A new political party is causing a stir in Spain. Although less than a year old, Podemos (‘We Can’) has already secured five MEPS and recently topped a Spanish opinion poll ahead of both major political parties: the (nominally) socialist PSOE and the incumbent right-wing PP.
Podemos traces its heritage to the social movements which emerged in response to the current crisis in Spain: 15-M (whose protests I joined in Granada and Sevilla in the summer of 2011) and the more recent ‘Marches for Dignity’. Its most direct predecessor is Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left), a tiny group of Spanish left-wing organisers which assisted in Podemos’ early organisation. Podemos is seen as a grassroots left-wing alternative to the political status quo in Spain. In Britain it has been held up as a sign that a popular politics of the left can be founded in the current climate of unemployment and austerity.
Podemos avoids the traditional language and symbolism of the left. They wish to be seen as distinct from the ‘isms’ (socialism, communism, anarchism) which were major features of Spanish politics in the twentieth century. Replacing ‘establishment’ for ‘class,’ ‘persons’ and ‘citizens’ for ‘the people’ and using the colour purple instead of red are symbolic moves to fashion Podemos as distinct from Spain’s highly contentious political past.
Yet, as a historian of the anarchist movement in Spain, I am often asked to draw comparisons between Spain’s past and present upsurges of ‘unorthodox’ left-wing politics. Some aspects of the broader rise in contemporary social movements bear resemblance to anarchism at the turn of the last century. In both, one can see a broad coalition of heterogeneous groups, brought together by a critique of the excesses of capitalism and political corruption, united by grassroots media network and retaining a focus on bottom-up activism.
However, Podemos’ desire to crystallise these movements into a parliamentary party would be a cardinal sin to turn-of-the century anarchists. Nothing marked out a class traitor like participation in the ‘electoral farce’.
The comparison is stronger with the anarchists’ contemporaries in the republican movement. The first figure to harness popular unrest as a means to challenge the duopoly of Liberals and Conservatives in the Spanish Cortes (Parliament) was the republican Alejandro Lerroux, who was elected by his Barcelona constituency in 1901.
Lerroux was a remarkable man. He began his public life as a political journalist, becoming a prominent figure in a climate of economic crisis and national soul-searching which followed the final collapse of the Spanish Empire in 1898. He drew many of Spain’s prominent radical thinkers to his cause ̶ including many high-profile anarchists ̶ all of whom shared a disgust at the exclusionary and repressive politics of the Spanish Restoration system.
Lerroux’s powerful and inflammatory speeches against corruption, the monarchy and the church won him support with a broad cross-section of Barcelona’s population, ahead of his Catalan nationalist rivals. He would go on to lead the Radical Republican party in the Cortes until outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.
Lerroux is a fascinating and frustrating figure for a historian. He was a demagogue, a popularist and an opportunist; he is hard to pin down to any consistent position based on ideology or moral conviction. In 1931, he helped to shape the constitution of Spain’s II Republic ̶ in 1934 he helped to bring vehement opponents of the constitution (the catholic rightist CEDA) to power.
Pablo Iglesias – the undisputed leader of Podemos – is not Lerroux. The Spain of 2014 is not the Spain of 1900. Yet there are parallels between both that the supporters of Podemos should consider when thinking about the future of their party.
Like Lerroux, Iglesias came to prominence as a political commentator during a period of intense frustration with the current political climate. The politics of both are based on a broad rejection of the status quo, remaining open enough to attract support across class and from distinct political identities.
For all Podemos’ emphasis on bottom-up engagement, tensions have emerged during its recent transition into a party, as hundreds of policy and organisational proposals were condensed into just 25 statutes. This process may be necessary in the making of a political organisation, but it has brought forth claims that an elite are beginning to form at the party’s centre.
At the moment they rely on Iglesias as a figurehead who can bind together the disparate elements of the party’s support. This was clearly demonstrated in the European elections, when Podemos printed Iglesias’ face on the ballot paper. Their reasoning was that Iglesias was more recognisable than the party’s name to most of the electorate.
Much of what Podemos say and do is innovative and inspiring to many who see nothing of value in contemporary politics. The task of fashioning oneself as distinct from history is, however, a difficult one. Historians are unlikely to leave the claim unanswered. Popularism has a history in Spain as much as left-wing idealism: it will take more than dropping the language of the past for Podemos to truly break from it.
James Yeoman is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His thesis examines the role of anarchist print culture in Spain from 1890-1915.
The best study of Lerroux is Álvarez Junco’s excellent El Emperador del Paralelo: Lerroux y a Demagogía Populista, (Alianza, 1990), abridged and translated as The Emergence of Mass Politics in Spain: Populist Demagoguery and Republican Culture, 1890-1910, (Sussex Academic Press, 2002)
Header Image: Placard at Granada ‘Indignados’ Protest, June 2011: ‘Our dreams do not fit into your ballot boxes’ [James Yeoman]
Body Image: Alejandro Lerroux in 1908 [Wikicommons]