National Sections of the L5I:

Podemos - A model for the European left?

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Spain bucked the rightward trend in May’s European Parliament elections by electing five MEPs from the new “Podemos” (“We Can”) formation.

With 8 per cent or 1.25 million votes, in addition to the 11 per cent won by the United Left (IU) bloc, Podemos’s surprise success opens up the possibility of creating a radical left-wing alternative along the lines of Greece’s Syriza party.

Activists associated with Movimiento 15-M, which led the 2011-12 anti-austerity protests, founded Podemos just two months before the elections. For several weeks there had been predictions that it would achieve a vote around the threshold for winning seats. But as the election campaign progressed, the swing towards Podemos increased.

In February, IU had not yet agreed a common electoral platform. Many former IU supporters were disillusioned with its record and feared it would continue its policy of supporting another government led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Spain has been rocked for three years by mass protests against an EU-driven austerity that has been imposed first by the social-democratic PSOE and then by conservative Popular Party (PP) governments.

The square occupations, Movimiento 15-M and the Indignados are just a few faces of the sustained politicisation of young people hard hit by this austerity. In a space where the big trade unions and the established left parties were weakly represented, these overwhelmingly youthful movements found new forms of protest and organisation, which have sustained protests for several years. It was these conditions that contributed to Podemos’ success as an electoral left alternative.

Origin and structure

The initiative to launch Podemos began with a number of leftist intellectuals led by Pablo Iglesias and Santiago Alba Rico, who sympathised with the protest movement and who no longer supported IU.

A second factor was a decision by the Anticapitalist Left (IA), a group led by the Spanish section of the Fourth International, to break with IU and launch an independent electoral initiative. After years of work in IU, IA counts over 1,000 members, and its national structures provided a framework around which the Iglesias group could build Podemos.

The basic idea for building Podemos was the “circulos”, or circles. These open and expandable structures operate locally or within certain social sectors (trade unions, environmental and women’s movements etc.), and not just individuals but also groups and campaigns can join them.

Podemos emphasises that it does not intend to replace existing initiatives or organisations but rather try to bring them into a common framework of political discussion and collaboration.

Both the programme and the candidates for the elections were discussed first at circle level, before being decided through a process of online voting at national level, drawing 30,000 to 40,000 “supporters” into the discussions and decision-making. With this form of participation Podemos quickly gained thousands of activists for the election campaign and built circles of considerable size, even in small towns in the provinces.

Spain is now covered with these circles. Electoral success generated requests for cooperation and new circles more quickly than they could be processed.

The programme of Podemos

It must be said here that the strongly grassroots-centred democratic process – as concerns both candidates and programme – has not produced too many surprises. On one hand, Iglesias was confirmed as the main leader and placed at number two on the electoral list. On the other hand, the programme reads like the left-reformist manifesto usually issued by the Spanish section of the Fourth International.

So we have the call for a “social Europe” that increases employment through investment programmes, an audit (not cancellation) of the state debt, accountability (not expropriation) of the multinationals, a basic income, restricting political salaries and perks to the level of the average wage, the abolition of the repressive EU border regime and so forth.

But that is as far as it goes. Nothing in the programme addresses the means by which these demands might be implemented: state ownership of land and workplaces and working class control of the means of production are not mentioned.

Nor does Podemos’s programme challenge illusions in the democratic process by posing the need for a fundamental break with the capitalist state apparatus. In spite of its many progressive and necessary demands it is unquestionably a left-reformist organisation with a left-reformist programme.

However, despite this, the character of Podemos is not yet fixed in stone. The grassroots decision-making structure, its connection to radical social struggles and its roots within the unionised workforce allow revolutionary currents within Podemos to agitate for a decisive break with the elements of petit bourgeois ideology, and with their representatives. Without such a break, Podemos will nurture within itself the embryo of compromise and conciliation with the capitalist order.

A new workers’ party?

We would argue that both electoral support for Podemos and work inside it are entirely justified for the very weak revolutionary currents existing in Spain. Arguing, as some do, that the tiny groups of revolutionaries should carry out their own regroupment separate from Podemos is not a way to fight the centrism of the Fourth International but leaves it to determine the fate of Podemos and with it an important section of the vanguard of youth and workers in Spain.

A small collection of groups that could do little more than draw programmatic conclusions from the crisis of the left, or offer their ideas as a guide for workers’ struggles, cannot thus seriously impact the mass movement that formed Podemos. Instead, such organisations should try to integrate themselves within that movement and fight for a revolutionary strategy for the strikes and protests.

Podemos is not simply a regroupment project of socialist propaganda groups, but a movement that influences hundreds of thousands of workers and youth. The question is therefore how this can develop into a new workers’ party which acts as the vanguard of the working class in Spain, drawing in the most politically active and most dynamic parts of the new social movements.

Podemos’s electoral success calls into question the balance of forces within the working class and the traditional labour movement. This is shown by the fact that Podemos voters came not just from the social movements. Many were former PSOE supporters who are now looking for an alternative to its neoliberal policy.


Despite IU’s own gains, many clearly see the radical democracy of Podemos as a credible alternative. The question for Podemos now is to set out its policy on the most pressing issues: unemployment, the housing shortage, job cuts, workplace closures and the national question. Podemos equally must address the question of what attitude to take to other organisations, political campaigns and social movements.

And Podemos will have to answer this as a party, as a political force with mass impact. To achieve its potential, Podemos cannot remain in its current stage of unstructured circle growth and participatory democracy and fail to address the question of power and working class rule.

On all these issues, Podemos must rapidly develop clear political answers and advance precise demands as the basis for a united front of all labour organisations and social movements against the attacks of capital and Mariano Rajoy’s government.

The abdication of King Juan Carlos and the demands of the Catalans and the Basques for a referendum on independence show that democratic demands remain a central issue in the Spanish state.

The transition from Franco’s dictatorship left a whole host of democratic issues unsolved, issues which the PSOE ducked repeatedly and which the PP, as Franco’s heirs, naturally rejected. The mass demonstrations calling for a republic can boost Podemos if it courageously takes up the demand for a republic, for a constituent assembly and for the right of all the nationalities in the Spanish state to decide if they wish to remain within it or to achieve their independence.

Revolutionary socialists in Podemos should be fighting in the democratic base structures of the party for those tactics that can win these political and social demands, that is, the all-out general strike, controlled by assemblies and councils in the workplaces and communities.

At the same time, Podemos must clarify its future as a party, its political programme and its internal structures, by conducting a thorough and democratic debate on the alternatives; reform or revolution.

Podemos can only become a “new type” of party when it acts as an expression of the struggle for workers’ democracy against the prevailing capitalist relations.

Without issuing ultimatums, revolutionaries should therefore propose a revolutionary action programme, and advocate a genuinely democratic centralist party structure as the most effective way to fight for a strategy of the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class.