Podemos and pragmatic radicalism

Pablo Iglesias
Pablo Iglesias

To get anywhere, the Left needs to shift the political “common sense”. That means changing people’s minds, and as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias realises, you don’t do that by quoting mouldering dead revolutionaries at them.

One of very few heartening developments on the left-wing front in what’s been a dismal decade or so for fans of liberty, equality and fraternity, Podemos is a barely year-old Spanish political party. It’s stridently anti-austerity, staunchly but pragmatically leftist, and came from nowhere to win nearly 8% of the vote in last year’s European elections just five months into its existence.

The Bemolution recently came across a transcript of a speech given by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in Jacobin, an eye-pleasingly stylish and generally excellent American socialist magazine. We liked it so much we’re going to repost bits of here.

In it, Iglesias criticises the conventional Left’s obsession with the same old dogmas, and how they keep radical politics small and all too easy to ridicule and ignore. Time and time again on the Left, you find the kind of student revolutionaries he describes meeting as a lecturer in political science – wannabe 68ers who’ve read Marx, read Lenin, and then found that real people don’t compute with laughably inaccessible works of political economy written over a century ago. To these types – liable to come out with godawful phrases like “the working class has failed in its historical mission” – Iglesias has a simple message: the problem is you.

The Bemolution sometimes thinks we’d be happy to never hear the words ‘Marx’ or ‘Lenin’ ever again – and, more to the point, that you could banish them from your vocabulary and still carry forward everything worth keeping from the legacies of the both. For a lot of old-style left-wingers, Trotskyfied Marxist-Leninism is essentially their religion. If the austerity crisis can throw out a few more groups like Podemos, we may finally be able to get away from that, and the radical left might actually survive.

Over to you, Pablo.

“I am going to tell you an anecdote. When the 15-M movement [the wave of anti-austerity protests that Podemos sprung out of] first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students – they had read Marx, they had read Lenin – they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

I’ve manned the picket lines in front of the bus depots in Madrid. The people there, at dawn, you know where they had to go? To work. They were no scabs. But they would be fired from their jobs, because at their jobs there were no unions to defend them. Because the workers who can defend themselves, like those in the shipyards, in the mines, they have strong unions. But the kids that work as telemarketers, or at pizza joints, or the girls working in retail, they cannot defend themselves.

They are going to be canned the day after the strike, and you are not going to be there, and I am not going to be there, and no union is going to be there guaranteeing them that they’re going to sit down with the boss and tell him: you’d better not fire this person for exercising their right to strike, because you are going to pay a price for it. That doesn’t happen, no matter how enthusiastic we may be.

Politics is not what you or I would like it to be. It is what it is, and it is terrible. Terrible. And that’s why we must talk about popular unity, and be humble. Sometimes you have to talk to people who don’t like your language, with whom the concepts you use to explain don’t resonate. What does that tell us? That we have been defeated for many years. Losing all the time implies just that: that people’s “common sense” is different [from what we think is right]. But that is not news. Revolutionaries have always known that. The key is to succeed in making “common sense” go in a direction of change.

[The enemy] wants us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols. He is delighted with that, because he knows that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous.

We can have a really radical discourse, say we want to do a general wildcat strike, talk about the people in arms, brandish symbols, carry portraits of the great revolutionaries to our demonstrations — they are delighted with that! They laugh at us. However, when you gather together hundreds, thousands of people, when you start convincing the majority, even those who voted for the enemy — that’s when they start to be afraid. And that is called “politics.” That is what we need to learn.”

You can read the unedited version of Iglesias’s speech on the Jacobin website.