By JOHN McCLURE
The Spanish Civil War haunts the Spanish left. It is a source of pride: a legend of heroic popular resistance to the massing forces of European fascism and, at the same time, the closest thing to a successful socialist revolution in the modern West. But it is a source of sharp disappointment as well, although this is less often discussed. For in the face of the fascist threat, the various strands of the left—socialist, communist, anarchist, and liberal democratic—went to war not only with Franco’s forces but with one another, in a manner that crippled and may have doomed their collective efforts. The memory of this debacle is strong, and so too are the schismatic spirits that continue to promote internal division. (The Spanish left, of course, is hardly unique in this respect.) This fall, with the conservative Partido Popular (PP) at its most vulnerable, Podemos, the new party of the left, and PSOE, the traditional socialist party, were at each other’s throats. And this winter, war broke out within each party. The press, the citizenry, and party members themselves talked of “fratricidal struggle,” “imminent splits,” “intimidation,” and “treason.” Yet Podemos has, it seems, weathered this season of strife and emerged a stronger party. PSOE, at the time of this writing, is still in the throes of crisis, but the forces of internal reform and inter-party cooperation are gaining momentum.
The factionalism and debates over policy and posture that threatened to shatter Podemos in the late fall and winter were already visible months earlier during the second general election campaign: Pablistas (followers of the party’s founder and leader, Pablo Iglesias) and Errejónistas (followers of the second-in-command, Íñigo Errejón) were quarrelling both over substantial issues and over positions in the party’s hierarchy. Crudely put, the Pablistas were wed to a more confrontational rhetoric and more radical positions than the Errejónistas. (See my last report for a description of how these differences emerged in one election rally.) Then came the shock of the June 26 results: Podemos and the communist-led Izquierda Unida, running separately, had garnered six million votes in December of 2015; now they were running together, as Unido Podemos, and the polls suggested they might well come first. But instead they lost over a million votes and placed third behind the conservative Partido Popular and the socialists.
Soon after, in September, things got even bleaker. The center-right party Ciudadanos and PSOE, both of which had sworn never to form alliances with the corrupt Partido Popular, now reneged on these promises and enabled the conservatives to form a new government. (PSOE, once again refusing to form a pact with Podemos, justified its decision to let the conservatives through as the only way to avoid yet another general election.) By the beginning of October, then, it looked as though Podemos would face a “Triple Alliance” (Iglesias’ provocative term) of implacable adversaries under the leadership of the widely despised conservative president Mariano Rajoy. In the face of these two huge setbacks, the party went to war with itself.
Iglesias and Errejón are not your usual politicians. Both are youthful, energetic, and very intense; both hold Ph.Ds.; both spent years in left-wing organizations and the academy, and both follow the relaxed dress codes of these worlds, even, to the horror of traditionalists, in the Congress itself. But while Iglesias’ style is bohemian—bearded and rumpled, he is called “el coleta,” for his famous ponytail—Errejón, who wears large dark rimmed glasses and keeps his hair trimmed, projects a more metropolitan, middle-class look. The long-simmering political differences between the two friends and comrades broke fully into the open last October with an exchange of antagonistic but still coldly polite tweets. And then, at a book run-out, Iglesias escalated the dispute dramatically. After mocking Errejón’s efforts to make him tame his fiery rhetoric, Iglesias gave a demonstration of just how untamed it could be. He declared that Podemos’ Congressional deputies and party bureaucrats, enchanted by the sorcery of “las instituciones,” were rapidly losing their activist anger and their connection with the people. (“Las élites,” he writes elsewhere, “siempre quieren parlamentarizar los conflictos como una manera de desactivarlos.”)
To make matters worse, Iglesias said, even as Podemos’ leaders were making themselves comfortable in the institutions, the other parties, through their triple alliance, had guaranteed that they would get nothing done there. This, he continued, was why he felt compelled to quote that “villainous” figure, Mao Tse-tung, who said to the party masses, “Point your guns at the Central Committee!” Now Podemos’ base would have to do the same, to point its guns at the Party’s leadership “nuestros enimigos son los dirigentes de Podemos.” Or, as his “we” (“nuestros”) suggests, at some of its leaders, those following the Errejonist line. Having deposed of these turncoats, the party faithful, with Iglesias in the lead, could take Podemos back to the streets, reconnect with the popular forces still challenging the status quo, and build a “counterpower” capable of challenging the institutions and the big corporations. Podemos would, he concedes, still have one foot in the Congress, but “its head, its arms, and the other leg” would be in the streets, building up the fledgling movements of civil society, creating a new human base for radical transformation.
The Errejónistas had been deploring this sort of rhetoric all through 2016. Now that it was directed at them, they did not back down; instead, they responded in a manner that further inflamed animosities and fixed the internal debate within a set of less than useful either/ors. Either the institutions or the streets, either the middle classes or the working class, either appeasement or defiance. This debate took on further intensity because of what was now at stake, a set of elections predating the party convention (Vistalegre 2) in February and leading to the appointment of new leaders, the ratification of a new political roadmap, and the re-articulation of the Party’s basic principles. In the run-up to the convention, these debates became so personal, so rancorous, and so hysterically pitched that by February it seemed that the Party might not survive its own convention.
Yet during this same period, in the midst of charges and counter-charges, Iglesias and Errejón actually began to espouse more nuanced positions. The day after the October fifth speech, Errejón, having just participating in a demonstration, insisted that there was “no contradiction” between the struggle in Congress and in the street. And as the election campaign heated up over the winter, Iglesias himself gradually adopted this position as well, assigning more and more weight to the institutional struggle.
While this shift might be attributed to Iglesias’ inclination to take extreme positions and then pull back or to his alarm at the potentially party-shattering effects of the schism he had helped create, it also reflected, I’d argue, his impressive capacity to rethink his own positions on the basis of new arguments and new information. So for instance in his fiery Oct 5 speech, Iglesias stipulated that his call for a turn from “las instituciones” to “la calle” was a “tactical” response to being frozen out of all policy-making power in Congress. “If I were in government,” he said, “I’d definitely go for agreements and consensus-building. But I’m not.”
Yet over the next weeks and months, as it became increasingly clear that Podemos’ exclusion was nowhere near as absolute as he had imagined, he was true to his word. The triple alliance failed to materialize. Ousted PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez refused to go quietly into exile and instead set out–with strong support from the party’s militants and voters–to regain control of his party and move it to the left. In a public declaration he regretted his failure to form a pact with Podemos after the December elections. Meanwhile, the PSOE delegation in the Congress itself called for investigations of the Partido Popular’s cronyism and corruption and sponsored initiatives aimed at repealing some of its egregiously anti-democratic and neoliberal legislation. Even Ciudadanos, over the next few months, challenged the PP in Congress. And both PSOE and Ciudadanos formed alliances with Podemos in pushing their initiatives. As this new reality emerged, Iglesias adjusted his conduct in Congress and began to revise his program for Podemos. So, for instance, by mid-December, he was cooperating with PSOE in a successful effort to begin rolling back a PP sponsored labor reform that had severely weakened workers’ job security.
The Pablistas’ Plan 2020, their platform for the party convention, reflects Iglesias’ effort to synthesize the best of the various factions’ proposals. The document is not without its flashes of enfant terrible-ism. In one passage, for instance, we find Iglesias projecting his own penchant for provocation onto the party as a whole and essentializing it as a part of the formation’s DNA: “It is in our very nature,” he declares, “to be a combative and irreverent force, a non-conformist organization.” Even here, though, Iglesias strives for a synthesis of positions. This“irreverent” and “non-conformist” organization, he continues, should “at the same time [be] ambitious and capable of governing with efficiency and common sense,” that is, it should find a way to embody Errejon’s values as well as his own. In an illuminating article, Australian commentator Dick Nichols applauds “the compromise character of [Iglesias’] document, which picked up what some Podemos members may have seen as valid points in the two other positions and put them in a concrete perspective.” And he singles out as especially important Iglesias’ continued emphasis on the need to work both in the Congress and in the street. In contrast, he observes, the Errejónista platform had little or nothing to say about the second sector of struggle.
In other respects as well, Plan 2020 is an impressive document. It commits Podemos to pushing back against “la normalización de la precariedad,”that is, of the grim state of affairs established by the Partido Popular, often with help from PSOE, during the Crisis. The features of this new labor regime include chronic unemployment and underemployment, low wages, reduced job security, pension cuts, severe constraints on union activity, and erosion of essential public services. To counter these conditions, the Plan commits the party to instituting a decent minimum wage and a universal basic income, to repealing legislation that severely limited worker’s rights and the rights of demonstrators, and to regaining regulatory control of key sectors of the economy, including food and energy production and the financial sector. And it commits itself, as a means of building support for these measures, to forging a “bloque popular” consisting of traditional working class voters plus members of the middle and professional classes.
Finally, and most ambitiously, perhaps, Plan 2020 commits Podemos to producing a new kind of politician. Deputies and party leaders, it insists, must combine work in Congress and the party apparatus with work in civil society, they must become “activistas institucionales.” This demand, one imagines, represents Iglesias’ nonviolent alternative to the Maoist strategy for keeping “politicians” from becoming the enemies of the people they ostensibly serve: it obviates the need for the rank and file to point their guns at the party’s leaders. It also keeps the two forms of political action from producing two separate factions within the party, a danger that must have been very much on Iglesias’ mind during the months preceding Vistalegre 2.
Yet in spite of these and other efforts at reconciliation, the battle between the two Podemos “families” grew fiercer as the elections and convention approached. In the run-up to the voting in February, there was talk of treason and betrayal, names were named, and several of the party’s most respected leaders (Caroline Bescansa, for instance) refused to stand for office and offered stinging public rebukes of the factions’ leaders. Bescansa, the editors of the leftist daily Publico reminded their readers, “is one of the founders of Podemos, formed part of the inner circle of Iglesias during the first Vistalegre, and her stepping aside, after sharp criticisms of Iglesias and Errejon, is a blow for both directors of the party.”
In the end, Iglesias’s faction, “Podemos Para Todas,” won the second round. Iglesias was voted back into power and his program was approved. Some expected that this victory would cause a decisive split and mass defections. But there were no defections in the wake of this victory, and polls suggest that the party lost no significant support. Subsequently, Iglesias has gone out of his way to honor his promises and reweave the frayed fabric of the party. Errejón was not reappointed to his position as second in charge, but he has been given the task of leading the party in the strategically important autonomous region of Madrid, where he will, it is reliably reported, have complete liberty to configure his team, his arguments, and his strategy. Carolina Bescansa was appointed to a prominent post in the Party’s new “shadow cabinet,” which will function as a kind of internal think tank, studying and shaping long-term policies in various areas and preparing the party to take governing power.
And, in an important speech to the Citizen’s Council delivered just days after he was reelected, Iglesias insisted again on the two-track approach to struggle. Podemos must indeed turn to the street, he reiterated, but this turn will be many-faceted. It will entail support for groups using the traditional tools of protest. But it will also, and more regularly, entail working to build counter-institutions in civil society through working alliances with unions, neighborhood groups, parents of students, and others. Iglesias also insisted that Podemos must be ready to forge alliances with PSOE , “a political actor that is going to be determinant in our country in the next years.” “Let’s hope,” he continued, holding out olive branch to the Errejónistas and PSOE alike, “that we can augment our capacity of political seduction [Errejón’s word], again in cooperation with the socialist party, to work in a project of the nation.”
This is the face of Podemos that has been most visible this March. The party has made common cause with the striking stevedores of the Bay of Cadiz, participating in their demonstrations against new labor protocols forced on them by the Partido Popular and the European Union. But it has also joined with PSOE and Ciudadanos to block the implementation of these measures in the Congress. Its leaders have participated in the demonstrations of the “Marea Blanca” (White Tide), the movement of health care workers and receivers in Granada, who are trying to check the erosion of public health services in that city. And in Congress Podemos is collaborating with PSOE and Ciudadanos to force the PP government to mandate a sweeping investigation of corruption in its own party. This wave of cooperation and the resultant isolation of the conservatives has been so successful that there is now talk that the PP may soon call new elections. If that happens, and if Pedro Sanchez succeeds in regaining power in the PSOE this June, a reinvigorated left may come to power in Spain at last.
And yet as I write, the Andalucian branch of Podemos is demanding all-but-complete autonomy from the national party. In addition, a new crisis of inter-party cooperation has flared up in Catalonia, where the regional Podemos leadership has just walked out of negotiations to create a united left party. Vicenc Navarro, an eminent Podemos elder, responded to this development in today’s Publico with a cri de coeur: “I have a poster from the Civil War times in which you see a child looking at a group of adults dressed in the uniforms of the different militia forces that made up the Republican Army. The child is asking them, ‘Why do you fight among yourselves?’ Those struggles contributed to the Republicans’ defeat. And we have to ask today, ‘How long will the parties of the left continue divided?’” (emphasis in the original).
John McClure lives for six months a year in Spain. This is his fourth report on the new Spanish Party, Podemos.