Socialist Worker

Is the left breaking through in Europe?

We should celebrate the radical left’s breakthroughs in Europe, argues Dave Sewell. But we still need to organise to change not just the politicians, but the whole system

Issue No. 2430

Thousands attended the new Podemos partys first conference in the Spanish state

Thousands attended the new Podemos party's first conference in the Spanish state (Pic: Ivan Flores Casasempere on Flickr)

Electoral earthquakes have rocked one country after another across Europe. 

Parties that dominated the mainstream for decades are seeing their support hollowing out or collapsing. 

They’ve been punished for pushing through austerity, corruption scandals and supporting a war that millions marched against.

The biggest losers are the Labour-type social democratic parties that claim to represent workers, but end up managing capitalism when in office. 

It’s been decades since these reformists offered 

significant reforms, let alone a meaningful vision of a better society for workers. Many have also forged alliances with Tories. 

But new forces are filling this political vacuum. Most exciting for the left is Podemos in the Spanish state and Syriza in Greece. 

There are important differences between them, but both surged to the top of the polls from almost nowhere. 

This followed several years of workers’ struggle and mass social movements, which their activists were involved in. 

Elsewhere, racist and fascist parties are surging ahead. 

Parties that look both left and right have also made gains, such as Italy’s Five Star Movement and the different Pirate Parties.

Nicola Sturgeon, now leader of the Scottish National Party which gained most out of the mass movement for independence

Nicola Sturgeon, now leader of the Scottish National Party which gained most out of the mass movement for independence (Pic: Ewan McIntosh on Flickr)

In Scotland and Catalonia independence has become the rallying cry for mass movements involving working class people.

But thousands have projected their hopes onto the Scottish National Party (SNP). While the scourge of the Westminster elite, it’s ultimately a moderate nationalist organisation.

Radical left parties emerged at different times and went in different directions.

The Front de Gauche in France has floundered. But in Germany and Ireland leftists—including revolutionaries—are a big part of the parliamentary opposition. This is despite a low level of workers’ struggle and different experiences of the global crisis.

In Britain left wing Labour columnist Owen Jones insists that different objective conditions make a left breakthrough outside Labour unlikely. 

The Bradford West by-election landslide in 2012, when George Galloway beat Labour by 10,000 votes, tells a different story.

But what brings together the disparate breakthroughs? Some defenders of the status quo lump together all the forces—from far left to the fascists—as “populist”.

They portray all who vote against the mainstream as unthinking malcontents, manipulated by demagogues. 

This conservative argument has a seemingly radical echo from advocates of “anti-politics”, who argue that people are mainly voting to get rid of the existing politicians.

That’s certainly part of the picture—and polling does show some overlap between radical left and far right parties. 

But it mostly shows that radical left and far right voters are different people who want different things—and that matters.

There is a thirst for politics, especially among working class people. 

That’s clear in all the new forces—from the mass participation in Podemos’s debates to the Yes campaign’s mass canvassing in Scotland’s independence referendum.

This isn’t just anger.


Ten years ago, the anti-capitalist movement was dominated by debates about changing the world without taking power.

Now people are leaping at the opportunity to join formations that put forward a different vision of how society could be run by trying to get rid of those who run it. 

This development should encourage Marxists, who argue that workers can do just that by using their economic power to overthrow capitalism.

But even with capitalism still mired in crisis and workers under sustained attack, that idea still seems far-fetched to most workers.

Many Marxists are asking if they need to do something entirely different, arguing that it’s “sectarian” to distinguish between reformists and revolutionaries. They say we need to get out of the far left “ghetto” first and worry about our long term goals later.

But as the Cheshire cat told Alice in Wonderland, which way you go “depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

The leaders of Podemos and Syriza want to replace the people in government with others who  they argue would do a better job. 

But power doesn’t stop with the people in office. Elected governments are still part of a capitalist state that is made up of powerful unelected bureaucracies, not to mention the police and the army. 

They are part of the class which owns the factories, supermarkets and the media. 

Much of Podemos’ rhetoric is about kicking out the “caste” at the top, while Jones stops at taking on a vague “establishment”. 

But if these were replaced by Labour left wingers or even by Podemos, real power would remain with the bosses and their state.

The ruling class is rarely completely united, especially in times of crisis. But the state and capitalists rely on one another. 

Our rulers are bound together by the need to keep profits coming—profits that come from exploiting workers. 

This severely limits the ability of left governments to deliver real change.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza which now leads the polls in Greece, speaks alongside Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche which has floundered in France

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza which now leads the polls in Greece, speaks alongside Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche which has floundered in France (Pic: Basili on Wikimedia Commons)

They can implement some reforms, but will have to pursue the bosses’ interests once they’re holding the reigns of the capitalist state.  It doesn’t matter how left wing their own ideas are. 

The leaders of Syriza and Podemos both want to follow in the footsteps of left governments in Latin America. 

But these increasingly work with bosses and often against workers.

The Labour Party once came as a shock to the Liberals and Tories—but then proved to be no threat whatsoever.

Syriza has already begun to make this journey fast enough to disorient many of its own supporters. 

Podemos’s leadership still calls for far-reaching reforms. But only within a framework of repaying much of the bankers’ debt and using Keynesian economics to nurse Spanish capitalism back to health. 

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described in his History of the Russian Revolution how the masses choose their leaders through a process of “successive approximations”. 

Workers and soldiers toppled the old Tsarist regime in 1917 only to elect a party that would rather have kept it mostly intact. 

They’d started “not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.”

But a year of intense struggle gradually brought workers face-to-face with the true nature of the system. 

They went through “a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less.” 

This learning curve can’t be skipped, and it has to start somewhere. 

So revolutionaries celebrate a left reformist breakthrough because it means workers are beginning a journey that could lead to them to break with reformism altogether.

In Britain a serious left alternative would deal a blow to the argument that Labour or the SNP is the only alternative to the Tories. 

It would be a huge step forward from elections where workers are only offered different combinations of austerity and racism.  

However, this process isn’t inevitable either. The movement can fall backwards into passivity and demoralisation if it fails to overcome the obstacles facing it—just as we see in France today. 

Some socialists argue that we should still support left governments, because even limited reforms could trigger a bigger confrontation with the bosses. 

 Yet even if a left government dares start such a fight—and most don’t—winning would depend on mobilising the working class.

Syriza has already helped call off strikes to avoid seeming too radical. In office the pressure to do this would be even greater. 

Demobilising workers in this way can even leave left governments defenceless against the right’s attacks. 

There has to be an argument within the working class for going beyond left reformism 

What form this takes depends on the situation. The struggle in Greece has made it clear to many workers that Syriza doesn’t have the answers. 

Anti-capitalists relate to this audience partly by standing against Syriza in elections.

In Britain the balance of forces is very different. So the Socialist Workers Party wants to unite with left reformists and others to form a left alternative.

But this wouldn’t change the need to organise independently. Revolutionaries must argue to change not just the politicians, but the whole system.

Read more

  • History of the Russian Revolution
    by Leon Trotsky, £22.99
    Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to
  • Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left
    by Chris Harman (1979)
    Available online at 
  • The Second Coming of the Radical Left
    by Alex Callinicos (2012)
    International Socialism 135
    Available online at

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