On 15 May 2011, a tremendous movement erupted all over Spain: the indignados. Within a few years, it found a political expression in the rise of Podemos. But the upcoming elections this month are set to confirm the terminal decline of this party, led into a dead end by its leadership. This represents the end of a political cycle. It might seem that we have returned to square one. But the end of this cycle is preparing the ground for a new revolutionary upturn of the mass movement, on a higher level, enriched by the whole experience of the past decade.
The emergence of Podemos
Podemos emerged in the European elections of 25 May 2014, coalescing around the figure of Pablo Iglesias. He had become very popular through television debates, with his energetic and courageous denunciations of the Spanish political regime and of the role of big business and the banks in the context of the economic and social crisis then ravaging the country.
Under the slogans, “Down with the caste!” and “Break the lock of the 1978 regime” [referring to the 1978 constitution of the Spanish state, written at the end of a revolutionary period, which is today known as ‘the Transition’ to democracy, a transition that actually ended in a rotten compromise between the old fascist regime and the leaders of the main workers’ parties], Podemos obtained 8 percent of the vote in those elections, and went on to reach 28 percent of the voting intentions in the polls six months later, making it the first party in terms of electoral preference. Such was the degree to which the other political parties, both left and right, had been discredited. On 30 January 2015, Podemos made a show of force that no other party has been able to match, when it single-handedly rallied 300,000 people in the streets of Madrid. This was the high point of its influence.
The Spanish bourgeoisie panicked. Just a couple of days before he died, in late September 2014, the country’s leading banker, president of Santander bank Emilio Botín, expressed his enormous concern about Podemos to a select group of journalists. In those months, the leadership of Podemos received requests for ‘private’ meetings from the likes of the US Embassy and from executives of the country’s main companies, with whom they met in secret. They wanted to know the real scope of their ‘subversive’ plans. So too did former President Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE. Nothing has entered the public domain regarding the content of those meetings.
None of this fell from the sky. Podemos was the political expression of the gigantic wave of mass mobilisations over the previous three years, and the accumulated experience of those years. According to the official statistics, in 2012 and 2013 there were an average of 123 daily acts of protest of varying type and extent, throughout the length and breadth of the country. 25 percent of the population reported having participated in demonstrations.
The cycle began with the impressive mobilisation of the ‘indignados’, which started on 15 May 2011 following the police eviction from Puerta del Sol in Madrid of a camp of young people protesting against the social conditions young people were suffering in, amidst the acute crisis of 2008-2013. Thousands of young people responded to the police eviction by setting up a months-long occupation camp in the Puerta del Sol. This was replicated across main squares in towns and cities all over Spain. But much like today, the discrediting of the official milk-and-water Left gave overwhelming majorities for the right, first in the municipal elections of May 2011 and then in the general elections of November that year.
At that time, Rajoy’s right-wing People’s Party (PP) presented a ‘moderate’, ‘centrist’ image, which served to hide its true colours, especially from those layers driven desperate by the effects of the crisis. But from the very first moment, the PP government embarked on a brutal policy of social cuts, which had already commenced under the Socialist Party (PSOE) government of Zapatero, as well as attacks on democratic rights. It passed the labour reform, which ceased to make collective agreements binding on employers, and the ‘Gag Law’, which gave sweeping powers to the police on the streets.
All this triggered the biggest mass mobilisation since the 1970s. There were two massive general strikes in 2012. Waves numbering millions took to the streets against the cuts, in what were known as the White Tide (in defence of healthcare) and the Green Tide (in defence of education). A march of miners from León to Madrid, protesting against the closure of the mines, was met by 200,000 people in the capital at the end of June 2012. In late September 2012, an illegal rally was called around the Congress of Deputies in Madrid, gathering tens of thousands of people, who remained throughout the night and into the early morning. The struggle against evictions reached an unprecedented scale: 20,000 evictions were halted through mass direct action.
A network of social movements sprang up, in which tens of thousands of people participated (the Mareas or ‘Tides’, mortgage-holders’ groups, ‘Stop Evictions’, platforms against repression, against the restriction of the right to abortion, for the republic, etc.) The middle class turned sharply to the left, joining the movement. The high point was the ‘Dignity March’ on 22 March 2014, when one million people took over Madrid under the slogan that democracy and the economy ought to be placed in the hands of the people.
The turn to the political front
As a result of these movements, there were more than 1,100 disciplinary proceedings in 2013 alone, with fines of between €300 and €6,000 issued. More than 3,000 workers and social activists were prosecuted, most of them for participating in pickets and labour protests. Many of them ended up in prison.
In parallel to this, the Catalan national question explosively burst onto the scene. Although the nationalist Catalan leaders initially raised the slogan of independence in a demagogic manner – blaming Madrid for cuts they themselves were implementing in Catalonia – the movement took on a life of its own. It was fuelled by the surging anti-establishment mood and the shameless anti-Catalan sentiment exhibited by the Spanish right and the state apparatus. Simultaneously, anti-monarchy sentiment was spreading, spurred on by the rampant corruption of the royal family.
The crisis of the regime and a pre-revolutionary atmosphere hung over society. This marked a moment in which millions of people, seeking a political alternative that could transform society, ruptured with the regime and the political system.
This – and not, as some of its leaders imagined, ‘original’ language, slogans and organisational forms – was the real ‘secret’ to Podemos’ strength. Overnight hundreds of thousands of people joined Podemos and thousands of circles (agrupaciones) were set up all over the country.
Opportunism of the leadership
The truth must be told. The Podemos leadership shaped the movement in an opportunistic way, being terrified of the extent of its influence, which they had by no means anticipated. They refused to structure a democratic organisation in which the militant rank-and-file could determine the party’s policy and orientation. On paper, the organisation was hyper-focussed on assemblies. In reality, all decisions were taken at the top, and could not be overturned by any lower bodies.
The party’s radical programme, which included retirement at 60 and the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy (without specifying which ones!), was soon abandoned. Instead of preparing the organisation for struggle through social movements and trade union work, they confined their activity to the electoral plain.
The more left-wing layers were marginalised and purged from above. They made use of old careerists from the Izquierda Unida (IU, an electoral coalition formed by the old Communist Party), the PSOE, and the discredited Iniciativa per Catalunya, among others, and put them at the head of the movement in many areas. Podemos was filled with all sorts of petty-bourgeois careerists, office-seekers, apolitical types without any class consciousness who saw an opportunity to get ahead. And the leadership consciously promoted this layer to try to cushion it from the pressure of the rank and file.
Despite his radical, and at times courageous, phraseology, what has always characterised Pablo Iglesias is a deep-rooted distrust of the ability of the working class to transform society. He panics about a frontal confrontation with the system, for which he has no alternative. He has always placed his whole trust in apparatus manoeuvres or theatrics. All this condemned Podemos in advance, although this was not evident to the bulk of its members at the time because of the enormous political authority then enjoyed by Iglesias.
In the municipal elections of May 2015, Podemos and its allies achieved resounding victories in the big capitals, such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza, Cádiz, Santiago, Coruña, and others. It defeated the PSOE in almost all areas except Asturias, Andalusia, Extremadura and the two Castillas. Its initial courageous defence of the right of self-determination for Catalonia and the Basque Country made it the leading party in both territories, ahead of the Basque and Catalan nationalists.
It is true that the regime launched a ferocious and shameless campaign of slander and smear, and improvised a ‘right-wing’ Podemos through Ciudadanos to wrest a temporarily radicalised middle-class layer from it. But it was the continuous vacillations and zig-zags of the Podemos leadership to the right and left, instead of maintaining a firm position, that sowed doubts among the most unstable part of its support base, which gradually shifted over to PSOE and Ciudadanos.
Even so, Podemos surpassed 21 percent in the 2015 and 2016 general elections (now in coalition with IU), coming very close to electorally overtaking PSOE. But its inability to offer a way forward after PSOE’s refusal to form a left-wing bloc with it to oust the PP from government, which had lost its absolute majority, provoked growing frustration among the left’s grassroots. It initiated a shift to the right by a layer of the middle classes, dissatisfied with a left that proved incapable of offering a way out of the situation.
The 2015 elections and their repetition months later in 2016 led to political paralysis, as Rajoy's PP found itself in a minority in Congress, without support to form a government. The PSOE apparatus, headed by Pedro Sánchez, reacted to the vacillations of Podemos and to the real danger of being ousted as the first party on the left. Sánchez confronted the right wing of the party headed by Susana Díaz, who didn’t want to hear anything about any agreement with either Podemos or the Catalan and Basque separatists, whom she accused of being ‘anti-system’ forces. Rather, the right demanded PSOE abstain, thus allowing a minority PP government to continue, despite a majority for the left in Congress when left-wing nationalist and pro-independence forces were taken into account.
Sánchez defeated Díaz in the party’s primaries, and galvanised enough votes from the PSOE rank-and-file to get elected as general secretary of the party, reflecting the rebellious mood among the working masses more broadly. This gave the PSOE a ‘left’ profile at that time, allowing it to maintain and strengthen its electoral base.
A turn to the right
In 2017, after the defeat of Íñigo Errejón’s right wing in the second national congress of Podemos, there was a new turn to the right, with an increasingly dwindling active membership. This shift to the right was consolidated with the Catalan independence referendum of 1 October of that year. Podemos turned its back on the movement, and maintained a so-called ‘equidistant’ position – between this democratic, revolutionary movement on the one hand, and Spanish nationalism on the other. From there, Iglesias promoted an absurd discourse about a supposedly ‘progressive’ Spanish nationalism, which aimed to cleanse and recycle the word patria among new and politically inexperienced layers. And this was then, of course, exploited by the ultra-right Vox party for their own ends.
From that moment on, the Podemos leadership undertook to subordinate itself to PSOE. Any notion of surpassing the latter was abandoned. It staked everything on forming a coalition government with Pedro Sánchez, to the point of abandoning any and all street mobilisations and renouncing the party programme. And this served to kill the rebellious and radical spirit of the movement, setting it on a sure path towards decline. Millions were moved to trust Podemos, not because they believed it might gain a few crumbs from the table of the rich, but because they saw it as a vehicle for completely changing their lives. This trust represented a new hope for the radical transformation of society, even if it might not have been expressed clearly or consistently.
Parallel to this, in the 2019 mayoral elections we saw the fall of the ‘Mayors for Change’ (alcaldías del cambio) elected in Madrid, Zaragoza, Galicia, and other areas, who had differed but little from the conventional left reformist municipalities. Those left standing, such as Barcelona, Valencia and Cádiz, suffered the same ignominious fate at the last elections on 28 May.
The coalition government
In the general elections of April 2019, the right suffered a resounding defeat, due to the mass mobilisation of left voters concerned about the advance of the far-right Vox. The refusal of Unidas Podemos to help Sánchez form a government if he did not let them enter it, caused an electoral rerun in November of that year, resulting in a similar left-right balance of forces. With his instinct for a well-timed coup, this time Sánchez accepted Pablo Iglesias’ offer to form a coalition.
As we warned at the time, the entry of Unidas Podemos (the electoral brand adopted from 2016) into a coalition government with PSOE, would make it co-responsible for management of the capitalist crisis that would leave broad layers of the working class unsatisfied. By mimicking the PSOE, and with no substantial difference in its programme and language, PSOE would inevitably be the ones to gain at UP’s detriment. After all, workers will naturally vote for the larger of two parties when there’s no major distinction between them.
And once in the governing coalition, UP (including the Podemos leaders) betrayed two of the main pillars of the mass movement of 2012-2014, renouncing the demand to completely repeal the PP’s labour reform and the Gag Law. Nor did it offer any solution to the housing crisis, another of the pillars of the movement. They excused themselves on account of being a minority in the government. But this is no excuse at all, as these very promises were signed up to by both UP and PSOE in their programme for government, and were merely left unfulfilled. UP are therefore co-responsible for bending the knee to the rich and powerful. With PSOE’s apparatus being wedded to the old regime, this outcome was inevitable. In opposition, UP could have achieved the same small advances, whilst maintaining a clean banner. They could have then stood out as a point of reference in contrast to the inadequacies of the PSOE government. Instead, they have handed the opposition space over to the reactionary right.
An irreversible decline
The boastful smugness of Pablo Iglesias when he proclaimed in years gone by that the struggle in the streets changes nothing, and that things can only be changed from within the (capitalist) institutions, has cruelly turned against him and his party.
Pablo Iglesias’ leadership, having made all sorts of concessions to the right of the party, having promoted Carmena, Íñigo Errejón and Yolanda Díaz, had ended up betrayed by the latter. The first two – who headed the candidatures of Unidas Podemos in Madrid – split without warning on the eve of the 2019 regional and municipal elections, and took with them most of Podemos’ electoral base in Madrid, making the most of the authority that the leadership of Podemos had conferred upon them in the previous period. Yolanda Díaz, for her part, has ended up completely marginalising Podemos in the shaping of the electoral platform, SUMAR, vetoing the presence of its main leaders on the electoral lists.
That group that once upon a time presented itself as the left wing of Podemos (Anticapitalistas) has played a truly lamentable role. Unable to articulate a current of opposition to the policies of the leadership, and despite the fact that they came to have a great internal weight and controlled important federations, they only put distance between themselves and Iglesias on questions of internal democracy and procedure. They never presented nor agitated for any different radical political programme.
They split from Podemos at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, without a coherent explanation. They have since become an irrelevance with a minimal presence in the social and workers’ movements, with opportunist deviations of all kinds, such as their turn in Andalusia to a bland, petty-bourgeois, Andalusian folk nationalism.
Today, what remains of Podemos is an increasingly rotten collection of public officials: without a defined ideology or programme, and with no membership base whatsoever and no roots in the social struggle. Its decline is irreversible.
A new revolutionary cycle is coming
The wheel has completed one full revolution, but the crisis of the regime has not gone away. The demons of the past are back, and they aren’t going away: the weakness of Spanish capitalism, the old Francoist state apparatus rearing its head, the crisis of legitimacy of a corrupt monarchy, the burden of the privileges of the Church, the Catalan and Basque national question, which are sure to return with even greater vigour if the right is installed in the Moncloa Palace [the Prime Minister’s residence].
The working class and, above all the youth, are not the same as they were 9 or 12 years ago. They have been through an apprenticeship, and have emerged with a more critical and distrustful attitude. The fact that, already today, thousands of young people are orienting themselves towards communism, without adopting false ideologies as intermediary steps, is a clear indication of the revolutionary potential of the future.
The crisis of Spanish capitalism, which will deepen with the impending global recession, combined with the anti-worker policies that the right or of the crisis-ridden social democracy, whichever is in power, will be forced to pursue, will create the conditions for a new mass explosion, as in the 2011-2014 cycle, and a new mass turn towards political action, as we saw from 2014 onwards. But the next return of the masses to the front of political struggle will have a deeper anti-capitalist character.
It will bypass the kind of outdated ‘strong-man’ politics we saw with Podemos, and an official left that is even more discredited today than it was during the last political cycle.
It is the task of the Marxist tendency, of a communist current like that represented by the IMT, to arrive at that moment in history with hundreds and thousands of cadres capable of intervening to guarantee victory. Our task is to contribute to the construction of a revolutionary and internationalist communist party of the masses capable of leading the working class to the seizure of power.