Wages of tailism
Unlike others on the left, the SWP at least tries to draw lessons from the failure of Spain’s Podemos. The problem is, Paul Demarty explains, the lessons it draws are hopelessly wrong
The party - a ‘new left’ formation in Spain - was formed in the mid-2010s as a sort of self-appointed political wing of the widespread Indignados protests against austerity and corruption provoked by the euro crisis, and out of nowhere came forth in the 2014 European parliament elections, becoming a major player in Spanish electoral politics. But the May 4 regional elections in Madrid were disastrous for Podemos: it slipped into fifth, behind the far-right nationalist Vox party. Overall the victors were the Partido Popular (PP), the major party of the right.
For Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’s leader from its formation, the result was bad enough and the campaign dispiriting enough for him to retire from politics altogether. (He had received bullets in the mail, to the indifference of both Vox and PP opponents.) It is difficult to see what happens next for Podemos, which has already suffered one damaging split to the right around Íñigo Errejón, but it is unlikely to be good. The immediate cause of this reversal is surely obvious: Iglesias’s success, finally, in getting into government as a junior partner of the social democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). He thereby put himself in the firing line when unpopular decisions, inevitably, had to be made.
The question, as always, is what lessons will be learned, and by whom. The answer in many cases will be: no lessons at all. We note that Left Unity, which was formed explicitly in imitation of Podemos and others, has not seen fit to comment on the Madrilenian election or Iglesias’s dramatic departure. There is always another rainbow to chase, and never time to consider failures. Of course, Podemos leaders teach this behaviour, along with their other ‘contributions’. Iglesias and - especially - Errejón were fanatical supporters of the pink-wave governments in Latin America, but have recently denounced the “disaster” in Venezuela, without giving any account of how they came to retail this “disaster” to their followers in the first place (dropping the Chavismo is, naturally, cynical opportunism on their part).
It is to the Socialist Workers Party’s credit that it does, at least, try to draw lessons from the crisis of Podemos. Unfortunately, the lessons drawn are hopeless.
The job of analysing these events for Socialist Worker falls to one Sam Ord, a comrade to whom we offered a bit of a tongue-lashing in relation to football a few weeks ago.1 His article consists, for the most, of a re-narration of Podemos’s history. The party “emerged from an inspiring wave of struggle”, he writes, referring to the Indignados. “People confronted the attacks on their living standards, but also began discussing how to create a new and more democratic form of politics.”2
There followed mass strikes. Ord mentions, in passing, the inspiration provided by the Egyptian revolution of 2011 - “The spread of the Arab spring showed people that change from below, on the streets, was a possibility.” We will return to that assessment a little later on.
Podemos, arising from this wave of protests, was part of a general reaction against neoliberal austerity; other examples adduced are the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders movements, the Front de Gauche (now La France Insoumise), Syriza, and so on. Podemos’s programme, along with the run-of-the-mill leftist demands for nationalisations and stronger welfare, also included withdrawal from Nato and self-determination for the nationalities. Its formal structures also caused some excitement for comrade Ord:
The party also claimed to be attempting a new form of politics. Its structures were based on circles and assemblies with direct democracy, transparency, accountability and election candidates selected by the members.
But problems were already arising:
Any movement on the streets that seeks to have a political expression faces quick decisions. Is the political voice primarily focused on elections, or are elections simply a subordinate part of growing and developing the movement? After some equivocation, Podemos made clear that its central focus was going to be the electoral field.
The temptation of electoralism tended to moderate Podemos’s platform. It abandoned its republicanism, since that would be to cut itself off from “large sectors of the population, who … feel sympathetic towards this new [king]”, as Iglesias put it. Support for the national movements of Catalonia and the Basque country were later dropped. Thus the path was laid out to the coalition with PSOE and the electoral massacre of May 4. The movement had been abandoned - Ord quotes Iglesias again: “that idiocy that we used to say when we were on the extreme left, that things change in the street and not in institutions, is a lie”.
Ord’s account is a structurally plausible history of Podemos. It really did explicitly base itself on the Indignados and, once it achieved surprise success in 2014, rapidly bureaucratised itself and moved to the right. Our attention must fall, however, on the comrade’s explanation for this: that Podemos chose to separate itself from the street and strike movements of the day. The telling phrase is “quick decisions” - we get no sense of why Iglesias and his cronies should have chosen the way they did; it seems rather to be a sort of Nietzschean act of will ex nihilo. Future generations of activists, we suppose, are supposed to learn that they chose wrongly, and act accordingly during the next protest wave.
This, however, is surely question begging. “The idiocy that we used to say when we were on the extreme left” - we used to say. Iglesias was not born in 2014. The upheavals of 2011-14 in Spain were not the country’s first. Ord does not bother to offer an actual argument for the idea that Iglesias’s conclusion about ‘the streets’ versus ‘the institutions’ is wrong. He merely asserts that “the urgent need is to learn from his failures and to refocus on revolutionary politics that are firmly based on the movements from below”.
There exists an argument, to be sure: it is part of the ambient orthodoxy of SWP politics. Step one: the ‘classical Marxist’ strategy for socialism is ‘socialism from below’ - that is, socialism as the act of the workers themselves. Step two: the social world as it actually exists tends to befuddle the workers and demoralise them (accounts of this vary, but are typically presented, as and when anyone can be bothered, in terms of György Lukács’s theory of reification). But immediately radical forms of struggle puncture through that. These forms are many, but crucially include the strike struggle of worker against employer and the street protest of oppressed against oppressor (or oppressor’s proxy). The struggling masses realise that the machine can be punctured. They gain in confidence (confidence is a magic word in the SWP), and radicalisation takes on its own momentum.
However, this energy can be diverted. The movement is not yet conscious of its role, and more conscious elements will seek to lead it. Principled revolutionaries will attempt to keep the virtuous cycle going, by leading the struggle patiently through an ascending scale of action. But there are reformists and other misleaders, who trap the movement into parliamentarism, sucking the radicalism out of it, and finally leading to demoralisation. We cannot know that comrade Ord agrees with this argument, but if he demurred from it in print, his editor would immediately remove the offending passage. It is the alpha and the omega of SWP practice. And, while Iglesias’s formulation is slippery and objectionable, he is right, at least, that it is an idiocy.
The evidence, indeed, is scattered throughout Ord’s article. He mentions that the Spanish movement was inspired by Egypt - indeed! I myself participated in a small way in the contemporaneous student movement in this country, and the events in the Middle East and north Africa really did give us great courage and inspiration - in 2011. Ord drops this thread of the narrative there, however, and does not mention that by the time anyone got the chance to vote for Podemos, the Egyptian people had elected Mohamed Morsi - an Islamist president whose attempts to establish a theocratic constitution were only prevented by a military coup that reimposed the old regime at a dismal human cost.
The SWP, playing toy soldiers from afar, supported both a vote for Morsi and the coup against him, which it proclaimed “a new stage in the revolution”. Whether it adopted this strategy on the advice of its Egyptian affiliate, the Revolutionary Socialists, or imposed it from afar on RS, it is a telling outcome. Why did it not just demand more and more street protests? (Why did it mistake a coup for a new stage of revolutionary struggle, for that matter?)
Closer to home, it is hard not to laugh at Ord’s hectoring of Podemos for dropping its opposition to the Spanish monarchy. In the mid-2000s, the SWP attempted to create an electoral party on the basis of the anti-war movement as they understood it - that is, “an alliance of socialists and Muslim activists” (ie, Islamists). In order to get that over the line, they discarded principle after principle as too ‘alienating’ to their supposed mass audience - including republicanism.
Why these hypocrisies? Do the SWP’s leaders simply lack moral fibre as individuals? Let us advance, instead, the hypothesis that in both these cases their failures were untheorised responses to something real. That ‘something’ is that protest politics does not work. Protests in themselves almost invariably fail to coerce the powers-that-be, no matter how radical they might be. They have value only as part of a wider political project of some kind. The rulers fear indiscipline, splits, on their own side. That requires a sustained pole of attraction over and against the state apparatus - a party.
The SWP, in 2003-04, was faced with the reality that Iraq was invaded and inevitably the anti-war protests shrank. Keeping the issue on the agenda meant fighting at the level of general politics, but the refusal to attempt to raise the political level of the movement meant it had to be fought on the incredibly thin common ground of the SWP, George Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) - or so they hoped. The MAB refused to join, finding the whole idea too opportunist, so instead it became the SWP, George and a motley assortment of patriarchal community leaders in strongly-Muslim areas like Tower Hamlets.
As for Egypt, the military regime, at the height of the protests, understood that discipline was likely to fray, and got out ahead of the matter, deposing dictator Hosni Mubarak and cobbling together an extremely presidentialist constitution that left it essentially intact. The Brotherhood had, with varying levels of official tolerance and generous foreign support, insinuated itself into society over many decades, and that support told with the election of Morsi. The question was decided between the men with the free clinics in every neighbourhood and the men with the guns and tanks. The protest movement, including the SWP and its allies, was exploited by each of these in turn, because, of itself, it did not have a dynamic towards greater political power and coherence.
Mass protests and strike movements have an internal limit. Ultimately, they begin to disrupt daily life - the delivery of supplies, ordinary commerce, and so on. At this point, the question of power is already posed: it is necessary either to restore order, or to create a new order. To do the former is ‘easy’, if the state maintains its coherence: clear the streets, arrest, kettle, shoot people. To do the latter is difficult - but it is possible if there is a total alternative to the status quo available in the form of an already mass party. Otherwise people will consent - enthusiastically or otherwise - to the restoration of order, since, after all, they need to eat.
The Podemos line of working within “the institutions” recognises this reality, but indulges in, if anything, an even worse one. In 2015, I debated with a Podemos representative at a Platypus event in Frankfurt. The comrade - who, like Iglesias, Errejón and a weirdly large percentage of the party’s leadership, was an Ernesto Laclau-inspired academic at heart - told us some home truths (I paraphrase): “You see, the average voter has a hard job. He works for eight or nine hours a day. He comes home. He turns on the TV and watches the news for five minutes. That is the time you have to reach him.” So detailed political programmes which promised to upend society could only cause unnecessary controversy and reduce the chance of establishing the sort of populist hegemony that was Laclau’s big idea.
The error here is simply the refusal to take seriously the fact that ‘the institutions’ are in enemy hands. (Did the comrade expect the news channel to give him five free minutes for propaganda purposes?) Protest politics is not an alternative; but we still need one. Otherwise, why not join a bourgeois government and stab your voters in the back? You left your voters in the atomised, slave-class condition you found them; and so they voted for you to do exactly that; and now they will abandon you for having done it.
For all their phenomenal differences (and vast differences in influence), the SWP and Podemos are secretly twins. They are both tailists - the SWP tails anything that moves, while Podemos kept tailing the same people after they stopped moving. The fantasy of ever-ascending protest squares off against the ‘reality principle’ of the worker slumped in front of his TV; but the substitution of this image for the whole class is, too, a fantasy.
We can choose neither ‘the streets’ nor ‘the institutions’: we need instead to create our institutions.
‘That was the league that wasn’t’ Weekly Worker April 29: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1345/that-was-the-league-that-wasnt.↩︎