into these kinds of problems because it no longer has the time to meet with the small circles (its grass-roots supporters), because it’s more important to get one minute of television airtime”, and identified a growing schism between “people who are more moderate, and people who want to stick to our origins”.[50] This event confirmed the suspicions of sections of the left within Podemos that were feeling increasingly alienated from the party.

Also damaging has been Iglesias’s decision to uncritically back the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of austerity. When Alexis Tsipras accepted the argument that there was no alternative to a third memorandum he dashed the hopes of millions of workers across the European continent. This disastrous retreat discredited the anti-austerity policies of the radical left everywhere, leading to cynicism and despair. Even for those who have not concluded that Tsipras sold out, it is now abundantly clear that changing government policy is not a simple matter of electing a new party. In the absence of self-confident movements on the ground that can offer an alternative way forward, this can tend towards lesser-evilism or abstentionism, neither of which assists the left. What compounds this problem is the fact that Iglesias and Errejón have repeatedly defended the new memorandum, the worst in Greek history.[51]

Perhaps the most difficult issue for Podemos in recent times has been the question of regional autonomy and independence for Catalonia. The Spanish state is made up of a number of provinces, a number of which have their own languages and distinct social and cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the Franco dictatorship. Since the transition to liberal democracy, a vocal minority in a number of regions have been agitating for more autonomy, with some going so far as calling for full independence. Catalonia is now the heart of this movement, with hundreds of thousands participating in protest actions in the past few years. Opposition to Catalan self-determination has become the bedrock of the political right and to a large extent the PSOE, though under Zapatero the Socialists flirted with a devolution of powers approach. The difficulty for Podemos is that the movement for autonomy and independence clearly transcends class divides, and “dichotomises” the political space in ways that are unhelpful for a left party seeking to gain national prominence. It has been led by unambiguously bourgeois forces, particularly the regional media barons and the corrupt constellation of bourgeois and middle class forces constructed around the former Catalan President Jordi Pujol.[52] Their preference is for expanded regional powers while preserving the unity of the Spanish state, though many of their supporters prefer full autonomy. A more left wing independence position has grown in recent times, most clearly represented by the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party. As a party of the left, the CUP and its followers see the campaign for full autonomy as connected to a rupture with austerity and neoliberalism. On the other hand, support for independence is lowest in working class areas of Barcelona, who tend to speak and identify more with Castilian language and culture.[53] This is partly explained by the fact that many workers move to Catalonia from more depressed regions of the Spanish state. These communities tend to be more hostile to independence, though not conservative on other questions.

For these reasons and many others, the issue of Catalan independence is a difficult one for the left. Unlike in Scotland, the main pro-independence organisations are clearly pro-austerity, and Catalonia is the wealthiest and most industrialised region on the Iberian Peninsula. Despite these qualifications, the two largest organisations on the revolutionary left are strong supporters of full independence, arguing that the process can be a trigger for a broader social movement that can simultaneously develop the confidence of the working class and weaken Spanish elites. Others retort that this is a fundamental misreading of the character of the movement, that the issue is primarily a concern for the middle classes of Catalonia, and that it empowers bourgeois forces on both sides of the divide by shifting focus from economic assaults by both central and provincial governments. There is some truth in both arguments, but on balance it is hard to see how the left can defend the unity of the Spanish state. Here too it seems that caution is advisable; it would be wrong to exaggerate the radical potential of a process so thoroughly dominated by Arturo Mas and his gaggle of bourgeois NGOs.

For its part, Podemos has developed a position of calculated ambiguity designed to curry favour on both sides of the independence debate. This was justified by Iglesias in the New Left Review article quoted earlier, as a means of subverting the traditional left/right dichotomy to creating a transversal populist subject. This strategy failed dramatically in the 2015 Catalan elections, widely seen as a referendum on independence. In the evocative words of Antentas yet again:

Far from being a “radiator core” (using one of the terms coined by Iñigo Errejón) of a hegemonic project, Podemos became a leaky sieve torn diagonally by opposing sides.[54]

These “diagonal” pressures were refracted internally; local candidates spoke out in favour of independence while Iglesias and other figures remained aloof, eyes firmly fixed on the national elections later in the year. The whole experience did substantial damage to the image of Podemos as a party. Its two-faced approach confirmed the growing suspicions of sections of the left that Podemos has developed an approach similar to the existing parties of “la casta”. As a result, in the Catalan elections it bled votes on both its left and its right. The CUP gained ground by positioning itself as concerned with both regional independence and socio-economic justice, while Ciudadanos picked up some anti-independence urban working class voters who would otherwise be sympathetic to Podemos.[55] Together with the factors already mentioned, the poor performance in the Catalan elections contributed to a feeling of stagnation prior to the beginning of the campaign for the national elections.

The political evolution of Podemos in 2015 casts doubt on the ability of the Podemos leadership to offer a serious alternative to the austerity agenda of Spanish and European capitalism. And although we are yet to see mass resignations from Podemos, there has been an undeniable shift in attitudes towards the party leadership among the party’s left wing. The honeymoon enjoyed by Iglesias in 2014 is definitively over; an important section of the party based in the activist left milieus is speaking out against the evolution to the “centre of the chessboard”.[56] Although small numerically, this layer is a significant part of the active membership of the party, and can potentially play a positive role in future developments.

Notwithstanding all this, the positive results in the December elections show that these issues have not been enough to discredit Podemos in the eyes of the broader public. Despite a strong trend decline in their support throughout 2015 it enjoyed a late surge, and ended up polling 21 percent, more than anyone could have expected a month before the election. It is too early to explain fully the origins of this second wind.

One of the crucial factors was the decision to change emphasis regarding the national question. In September Iglesias argued that the national issue was divisive and sectional; in December Podemos was railing against undemocratic Spanish chauvinism and entered the election as the only major party supporting a referendum on independence in Catalonia and the other separatist regions. The enormously improved results in Catalonia and the Basque country speak for themselves.

It’s too soon to put forward a final analysis of the impressive election results, but some tentative explanations for their success could also include a lacklustre PSOE campaign, a rhetorical shift back towards references to the Indignados movement and other activist campaigns, the decision to form alliances with credible forces to its left in Catalonia and elsewhere, and the relatively low expectations of workers produced by years of retreat.


The populist politics of Podemos must be situated in a broader context: a union bureaucracy thoroughly corrupted by years of retreats and class collaboration, historically low levels of class struggle, a left in disarray. As a result, when the Indignados movement exploded in 2011 it possessed no clear demands, muddled politics, and no real organisational scaffolding. These factors doomed it to failure. Though Mason and others have correctly pointed out that some of the spirit of 15-M has been preserved in a range of social movements since 2011, there has been no return to the feeling of nationwide social rebellion that existed in those early months.[57] Podemos emerged two years later, crystallising many of the political weaknesses of the Indignados. A lack of appreciation of genuine democracy, expressed in this case as support for a mythical horizontalism, facilitated the development of a hyper-centralised and incredibly authoritarian party structure. The anarchistic rejection of politics in general left it open to the argument that the institutions of the capitalist state had to be captured, once it became apparent that they could not be bypassed.

Of the three initial leaders of Podemos, Errejón is the clearest and most consistent proponent of this right wing approach. As a former adviser to the Bolivian government, he scarcely feels the need to hide his hostility to the anti-capitalist left, who have clashed with Morales’ developmentalist program (and his riot police) on many occasions. He summarises his strategic disagreements with Marxists as follows:

Contrary to the argument claiming that there is “no shortcut”, defended by “movementist” currents and the extreme left, Podemos – born from “above” and not “from below” – argues that election time is also a time of articulation and construction of political identities.

We also challenged the leadership taboo. According to certain liberal ideas – but also those rooted in the left – a charismatic leader is incompatible with real democracy…

[For us the] strategic use of leadership was not a complement or even an anecdote, but a central component of the political process.[58]

It is notable just how much that activity “from above” is emphasised here. The article containing this quote celebrates top-down strategic and tactical measures, whether in the form of discursive construction, electoral intervention or the ultimate goal of state management. In each of these cases, it is those with power who are the subjects of history, while the masses remain the object. Thus the need for a strong, unchallenged leader with the flexibility and power to do what is necessary. There is of course an obligatory reference to grassroots activism, but it is clear where the focus lies. It is hard to read Errejón’s work as anything other than a manifesto for a left authoritarianism, an interpretation given weight by the experience of Podemos as a party.

If the criticisms made of Iglesias and his team here seem overly harsh, this is merely a reflection of the enormity of the tasks for the left. The current crisis has resulted in a string of vicious attacks on workers across Europe that have largely succeeded in driving down living standards, particularly in the southern periphery. There is an enormous contradiction between the anger this has generated and the general support for austerity within the political class. There is thus a desperate need for radical parties of the left, built on a democratic and emancipatory basis, that can offer an alternative to the decrepit social democrats and inspire new rounds of struggle.

However, this should not lead us to support blindly whatever forces emerge to claim the mantle of opposition to the establishment. As Antentas argues, “[The situation] favors the crystallization of alternative political projects proposing inconsistent and desultory change, and of strategic inconsistencies that appear once when the moment of truth arrives.”[59]

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy is a perfect example of such a project, one that acts to de-radicalise politics and distort political space that may otherwise have been available for the left. Other more explicitly right wing parties have emerged elsewhere in response to the crisis, particularly in Eastern Europe. There is thus nothing inherently progressive about “new” developments.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the experience of Syriza. Very much a product of the old left, it was for a time able to channel the hopes of the working class in a leftward direction. In many ways this was the best case scenario for the revival of the left, but its leaders – and the bulk of its internal opposition – proved painfully incapable of rising to the challenges they faced upon election. Although unable to change the overall course of events by virtue of its small size, the existence of a principled revolutionary current within Syriza with no illusions in reformism of any sort has meant that something has been salvaged from the wreckage of the third memorandum, in the form of a growing network of radicals ready to fight another day.[60]

Then there is the British case, which shows yet again the volatility of the political climate. A relatively unknown member of the most marginal faction in the conservative and hollowed-out British Labour Party has been catapulted to the leadership, but only after firing the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people disillusioned by years of neoliberal policies. The result is that the Labour Party is now led by its most left wing leader ever, a self-styled socialist and a genuine activist who has brought into the party tens of thousands of people hopeful for real change and a fight against the Tories. After desperately trying and failing to produce a British Syriza, the left now has to deal with this unprecedented situation.

It is clear even from this limited survey that the present conjuncture requires a high level of tactical flexibility from the revolutionary left. It would be foolish to generalise perspectives and tactics from any one country. Local conditions are still mediated by a complex series of interrelated factors, including the coherence of the right, the politics and influence of unions and the left, the state of the economy and so on. Arguably the most decisive of these is the quantity and quality of class struggle from below, which is at frustratingly low levels across the board.

For a left that is not scared to relate to real struggles, intervention in these contradictory processes is a must, but can only be based on a clear-headed assessment of the opportunities and risks involved. This in turn requires an honest analysis of the politics and trajectories of allies, opponents and the class struggle as a whole. It also requires a serious organisation of revolutionaries with the capacity to make such an assessment and then carry out tactical operations in good order, without falling to the temptations of liquidationism or sectarian abstention. The size and vitality of such an organisation is also a key factor in determining what is possible.

The importance of an independent revolutionary organisation is highlighted by the hostility displayed by reformist leaders in both Syriza and Podemos to the far left maintaining its political structures. Both Tsipras and Iglesias have demanded that socialists abandon their democratic right to organise independently and publish their own literature, calling instead for a shallow and uncritical “unity”. In the case of Syriza, the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) defended its rights successfully through an alliance with others on the left, a factor which became increasingly important as the crisis developed.

In Podemos, the Fourth International (FI) group Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA) took the difficult decision to formally dissolve its group after losing a vote at the founding Podemos conference, a manoeuvre orchestrated by Iglesias to wipe out the main pole of alternative leadership within the party. It is hard to judge from a distance, but it seems likely that this was a serious mistake; it will inevitably limit the group’s coherence, visibility and tactical capacity in the political battles to come.

On the plus side, the FI comrades have founded a tendency within Podemos called Anticapitalistas, and maintain their influential theoretical journal Viento Sur, which is widely read and acts as their unofficial mouthpiece. And though Iglesias has excluded their candidates from the national elections, Anticapitalistas have manoeuvred successfully to get themselves elected to regional parliaments and municipal councils, most notably in Catalonia where three out of the nine MPs elected to the regional parliament in September are members of their tendency. In general they maintain their own perspectives and are fighting to build a radical left within the party.[61]

In any case, a number of challenges loom large for the left inside Podemos. The first is to argue hard against supporting a minority PSOE government. This issue will certainly be raised, especially if there is a new round of elections that fails to produce a clear winner. The pressure to support or even join a PSOE government will be huge, but must be resisted. The left has been discredited whenever it has backed governments led by right wing social democratic parties, as most vividly evidenced by the experience of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy in the early 2000s.

Another concern post-election will be to reorient the party away from its obsessive electoralism. It remains to be seen whether Podemos can or will develop a perspective that emphasises work in the unions and social movements, which have been consistently de-prioritised since its foundation, but the outcome of this process will be decisive. Given that the memory of the Indignados movement is fading, refusing to do the work of rebuilding grassroots activism will mean Podemos undermines the very basis for its own success and the working class struggle more generally.

Only time will tell whether the refoundation of IA as a looser tendency will put it in a position to best win these arguments and achieve the central task of building a revolutionary Marxist current in Spain. One thing for certain is that the battles between left and right inside Podemos will persist, as the instability in Spanish politics continues to throw up both challenges and opportunities. Both populism and the Podemos leadership who champion it will have to be defeated if a left is to be built that can seriously challenge capitalism in the Spanish state.




Antentas, Josep Maria 2015a, “Spain: The Indignados rebellion of 2011 in perspective”, Labor History, 56(2), 136-160.

Antentas, Josep Maria 2015b, “27s un terremoto que no se quedara ahi”, Público, 28 September, 28/27s-un-terremoto-que-no-se-quedara-ahi/.

Barnett, Anthony 2011, “We have broken the silence: Fresh from Madrid, a member of the communications team of the 15 May movement”, openDemocracy, 30 May,érez-anthony-barnett/we-have-broken-silence-fresh-from-madrid-member-of-communications-team.

Barriere, Manel, Andy Durgan and Sam Robson 2015, “The challenge of Podemos”, International Socialism, 145.

Bensaïd, Daniel 2015, An Impatient Life: A Memoir, Verso.

Blakeley, Georgina 2012, “Los Indignados: A movement that is here to stay”, openDemocracy, los-indignados-movement-that-is-here-to-stay.

D’Amato, Paul 2015, “Turning point in Greece: Syriza, the left, and the struggle ahead”, International Socialist Review, 98.

Errejón, Iñigo 2014, “Spain’s Podemos: An inside view of a radical left sensation”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, July 15,

Fernandez, Brais 2015, “Entrevista a Teresa Rodríguez y Jesus Rodríguez, diputados de Podemos en la Parlamento de Andaluciá”, Viento Sur, 27 August,

Freeman, Jo 1972, “The tyranny of structurelessness”, The Second Wave, 2 (1),

Geier, Joel 2008, “Capitalism’s worst crisis since the 1930s”, International Socialist Review, 62.

Geras, Norman 1987, “Post-Marxism?”, New Left Review (1st series), 163.

Harman, Chris 1968, “Party and Class”, International Socialism, 35.

Harman, Chris 2007, “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks, and philosophy”, International Socialism, 114.

Humphrys, Liz and Tad Tietze 2013, “Anti-politics: Elephant in the room.” Left Flank, 31 October,

Iglesias, Pablo 2015a, “Spain on edge”, New Left Review, 93.

Iglesias, Pablo 2015b, “Understanding Podemos”, New Left Review, 93.

Iglesias, Pablo, 2015c, “La centralidad no es el centro”, Público, 20 April,

Laclau, Ernesto 2005, On Populist Reason, Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso.

Lewis, Tom 2015, “Podemos and the left in Spain”, International Socialist Review, 98.

Lopez, Daniel 2014, “Georg Lukács’s theory of revolution”, Marxist Left Review, 8.

López, Isidro, Emmanuel Rodriguez and Pablo Carmona 2015, “The Future of Podemos”, Jacobin, podemos-iglesias-spain-elections-populist/.

López de Miguel, Alejandro 2015, “‘Vamos a construir una maquinaria de Guerra electoral’”, Público, 23 October, actualidad/construir-maquinaria-guerra-electoral.html.

Miley, Thomas Jeffrey 2015a, “The political consequences of austerity in Spain”, under review for publication.

Miley, Thomas Jeffrey 2015b, “Independence for Catalonia? A sociological account of the recent surge in secessionism”, under review for publication.

Molyneux, John, 2011, Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism, Bookmarks.

Muro, Miriam 2015, “Las primarias impeustas por Pablo Iglesias se cobran la primera dimisión en Podemos”, Libertad Digital, 2 July,

Stobart, Luke 2014a, “Whatever happened to the Indignados?: Radical struggle”, Left Flank, 17 March, whatever-happened-indignados-part-1/.

Stobart, Luke 2014b, “Understanding Podemos: Radical populism”, Left Flank, 14 November

Tietze, Tad and Elizabeth Humphrys 2014, “Anti-politics and the return of the social: A reply to Alex Callinicos”, International Socialism, 144.



[1] Miley 2015a. For a global perspective, see Geier 2008.

[2] Luke Stobart, “Spanish workers ready to fight ‘savage cuts’”, Socialist Worker (GB), 18 May 2010.

[3] Antentas 2015a.

[4] Lewis 2015 is excellent for a quite detailed description of this process. For a more general critique of horizontalism it is hard to go past the classic essay by Freeman 1972, while for an excellent and explicitly Marxist perspective the section “Consensus Decision-making” in Molyneux 2011 is unsurpassed.

[5] For a summary of this scandal that continues to unfold, see Tom Powell, “The Gurtel/Barcenas case: The story so far”, Olive Press, 22 February 2014,

[6] There was never any real clarity about what this slogan meant concretely. See for instance the confused and naive interview with a media spokesperson for the occupation in Madrid in Barnett 2011.

[7] Humphrys and Tietze 2013. For a further exposition of this theory it is worth listening to their panel at Historical Materialism in Sydney in 2014,

[8] Stobart 2014a.

[9] Tietze and Humphrys 2014.

[10] Stobart 2014a.

[11] Tietze and Humphrys 2014.

[12] Bensaïd 2015, p170.

[13] Tietze and Humphrys 2014. (Here they are quoting from their earlier article, Humphrys and Tietze 2013.)

[14] See Lopez 2014 and Harman 2007.

[15] Paul Mason, “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere”, BBC News, 5 February 2011, twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html.

[16] Paul Mason, From Arab Spring to global revolution”, The Guardian, 6 February 2013.

[17] Paul Mason, “What was the point of the Tsipras referendum?” Channel 4 News, 10 July 2015,

[18] Josep Maria Antentas, “Looking for lost momentum”, Socialist Worker, 30 September 2015.

[19] Miley 2015a.

[20] “El 73% cree que los Indignados tienen razón”, El País, 23 October, 2011,; for more polling see Blakeley 2012.

[21] Stobart 2014a.

[22] Geras 1987.

[23] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p3.

[24] Laclau 2005, p71.

[25] This is obviously a very brief summary of the general argument presented in On Populist Reason, which is worth reading for an insight into the theoretical framework that informs much leftist writing on Latin American and Spanish politics today.

[26] Laclau 2005, pp214-221.

[27] Iglesias 2015a; Iglesias 2015b.

[28] Errejón 2014.

[29] See for example this excerpt from a debate with the IU secretary Alberto Garzón: Pablo Iglesias, “I don’t want the left getting 20% of the vote, I want to win”, 8 July 2014,

[30] Iglesias 2015b.

[31] Errejón 2014.

[32] Harman 1968.

[33] See Muro 2015.

[34] Stobart 2014b.

[35] López et al 2015.

[36] See Dick Nicholls, “Spain: Podemos debates democratic structures, prepares for power”, Green Left Weekly, 25 October 2014. Though Nicholls fails to support the left, his report provides a reasonable summation of the political debates that took place at the conference.

[37] In addition to the openly opportunist comments made in the debate with Garzón cited earlier, see also his response to a question about the working class: Pablo Iglesias, “The issue of the working class”, 24 August 2014,

[38] Errejón 2014.

[39] Iglesias 2015a.

[40] López de Miguel 2015.

[41] Barriere et al, 2015.

[42] Iglesias 2015b.

[43] Iglesias 2015b.

[44] For more on this see Colleen Bolger’s reporting in Red Flag,; D’Amato 2015 is a useful summation of recent history.

[45] “Spain’s GDP annual growth rate”, Trading Economics,

[46] “Spain’s unemployment rate”, Trading Economics,; “Spain’s youth unemployment rate”, Trading Economics, spain/youth-unemployment-rate.

[47] “Real adjusted gross disposable income of households per capita”, Eurostat, 28 September 2015, =en&pcode=tec00113.

[48] See “Clima político in España”, El País, 11 October 2015, elpais/2015/10/10/media/ 1444493102_454120.html.

[49] “Rivera, a quien se acusa de ser el candidato del Ibex 35, confirma una cita con grandes empresarios”, Publica, 18 October 2015, rivera-acusa-candidato-del-ibex.html.

[50] Juan Carlos Monedero, “Monedero dimite de Podemos: ‘Me siento traicionado’”, 30 April 2015,

[51] “Spain’s Podemos: We stand with Syriza”, Telesur, 16 July 2015,

[52] “Ex-Catalan leader hit with corruption lawsuit”, The Local, 14 August 2014,

[53] Miley, 2015b.

[54] Antentas 2015b.

[55] Antentas 2015b.

[56] Iglesias 2015c.

[57] The impressive mareas – social movements around single issues such as health and education – are a partial exception to this, but they have nowhere near the political impact that 15-M did at its height.

[58] Errejón 2014.

[59] Josep Maria Antentas, “Looking for lost momentum”, Socialist Worker, 30 September 2015.

[60] See Mick Armstrong’s article “The broad left party question after Syriza” in this issue.

[61] For an interesting insight into the perspectives of some leading Trotskyist militants within Podemos, see Fernandez 2015.