IN our far-from-comprehensive survey of recent developments in the international left-democratic movement we have already visited Venezuela, Greece, Britain and the US. In this concluding part we briefly discuss Portugal, Spain and Scotland and then try to draw pertinent lessons from the experiences covered in the four parts.
The October 2015 elections in Portugal brought to an end the rule of the right-wing Portugal Ahead (PA), which is an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party. The PA got only 107 seats in the 230-seat parliament, whereas the left parties (the Socialist Party (SP), the Left Bloc, and the Democratic Unity Coalition comprising Communist Party and the Green Alliance) together won 122 seats. This was clearly a mandate in favour of the Left and against the Right. But President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a former leader of the Social Democrats, allowed PA leader and former Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho to form a government, which was soon voted down by the left parties. Still the biased President refused to ask Antonio Costa, leader of the second largest party -- the Socialist Party -- to form a government with the support of other left parties unless the left alliance submitted a written pledge that it would not leave NATO and faithfully observe eurozone financial rules. It took widespread protests and the warning of a general strike – and reportedly also a verbal undertaking from SP as demanded by the President -- to compel him to invite the SP leader. Costa formed the government with the Left Block and the Communist Party extending support from outside the cabinet.
It is for the first time in the forty years following the fall of dictatorship in Portugal that Socialists and Communists have entered into a joint front against anti-people right-wing policies and they have also taken the Left Block along. It will be interesting to watch how the Socialists manage their sharp political differences with their allies in the post-poll arrangement, and for how long. For now, the Communists and the Left Bloc have agreed to shelve their insistence on exiting NATO and the euro zone, while the Socialists have agreed to partially roll back austerity measures and put privatization on hold. But there are other major differences within the alliance. For instance, while the Communists and the Left Bloc want debt reduction, the Socialists are non-committal. The main difficulty the government is likely to face will be regarding the annual budget approvals, especially if new austerity measures are sought to be imposed.
One of the new government’s first announcements was that it will be restoring full pay to civil servants in a phased manner. It has also announced increases in old-age pensions and family allowances. Such measures apparently give credence to Costa’s promise to “heed the will of the majority of Portuguese to turn the page on austerity”, which he made soon after taking office. But the very next day Finance Minister Mário Centeno, a special adviser to Portugal’s Central Bank, made a more revealing statement. He declared that the new government will cut both budget deficit and public debt to levels below those demanded by the European Commission and, at the same time, increase public spending. How the government will fulfill the two mutually exclusive objectives, i.e., meeting the expectations of the Portuguese people and the opposite demands of the EC, is anybody’s guess.
However, it is noteworthy that the SP had been first approached by PA with an offer to form a coalition government. Costa rejected it and turned to the radical Left for support, which the latter provided on the basis of separate bipartite agreements with the SP that clearly spelt out the points of concurrence and divergence. The formation of such a government of united Left displacing a blatantly pro-elite pro-austerity dispensation was the best available option in the post-poll scenario. Contrary to the position of Trostkyist phrasemongers who cannot wait to denounce the new government as a betrayal of the people’s mandate, we therefore wish it all success. We also welcome the first joint front against austerity policies and in favor of adopting alternative policies in the European Union formed by the governments of Greece and Portugal on 10 April in Athens, following a joint statement by the Prime Ministers of the two countries who stressed the need to have a wider front of progressive forces in the EU.
That said, one must not overlook the other aspect of the situation. Like Syriza in Greece, the SP is under tremendous pressure from the Troika of imperialism for continuation of neoliberal policies including full scale austerity. Left to itself, it may not fare any better than Syriza in honouring the people’s mandate. It has already declared, more than once, that it will be acting on its own electoral program (which is Centre-left at best) and not on those of the Left Bloc and the Communist Party. But the CP and the Left Block too have safeguarded their political independence by staying out of the cabinet and have made it clear that, firstly, they would only support the budget on a year by year basis and secondly, that they would never support a right-wing motion of no confidence but they do reserve the right to present their own. So they are free to – indeed, they are duty-bound to – make full use of the political independence to bring counter pressure to bear on the government through demonstrations, strikes and other forms of mass mobilisations and take recourse to parliamentary interventions too if and when required, so as to ensure that SP fully honours its commitment to the electorate.
The formation of the SP government has not fundamentally altered the balance of class forces in Portuguese society. But it has facilitated the intensification of class struggle and enlivened the political atmosphere with intense discussions and debates on the best course ahead for Portugal. How best this new situation is utilized for the development of political consciousness of the working people in the new phase of struggle against austerity and for a dignified life – on this, and not on the mere longevity of the left government, will depend the real long-term advancement of the left movement in Portugal.
The most authentic torch-bearer of the Spanish indignados (The Outraged), which emerged on May 15, 2011, Podemos (“We Can”) was launched on January 17, 2014 in Madrid. In the context of a deep economic and political crisis, its programmatic positions and key demands -- such as social redistribution, defence of public services, state intervention in the economy, more transparency, primary elections for candidates, auditing of public officers and so on – caught the imagination of the citizenry. Under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias, a thirty-six-year-old former professor of political science, the organization spread fast and wide. “Circles” (groups in support of the initiative) started to proliferate, and mass rallies were taking place in all major cities. On May 25, just five months after inception, Podemos won five seats and 8% of the vote in the European elections. Since then, except for a brief spell of relative stagnation, it has maintained a robust growth in terms of movements, membership and election results.
Fast forward to the December 2015 parliamentary elections, which produced a hung parliament. Podemos came third with 69 seats and 20.66% vote share, 1.35 percent below the centre-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) which occupied the second place with 90 seats. The right-wing Peoples Party (PP) came first with 123 seats and 28.72% vote share. Podemos proposed a coalition government with left parties only – including PSOE, with which it has major political differences -- and other small radical parties. PSOE however prioritised a deal with centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos in Spanish) and Iglesias refused to be part of such a government. Negotiations are going on and as we go to press it seems there are two possibilities. Podemos may ultimately abstain from voting against a PSOE-led left-centre right coalition government or else the country may go in for fresh elections in June.
Among so many “small but significant” developments in different parts of the world (such as the reelection of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, covered in part III) the emergence of a new left alliance in Scotland merits attention.
As we know, the independence referendum in 2014 was narrowly lost. But the fresh impetus the political battle for independence provided to left and democratic forces lived on. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), formed by sections of the Scottish Left to support a "yes" vote on a radical left basis, had done a good job in uniting workers, students and youth and various social movement activists on an anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal and anti-oppression platform within the broader struggle. After the referendum, many of the constituents came together to launch RISE, which stands for four founding principles: Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism. The alliance held its first conference on December 5, 2014 with the aim of bringing the Scottish left together under one umbrella and promised to focus mainly on agitations, with “one foot in the parliament, a hundred feet in the streets” (a slogan borrowed from the Podemos).
RISE campaigns for the complete nationalization of the energy companies; a new system to purchase land and redistribute it, which is a big issue for tenants in the Scottish Highlands in particular; building new council houses to address the lack of affordable housing for working class people; abolition of the anti-trade union laws that make it more difficult for workers to organize effectively; and so on.
According to the RISE website, “These policies are important for us … to show that we don't want independence for its own sake, but as a means to an end--to advance the cause of socialism, the ending of oppression and the threat of environmental catastrophe.
This is important as there is a strong tendency for some SNP supporters to denounce us and the Scottish Greens for ‘splitting the independence vote’ … Nevertheless, we obviously work with the SNP (and Green) activists where we have shared goals--over land reform, nuclear weapons, anti-war work, in defense of trade union rights, and so on.”
It is interesting to note that in last year’s general elections the (pre-Corbyn) Labour Party was more or less wiped out in Scotland, a traditional Labour stronghold, largely because it failed to recognise aspirations for independence. The SNP did score a landslide win thanks to its broadly left and emphatically pro-independence stand, but they have arguably failed to follow through on it since then. It is in this backdrop that the fine blend of leftism and progressive national aspiration for independence articulated by RISE has endeared it to the people of Scotland. To what extent it can pose an electoral alternative to the older parties will be tested in the forthcoming Scottish parliament elections due in May.
Over the last 25 years or so, we have seen myriad resistance struggles and organisational initiatives directed against international and national centres of oppressive power – the militant marches against globalisation and the Iraq war, the World Social Forum, Occupy Wall Street and The Arab Spring, the student-youth upsurges in the heart of Europe and so on – surging forward like mighty sea waves and then going back in the same rhythm, apparently leaving no major imprint on mainstream politics. In the past couple of years or so, we are witnessing something new and significant. Many of such movements are coalescing around the Left – may be individuals like Jeremy Corbyn or maybe new political formations like Syriza and Podemos – thereby holding out the prospect of paradigms shifts in politics in the countries concerned.
While the emerging left forces have their unique backgrounds and features, they have had a common origin in the popular resistance movements against economic and political oppression. But the mass disaffection also provides a fertile soil for the rise of populist right or neo-fascist forces contending for the same political space created by the historical decline of traditional ruling parties including old social democratic ones. In Greece we have witnessed the continuing growth of the Golden Dawn parallel to that of Syriza while in the US the emergence of Bernie Sanders has its polar opposite in the popular support garnered by Donald Trump. At the moment a new left cycle is coming up in South Europe precisely at a time when the progressive cycle that started much earlier in Latin America appears to be losing steam. And we know that if tomorrow or the day after Syriza (or say the left government in Portugal) fails to deliver, the consequences will be similar to what is happening in Venezuela (and also in Argentina and Brazil).
Are we then witnessing a bipartisanism of sorts where left/centre-left/progressive democratic forces take turns with different hues of rightist parties in administering the rule of capital in parliament, a structure/ system that is tailor-made to serve the interests of capital in the best possible manner for the longest possible period?
It would be premature to come to such a conclusion, but surely this is a grey area that calls for a deep discussion.
The newly emerging left forces naturally have as their primary concern bringing the people an immediate relief from the unbearable torture of neoliberalism. The party that organised the most energetic, imaginative and effective propaganda and agitation on this question in recent times was Syriza and it was duly rewarded for that in the hustings. After coming to power, however, it seemed to operate under the illusion that since its appeals/requests to the Troika was absolutely just, rational and ultimately beneficial not only for Greece but for the EU as a whole, with some persuasion and strong words these would be granted. Therefore, at the time of the make-or-break negotiations at Brussels (July 2015) the party leadership did not have a Plan B to fall back on – an alternative plan to stop begging, assert national sovereignty and embark on the difficult path of economic and political self-reliance in the event of the sharks of finance capital refusing to forego their pound of flesh. Not surprisingly, that was exactly what the latter did. The Tsipras leadership, having neither a ready plan nor the resourcefulness and political alacrity to produce one at the crucial hour, surrendered without a fight precisely when the need was to show, in the words of Jacobin leader Danton, "audacity, more audacity, always audacity”. In a single instance we the admirers of the advances of the Greeks became painfully aware that the bankruptcy of ideas on the part of the party at the helm went deeper than the financial near-bankruptcy of the country. It was a rude shock indeed.
We say this not self-righteously but in a spirit of review and brainstorming, in anguished introspection as a constituent of the international Left, aware that the problem is not Syriza's alone.
The Greek experience has demonstrated in real life what was not unknown in theory. In the era of brutal domination of imperialism/neoliberalism, the global masters of finance capital – which has by now constituted itself as the international ruling caste – is determined to block even small measures like debt restructuring and rollback of austerity. If Syriza (or any other left party or coalition running an elected government) is really serious about going ahead with such an agenda, it must prepare itself and the people for entering a veritable economic and political war with imperialism and its domestic lackeys – for snapping old ties of dependence and treading an unfamiliar, thorny path that ultimately has to cross the boundaries of capitalism. Rather than burying itself in economic administration and negotiations, it must mobilise the masses, from day one, for the profoundly creative task of constructing the road leading from progressive reforms in the present structure to revolutionary reconstruction of society and state. (These are precisely the things Syriza did not try to do!)
Yes, the Left can never relegate the agenda of revolution to a distant future on the pretext that revolution is not knocking on the doors. That is a brazen Menshevik idea. Bolsheviks always insisted on conducting the 'mundane' daily work of propaganda, agitation, parliamentary struggles etc. with a clearly spelt out revolutionary communist orientation and we must follow them if we are to steer clear of pitfalls like opportunistic alliances and unprincipled compromises, if we are to take correct policy decisions at difficult junctures, if we are to complete our journey without getting stuck up in the trap of parliamentarism. We must remember that spontaneity of the masses is a great source of strength, but it needs to be complemented by a correspondingly higher level of political foresight and professionalism on the part of the leading party. That heterogeneity of class outlooks and political leanings of participants and leading activists of a broad based mass movement is most natural and not to be feared, but it calls for a leading core that is ideologically strong, theoretically sound and politically armed with revolutionary dynamism.
But these are qualities which needs to be cultivated, and that takes time. Let us hope that the new left formations will continue to learn from experience and, in time, gain the maturity to lead the movements forward to the logical culminations.
As we write these lines, much of Europe, like many other parts of the world, are witnessing a powerful resurgence of popular movements. On 31 March a joint worker-student rally was held in Paris to resist a reactionary labour reform bill. Students’ unions issued a statement explaining why they joined forces with the workers: “For the youth, this proposed labor law is a signal to increase inequality and poverty with no job security.” Closely linked to this protest is the Nuit Debout (“rise up at night”) movement, with protesters occupying the vast square at Place de la République in Paris and voicing their various demands and grievances for days and nights together. Demonstrations were also held on 31 March and 1 April in as many as 60 cities and towns across France as well as in Belgium, Germany, and Spain. On the other side of the English Chanel, an anti-austerity march in London on 16 April attracted tens of thousands of protesters who voiced their outrage at the cuts imposed on public services by David Cameron and his government. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told the crowd that a Labour government would end austerity and in a video message played to the demonstrators, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The austerity we are in is a political choice, not an economic necessity.”
In other parts of the world too, there are instances galore to show that the ground on which leftism stands and flourishes is as productive as ever. Let us learn from the masses, share our experiences and march forward to victory under the great banner of Marxism Leninism.