Pablo Iglesias, founder and leader of what was once seen as the brightest hope for radical change in Europe, resigned from politics last week.
His decision came after humiliation for his Podemos party in the elections in the Spanish capital, Madrid.
Iglesias had stepped down as deputy prime minister to head up the Podemos campaign in the city. But the voting saw a surge in support for the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and gains for the far right Vox party.
“We have failed, we fell far short of the mark,” Iglesias said. “I am abandoning all my positions, I am leaving politics, if one means by that professional politics. I will continue serving my country.”
Iglesias’ exit brings to an end seven years of his central involvement in a political project that emerged from an inspiring wave of struggle.
As governments tried to impose austerity on the back of the 2008 financial crisis, huge movements of resistance swept the country.
The 15-M “Indignados” movement saw the occupations of city squares by hundreds of thousands of people and a ferment of discussion and debate. People confronted the attacks on their living standards but also began discussing how to create a new and more democratic form of politics.
They demanded an alternative to the neoliberal governments of both the PP and the Labour-type PSOE party.
There were also strong strikes including a general strike in 2012 over attacks on workers’ rights, evictions and cuts in key services.
Tens of millions struck and two million people protested across the country. More general strikes then followed.
Alongside those strikes, many people were also inspired by the revolution in Egypt in 2011. The spread of the Arab Spring showed people that change from below, on the streets, was a possibility.
Podemos grew from these movements attracting tens of thousands of members within the first few days of its foundation in 2014.
Just four months after it was launched, it took 8 percent of the vote across Spain and won five seats in the European parliament.
It was part of a rising tide of political movements that challenged the old parties of social democracy that had implemented austerity or offered only austerity-lite as an alternative.
These included Syriza in Greece and the Front de Gauche in France. The same mood was to swell the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States—and Jeremy Corbyn’s push to lead Labour.
Podemos consciously aligned itself with the leaders of parties that made up South and Central America’s “Pink Tide”, such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
Iglesias and the other founders of Podemos produced a programme that had some radical demands.
It stressed democratic public ownership, measures to tackle poverty, and a basic income for everyone.
Podemos also called for leaving the Nato nuclear alliance, supporting self‑determination for the Catalan and Basque people and rejecting imperialist wars.
The party also claimed to be attempting a new form of politics. Its structures were based on circles and assemblies with direct democracy, transparency, accountability and election candidates selected by the members.
Any movement on the streets that seeks to have a political expression faces quick decisions.
Is the political voice primarily focused on elections, or are elections simply a subordinate part of growing and developing the movement?
After some equivocation, Podemos made clear that its central focus was going to be the electoral field.
And it also said that it did not consider itself a party of the left. Instead it said that it was mobilising all of those who felt oppressed and exploited by the elite at the top of society.
This flowed into a reluctance to challenge key elements of the state and traditional institutions. It accepted both the monarchy and the importance of the military.
In 2015 Iglesias highlighted that Podemos didn’t want to “stay trapped within the traditional framework of the far left”.
He added that if they claimed to be republicans it, “straight away alienates large sectors of the population who, no matter what they think about other issues, and despite their identifying the previous king with the corruption of the old regime, feel sympathetic towards this new one.”
Almost immediately after its 2014 European election success, Podemos started to water down its programme. It abandoned calls for a 35-hour working week and retirement at 60.
This created tensions with the party’s socialist factions and trade unionists at a time when many Spanish unions were launching strikes, and protests continued.
The strength of the protests, and the genuine enthusiasm for the idea of a party like Podemos, meant that it could still win impressive votes.
In the December 2015 parliamentary elections, Podemos achieved 21 percent of the vote and finished third. The mainstream socialist PSOE party approached Podemos to form a coalition government.
But Podemos refused, not wanting to combine itself with the representatives of the old, corrupt politics.
Nevertheless the stampede towards elections and parliament became even stronger.
Tellingly, Iglesias said in 2016, “That idiocy that we used to say when we were on the extreme left that things change in the street and not in institutions, is a lie.”
This was a significant shift with Podemos turning its back on the mass mobilisations.
Podemos activists became predominantly campaigners for votes who would largely wait until elections to try and make progressive changes. The party’s members and voters weren’t seen as active participants who were centrally involved in mobilising on the streets or in workplaces.
And to go with this retreat, the internal organisation began to change too.
The party was increasingly controlled from the top down and started to lose connection with the grassroots activists. The next move was to try and become more respectable and enter government.
Podemos joined a left wing electoral coalition consisting of the Spanish Green Party and other organisations, including the Communist Party of Spain.
Despite previously refusing to join the PSOE after previous elections, it formed a coalition government with it in 2019.
To make this possible Podemos abandoned more of its progressive policies such as support for Catalan self-determination.
The coalition with PSOE ended the right wing’s rule. But this came at the cost of Podemos abandoning the radicalism that had flowed from the 2011 movement.
The coalition government made some minor reforms. But its overall record is disastrous.
Like others, it has prioritised the needs of big business over the health of the population.
Spain has seen 3.55 million infections and almost 80,000 deaths in a country of 42 million people. That’s a record that is little better than Boris Johnson’s in Britain.
Nine Catalan nationalist political prisoners remain in jail, charged with organising protests in 2017 that were peaceful.
As the party marked its fifth anniversary in 2019, another of its founders, Inigo Errejon announced he would be running as the candidate for a new formation in the Madrid regional elections.
But unfortunately he wanted to stand on an even more moderate platform.
Podemos now faces severe challenges following Iglesias’ departure.
It is important that the lessons from this experience are taken alongside the betrayals and retreats of Syriza, the sidelining of Bernie Sanders and the failure of Corbynism.
Although issues inside parliament matter, the movement on the streets and struggles in workplaces are the key places to fight for socialism.
Podemos was at its best in the beginning, when it related to, and for a time partially expressed, elements of the movements on the streets.
It is a tragedy that such vibrant resistance was increasingly channelled into a mark two version of the social democratic parties that it had pledged to abolish.
Spain remains in a deep political crisis.
New movements of resistance will arise and new challenges to the right and far right have to be built.
As Iglesias steps aside, the urgent need is to learn from his failures and to refocus on revolutionary politics that are firmly based on the movements from below.