The world economic crisis of 2008-9 and the politics of austerity it ushered in saw the rise of mass movements of resistance in many parts of the world.1 In some cases, this formed the context for the radical left to either launch new political parties or attempt to capture the leadership of existing social-democratic formations. The most important examples of this in Europe are Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party in Britain and Podemos in the Spanish state. By posing an alternative to the centre-left forces that had, willingly or reluctantly, participated in the implementation of austerity, these projects not only inspired millions but also became a major focus for the radical left’s imagination. Indeed, in some cases it was argued that they had transcended the dichotomy between reform or revolution, offering an alternative to both decrepit social democracy and isolated revolutionary left groupings.
This journal welcomed these left projects. However, it characterised them as variants of “left reformism”, arguing they did not represent a fundamental break with the logic of older left parties.2 At best, they sought reforms more vigorously than traditional social democracy has over recent decades, or else they posed a challenge to neoliberalism as a way of organising capitalism. They also had a friendlier attitude towards grassroots movements than their traditional social-democratic counterparts, although this relationship was complicated. Ultimately, however, they saw reforms as being achieved through electoral victories and parliamentary legislation, not the direct action of working-class people. The point of this analysis was not to attack those who threw themselves into building these projects or to abstain from the political processes they set in motion. Rather, it was a warning of the limitations of this model. Without a strategy taking these shortcomings into account, these projects would eventually run into insurmountable obstacles that would see the hopes and aspirations of millions of supporters dashed.
The experiences of Syriza and Corbyn vindicate this approach. Syriza, elected on the back of mass opposition to austerity in Greece, capitulated to the bailout conditions imposed by the European Union, eventually paving the way for the re-election of the conservative New Democracy party in 2019.3 Corbyn became the prisoner of Labour’s right-wing parliamentary machine, which forced concession after concession on him, eroding his anti-establishment appeal; Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election and Corbyn was replaced by Keir Starmer.4
Podemos, founded in 2014, is now in office in the Spanish state as part of a coalition government. From being a party that challenged the entire political establishment, Podemos has become a junior partner of the centre-left Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español; PSOE). It now languishes in the polls, and its charismatic co-founder and former general secretary, Pablo Iglesias, resigned from all his positions in the party in May 2021 following the party’s cataclysmic results in the Madrid regional elections.
This article asks what charting the trajectory of Podemos can add to a wider theorisation of left reformism. It looks at how the crisis of Spanish politics allowed Podemos to make its breakthrough but also suggests that the party eventually became a victim of the very same crisis. It assesses Podemos’s record as part of the governing coalition that took office two years ago. Alongside this, it contrasts Podemos’s decline with the troubling rise of the far-right Vox party, arguing that, because the left has failed to construct an alternative to the neoliberal centre, radical right and racist forces have become more confident and sought to fill this space. Finally, I argue that, although Podemos may well survive as a viable electoral force, it is now defunct as a project of radical change, and I explore what this means for a left that seeks to confront the realities of 21st century capitalism.
The breeding ground
The Spanish economy was among those hardest hit by the 2008-09 global financial crisis. Like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, it depended on bailouts to rescue its banking system. The crisis in the Spanish state was especially worrying for the European institutions—it is the fourth-largest economy in the Eurozone, with a population and GDP exceeding that of the other three bailout countries combined.
The scale of this crash reflects the fragile foundations of Spain’s economic model, which can be traced back to the attempt to modernise the economy pursued by General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from the 1950s onwards. In contrast to the post-war boom centred on manufacturing across much of Europe, the Spanish model was based on the expansion of tourism and housing construction. The rate of private home ownership almost doubled from 1950 to the mid-2000s, a trajectory unaltered by the move to parliamentary democracy in the late 1970s. Indeed, four terms of social-democratic PSOE governance in the 1980s and early 1990s deepened these foundations, all with the encouragement of the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. Deindustrialisation and privatisation were offered as a trade for Spain’s membership of the bloc and subsidies that led to ever greater investment in real estate.5
This fragile economic model, reliant on credit expansion and financial speculation, ran into problems whenever crisis struck. Each time, PSOE and centre-right People’s Party (Partido Popular; PP) governments responded to the weakening of the economy with labour deregulation and cuts to social spending. These temporary solutions failed to address the underlying problems with the model, such as the stagnation of investment in productive areas of the economy. However, in the short term, the economic setup could generate spells of growth. The Spanish economy saw a boom in the late 1990s under the PP that was heralded as a “miracle”, which led to high levels of employment and consumption, largely sustained by revenues from construction and property investment. This was accompanied by the development of extensive networks of corruption linking private companies and the state at both local and national levels. The return of PSOE to office in the 2000s did nothing to challenge this economic framework. In 2007, on the eve of the world financial crisis, the construction sector represented 10 percent of GDP. The ephemeral character of growth based on tourism and construction was spectacularly demonstrated with the onset of the bust.6 From late-2008, prices rose rapidly and GDP contracted; by early 2009, the economy was officially in recession.
PSOE’s response was to prioritise the needs of capital. The state stepped in to save the banking system, borrowing from the EU, which, as in other countries, imposed draconian bailout conditions. PSOE introduced further labour reforms to reduce public employment, cut wages and freeze pensions. Austerity was imposed in every sphere of life. Housing evictions soared. Official unemployment rose from just under two million in 2007 to six million in 2012. Among young people, unemployment approached 60 percent, and over half a million emigrated in the wake of the crisis.7
Ordinary people did not suffer these attacks passively. Protests erupted in defence of public services and jobs as well as against evictions. The number of strikes rose too, but the main trade union federations—the General Confederation of Labour (Confederación General del Trabajo; CGT) and the Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras; CCOO)—vacillated, in part because the attacks were coming from “their” PSOE government. The first of four general strikes held between 2010 and 2012 failed to stop the onslaught on workers. Instead of seeking to deepen the combativity of workers, the union leaderships lined up behind the PSOE government. Although strikes continued, they became more sporadic and defensive.8
This context helps explain the nature of the next cycle of resistance, the 15 May (15M) or “indignados” movement, which developed outside the official structures of the left and the trade unions. Inspired by the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it saw occupations of public squares by tens of thousands of people, which quickly spread to every city and town. Initial police repression in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol only increased the movement’s momentum. Students and unemployed youth, and other ordinary people who had not previously engaged in politics, took part in mass assemblies discussing social problems. The discussions reflected a widespread feeling that, whoever people voted for, growing inequality and corruption would continue. “They Don’t Represent Us” became the slogan of the 15M protesters. The movement yearned for more radical forms of democracy. Coupled with this, there was bitterness not just towards parties such as PSOE but also the unions federations, viewed as complicit in the imposition of austerity.9
15M was not simply a response to the immediate circumstances created by the economic crisis. It questioned the entire political setup established in the late 1970s, following Franco’s dictatorship. The monarchy, the constitution, the very idea of the Spanish nation, and the two mainstream parties that had governed in turns since the early 1980s, were all suddenly being called into question.
PSOE was the first victim of this process. Having won the 2008 general election with 11 million votes, support for it collapsed to seven million votes by 2011, paving the way for a PP government determined to intensify attacks on workers, trade unions and protesters. The most important force to the left of PSOE, the Communist Party-led United Left (Izquierda Unida), saw its vote increase slightly in those elections, but failed to capitalise on either the collapse of PSOE or the growth of 15M.
Podemos did not arise organically from this cycle of struggles. Rather, its founders’ skilful intervention allowed the new formation to make rapid headway. 15M had called the whole system into question—Podemos’s genius was to introduce itself as an outsider, an alternative to the establishment. It referred to PP and PSOE as members of the same “caste”, and it spoke about constitutional reform, reform of the monarchy, opposition to the NATO military alliance and self-determination for Catalan and Basque people.
However, Podemos offered more than democratic regeneration; it promised to fight against austerity and the neoliberal model accepted by both PSOE and PP governments, as well as by the EU. It pledged to increase public spending, bring in democratic public ownership, scrap public debt and ignore the EU’s budget deficits, as well as measures to alleviate poverty such as Universal Basic Income.
The party was launched at the beginning of 2014 by a group of intellectuals, activists, journalists and cultural figures. Crucially, it brought together political scientists at Madrid’s Complutense University with the Trotskyists who made up the Fourth International’s group, Anticapitalist Left (Izquierda Anticapitalista). The two figures who immediately stood out, and who would soon define the shape of the project, belonged to the former component: Pablo Iglesias, the public figurehead, and Íñigo Errejón, the main strategist. Both drew inspiration from left-wing governments in Latin America, and both were frustrated at the inability of the far left to connect with large numbers of people, even in a context of crisis. According to Iglesias:
Our hypothesis is not difficult to understand. In Spain, the spectre of an organic crisis was generating the conditions for the articulation of a dichotomising discourse capable of building the 15M’s new ideological constructs into a popular subject in opposition to the elites.10
The new party made its breakthrough in the May 2014 European Parliament elections, winning 8 percent of the vote just four months after its foundation. One year later, in local elections, coalitions involving Podemos won in the two most politically and economically important cities in the Spanish state, Madrid and Barcelona. In December 2015, when it finally contested a general election, Podemos took 20.7 percent of the vote share and came close to surpassing PSOE. In a recent interview with Jacobin magazine, Errejón recalls this seemingly unstoppable trajectory:
For two years, Podemos shaped Spanish politics, especially after the 2014 European elections. From 15M in 2011 to the December 2015 general election, elites and the right were on the defensive culturally, and Spain made the indignados’ reasoning its own. Even though we weren’t in Congress yet, we were a counter-hegemonic force that, without being a majority, clearly set the institutional agenda.11
The strategy of Podemos in these early years was informed by the theories of populism developed by radical intellectuals Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. These emerged from their “post-Marxist” reading of Antonio Gramsci’s writings on hegemony. Laclau and Mouffe highlight the importance of the battle for cultural hegemony, contending that, in times of crisis, an electoral project can articulate and draw together different democratic demands, creating a political subject that can carry this programme through. Antagonism—identifying a clearly defined rival—and a strong leading figure who embodies the demands of the movement are two other prerequisites they identify for capitalising on the “populist moment”.12
For Laclau and Mouffe, Marxism—which they tend to identify with the deterministic and reductionist Stalinist caricature—is no longer a useful tool to guide left-wing politics following the turn to neoliberalism, the ebbing of workers’ struggle and the rise of new social movements against oppression from the 1980s onwards. Laclau and Mouffe argue that the connection between capitalism as an economic system and the way society is politically organised is “contingent”, and that a more democratic system could exist alongside capitalism. Mouffe calls this “revolutionary reformism”.13 However, in practice, it leads away from the central tenet of revolutionary socialism—the need to confront and ultimately destroy the state to overcome capitalism.14 Iglesias and Errejón’s embrace of populism was informed by an equally pessimistic understanding of the revolutionary experiences of the 20th century. In the case of Iglesias, this was heavily affected by an identification between revolutionary socialism and the Stalinist tradition:
The Russian and Chinese Revolutions proved incapable of combining economic redistribution with democracy, but they also produced undeniable advances in modernisation and industrialisation; Soviet military strength, primarily responsible for the defeat of Nazism, was also proof of economic development. In the post-war period, the Soviet Union represented a real counterweight to the United States’ interventionism. If the Cold War generated Eastern Bloc satellite states devoid of any real sovereignty, it also opened up space for anti-colonial movements to defy US hegemony as well as helping to buttress welfare states and the extension of social rights in the West.15
In accordance with their populist strategy, the rejection of revolutionary socialism by Podemos’s key figures entailed avoiding the party being identified as “left wing” or adopting traditional symbols and demands of the Spanish left. Iglesias explained:
The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. That’s how the enemy wants us. He wants us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols. He is delighted with that, because he knows that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous. We can have a really radical discourse, say we want to do a general wildcat strike, talk about the people in arms, brandish symbols, carry portraits of the great revolutionaries to our demonstrations—they are delighted with that. They laugh at us. However, when you gather thousands of people, when you start convincing the majority, even those who voted for the enemy—that’s when they get scared. That is called “politics”. That is what we need to learn.16
For Iglesias and Errejón “politics” meant taking elections seriously as a means for bringing about change. However, by following Mouffe’s dismissal of the categories of “reformism” and “revolution”, Iglesias and Errejón could combine a relentless focus on elections with the insistence that Podemos was a novel type of party. As a result, their language could be misleadingly radical, arguing, for instance, that “heaven is not taken by consensus: it is taken by storm”.17 In academic publications, however, Iglesias was more concrete and straightforward about his project:
Clearly, in present conditions, Podemos has nothing to do with “revolution” or a “transition to socialism” in the historical sense of those terms. But it does become feasible to aim at sovereign processes that would limit the power of finance, spur the transformation of production, ensure a wider redistribution of wealth and push for a more democratic configuration of European institutions.18
Iglesias embodied Podemos’s political approach. He was a young, irreverent and relatable researcher, capable of putting forward radical messages in plain and powerful language. He had built himself a profile through online political discussion programmes and now became an omnipresent fixture in television studios. Crucially, he embraced opportunities to engage with right-wing media, accepting invitations to programmes with a hostile agenda and cleverly taking advantage of any platform.
Although there are useful lessons here about popularising socialist ideas, the experience of Podemos also exposes three important limits of a strategy reliant primarily on such an approach. First, success on this terrain involved stifling the democratic impulse within Podemos itself. Initially, the party was organised through activists’ “circles”, open mass assemblies loosely inspired by the experience of 15M, that met and discussed the key political issues. Turning Podemos into an election-winning machine involved centralising power in the hands of its leadership and hollowing out these circles. This was achieved through the adoption of an online voting system for decision making. Despite being presented as a democratic advance, in practice this meant decisions took place without thorough collective discussions among members. The voting membership was more influenced by the statements of its leaders when appearing on television, which were no longer challenged and disciplined by grassroots party activists seeking to pursue alternative strategies. Already, at Podemos’ first national assembly in late 2014, those who argued against the populist strategy of Iglesias and Errejón were marginalised from the party’s decision-making centres.
Second, the thesis of populism required enormous ideological flexibility and opportunism. Podemos would renounce previously adopted positions if they were thought to be unpopular with the electorate. So, at the 2014 congress, the organisation abandoned policies around a 35-hour working week, Universal Basic Income, nationalisation and retirement at 60—all deemed incompatible with winning elections.
Third, though Podemos was able to take advantage of the platforms it was given in the mainstream media early on, once the party had a real chance of winning a media blackout unfolded. This was part of a wider establishment battle to discredit the project and its leaders. Achieving cultural hegemony through channels controlled by the ruling class was not as easy as suggested by the theories of populism.
Moreover, after its initial extraordinary electoral success, Podemos’s approach was to be subjected to several serious political tests—and was found wanting.
Test 1: Greece’s “Oxi” vote
One of the early strengths of Podemos was its stress on the international picture. It sought to address complex political problems in the framework of a wider renovation of the left across Europe. Although this was often framed in the language of solidarity among “southern European countries” being crushed by richer states such as Germany, it also implied a recognition that opposing austerity within the EU would need a concerted international effort. It sought to cultivate relationships with Syriza and other anti-austerity projects such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.
When, in January 2015, Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras won elections in Greece, Errejón said the result had been a defeat for “unfair and inefficient austerity politics”; Podemos’s leaders boasted that similar change would soon come within the Spanish state. Following months of negotiations with the so-called Troika—the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, who together policed the bailout conditions—it became clear that the plan was to crush Syriza in order to discipline other political forces considering upsetting the austerity consensus in Europe. Syriza responded with a referendum on 5 July 2015, where a majority of Greeks voted “Oxi” (no) to the bailout conditions. Syriza had been given another mandate to oppose austerity. Within days, however, Tsipras had capitulated to the Troika’s demands.19 There was an alternative to this. It would have involved leaving the EU, defaulting on the national debt, issuing a Greek currency separate from the euro and, crucially, mass mobilisation from below to resist the inevitable resulting attacks from capital—while simultaneously seeking solidarity with workers in other countries also being trampled under the boot of austerity.
For Tsipras such a radical break with electoralism, and the existing structures of power in the EU and Greece, proved unpalatable. Podemos’s leaders agreed. Iglesias travelled to Athens to support Tsipras at his closing election rally in September 2015, defending Syriza’s decision to accept the EU’s terms. Questions about how a Podemos government would respond to similar pressures were brushed aside; Spain, it was said, represented a far larger and more important part of the Eurozone. In reality, this was a clear sign that the Podemos leaders were moderating their ambitions and the extent to which they believed it was possible to challenge austerity and neoliberal politics more broadly.
The episode exposed growing divisions inside Podemos. A representative of the Trotskyist current within the party, Jesús Rodríguez, was in Greece at the same time as Iglesias and recognised the significance of the shift that was taking place: “Support for Tsipras…is going to make it difficult for us to win the elections because what Tsipras has done is to consolidate the dominant bipartisan discourse that there is no alternative, that there is no possibility of change”.20
Test 2: Catalonia
The second key test for Podemos came with the struggle for independence in Catalonia in late 2017. Its outcome marked a turning point in the development of Podemos. Nevertheless, the importance of this episode is rarely acknowledged in accounts of Podemos’s trajectory.
Podemos had obtained some of its best results in the Catalan and Basque regional governments because it put forward a programme combining class politics with support for self-determination. This distinguished it from all of the mainstream Spanish political parties. A binding referendum on Catalan independence, in which Podemos would have campaigned against independence, was one of the demands of the party from the outset. However, when the issue was posed concretely, Podemos failed to consistently defend self-determination.
In 2017, in the face of the intransigence of the PP government, and on the back of years of monster mobilisations, Catalan’s regional leaders announced a referendum that was unsanctioned by the Spanish state but enjoyed mass regional support. Despite its abstract support for self-determination, when people took things into their own hands and sought to realise their rights in a way unauthorised by the Spanish constitution, Podemos’s leaders sided with the establishment and argued that the referendum was illegal.
It was in this context that, on the day of the referendum, 1 October 2017, 10,000 police officers were deployed across Catalonia to shut down polling stations, confiscate ballot boxes and beat up voters.21 The resulting struggle for independence in Catalonia was one of the most serious challenges the Spanish state and its institutions had faced in recent history. For many, support for independence was fused with a rejection of austerity and the same yearning for democracy 15M had expressed. The same corrupt, undemocratic institutions Podemos had targeted were threatened by the Catalan movement. Yet, now Podemos was seen to be on the side of those institutions.
The chances of victory for the independence movement would have been raised had it won support from across the different regions in the Spanish state by making common cause with those protesting against unemployment and austerity, and for greater democracy. Podemos was in an ideal position to present the case for this. Instead, the party adopted a position that rejected both the pro-independence forces and the Spanish nationalists. It opposed the repression directed towards the movement but counterposed to its demands a future, legal referendum, which would be enacted only once Podemos had won governmental power. Here Podemos’s response to the crisis was strikingly reformist; it presented the capitalist state in purely instrumentalist terms, as an institution that could be a force for good in the right hands. Similarly, Podemos’s approach accepted the traditional reformist notions that tend to counterpose a shared national interest among all citizens to the class interests of workers.
The independence movement was eventually contained through further repression, which saw the persecution of campaigners and long jail sentences for those Catalan politicians not driven into exile. As the movement was pushed back, the governing PP and the mainstream opposition parties ramped up Spanish nationalism. As the right organised large mobilisations demanding further attacks on the independence movement, Podemos simply appealed for dialogue. It was in this context that the far-right Vox party, an obscure split to the right of PP, moved from the fringes of politics to become one of the big forces shaping Spanish politics.
The rise of Vox
The growth of Podemos was a symptom of the volatility and crisis of Spanish politics. In the end, that same volatility accelerated Podemos’s decline. In the space of four years, there were four general elections. Table 1 shows both the impressive breakthrough of Podemos in 2015 and its ebbing fortunes after the events in Greece and Catalonia, alongside the simultaneous growth of the radical-right Vox party.
Table 1: Numbers of votes for parties in general elections and turnout percentages
*Podemos often contested elections in partnership with independents and regional lists in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia regions. From 2016, it entered a coalition with the Communist Party-led United Left alliance, known as United We Can (Podemos Unidas).
In 2019, the far right returned to the Spanish parliament, four decades after the death of Franco. It did so with over 2.6 million votes, which by the time of the next election, half a year later, had grown by another million, with Vox becoming the third-largest force in Spanish politics. Vox rode the waves of extreme Spanish nationalism that had been created by the state and the mainstream press and politicians. For instance, when the prosecution of Catalan politicians and campaigners began in late 2017, Vox leader Santiago Abascal said that this was not enough and that all pro-independence parties should be made illegal. Vox could always accuse the PP government of failing to go far enough—PP had to balance the need to project a tough image with abiding by Spanish and EU law, but Vox, as a party standing outside the mainstream, was not constrained by such considerations.
In the process, Vox pulled the whole political system rightwards. It also presented a generalised right-wing critique of politics; once the party gained a foothold around the question of nationalism, it became possible for it to harden up its audience on other issues. Vox combined its defence of Spanish national unity with attacks on migrants and refugees, the women’s movement and LGBT+ communities.
This has led to a sense that, although PSOE and Podemos are in office, the far right is setting the political agenda. As Errejón notes:
Although there is a progressive government, it is mostly constituted as a defence against the right, which is not only leading the polls but also the public conversation. Things are being said in today’s Spain that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, and it’s not just the neoliberal, authoritarian, right-wing Vox; this shift permeates other formations too.22
The central reason for this political shift is not that Vox proved more skilful in the struggle for cultural hegemony than Podemos. Rather, it was Podemos’s failure to stand up to Spanish nationalism that allowed Vox the political space required to break through.23 Had Podemos embraced the struggle in Catalonia, viewing it as a stepping stone for greater resistance to PP rule across the whole of the Spanish state, it could have thrown the right onto the defensive. Podemos could have challenged the idea that Spanish workers have an interest in supporting the state’s crushing of the Catalan rebellion. Unfortunately, this was not compatible with the project envisaged by the Podemos leaders, as much as they sought to articulate a more progressive and inclusive version of nationalism.
From populism to social democracy
The specific challenges faced by Podemos need to be placed in the context of a broader shift in strategy. Even before the Catalan crisis, important debates were taking place as the party confronted the challenge of replacing PSOE as the main left-wing force in Spanish politics. Impressive though Podemos’s 2015 and 2016 election results were, an anticipated process of “Pasokification”—the process through which Syriza overtook the traditional social-democratic Pasok party as the main party of the Greek left—did not occur. During its initial breakthrough, in line with its rejection of the “caste” of mainstream politicians, Podemos ruled out a left-wing coalition government; so too did PSOE.
Podemos did, however, form a coalition with the Communist-led United Left formation and other smaller parties of the left. Iglesias was confident that Podemos could eventually, in the context of this agreement, eclipse its main rival. Errejón by contrast was less optimistic about Podemos’s prospects without it being part of some kind of government. The section of the party around Errejón opposed the merger with the United Left on the grounds that it would too closely associate Podemos with the traditional Communist left, making it harder to win over new layers of voters.
This episode exposed the serious strategic differences developing within the upper echelons of Podemos. At the second party congress, in February 2017, factions around Errejón and Iglesias presented competing strategies. Those around Errejón wanted to deepen the populist strategy rooted in Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas.24 Iglesias, in emphasising the need to consolidate the party’s collaboration with the United Left, began to redefine Podemos as “patriotic and social democratic”. As he put it in one of his public interventions: “We want to occupy the new social-democratic space”.25 For Iglesias, in contrast with Errejón, Laclau and Mouffe were only one of the available theoretical and political reference points.
By 2017, Iglesias appears to have considered the early populist approach exhausted. Although there was never an explicit rejection of his earlier populist ideas, Iglesias was adopting a new point of reference: Eurocommunism. Eurocommunism was a term adopted in the 1970s by several Communist Parties in Western Europe, notably in Spain, Italy, France and Britain. It signalled the formal acceptance of non-revolutionary means to achieve socialism. Although, in practice, these parties had long since abandoned revolutionary struggle, they now sought to incorporate themselves into their domestic political systems. This involved not simply changes in rhetoric and a further rightward shift in practice, but also an assertion of their independence from Moscow in an effort to reassure their ruling classes of their loyalty.26 The politics of Eurocommunism were epitomised by the “historic compromise” advocated by the leader of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano; PCI), Enrico Berlinguer. For Berlinguer this meant offering to collaborate in the national interest with the major party of the mainstream right, the Christian Democrats. He went so far as to declare that Italy felt safer under the protective umbrella of NATO.
In one interview Iglesias appears to endorse the “historic compromise” as “a thesis defended by Palmiro Togliatti, contending that the PCI must be a party that goes beyond the working class, a party that extends itself into the Italian government and becomes a people’s party”.27 Togliatti was the PCI leader from 1927 until his death in 1964. In 1944, he entered the government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, one of Benito Mussolini’s former ministers, who had signed an armistice with the Allies after the fascist leader was deposed. Togliatti’s emphasis on national unity and his willingness to govern alongside the Christian Democrats in many ways prefigured Berlinguer’s later policies.28
In the Spanish state, after the death of Franco, Eurocommunism meant the Communist Party expressing its admiration for the monarchy, openly supporting the “national interest”, and allowing the creation of a set of institutions that protected fascists from prosecution and ensured a transition to democracy that never questioned capitalism.29
It was Iglesias’s theses that won out at the 2017 Podemos congress over Errejón’s. The new Eurocommunist approach meant the early emphasis on antagonism was replaced with interclass collaboration. Errejón later belatedly explained how the hyper-centralised party machine he had designed was used against him. The party, he argued, “legitimises decisions through a very concentrated leadership, focused on electoral competition and the charismatic power of the secretary general”:
Why? Because I understood that we needed an organisational tool not exclusively in the hands of its militants. In all political formations there’s a gap between what the militant wants and what the voter wants. The militant spends more time on political activity and ends up setting the party’s agenda, usually pushing toward more traditional ideological positions than the voter would want… Who’s in charge in a caudillista, plebiscitary electoral war machine? The head of the cartel.30
Errejón had clashed with the “head of the cartel”, and therefore he and his supporters were excluded from Podemos’s centres of decision making. By 2019, he abandoned the project to launch a new party, Más País (More Country), firmly based on his version of populism. However, although there were genuine differences between the proposals centred on Iglesias and Errejón, what was more substantial is what they had in common: an overriding emphasis on Podemos winning elections. The tensions centred on the best way to achieve this. When it came to its attitude to questions of the state and social movements, the rivals had the same answers. A third proposal from the revolutionary left, presented at the congress, received just 9 percent of the votes.
The failure to achieve Pasokification of PSOE, as well as the tumultuous events in Greece and Catalonia, paved the way for an embrace of a more traditional version of social democracy. It firmly located Podemos within a reformist framework based on what was possible within the existing correlation of forces. The centralisation of power in the hands of the leadership had demobilised the party’s activist base and weakened the culture of debate and critical thinking, preventing the membership from acting as a check on the leadership’s rightwards shift.
Meanwhile, as with Corbynism in Britain, Podemos had the paradoxical effect of demobilising the very movements on which its rise had rested. The energies of thousands of activists were shifted from grassroots organisation to electioneering. Left-wing politics was dominated by the possibility of a Podemos victory. As the pressure of the movement receded, increasingly it was the pressure of those elected to local councils and other official institutions that was felt most keenly by the party leaders.
From the squares to government
By the time of the two 2019 general elections, Unidas Podemos was dropping in the polls and much of its regional structures had disintegrated. Iglesias had led the charge against a coalition with PSOE three years earlier. Now he became an enthusiastic advocate of a “progressive coalition”. However, Podemos was in a weaker situation relative to the PSOE, whose vote had recovered somewhat. As Iglesias explains:
The only possibility of us being a governmental force would be to go in with the PSOE, with it having the biggest weight… This allows us to make up part of the leadership of the state, it allows us to form government cadres that we did not have, it allows us an understanding and a praxis in the state that you don’t get from local and regional government. It allows us to take part—even if from a modest position—in crucial decisions on what direction the country should go in.31
Unidas Podemos would thus enter the Spanish government as the junior partner of PSOE, the same party it had branded as part of the “caste” in 2014 and that had initiated the attacks that gave rise to the indignados movement a decade earlier. The Anticapitalistas group, which had been instrumental to setting up the party, left Unidas Podemos following the agreement, stating:
Again, a left-wing project subordinates itself in the short term to the logic of the lesser evil, renouncing its policies in exchange for scant, non-decisive influence in the council of ministers. Despite government propaganda, the policies of the coalition do not break with the orthodox economic framework.32
Iglesias became deputy prime minister, and Unidas Podemos held a number of ministries—including the ministries of equality, social rights and labour—some of which were placed in the hands of Communist Party members. However, core areas of the state, such as the ministries of the treasury, the interior, finance, defence and foreign policy, were carefully reserved for PSOE ministers. Researcher Manuel Cervera-Marzal summarises how far the coalition agreement fell short of the programme Podemos had put forward in the 2014 elections:
There is no longer any question of creating a public bank or a public energy company. The call to stop paying the public debt now gives way to “respect for the mechanisms of budgetary discipline” desired by the big companies…and imposed by European treaties. Catalonia’s right to self-determination has disappeared… On the emblematic question of home evictions…campaigners have severely criticised the “progressive” government’s programme, warning: “We are faced with a list of good intentions that fails to contemplate any concrete measures—running the risk of once again emptily playing to the gallery”.33
The record in office
The Spanish state is today governed by its first left-wing coalition since the Popular Front government of the 1930s, bringing together the neoliberal social democracy of PSOE with the Communist Party and the self-proclaimed heirs of the 15M movement. It depends for its survival on support from pro-independence parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
The coalition took office in January 2020, unaware that within a couple of months a deadly pandemic would spread across the world. In the absence of any substantive restructuring of the Spanish state’s weak economic model, the country was particularly vulnerable to the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. GDP fell by 10.8 percent. By late 2021, it lagged behind its European counterparts in returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity.34 At the end of January 2022, deaths stood at 92,000.
There is no doubt that the response to the pandemic would have been worse had the parties of the right been in power. From the onset, the coalition government faced opposition from the right, which took a hard anti-lockdown stance. In regions where the right held power it worked to sabotage the central government health measures. No doubt, too, Unidas Podemos’ participation in the government meant measures to protect the population went further than they would have otherwise—although who knows what extra-parliamentary forces could have achieved had the energies of the social movements not been redirected towards the electoral field.
Nonetheless, the coalition government found itself under the same pressures as other governments, and it responded accordingly. It was forced to choose between prioritising the needs of ordinary people and bowing to the demands of economic elites. The case of tourism, because of its weight in the Spanish economy, illustrates the strains on the government. Before the pandemic, the sector provided 12.9 percent of jobs and 12.4 percent of GDP. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, tourist numbers fell to 19 million, from 83 million the year before. This was a big pressure under which the government sought to reopen the economy. By April 2020, two months into the pandemic, the government was already relaxing restrictions. Employees in sectors such as construction were told to return to work. House evictions were resumed. The government formally banned redundancies, but individual employers could challenge this, and there was no protection for those in the informal sector. Tens of thousands of health workers were recruited to respond to the pandemic whenever the health service was overwhelmed but then made redundant when infections began to recede. The government refused to postpone the reopening of schools, facilitating the return of the wider workforce to their workplaces, even as Covid-19 spread widely among teachers and students.
Unidas Podemos has been a more reluctant proponent of these policies than PSOE, but the need to present a respectable face meant this has not always been clearly expressed. Moreover, the constant onslaught from the right places pressure on Podemos to present a picture of governmental unity. As the largest coalition partner, PSOE has been less wary about preserving this image of unity. Its leaders publicly criticise more radical proposals from Podemos, and bills to tax the rich and introduce rent controls have been watered down.
Podemos has been unable to challenge the government in other important areas, instead giving cover to PSOE’s right-wing policies. Thus, repression and deportation of migrants crossing the southern border have continued. Environmental activists have rightly criticised the government’s target of decarbonising by 2050—far too late to avert climatic catastrophe. Moreover, it took the coalition a year and a half to release nine of the political prisoners imprisoned in the wake of the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia. Catalan campaigner Jordi Cuixart joked that he had spent more time in prison during the rule of the “progressive coalition” than under the PP government that had originally sent him to jail. PSOE remains adamant that a referendum on independence is unconstitutional and cannot happen.
One of the flagship policies of the incoming coalition was to reverse the PP’s 2012 labour reform. The reform had sought to increase productivity by weakening union negotiating power, making it easier for bosses to sack workers and institutionalising casualisation through “flexible” contracts. At the end of 2021, after nine months of negotiations with union federations and employers’ organisations, the government announced it had reached an agreement. Unidas Podemos labour minister Yolanda Diaz presented the agreement as “a break with precariousness” and with the “tendency to devalue wages and reduce labour rights”. The UGT and CCOO union federations lined up behind the government to present the agreement as a victory.35 In reality, the agreement did not repeal the reform at all. It did reinstate some of the unions’ bargaining power. However, companies can still sack workers without offering a cause, and compensation for workers made redundant remains lower than before 2012. The agreement fails to challenge endemic temporary contracts and does nothing to shrink the irregular sector of the economy. The main employers’ organisation could endorse the agreement, saying that it “consolidates the current legislation that has enabled companies to increase their productivity and competitiveness”.36
The extent to which the coalition follows traditional social-democratic practices with regard to workers’ rights was also made clear by another episode as the changes to the labour law were being announced. Metal workers in Cádiz staged an indefinite strike to defend pay and jobs in late 2021, deploying militant tactics such as roadblocks and barricades. The coalition government pressured the trade unions to reach an agreement as soon as possible. It also sent in the police to attack the workers’ picket lines. At one point, police drove through the streets of Cadiz in a tankette previously deployed by the Spanish army during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The unions ended the strike after nine days.37
Podemos partly justified its decision to enter a coalition through the need to keep the right, and Vox in particular, out of government. However, in doing so it abandoned opposition to the government to right-wing forces. The Madrid regional elections in May 2021 saw the right mount a ferocious campaign centred on opposition to lockdowns and attacks on the left.
With polls predicting that Unidas Podemos would not even make it into the regional assembly, Iglesias decided to abandon his position as deputy prime minister to stand as the party’s candidate. He came fifth, with just 7 percent of the vote, in one of the cities where the party had its first breakthrough six years earlier. Iglesias immediately resigned from his positions in Podemos and announced his departure from professional politics. Errejón’s new party received a better vote than either Podemos and PSOE in the election, having benefited from remaining outside the coalition government. On the right, both PP and Vox increased their vote. The Madrid elections offer a warning of what could happen nationally if the left fails to present a real alternative. With Iglesias’s resignation, none of the original founders of Podemos remain at the head of the project. Ione Belarra, a long-standing ally of Iglesias, has replaced the former Podemos leader as head of the party, while Unidas Podemos is now led by the Communist labour minister, Yolanda Diaz. Though both are respected activists, neither is expected to break with the policies of their predecessors.
The transformation of Podemos—in less than a decade—from a party that captured the imagination of the international radical left to what is now effectively a left-leaning social-democratic formation demands reflection. The question of whether it was right or wrong to enter a governing coalition has understandably divided activists and supporters. However, that is the wrong starting point. Entering government was the logical conclusion of the type of project that Iglesias, Errejón and the other leaders had built. Holding office was the endgame, justifying all their manoeuvres. A better starting point is to ask a more fundamental question: should the project we need be primarily based on winning elections and achieving governmental office? Or should we ensure election campaigns are subordinated to the self-activity of workers and mass movements from below? Podemos’s leaders had a clear answer to this question. Iglesias famously boasted: “That nonsense we used to say when we were in the far left, that you change the world on the streets and not from the institutions, is a lie.” The experience of Podemos, however, suggests these early leftist intuitions were well-founded after all.
Podemos emerged out of the crisis of Spanish capitalism. Because its horizon remained limited to reforming capitalism, and showing that it could be run more efficiently and humanely under left-wing management, that same capitalist system has now swallowed up Podemos. The cycle that rejuvenated left reformism in Europe, of which Podemos was a part, is probably now ending. Nonetheless, the turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis is seeing new reformist parties propelled into office—in countries such as Chile, Peru and Portugal. It would be a tragedy for the radical left simply to be cheerleaders for these new projects without a clear balance sheet of the experiences of the past decade.
Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in Glasgow and a member of the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party.
1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly, Andy Brown, Santi Amador and Jesus Castillo for feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
2 Callinicos, 2012.
3 Garganas, 2015.
4 Thomas, 2016.
5 López and Rodríguez, 2011.
6 Roberts, 2016.
7 Amador, 2020.
8 Choonara, 2013.
9 Durgan and Sans, 2011.
10 Iglesias, 2015. For prior discussions of the early history of Podemos, see Brown, 2016; Sierra, 2017a.
11 Errejón, 2021.
12 For a recent Marxist critique of populist theory, see Kouvelakis, 2021.
13 Mouffe, 2019.
14 Sierra, 2018.
15 Iglesias, 2015.
16 Iglesias, 2014.
17 Riveiro, 2014. Marx famously referred to the participants in the Paris Commune of 1871 as “storming heaven”.
18 Iglesias, 2015.
19 Garganas, 2015.
20 Gil, 2015.
21 Sierra, 2017b.
22 Errejón, 2021.
23 It is sometimes assumed that, because support for Podemos declined while Vox’s increased, there must have been a large transfer of votes from one party to another. This is wrong. Vox’s growth has been largely at the expense of the PP and the Citizens (Ciudadanos) party. Ciudadanos is a softer right-wing project with an unashamed neoliberal programme, which was sponsored by sections of Spanish capital to compete with Podemos. It is estimated that Vox obtained 70 percent of its votes from these two parties of the right—Núñez and Álvarez Masso, 2021.
24 Errejón’s approach is deeply enmeshed in theories of populism. His doctorate, which analyses Evo Morales’s left-wing government in Bolivia, focuses on the struggle for political hegemony, drawing heavily on Laclau’s texts. He has also co-authored a book with Mouffe.
25 La Vanguardia, 2016.
26 For a discussion of Eurocommunism, as well as a discussion of populism’s misrepresentation of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, see Harman, 1977.
27 Translated from Gil, 2019.
28 Birchall, 1986, pp42-43, 145-147.
29 These policies led to the rapid decline of the Spanish Communist Party, which had been the dominant political current among workers during Franco’s reign—Birchall, 1986, pp147-148.
30 Errejón, 2021. Caudillo (“leader”) is the term used in 19th century Latin America to describe the strongmen who dominated politics after independence from Spanish rule.
31 Iglesias, 2020.
32 Anticapitalistas, 2020.
33 Cervera-Marzal, 2020.
34 Maqueda, 2021.
35 Ponce de León, 2021.
36 Wise, 2021.
37 Castillo Segura, 2022.