Earlier this month Left Unity, Podemos and SYRIZA hosted a speaker tour on ‘Doing Politics Differently’. Nathan Bolton examines the differences between SYRIZA and Podemos, arguing that rather than seeking to import models from elsewhere we need to assess the specificities of what worked in Greece and Spain, what the situation is here and ask what is now possible that was not before? This piece was originally published here.
The English left doesn’t have a lot to cling on to at the moment. But if there is something that does lift the spirits, it’s the high polling of the Greek radical party SYRIZA who may well form a government within the next six months and the meteoric rise of the populist Podemos in Spain. Podemos only formed at the start of 2014 and now has 5 MEPS, achieving 8% in the May European elections. In some recent polls in Spain it is the second highest polling party.
The Greek half of this new left sandwich has been covered extensively in left journals and publications in the last 2-3 years. The formation and nature of Podemos and its harnessing of the popular unity against corruption, housing evictions and the spirit of 15-M has been written about with a flurry of pieces since May, including one by a good friend here.
The rise of Podemos and the strength of SYRIZA in Greece have led to English leftists asking: how can we have that here? On this I want to raise a note of caution. While people are right to say that such formations can emerge here, it’s essential to know what we are talking about. To do this I will make a quick sketch of the make-up of SYRIZA and Podemos and deal with why it is important to understand that Podemos and SYRIZA are not one and the same.
SYRIZA and Podemos
- SYRIZA is a coalition of radical parties, some of which have existed for decades. The springboard for SYRIZA was Synaspismos, a coalition that emerged from euro communist groups and breakaways from the Communist party (KKE). SYRIZA also includes Trotskyist, Maoist and other assorted left parties and projects. The fractured nature of Greek politics, which is astounding, has to a certain extent been overcome by the formation and subsequent consolidation of SYRIZA over the period of the 2000s and 2010s. The obvious exceptions to this are the KKE, the Greek Communist Party and the radical-left coalition ANTARSYA, both of which independently contest elections. In 2009, SYRIZA achieved only 4.6% in the national polls. In 2014, SYRIZA regularly tops polls with 30% of the vote. As an aside, in its 2013 congress a decision was taken to dissolve the numerous participating parties in SYRIZA, in order to form a unitary party. The point of listing the numerous coalitions, parties and mergers that took place in the preceding decade is to say that SYRIZA is a ‘unity of the left’ project par excellence.
- Podemos on the other hand is what SYRIZA is not. Podemos is a party which has been formed directly from the mass movement of the squares (15-M) of 2011-onwards. While some of the initiators of Podemos were/are members of existing political parties, it is not a re-groupment project or a coalition of existing parties as SYRIZA is. Podemos has over 400 local circles, including circles in other European cities of Spanish citizens in economic exile. Podemos represents the democratic flourishing of the 15-M, with local circles open to anyone, open primaries for candidature in elections and forthcoming experiments in ‘e-democracy’. It is a political expression of this movement at the level of the Spanish state.
Why make this distinction?
To conflate Podemos and SYRIZA as one and the same misses the fact that their relation to the huge social movements in their respective countries is different. SYRIZA has positioned itself as the recipient of the votes of a substantial section of the anti-memorandum movement in Greece; a significant but small percentage continues to be picked up by the KKE and other smaller left groups as well as the rightist Independent Greeks. SYRIZA receives votes largely from those who would have previously voted PASOK, the traditional social democratic (now neoliberal party) party in Greece, and has swept up those who have abandoned the party due to its austerity programme. This is in addition to its supporters from the radical left. Podemos instead is a direct product of the movement, rather than a recipient of a section of its voting power. This is significant and not something that should be overlooked in an attempt to point to a ‘European way’ of doing politics differently which we should try to replicate. The arguable equivalent to SYRIZA in Spain, Izquierda Unida (IU) has actually had its support undermined by Podemos as recent elections and polls show. So if we are to learn from Spain and Greece we couldn’t do worse than to simply import a ‘model’ to Britain, even less import something that we have incorrectly characterised.
The closest political happening on these islands to the movements in Spain and Greece was the Scottish referendum. The strength of the movement for independence was in part down to those on the left, particularly those in the Radical Independence Campaign who managed to involve thousands of working class people in politics for the first time in their lives. This was on the basis of a effective elucidation of the vision of a peoples’ Scotland and using the hostility toward Westminster and disillusionment toward that political framework to create a movement for independence. Now even in defeat that movement is beginning to explore the possibilities for forming its own political expression to contest elections in 2016. While this may sound like “a Podemos model”, that would be the wrong conclusion to take. This is charting a course on the basis of what worked for Scotland.
Rather than looking to import models, in England we have a different task.
- First, to fully understand what is happening in Scotland, Greece and Spain, the nature of their respective movements and parties (their inter-relationship) and how these have emerged in opposition to the specific obstacles facing them: austerity, corruption, democratic deficit or a mixture of all.
- Second, to thoroughly assess the fundamental changes that neoliberalism has wrought in our own state, how that affects the form of struggle, the political and sectional organisations that are intended as a bulwark against those changes and the broader challenges that face us.
- Thirdly, this will lead us to be able to ask: what is now possible that was not before?
I think this framework would allow us to have a productive discussion about left of Labour political alternatives, how would they be organised, what would constitute them in terms of social forces and what would be the antagonism they would focus upon which both fed from and consolidated a popular unity – memorandums, austerity and corruption or an independent nation? To understand that Podemos and SYRIZA have different geneses means that we understand that a left of Labour project in Britain or in England can begin in a number of ways and so begin in a way which suits the specific conditions for which it exists. That would really be Doing Politics Differently.