Spanish state: Splendour and decline of Podemos - Reasons for a farewell

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Spain’s Anticapitalist Left (now Anticapitalists) was key to the formation of the mass, radical anti-austerity party Podemos, in 2013-14. However, in February this year Anticapitalists decided to leave Podemos. Economist Manuel Garí, Anticapitalist leader and member of the Advisory Council of the magazine Viento Sur, looks back at the evolution of Podemos and explains why the decision to leave was taken.

By Manuel Garí. Translation from Viento Sur by Dick Nichols

October 30, 2020 — 

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The formation of Podemos in the Spanish state was an important attempt at building an anti-neoliberal and pluralist mass party to the left of social liberalism. That experience, which began very well, has finally ended very badly. Perhaps that is why the title of this article could have been “Splendour and decline of Podemos ... as an emancipatory political project”. Its purpose is to explain why Podemos had to be created, but also why it has had to be left behind. Involved too is reflection on the balance sheet to be made of the intervention in Podemos of the Anticapitalist Left (now Anticapitalists) and the lessons to be drawn from that experience.[1]

Podemos was able to emerge because of the dead end in which social democratic and Eurocommunist left forces found themselves after the 2008 financial crisis. When the indignado movement (15M) burst onto the stage in 2011 it opened up new political prospects in a scenario marked by the unstoppable rise of the right-wing People's Party (PP) opposition to the 2004-2011 Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The United Left (IU) had proven incapable of confronting neoliberal policy, while the PSOE was simply one of its executors. Both parties were also weighed down by their legacy of having contributed to the creation of the political regime of the Transition, done through political agreement with forces coming from the Francoist dictatorship and embodied in the 1978 Spanish constitution. Both parties were part of that regime and, in the case of the PSOE, one of its main pillars.

Socially, on the other hand, widespread apathy and demobilisation reigned. This was firstly due to the mistaken strategy of seeking a tripartite social pact at any cost that was pursued by the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Workers (UGT), the majority trade unions, and secondly to the inability of minority unions[2] to create a new leadership within the labour movement (with the exception in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) of the working class trade unions, the Patriotic Workers Commissions (LAB) and Solidarity of Basque Workers (ELA)[3]).

This situation made possible the reform of Article 135 of the Spanish Constitution, which saw paying off public debt become a compulsory priority of Spanish state budgets, and the imposition of two regressive labor reforms. The first was adopted by the Zapatero government and was subsequently aggravated by the legislation of the PP government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy: this violated collective bargaining rights, ended the role of trade unions in the workplace and attacked or liquidated important working-class rights. The result was a large wage devaluation, increased inequality, a greater absolute share in Gross Domestic Product of capital income compared to labour income and increased job casualisation and extension of poverty, with particular impact on young people who were practically driven out of the formal labour market.

As a result of all of this, the 15M movement arose in protest at the worsening social situation and as a cathartic reaction to the political swamp. It opened a window of opportunity towards a substantial modification of the political map in the Spanish state. Podemos came along to fill the political vacuum that had been revealed and was presented as the instrument for creating a new balance of forces in the political sphere: if consolidated, it would have helped spur a strengthening of organisation and of social mobilisation.

An exception needs to be made to this scenario: the importance must be stressed of the mass mobilisations of the Catalan National Day (September 11, the Diada) and of the challenges of November 9, 2014 and October 1 and 3, 2017 in Catalonia.[4] These events expressed the national aspirations and demand for the right to decide of an entire people, opening the widest crack yet seen in the fabric of the 1978 regime and becoming the main factor in its crisis. These were times when the political left—including Podemos and its allies in Catalonia—wasted a golden opportunity to take the lead in the largest popular democratic mass movement of recent decades in the Spanish state and to contest political hegemony and leadership with other forces.

However, Podemos rapidly fell into decrepitude because it ended up accepting as its only possible horizon the framework and constraints of the 1978 constitution, the market economy and the European Union. That has resulted in a failure of the Podemos project and a defeat for the left that was driving it. And yet it was impossible not to have attempted it: and it was the right thing to do.

15M and its strengths and weaknesses in Podemos’s genealogy and raison d'être

When the movement of outraged men and women poured out into the squares and streets of Madrid on May 15, 2011 and immediately spread to towns across the entire Spanish state—including Catalonia, Euskadi and Nafarroa (Navarra) and Galiza (Galicia)—it represented the arrival on the stage of social mobilisation of a new generation. This generation did not identify with the parliamentary parties (“They do not represent us!”); was particularly damaged by austerity policies (“We won’t pay for this crisis!”); confronted the financial elites benefiting from public monies bailing out the banks (“This isn’t a crisis, it's a scam!”); and denounced the limits of the political regime (“They call it democracy and it's not!”).

It was, therefore, a movement with a vocation to confront the regime, built around radical democratic demands that called into question the flawed two-party system represented by the PSOE and PP, the Spanish state’s revolving door government arrangement (now socialist, now conservative), and its electoral system.[5] But it also constituted an anti-austerity movement against predatory economic and social policies that ignored the will of the majority, especially after the reform of Article 135 of the constitution and the bailout of the Spanish banking system, which has resulted in public expenditure by the Bank of Spaincurrently amounting to €65 billion. That is why 15M, albeit in a rudimentary way, called for a different economy, a different model of society and affirmed the need for a new constitution. That was its great contribution and evidence of a creative energy based on the mass activity of its broad sectors. 15M came to enjoy the sympathy of the majority of a population that was fed up with the period of austerity that had started in 2008 and fed up with the sclerosis of the political system.

15M signified a wholesale correction of the system’s political parties and trade unions and opened up avenues for a popular mobilisation that was sustained by different sectors (the so-called tides of education, health and public sector workers, etc): these acted more or less outside the existing bureaucracies and with new forms of organisation and coordination. The 15M movement added a new type to the forms of rebellious mass struggle, one based on the mass assembly as organising core, and it very quickly sidelined the traditional organisations. Environmental and feminist activists and youth having their first experience in politics also came together in 15M.

Particularly worthy of mention is that, thanks to its criticism of the 1978 regime, 15M made possible debate about the need for a democratic breakthrough and for the launching of a constituent process that would dismantle the regime. Over time, this led Anticapitalists and other sectors to talk in the plural, because what was needed was a coordinated set of distinct constituent processes that would take into account the existence of the national question and not just the overall dimension of the Spanish state.

But 15M also revealed the limitations of a social movement without a political expression and especially without electoral representation. In 2013, the political situation was gridlocked and within the most advanced activist circles the debate on the need for a political instrument started very soon. Everyone agreed that no political force that might be developed could presume to represent the 15M movement, but there is no doubt that Podemos was beneficiary of the spirit of the outraged women and men of 15M.

Dilemmas of Anticapitalists

In the months before the launch of Podemos, discussion within Anticapitalists about what to do was structured around three different proposals. The first, which advocated forming a left front or a tactical alliance with IU, had the drawback of the recent history of that organisation: its subordination to the PSOE, both in electoral agreements at the state level and in the experience of shared government in Andalusia and numerous municipalities, and the fact that IU was also becoming increasingly discredited among left-wing youth. The second position proposed promoting a front of radical left organisations, all of them small except in the Basque Country and to a degree in Catalonia, and with little social implantation and sectarian traits: that would have meant Anticapitalists placing itself outside the broad current of mass radicalisation that had emerged with 15M.

The third position, defended by the leadership, proposed promoting some sort of initiative of a new type, because it considered that the left structures then existing were unusable for making the leap that would bring the social struggle up to the political level. This last option turned out to have majority support. Within Anticapitalists and its predecessor Alternative Space[6] there had been ongoing discussion about the need to support the creation of mass, democratic, anti-neoliberal organisations capable of waging electoral battles to complement the social struggles driven by the movements. Therefore, in conceptualising Podemos, great importance was given to the idea of a party-movement structured from below in what were later to be called circles.

Unlike other sections of the left, Anticapitalists, in the same way that it was one of the few organisations not to be suspicious of 15M, was also the first to raise the need and possibility of making the leap to politics, because it judged that this initiative would not act as a brake on the mobilisation. Incidentally, this was already showing signs of exhaustion as a result of state obstruction and the retrieval by the regime's parties of certain initiatives: they were beginning to emerge from their bewilderment and initial paralysis in the face of a protest that was as widespread as it was unexpected. Anticapitalists thought, quite to the contrary, that what was urgently needed and possible was to channel all the energy that had emerged with 15M into a new fight that would unblock a political scenario that was objectively keeping the struggle under lock and key. As a matter of fact, the disenfranchised social and political sectors harboured a lot of power, and it was in this respect that Anticapitalists had the great astuteness and tactical audacity to promote the “Podemos initiative”: its scope and nature were so large that they were to test the total  strength and ability of the organisation.

What would have happened had Anticapitalists not acted in this way? We can never know because that didn't happen. What we do know is that radical left-wing groups that were not linked to Podemos hung themselves on their own sectarianism. Anticapitalists too could have followed the path of political irrelevance taken by many of the groups that stayed out. Probably it would not have multiplied its membership strength and would not have enjoyed the wide audience that its public spokespersons have now achieved. It would not have extended its organisation to all autonomous communities.[7] It would not have been able to organise massive political events, both face-to-face and online, as has taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic. None of its proposals on the national issue or on social inequality would have had the media impact they have had. It would not have been able to set the political agenda for the social vanguard, nor would it have become an ideological and political reference point for the most activist sectors. It would not have had at the level of local, regional and European institutions the experience of working in favour of the popular classes in an anti-austerity and democratic rights vein. At this point it should be noted that Pablo Iglesias and his team soon blocked, through misuse of anti-democratic regulations, the possibility of Anticapitalist representation in the Spanish congress, where it only had a limited presence for a single legislature.

However, these and other questions that stand to Anticapitalists' credit cannot hide two issues: (1) The one already noted, namely the failure of the Podemos project and the defeat of Anticapitalists' positions; (2) that significant errors made by Anticapitalists in the process helped the victory of Iglesias' line. So to have an overall vision it is appropriate to recall—to critically reconstruct—the history of Podemos and take stock of the steps taken by Anticapitalists, also in order to understand its other big decision: to abandon Podemos and promote Anticapitalists itself as a new political force.

The Podemos phenomenon in all its complexity

Podemos's main distinguishing feature was that it picked up the feeling of outrage that came after the 2008 crisis and the socially widespread perception that a minority had benefited because the majority had lost so much. And that this social question was closely linked to the issue of democracy. On November 22, 2014, at Podemos’s most radical moment and when the polls showed it as leading political force, Pablo Iglesias, from a purely left-populist standpoint but in language useful to the positions of the revolutionary left, stated: “The dividing line now sets those who, like us, defend democracy ... against those on the side of elites, the banks, the market; there are those below and those above … an elite and the majority.”

A second unique feature marking the birth of this political formation is the important and decisive role played in its creation and the first stage of its development by a small but active revolutionary Marxist organisation, Anticapitalists. Both the founding document (“Making a move, turning outrage into political change”) and the election program for the 2014 European Parliament elections reflect, despite compromises over language understandable when different political cultures come together, the hegemony of revolutionary Marxist approaches in membership meetings and mass assemblies. Likewise, the contribution of Anticapitalists was also essential in other areas: giving legitimacy in the eyes of the social left to an electoral proposal; mobilising initial financial resources; making its small organisational structure available to the project; and setting up the circles, the basic membership structure, in practically the entire territory of the Spanish state.

The third characteristic is that Podemos emerged as a party that was extremely open to the incorporation of distinct currents of the social and political left. This soon took the form of sectors breaking with an IU incapable of escape from its internal crisis, the offering of alternatives to the demands of a new generation of activists and the interest aroused in the social movements, particularly in the milieus of political ecology and feminism. Podemos also caught the attention of the twenty-something generation alienated by politics.

There were three sine qua non conditions for building the Podemos project and guaranteeing its usefulness: it had to maintain its radical message, it had to establish stable organic ties with the most conscious and combative sectors of the labour and popular movements, and it had to have a democratic internal structure so as to facilitate discussion, membership participation in decision-making and creative and fraternal coexistence among the broad ideological and political plurality that was present in it from the outset. This plurality covered many different aspects, with a wider spectrum of difference than that between its three main component trends, grouped around the figures of Pablo Iglesias, Iñigo Errejón and Anticapitalists (whose best-known public spokespersons were Teresa Rodríguez and Miguel Urbán).

Right from the start Podemos became an internal battleground between these three “souls”. The one represented by the anti-capitalist current—broader than the organisation that inspired it—proclaimed the importance of program and organisation in the collective construction of the new party, as well as the need to promote self-organisation, social mobilisation and implantation among working people. These tasks were to be combined with that of gradually building up, through a two-way relationship between party and working people, an electoral and institutional presence in support of these goals. 

At the first citizen assembly of Podemos, known as Vista Alegre I (after the location where it took place), an alliance against this proposal was formed between the left-populist sector of Iñigo Errejón and Pablo Iglesias’s grouping. This alliance took the form of a bureaucratic clique made up of two factions and in constant recomposition according to its internal balance of forces. Its mission was to win absolute control of Podemos: its short-term goal was to defeat the revolutionary Marxist positions of Anticapitalists.

Pablo Iglesias' specific objective was to establish himself as undisputed leader enjoying complete autonomy, without specifying any project other than that of overtaking the PSOE and quickly getting into government. To this end, he did not hesitate to radicalise or moderate his message as convenience demanded. He never put forward a social project, a program for government, or a strategy to follow, and there was no consideration of the requirements and measures needed to deal with the attacks of capital. The lessons of the Troika's intervention in the Greek case of SYRIZA were not drawn. The old reformist confusion between getting into the government and achieving power got repeated, of course accompanied with radical speechifying attuned to the rebellious spirit of the times. Deploying a more or less left message, Iglesias’s entire political activity has been dominated by exercise of a personal hyper-leadership in a simplistic imitation of the less interesting aspects of the Bolivarian experience. This has gone with what we could describe as a programmatic relativism that allows proposals to be pulled out of the drawer and put back into it according to the tactical needs of the moment, but with no relation to a social project or a strategy to achieve it. The strategic hypothesis was “we were born to govern”—getting into government as an end in itself.

For this job Iglesias found during an initial phase a very useful ally in Errejón, who adhered at the time to the theses of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe[8] on the total autonomy of the political realm and rejection of the role that social classes and economic conflicts play for Marxists in the capitalist mode of production. Speeches and even articles in the press from the Errejón sector were full of abstract disquisitions about the construction of the “people subject” by creating a cross-class and ideologically heterogeneous electoral base through the mobilisation of sentiment by a leader capable of lining the people up against a tiny oligarchic minority. This meant assuming the irrelevance of the categories of left and right or of analyses based on class, etc. Errejón theorised the possibility of a quick electoral victory to which everything had to be subordinated: effectiveness over democracy; hierarchy over rank-and-file organisation in circles; electoral war machine (a concept literally expressed in those terms) over mass party; participation via membership plebiscite over democratic deliberation. After the clique’s first internal victory the circles could no longer make decisions and the choice of leadership was done outside them, through the on-line vote of people who signed up by filling in a form on the website. That was the only obligation of membership. Elections were debate-free personality contests. This model was the absolute antithesis of an activist party and an organised mass party. It was thus impossible for the membership to control or remove the leaders.

Such theorisings did not entail serious analytical and ideological debate in either academic or political media, beyond that which a minority very involved in building Podemos might maintain on behalf of one or other position, or that in defense of the two-party establishment. Although the Spanish parliamentary elections of 2015 and 2016 brought an important gain for Podemos, it did not achieve the longed-for sorpasso [“overtaking” of the PSOE, in Italian]. Electoral decline set in accompanied by the search for votes through abandoning all radicalness. The “populist moment” of Laclau—disseminated in the Spanish state by Chantal Mouffe in the main state-wide newspaper, El País[9] was reduced to a mere fashion statement on behalf of populism. The ballot box reduced the theorisings to dust.

At the next congress, Vista Alegre II (2017), the Iglesias grouping turned left and purged the Errejón grouping. The clash for party control between these two bureaucratic apparatuses expressed what Jaime Pastor and I described as “Pablo Iglesias vs. Iñigo Errejón: between resuscitated Eurocommunism and centrist neo-populism”[10]. According to an evaluation like that of Emmanuel Rodriguez, the clash was yet another expression of the conception and ideology of Podemos’s politics as mere production of elites fighting among themselves and trying to fulfil the aspirations of the university educated layer of a progressive middle class without a future.[11] The degree of sectarian confrontation in the media and social networks between the two factions of former allies prior to the second citizen assembly placed its very celebration in doubt. Despite the generally deranged atmosphere, the congress was held thanks to the work and good sense of Anticapitalists, such that journalist Raúl Solís, with little affinity to revolutionary Marxism, expressed surprise in his chronicle of the congress that the revolutionary Marxist left were “the only sane ones in this madhouse” (sic).[12]

For a few months Pablo Iglesias' left turn favored anti-capitalist politics. But Iglesias was on the warpath against pluralism. First he marginalised Errejón, the real Epimetheus[13] of this story, who when he belatedly realised the kind of party he had designed and could see what was sprouting in the Pandora's box of Podemos, decided to break from it on political grounds, but above all because he could not breathe in an organisation without democracy. Next, through bureaucratic measures, came the purging of Anticapitalists.

Soon afterwards, Pablo Iglesias began an evolution, with right and left turns, towards the Eurocommunist conceptions of his youth; he even revived the memory of Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) who together with Enrico Berlinguer of the Italian Communist Party, and Georges Marchais, of the French Communist Party, had been the fathers of Eurocommunism, the new way (as they themselves called it) to win government through the parliamentary system. Iglesias began to proclaim the benefits of the Spanish constitution as a democratic social shield, as if it could be chopped into bits and each article had no connection with any other, or as if the constitution was not the result of the dynamic of legitimising the post-Franco liberal regime. On one key issue, as has been analysed in other articles in Viento Sur, Iglesias shifted from challenging the constitution to supporting its partial reform “whenever possible”.

Pablo Iglesias made use of Laclau's conceptual baggage in his narrative, but he was probably not a hard-core disciple, although he was definitely a beneficiary. The theories of the post-Marxist intellectual fitted nicely with the electoral road to power and with a pre-eminent role for Iglesias in the process. Abstract calls for democracy as the tool for transforming society within the framework of liberal democratic institutions—which are not called into question—lead to the impotence of left-wing populism and Eurocommunism when it comes to governing by substantially improving the living conditions of people in a lasting way in situations of economic crisis; even more so when a transformation of society is in question. Stathis Kouvelakis is right when he criticises Laclau: his concept of radical democracy, which excludes any break with the capitalist socio-economic order and the principles of liberal democracy, entails self-limitation. Remember, too, contrary to what Laclau claims, that it is class struggle that “forges the political subject” and not so-called “populist reason”.[14]

In each of the following elections, including those in 2019 in which Pablo Iglesias led Podemos's alliance with IU, dubbed Unidas Podemos (UP), the loss of votes and seats is constant and overwhelming. Political weight and media presence decline, Podemos no longer sets the political agenda or the topics of public debate, and the prestige of the organisation – originally very high – ebbs with each new opinion poll. The desperate search for the missing vote gets concentrated more in traditional left and center-left milieus. Mas País (More Country), Iñigo Errejón’s split from Podemos, was to suffer the same result, and a similar fate.

In the beginning Podemos showed a huge power of attraction with its rejectionist and winning message, but its election results transformed that momentum into the brazen populism of “we were born to govern”. This shift was reinforced by IU’s process of political retreat, with the victory in its ranks of the get-into-government line and its increasing subordination to Podemos.[15] UP has now abandoned the caprice of maintaining its own, differentiated left-wing profile and this has symbolically resulted in its closing ranks in defence of Nadia Calviño, both with regard to the European Union as well as in matters south of the Pyrenees.[16]

Weaknesses and mistakes of Anticapitalists

The result of the confrontation between reformists and revolutionaries within Podemos was not predetermined: together with the difficulty of implementing anti-capitalist politics inside and outside Podemos existed the real possibility of doing so. That required leaving the comfort zone in which the groups and sects of the radical left are so often stuck as they cling to their activity of self-construction, propaganda, and denunciation and “placing” of opponents, without the desire or ability to develop political projects for the action of the masses and aimed at them. Anticapitalists, by contrast, bet high, showed boldness and made full use of its programmatic and tactical potential.

The task was Herculean: to raise a mass party out of nothing in a situation of social crisis but with little of the culture and traditions of organised activism; to do so in the context of the crisis of political rule—given the disaffection of young people and the scale of the Catalan conflict with the central state—but with the apparatuses of the post-Franco state still undamaged and showing no fissures. With a crisis of the two-party system producing a situation of ungovernability, but with a PSOE committed to stability still maintaining the trust of a majority, albeit diminished, of left-wing people.

Building the alternative under these conditions was no easy mission. The factors that explain the existence of the window of opportunity for constructing Podemos could also operate as its Achilles heel; for example, the years of destruction and retreat of working-class consciousness and the collapse of the reformist and revolutionary political left; but, above all, the fact that an overall crisis of the system had yet to take place. All this made success for Anticapitalists’ project of building Podemos as an instrument of emancipation objectively difficult.

Nonetheless, a number of mistakes and weaknesses should be highlighted which, apart from these objective difficulties, damaged Anticapitalists. A first failure was de facto acceptance of the narrow framework that the bureaucratic clique imposed by legalising via secretive manoeuvre the undemocratic and top-down statutes that made the Iglesias team the party’s proprietors in law. This manoeuvre sought to conceal Anticapitalists’ founding political role and to present its activists as outside conspirators, “entrists” and “enemies of the project” (sic) that they themselves had created! The reader will remember the picture of Lenin and Trotsky's mass meeting that was censored and modified by Stalin in a piece of photographic sleight-of-hand so as to wipe out memory and claim ownership of the revolution. Well, something like this happened in Podemos. How to describe this attitude on the part of Anticapitalists? Today only one epithet fits: naively irresponsible credulity.

There was a voluntarist overestimation of the capacity of our modest organised membership, not so much to organise the initial spontaneous and massive response of activists, but to counter the hyper-leaderships constructed in the media and the already existing—and boosted—plebiscitary connection between “the charismatic leader” and “the masses”. This happened when there was no process of deep-going politicisation, no creation of cadres and no systematic organisation of the membership or organic relationship with large sections of the left-wing people, even while there was a deeply felt sense of need for change and for new leaderships and political representatives. This factor was crucial to the degree of independence achieved by Pablo Iglesias in his role as secretary-general. Elected apart from the rest of the leadership by membership plebiscite, he could impose his dynamics on Podemos, head off any proposal for democratic structures and justify all kinds of tactical lurches according to his interests at each conjuncture.

These were the times when Podemos set up what Santiago Alba[17] called its “media commando force” which, for a short period of time, effectively revolutionised political communication both on the social networks and in its relationship with audiovisual media. This partisan device was totally appropriated by the Iglesias-Errejón duo. In response, with access to Podemos's common assets vetoed by the bureaucratic clique, Anticapitalists did not even organise an embryonic communication system, however modest, of its own, one that would have allowed it to independently get across its positions in the media and on the social networks. For a long time now that has been one of the severest constraints weighing on its activity.

In the Spanish state, the revived cult of the charismatic leader [neo-caudillismo] was ideologically, politically and organisationally inspired by Latin American populist experiences today in decline, but the Podemos leadership defended the need for it on the grounds of its conjunctural usefulness–-pretending to do so with regret—with a mantra about its benefits and appropriateness given the “electoral and communication dynamics of 21st century society”. The next, connected, problem, was that Anticapitalists did not detect in time that this caudillismo went down very well with social sectors coming from a post-Stalinist background and among the least politicised, who readily accepted the hierarchy of an organisation in which many of them began to call themselves “soldiers”.

This process of rapid bureaucratisation was helped because some sections of left-wing social movement activists, lacking in political awareness, initially looked on Podemos with contempt, and the anti-capitalist sector could not count on their support at a crucial moment. After the electoral success of the new party they swarmed towards it like mosquitoes blinded by the light. Too late to modify the organisation in a democratic direction and without any political sense of direction, some adapted to the new situation, others just looked for jobs in the new institutional openings, while most left Podemos along with many others who had joined.

In this situation, Anticapitalists made a mistake at Vista Alegre I. Since the dispute was mostly focused on Podemos’s model of organisation, Anticapitalists centred its effort almost exclusively on answering the question of internal democracy—a really important issue—but without raising with sufficient energy the struggle for a political project that could have attracted the existing currents of radicalisation around Anticapitalists. A lesson at the time and for the future: establishing the nexus between the concrete political project and the objective of an eco-socialist and feminist society is the sine qua non condition for building strategic political formations that will have to have post-capitalist society as their horizon. This is the only way a historical bloc antagonistic to the status quo can be created and consolidated. Anticapitalists failed to put this issue at the centre of building Podemos and thus allowed the Podemos leadership to manoeuvre and change political course as they pleased and so define the organisation’s goals according to their immediate interests.

However, the fundamental issue is that while the task was Herculean, Anticapitalists was not only deficient in membership numbers, but also in social implementation and, more importantly, in its degree of political cohesiveness at the moment it undertook the project proposed to it by the party leadership. That is why the organisation experienced a loss of some less audacious members along with that of a more sectarian and leftist section that soon ceased to exist. But there were also losses within a section of members who lowered their expectations to those of electoral politics and no longer saw the need for a revolutionary Marxist organisation to exist as part of a broader one.

The leadership of Anticapitalists made a good reading of the situation that led to the conclusion to found Podemos, but not of the political requirements for carrying out that leap. On this point--and thinking about post-Podemos tasks—a lesson can be learned: the need to be able to rely on a significant ideological and strategic preparation of the party before taking decisions of this magnitude. However, since the situations in which a new window of opportunity allowing for qualitative leaps cannot be magically guessed at or scientifically predicted, it is essential to deliberately and in planned fashion create a coherent internal party political orientation stronger than that spontaneously and routinely produced by the course of events. This must be a constant central task: it will be of great usefulness for acting with strategic thinking, tactical ingenuity and organisational creativity in a united way, such that opportunities and possibilities get converted into real positions of strength and real outcomes.

We’ll meet in the struggles

As Raúl Camargo explained in an interview,[18] there are two basic reasons for Anticapitalists' departure from Podemos. It is due, on the one hand, to the absence of democratic internal life in an organisation whose bodies rarely meet or deliberate and to the lack of respect for the principle of proportionality in the election of internal leadership positions or of the election tickets decided by the Secretary-General, all of which blocks the development of a naturally pluralist party life. On the other, it is due to the Iglesias group’s acceptance of the constitutional framework of the 1978 regime and its flexible adaptation to the market economy, which has been accompanied by a rapprochement with the PSOE. This has ended in the formation of a coalition government in which UP plays a subordinate and secondary role.

UP's agreements with the PSOE on the budget and the program for coalition government have been subordinated to the requirements of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact. It is a government which, under the careful watch of Minister Nadia Calviño, has economic and social policy determined by the limits set at all times by the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the Eurogroup [of member state finance ministers] or the European Central Bank. That Podemos is inspired by a social spirit is undeniable, but its proposals, as has been shown in the pandemic, are limited in scope. The measures taken in defence of the most disadvantaged are necessary but insufficient palliatives, while the support to laid-off workers has an expiry date and entails a respite for business profits and even greater indebtedness for the state’s coffers.

In the short experience of the so-called government of progress, UP has made an avalanche of concessions—even giving up on points in the program agreed with the PSOE—and silently consented to significant political retreats and economic decisions. One of its next tests will be its attitude to the crisis of the institution of the monarchy, which will not be defeated by pronouncements from parliamentary HQ alone.[19]

It is of little use to regroup “the people”, appeal to the interests of “ordinary people”, and have an electoral presence or be part of a government if it is not in support of a project that ends their alienation. That reality all the more compels us to remember categories such as social class and exploitation; to conceive of the social majority not as an arithmetic sum of individuals but as an (algebraic) summation of the working class and all social sectors with scores to settle with the system and with the potential to create a new hegemonic bloc. That is, to conceive of the people as a real oppositional political force and candidate for power at every turn. This is very different from confining popular progress to the mere occupation of a few minor ministerial posts by a new elite of young professionalised politicians.

Podemos has become a plebiscitary electoralist machine that, while representing a part of the left, albeit in a declining way, is a roadblock to the development of popular self-organisation. On the one hand, because under its leadership the political struggle has been reduced to a purely institutional one; on the other, because it has a purely instrumental relationship with the social organisations: this serves and complements Iglesias’s orientation to government, namely, to govern at all costs. Podemos’s insertion into the structures favouring progressive administration of the state apparatus means limiting its work agenda to “the possible” and giving up on the goal of transformation of the political, economic and social system; its adoption of this “lesser evil” logic can be confirmed at the present time in the management of the social crisis post-COVID19.

In short, Podemos's current X-ray reveals a hierarchical party whose governing bodies are lifeless, identified with the parliamentary group and with its members of government, a party that has almost completely lost its activist base—those who joined it at its birth—and which has reduced its political action to an institutional presence devoid of transformational ideas and proposals. Its main subject of concern is its position in the state apparatus and the vicissitudes of Podemos itself. A party that, in the categorisation that Antonio Gramsci made in his Brief Notes on Machiavelli's Politics, is dedicated to “small politics”, to “the partial and everyday issues that arise within an ready established structure due to the struggles for pre-eminence between the various factions of the same political class”. And it has abandoned “big politics”, which really “deals with issues of state and social transformations”. And it has made the mistake, which Gramsci already warned about, that “every element of small politics” becomes “a matter of big politics”.

This is not good news. The current political situation does not favour left-wing positions; in the absence of the intervention of a mass party it presents great difficulties and challenges. However, this assessment cannot ignore the positive features, already noted, that having had this experience meant for Anticapitalists and which allows the revolutionary Marxist organization to continue playing, as Brais Fernández proposes,[20] an active role in the crisis of the 1978 regime. To this end, it must promote new political and social alliances in the face of austerity policies, continue to work for the creation of new mass-influenced anti-neoliberal groupings, such as Forward Andalusia,[21] promote the organisation of trade union, social, environmental, feminist and youth struggles and struggles in defence of the public realm, and be an ideological and cultural reference point in existing debates to define a new eco-feminist and social project.

Manuel Garí is a member of Anticapitalists and the Viento Sur Advisory Council. 

For further background on this topic see “The Contradictions of Unidas Podemos in Government Surface” (downloadable English translation), from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Madrid office.


[1] The Anticapitalist Left participated in the process of creating Podemos during the years 2013 and 2014 and then renamed as Anticapitalists. Since there is absolute political and organisational continuity between the two terms, I use the name Anticapitalists throughout the article for my convenience and to make it easier for anyone to access the text. To learn more about this transition see

[2] [Translator’s note]. The main minority trade union bodies in the Spanish state are the non-party Workers Trade Union (UFO), the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and the public sector union the Independent and Public Servants Union Centre (CSIF).

[3] [Translator’s note]. LAB is aligned ideologically with the Basque patriotic (abertzale) left while ELA is aligned with the conservative nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), ruling party in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi).

[4] [Translator’s note]. On November 9, 2014, in defiance of court orders, over 2.2 million Catalans voted in a “popular participatory process” on whether to constitute Catalonia as a state and whether that state should be independent. On October 1, 2017, the “illegal” Catalan independence referendum was carried out in the face of Spanish National Police and Civil Guard violence. On October 3, 2019, practically all Catalonia stopped work in protest against the violence of October 1, producing the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history.

[5] [Translator’s note]. The Spanish electoral system is rigged against all-Spanish parties that get less than 15% of the Spain-wide vote. Beneath that de facto threshold, the percentage of seats won by all-Spanish forces rapidly falls below their percentage of votes: seats they would have won under a system of proportional representation are overwhelmingly destined to the two major parties, PSOE and PP and—residually—to Basque, Catalan and Galician forces. For example, in the 2011 Spanish general election the United Left (IU) won 6.9% of the vote, but only 3.1% of seats: the animal rights party PACMA, which would win representation under a proportional system, has never entered the Spanish parliament. This sort of distorted result is due to electorates of widely differing sizes: an MP for the province of Soria (Castilla y León) represents approximately 31,000 voters while an MP for Madrid represents 177,500 and an MP for Barcelona 172,000. See here for an illustration of how the result of the November 11, 2019 Spanish general election would have changed with full proportional representation.

[6] [Translator’s note]. Alternative Space (Espacio Alternativa) was founded by former members of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and became a current inside Izquierda Unida before leaving in 2007.

[7] [Translator’s note]. Regional governments in the Spanish State, equivalent to provinces in Canada and states in Australia and the US.

[8] Suddenly, for a short time, the shop windows of the bookstores were filled with works by Laclau such as La razón populista [“On Populist Reason”], or by Laclau and Mouffe such as Hegemonía y estrategia socialista [“Hegemony and Socialist Strategy”]or by Mouffe’s and Errejón's Construir puebloHegemonía y radicalización de la democracia [“Constructing a People: Hegemony and the Radicalisation of Democracy”]. What is unknown is if they really succeeded with readers.



[11][Translator’s note]. Rodriguez is the author of an analysis of 15M and Podemos titled “Politics in the decline of the middle class: the 15M-Podemos cycle” (La Política en el Ocaso de la Clase Media: El Ciclo 15m – Podemos).

[12] anticap_b_14635506.html?ncid?engmodushpmg00000009.

[13] [Translator’s note]. The titan Epimetheus (“afterthought” in classical Greek) was the twin brother of Prometheus (“forethought”). Zeus, father of the gods, entrusted both with conferring traits on the newly created universe of living beings; however, Epimetheus thoughtlessly exhausted his store of traits on the animals before he could assign any to humans. This lack of foresight forced brother Prometheus to steal some traits—the civilising arts and fire—from the gods and bestow them on humans.
Prometheus’s punishment for this affront to the gods was to be chained to a rock and every day have his liver gnawed by an eagle. As for Epimetheus, the gods gave him as wife Pandora, a human created to punish humans. With Pandora came her famous box, an urn into which the gods had placed all the evils of humanity. When Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her and she opened the urn, the evils were released. Pandora rushed to close it, but all that was left inside was Hope.
Epimetheus thus symbolises the human incapacity to foresee the consequences of action and, in the absence of foresight, the tragic inevitability of wisdom coming only at the cost of painful experience.

[14][Translator’s note].Kouvelakis’s critique of Laclau can be found here:

[15] [Translator’s note]. 84.3 % of the voting IU membership supported an alliance with Podemos for the June 2016 Spanish general elections. This figure fell to 61.5% for the November 2019 general election.

[16] [Translator’s note]. PSOE deputy prime-minister Nadia Calviño is economy minister in the PSOE-UP government. Having worked for ten years as the EU’s budget director, she is seen as guarantor that the Spanish government’s economic policy will not violate the lines set down by the European Commission and as a constraint on any excessive spending propensities by UP ministers.

[17] [Translator’s note]. Santiago Alba is a Marxist philosopher and writer, 

[18] [Translator’s note]. Raul Camargo is a leader of Anticapitalists in Madrid. An earlier interview with him has been translated by Links:

[19] [Translator’s note]. The reference is to Pablo Iglesias’s statements condemning the flight in early August to the United Arab Emirates of former Spanish king Juan Carlos and Iglesias’s reaffirmation of Podemos’s republican commitment. For further detail see this interview with Iglesias in Jacobin.


[21] [Translator’s note]. Forward Andalusia (Adelante Andalucía) is an alliance formed in 2018 by Podemos Andalusia, IU in Andalusia and a number of Andalusian sovereigntist forces. After the decision of Anticapitalists to leave Podemos in early 2020, it affiliated to Forward Andalusia as a separate organisation. Anticapitalists member Teresa Rodríguez heads the Forward Andalusia fraction in the Andalusian parliament, where it has 17 of the 109 seats.