Podemos marches for change

February 11, 2015

As many as 300,000 people filled Madrid's Puerta del Sol and surrounding streets in a mass mobilization against austerity organized by the left-wing party Podemos (We Can).

The success of Podemos in last year's elections for European Parliament, after the party was formed just three months before, lies in its connection in popular consciousness to the May 15, 2011, day of action in Spain, known as "15M," that launched the movement of the indignados. The "indignant ones" occupied public squares in mass protests against the lack of democracy and corruption of the political system and the austerity agenda imposed in the wake of Europe's debt crisis. Podemos is winning support around these same themes.

Jesús Jaén is a member of Anticapitalistas (Anticapitalists), recently created by Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left), a socialist party that participated in founding Podemos. At its January congress, Izquierda Anticapitalista voted to turn itself from a political party into a movement organization--a response, in part, to the October 2014 resolution passed in Podemos' Citizens' Assembly barring Podemos leaders from being members of other political parties. This resolution was one of a number of initiatives supported by the leadership team that dilute the grassroots democracy which has been Podemos' hallmark.

An active member of a Podemos "circle"--a local chapter where members debate party policy and plan activities--Jaén provides a socialist view of the developments in Podemos, including the organizing for the huge January 31 Podemos-sponsored march in Madrid. Lance Selfa translated the original article that appeared at the Anticapitalistas web site.

ON JANUARY 31, a huge demonstration called by Podemos wound its way through the streets of Madrid. Estimates of its size vary between the 300,000 claimed by its organizers, the 100,000 claimed by the police, and the 153,000 estimated by the newspaper El País. Whatever the correct figure, there's no doubt that it was a huge demonstration, comparable to those called by los indignados, the Marches for Dignity [mass marches against austerity that took place in March 2014] or the two general strikes in 2012.

The difference between this demonstration and the others, though, was that this one was called by leaders of Podemos, a political party that is barely a year old. The demonstration's success not only thrilled those of us who actively participate in Podemos circles, but also swept up many more people who hope for an end to neoliberal hegemony and governments that serve the ruling class.

This article will analyze not only the reasons for the demonstration's success, but also those issues that are less positive, and may even be a cause for worry.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets for demonstrations called by Podemos
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets for demonstrations called by Podemos

This march took place in a new political and social context. After years of street protests, strikes and occupations, the political period that the 15M movement opened has moved into a new phase. This one is not centered on mass mobilization, but on political expectations of throwing the establishment parties out of all of the major institutions (the parliament, and local and regional governments).

It might be said that the previous cycle of social struggle ended with the Marches for Dignity in the Plaza de Colón in Madrid, and that a new round opened with the birth of Podemos. This prompted a revolution in the political superstructure and spurred--directly or indirectly--profound changes: the blowup in Izquierda Unida [United Left in English, the left coalition led by the Communist Party]; an upheaval inside the Socialist Party; and the creation of new political groups and alliances in anticipation of the May 2015 local elections.

THE LEADERS of Podemos chose to debut the new party in the Puerto del Sol in Madrid. That wasn't an accident. Indignados packed that same square three years ago, and today, Podemos wants to position itself as the legitimate heir to the biggest social-political movement since the Franco dictatorship fell in the mid-1970s.

Some analysts say that Podemos is the "leap into politics" that the 15M movement never took. I think that's incorrect. In my opinion, we're dealing with two distinct political actors born in the same period.

The 15M movement represented, at a very embryonic stage, a broad-brush rejection of the political and economic system. Meanwhile, Podemos is a new actor, born of the echo of 15M, but designed to take over institutions and to exercise political power within the system. At least, that's the impression one gets after the Citizens' Assembly and new proposals from the Podemos leadership issued following the recent European elections.

The January 31 march expressed the contradictory nature of these two actors in the same social formation. While 15M brought together a substantial number of young people around themes emphasizing systemic change, at the individual and global levels, Podemos has attracted a more age-diverse support, including sections of the old left, and a social composition that is in its majority working-class.

The huge turnout on January 31 shouldn't lead us to ignore those aspects that we think could have been improved. Such was the case with Podemos' unilateral decision to call the march, without consulting its base. That fed speculation that Podemos wants to monopolize the political alternative to the government.

I've read that more than a few supporters of Podemos attribute the march's success to the genius of Podemos leaders Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón. I couldn't disagree more. Aside from the leaders' intelligence, the experience of 15M, occupations and the Marches for Dignity show that democracy and grassroots self-organization and the bringing together of collectives, platforms and organizations is the best way to contribute to the success of mass mobilizations.

True, there's no single way to do things, but it's also true that the ways we have gone about building social movements in the last few years have also helped to create a "democratic understanding" that rejects the old bureaucratic and top-down practices, which, over three decades, we've known from the mainstream trade unions and from the Socialist and Communist Parties.

The March for Change succeeded, but not because of the top-down way in which it was called. On the contrary, the march's success stemmed from the overwhelming desire for change among millions of people who are fed up, and have come to see Podemos as the best tool to bring about that change. Podemos appears as a practical instrument that can throw the right-wing Peoples' Party and the PSOE (the Socialist Party) out of all of the major institutions. These feelings and the desire for change have dominated the political environment and will continue to dominate it for a long time, over and above whatever criticisms and objections (or mistakes by Pablo Iglesias) may come.

But it would be a serious mistake on the part of the Podemos leadership if "change" and its desire to win in upcoming elections overrode the democratic political culture and traditions that have been forged through a lot of hard work since the May 15 movement exploded on the scene.

No political force, no matter how important, represents the full range of political positions or different political styles that exist within the social and working-class movements. No political force that seeks to change society can ignore the complexity, diversity and heterogeneity of the social and cultural fabric of civil society in the 21st century.

PABLO IGLESIAS increasingly insists that "we have come to win," and it seems that winning subordinates everything else. The January 31 demonstration was called out of the blue because the Podemos leadership team thought it necessary to respond to escalating criticisms, from various quarters, directed at them. The constituent assembly process had revealed important democratic deficits. The leadership's decision to push for a monolithic internal regime heightens our concerns. Internal and public debate about these errors has been shouted down with orders to "Close ranks in the face of the enemy!"

This defensive attitude has been justified by saying that winning is the most important thing. But it's not only that. Trailing right behind this backtracking on democracy has been a watering down of Podemos' program--as disclosed in the media--without the slightest public debate.

We have attended the presentation of a Podemos economics discussion paper that embraced Keynesianism, renouncing proposals that had been approved earlier. Our disillusionment hit its highest point when we found out--through the media--that Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón had met secretly with multimillionaire and former Socialist government minister José Bono and former Socialist president Jose Luís Rodriguez Zapatero—and more still, that Podemos Madrid district secretary Jesús Montero, defends the Botín family and its philanthropic work. [The Botín family foundation is a major philanthropic organization whose founders were leading bankers and corporate executives. Members of the Botín family, among them the CEO of the large Banco Santander, have been criticized for hiding their wealth in offshore tax havens.]

If the goal is to win, we don't know if all this is part of a new strategy to attract the middle class and parts of the state apparatus, or, on the other hand, these are twists and turns stemming from political confusion.

Whatever is the case, the polls continue to give Podemos spectacular results. What we've criticized in the paragraphs above isn't the main concern for most ordinary people. Pablo Iglesias and Podemos continue (and will continue for a long time) to live in a "state of grace," where all is forgiven if it results in victory for new political force. To the majority of people, issues like poverty, inequality, evictions, cuts in social services, unemployment and corruption are much more important than Podemos' democratic character or program.

Today, what's important to the majority of citizens who long for change is that "We can do it!," before having any clear answer to the question, "But how can we do it?" That's not to say in the least that we in the anti-capitalist movement don't want to get to work in the debates on strategy, program, tactics or democracy. We are a like a car that runs at two speeds. We need to defeat the enemy government, but we also need to debate and discuss among our friends.

Both tasks are important, and each one has its appropriate time.

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