It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks in European politics. From a socialist perspective these are encouraging times and the victory of Syriza in Greece, along with the quarter of a million people marching for change with Podemos in Spain, have shown that there is a real possibility of political change on the horizon. But as always in politics things are far from certain and these popular leftwing movements need to defend themselves from attacks from both inside and outside their own countries. It is already clear that the leaders of these parties recognise the importance of solidarity and support for each other, with Pablo Iglesias’ pre-election appearance in Athens being a notable example. But it is not evident yet how pan-European this revival of the radical left is. At some point in the future I plan to write down a few thoughts on why radical (or in some cases revolutionary) spirit can catch on in one country but not another. In other words, what are the forces containing or spreading this political awakening of the people? But in the meantime, I thought I’d take a quick look at Spain’s neighbour on the Iberian Peninsula to consider why the left has failed to capture the public imagination in Portugal in the same way that Podemos has in Spain.
Post-revolution Portuguese politics has traditionally been dominated by the big two of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties. In 1999 three parties from the radical left – the Popular Democratic Union, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and XXI Politics – came together to form the Left Bloc with the objective of creating a ‘new left, anti-capitalist, socialist, feminist and ecologist’ party to offer a choice to those viewing the Socialist Party as too centralist or neo-liberal. As well as acknowledging its leftwing roots, the Left Bloc made a point of claiming to be pluralist and democratic in its drive to win popular support.
From an electoral point of view, so far so good, and there are some parallels with Podemos in their enthusiasm to appeal to all left of centre voters. But in the pre-crisis days of the late 90s and early 21st century, the movement lacked the widespread public disenchantment that Podemos has been so successful in tapping into. Nonetheless, although its initial election results were underwhelming, the party went on to build support and achieve a succession of victories, culminating in the 16 seats won in the 2009 parliamentary elections, making it Portugal’s fourth largest party.
As the financial crisis began to unfold, it became clear that there would be changes in Portugal’s political fabric, and an opportunity was there to be taken. However, at this point things started to unravel for the Left Bloc and in 2011 they lost half the seats they had won only two years earlier, with their share of the vote falling to just over 5%. As their electoral support started to dwindle, factional disputes arose within the party and the Left Bloc suffered defections, the resignation of leader, Francisco Louça, and a further loss of popular support. By the European elections of May 2014 they were reduced to only a single MEP.
After the party’s early successes, in-fighting and factional disputes relating to policy, leadership, party management and just about everything else came increasingly to the fore. In the days when the Left Bloc’s share of the vote was increasing, the party was able to unite the core factions of its founding members, but when things turned against them it seemed increasingly likely that there was little in terms of ideology or leadership which could keep them together. Over the last 18 months two factional groups, or ‘tendencies’, have emerged within the party – the Socialism Trend and the Alternative Left Trend – with the Left Bloc’s parliamentary group being split between the two. The complete division within the party came to a head in its congress last November when 5 different motions were put forward relating to the direction of the party.
In-fighting, factionalism, lack of united vision and lack of agreement on policy have combined to send the Left Bloc back to the margins of Portuguese politics. At a time when Portugal’s closest neighbour is able to bring a new radical left party to the forefront of the political debate it is worth pausing for thought to consider why Portugal’s left has not been able to do the same. Certainly, the story of the Left Bloc shows that political alliances without united vision or strong leadership are unlikely to last. In politics, the left in particular is characterised by the labels used by individuals to categorise themselves within the movement, and this often leads to a fragmented approach. Marxists, Trotskyists, Social Democrats, Neo-Marxists and many other terms conspire to create a basis for argument rather than consensus and this is a feature also of certain leftwing groups in the UK. In Portugal though, perhaps the immediate stakes are higher, and the fact that a country that is in the eye of the eurozone crisis hurricane has entered into an election year with no popular leftwing platform is concerning. As change threatens to sweep across southern Europe, Portugal’s working class are worryingly unrepresented on the main stage.
In some ways the Left Bloc shows that timing is everything. Had the party launched in 2013, when public demonstrations against government policy were reaching a head, instead of 1999, perhaps they would have been able to build up and sustain the momentum they lost post-2009. As the early years of the party have shown, success is a great tonic in uniting people behind a common purpose. But even if this had happened it seems unlikely that this coalition of the left would have remained harmonious for long. The problem here is one self-categorisation, which is a danger to left wing groups across the world. In terms of identity, there is no such thing as a radical leftwing stereotype and there is often a tendency for party members and activists to align themselves with one particular socialist tendency and then to defend it to the hilt, regardless of changes on the ground in the contemporary political arena. This is at the core of many of the factional disputes within the Left Block but it is also undermining attempts at creating a popular and united radical left in the UK. Differences in socialist identity breed arguments over party direction, which in turn lead to fragmentation. Political parties unable to present an attractive, popular and united vision of the future are destined to remain in the margins of political debate.
I worked in Portugal for many years and I discussed this issue with several journalists and ex-politicians (if there is such a thing) during a visit to Lisbon a few weeks ago. I asked a well known former senior Minister her opinion on the Left Bloc and why she felt they were unable to follow the example set by Syriza. Her answer was this: “these people do not have any interest in taking power in Portugal, they just want to cause trouble from the sidelines.” So in a nutshell this is what many people think – that the radical Portuguese left are just agitators, more interested in defending entrenched ideological positions than crafting policies and discourse related to popular concerns.
The fundamental reason behind the success of Podemos has been its ability to move the debate away from the language of the old left/right debate and find popular support on a platform of insiders vs outsiders, or people vs the establishment. This is a sentiment that is easy for the public to relate to since in some ways we all have a story of suffering at the hands of the system. Is this a defection from socialism and the radical leftwing? The answer, I think, is no, it is just marketing it in a different language for a different time.
One of Marx’s greatest achievements was placing economic processes in a historical context and thus showing that capitalism is an evolutionary process. Debate on the left naturally focuses on economic issues, and their relation to politics, but often does so by disregarding the historical and evolutionary implications that Marx himself was so clear about. Capitalism does not stand still and, this being the case, does it not make sense that the left too should evolve politically and semantically to fight (and eliminate) it?
Schumpeter once said that “The religious quality of Marxism also explains a characteristic attitude of the orthodox Marxist toward opponents. To him, as to any believer in a Faith, the opponent is not merely in error but in sin.” He meant this in the context of the left vs right debate but in fact it is just as relevant these days between the various factions on the left. In countries where radical leftwing parties are more concerned with treating their own factional, ideological positions as non-negotiable, there will never be a popular socialist uprising. We are seeing this now in Portugal and we can see it also in the inability of other leftwing parties in the UK and beyond to capitalise on the momentum built up in Greece and Spain. Where parties in countries such as Greece have had succeeded in building multi-faction leftwing alliances, they have done so by showing a united front in support of clearly articulated policies.
My gut feeling is that there are of course other factors at play here too and it would not be wise to disregard how national cultural identities and historical political conditions influence popular leftwing support. This however is something for a much wider discussion, and one which I will consider at a later date. For now I simply hope that in the wake of Syriza’s victory in Greece, the left across Europe can see the sense in not only standing shoulder to shoulder with socialists from other nations, but laying aside age-old ideological arguments in their own countries in search of a united socialist front for the 21st century.