How can the left topple the bosses' Europe?

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The rise of left formations such as Syriza and Podemos presents new challenges

Over the past two months a string of remarkable opinion polls have appeared across Europe that point to big opportunities — and big challenges — for the left. In Greece the radical left party Syriza, which came close to winning the 2012 general elections, has moved to being 5 to 10 percent ahead of the ruling conservative New Democracy party. Some polls in the Irish Republic have seen Sinn Fein nose ahead of both the ruling Fine Gael party and the once dominant party of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail.

But most remarkable of all was a poll in the Spanish El Pais newspaper in early November which put Podemos on 27.7 percent, beating both the main opposition PSOE Socialist Party and the ruling conservative Popular Party. Another poll at the end of the month put Podemos also even further ahead at 28.3 percent. Whereas both Syriza (or at least its main component Synaspismos) and Sinn Fein have existed for over two decades, Podemos was formed only at the start of this year.

Podemos’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. It stunned everyone by winning 5 MEPs in May’s European elections after receiving 1.2 million votes on a programme calling for the abolition of tax havens, a guaranteed minimum income and lowering the retirement age to 60.

In mid-October around 8,000 activists packed into the huge Palacio Vistalegre auditorium in Madrid for the inaugural “citizens’ assembly” of Podemos. Another 150,000 people took part online. Podemos now has around 1,000 local branches that hold mass meetings frequently, sometimes in public spaces — an echo of the Indignados movement that occupied public squares across Spain.

Podemos’s rise is the sharpest expression of a much wider trend across Europe. Decades of neoliberalism, now compounded by austerity, have led to political polarisation and fragmentation across Europe. The erosion of old certainties about life for millions of workers and young people is undermining support for the old political order.

This process of political fracturing is uneven and it is much more accelerated in some countries than others, but almost nowhere is completely immune. The left is not the only force seeking to gain from this turmoil. The racist right is also exploiting the disillusionment with the traditional political set-up. Marine Le Pen’s fascist National Front topped the European elections in France, as did the racist Danish People’s Party in Denmark and Ukip in Britain. Europe is polarising fast and this presents opportunities as well as terrible dangers. Brian Richardson assesses the rise of the racist right and the movement against it elsewhere in this issue.

Peter Mair, the Irish political scientist who died in 2011, in his posthumously published work Ruling the Void argues that we are witnessing the “the hollowing of western democracy” with turnout at elections and membership of the once dominant parties falling. Electoral instability has also increased, with greater numbers of voters switching parties from one election to the next. One of Mair’s co-researchers, Ingrid van Biezen, estimates that, on average, membership of political parties in the continent’s established democracies has almost halved since 1980.

Such an erosion of support for the traditional parties represents a dangerous moment for any ruling class. Much of the time the majority of workers accept, or at least tolerate, the capitalist system because no alternative appears possible. A liberal democratic framework enables people to feel they have some control over their lives, and grievances about particular aspects of the system can be generally absorbed within the competitive interplay of political parties. An ebbing of that toleration can make explosions of anger from below more difficult to contain.

A crisis in the old way of ruling for the capitalist class opens up space for new forces to emerge — both those that seek to give greater expression to working class interests and that can begin to develop a generalised challenge to capitalism, and those that seek to stoke up nationalism and racism and look to authoritarian solutions to the crisis.

A key question, then, is what kind of left is required to make sure there is a progressive rather than reactionary solution to the crisis shaking much of the European political order?

Ireland, Greece and Spain all have general elections due not later than the next 18 months. In Greece an election may be called early next year if the government cannot muster 180 votes in parliament to elect a new Greek president in February. Syriza could find itself in office within months.

This means that the forces of the radical left are likely to face big tests in the period ahead. What strategies are the rising forces of the left across Europe pursuing? The best description is left reformist — in other words, a more radical version of the notion that gains can be won for workers through using the existing state to curb the power of the market and big business.

But many of Syriza’s supporters, and especially some of its international champions, would reject this claim, arguing that Syriza has transcended the old dilemma of reform or revolution and that a “left government” can open the door to a real challenge to austerity and inequality.

Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin for example, writing earlier this year in the Guardian, praised Syriza’s commitment to “radical reforms” and argued, “The question for the 21st century is not reform v revolution, but rather what kinds of reforms, with what kinds of popular movements behind them engaging in the kinds of mobilisations that can inspire similar developments elsewhere, can prove revolutionary enough to withstand the pressures of capitalism.”

But the danger is that such formulations evade the harsh realities that continue to shape 21st century capitalism every bit as much as they did in the 20th century.

A left government will face huge pressures from the media, the state machine and big business for any radical left force to prove its “respectability” and “ability to govern”. And a left government will have no real control over any of these institutions, all of which will remain unelected hierarchies driven by the imperatives of defending capitalist production and society.

When Syriza looked like it might win the Greek elections in June 2012, these same forces unleashed a huge blackmail operation that threatened economic collapse if the party came to office. We saw a similar “project fear” reach fever pitch in the UK in September when it seemed that Scots might vote for an independent state.

Such pressures would only intensify if a radical left government took office. The unelected power blocs would seek to either break any signs of radicalism (as happened to Labour governments in Britain in 1966-70 and 1974-79, and to Francois Mitterrand’s first Socialist Party government in France in 1981-83) or, if necessary, mobilise force to overthrow any left government that threatened capital’s interests (as was the fate of Salvador Allende’s reformist socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s).

There are already signs that the proximity of office has seen Syriza shift right in response to such pressures. As The Economist, that fervent champion of neoliberalism, noted a few weeks ago, “Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old Syriza leader, has been building bridges with EU leaders in Brussels and the German government in Berlin... European officials say he is no longer the intransigent firebrand who promised in 2012 to tear up the ‘barbarous memorandum’ if he came to power. Mr Tsipras has quietly tried to reassure potential investors bringing in money from abroad that Greece would be a business-friendly member of the euro zone under a Syriza government.”

Some recent pieces in the Financial Times also suggest that sections of the ruling class believe they can work with some the new left forces. FT columnist Wolfgang Münchau has praised Syriza’s and Podemos’s calls for increased public sector investment and debt renegotiation as the only realistic alternative to a Europe drifting into “the economic equivalent of a nuclear winter”. And an FT editorial welcomed Die Linke taking control of its first regional government in the east German state of Thuringia.

Such collaboration is not without its complications. So the FT argued that “to win trust, Die Linke should revise its unrealistic foreign and economic policies” — that the party should drop its anti-capitalism and opposition to Nato in order to win the trust of German and European capital.

If Syriza is sometimes presented as beyond the old left debate about reform or revolution, Podemos’s leadership often describe their party as beyond left and right altogether. They argue that the central division in society is no longer between socialists and conservatives but between the people versus “the caste” — the corrupt political establishment that has ruled the Spanish state since the transition to liberal democracy in 1978.

This attempt to reach out and appeal beyond those who identify with the left, and to try and distinguish Podemos from the failed traditions of parliamentary reformism practised by PSOE and the Spanish Communist Party has had some real advantages. But there is also a need to be clear about the real nature of capitalist society and the continuing centrality of class division. The “political caste” with its corrupt web of relations between politicians, the media and bankers is only the most visible aspect of a much wider structure of capitalist power.

So Carolina Bescansa, a spokesperson for Podemos’s leadership, can refer to the majority of businesspeople being “worthy and decent” — suggesting, presumably, that they can be allies against corrupt politicians. But the question is not one of employers being good or bad people but the structural compulsion on capitalists to exploit their workforces if they are to avoid being eventually taken over or driven out of business. Any serious fight to deliver real gains for workers will require confrontation, not cooperation, with capital.

The core leadership group in Podemos around Pablo Iglesias, a young Madrid academic, have been strongly influenced by the Latin American left and especially Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Yet the hallmark of both was the attempt to use the existing institutions of capitalist society to deliver reforms.

Both Syriza and Podemos are a reflection of a huge radicalisation from below but they are also subject to pressures from above — and both have moved to create more centralised internal structures that increase the authority of the central leadership as the proximity of governmental office grows.

So Syriza, often presented as a “broad left party” that unites revolutionaries and reformists, voted at its 2013 conference to dissolve its constituent organisations and shift from being a coalition to a single party. The left within Syriza argued this would increase the control of the leadership over dissenting groups, but was defeated. The same conference also agreed that party president (Tsipras) would be elected by the party conference rather than the Central Committee.

A key debate at Podemos’s Citizens’ Assembly was also over internal organisational structures. But despite much talk of the “horizontalism” of Podemos over the hierarchical nature of the traditional parties, the team around Iglesias pushed for a more centralised model to be adopted.

This included a single general secretary who would be able to select an advisory body that would then be ratified by a Citizens’ Council directly elected by the members. An alternative proposal, supported by three of Podemos’s MEPs and backed by many of those most active in the local branches, for three general secretaries and for the elected Citizens’ Council to select the advisory council was heavily defeated through an online vote.

Iglesias and his supporters argued their proposals were superior on the basis that they could deliver election victories. Iglesias has a huge profile thanks to his presence in TV shows where he has very effectively challenged pro-austerity politicians, and this profile has been a central feature of Podemos’s success.

Podemos also voted to back proposals from Iglesias’s team to stop members of other parties standing for leadership positions. This has had the immediate effect of preventing supporters of the Anti-Capitalist Left, the Fourth International group in Spain, from standing for key positions, even though it co-founded Podemos with those around Iglesias.

The rise of left reformism is a sign of an immense radicalisation among large numbers of people across Europe. It also offers a much bigger audience to debate socialist ideas and the potential emergence of networks of activists able to influence significant numbers of workers. But the crisis of the older established reformist organisations that have historically dominated the workers’ movement does not mean that reformism is dead.

The revolutionary left has to find ways to relate to left reformism, to go through shared experiences of struggle with those who are searching for radical alternatives and patiently argue that the key to any change is collective struggle from below, and a rejection of any notion that the institutions of capitalist society are potentially progressive.

Sometimes this can mean being part of left reformist formations, sometimes it means maintaining organisational separation while seeking to work with those attracted to left reformists.

The radicalisation we are witnessing across swathes of Europe is a huge opportunity. But if the left fails to turn this into a real onslaught on capitalism then the racists and fascists will seek to seize on the disillusionment that can follow.

Other features in this section: EU: European bosses' club, by Sally Campbell and Solidarity against racism, Brian Richardson reports from an anti-fascism conference in Greece.