Spain: 15-M movement opens gates to new stage of struggle

What organisation, strategy and politics does the situation demand?

The impact of the revolutionary conflagration which is sweeping North Africa and the Middle East in Europe has been immense. But the youth revolt currently taking place across Spain, with demos and "campouts" across Europe and beyond, is one of the most direct and powerful reflection of this impact yet to be seen. The revolt of the Spanish youth, with wide support in society, does contain elements of revolution. Anyone attending the mass assemblies throughout the Spanish state will be struck by the depth of hatred for the current system in its entirety and the rejection of the old order of things. “Revolution” can be seen on placards and heard in chants taken up by hundreds and thousands. This movement comprises of thousands of people who identify with the idea of transforming society along revolutionary lines and that the present situation can not continue. Although a clear conception of what revolution is or involves is not yet present. For revolutionary socialists, the question is, how can this sentiment be translated into genuine revolutionary change?

Whatever the exact development of events in the short term, it is clear that this movement has opened the gates to a new period of struggle, with people determined to fight for a decent existence, which capitalism cannot provide. This movement is the first phase in a process of social and class battles and marks the end of the period of relative ’stability’ in Spain. In these titanic battles the question of: who runs society and in whose interests will continue to be posed. 

Inevitable explosion

Generally speaking, the explosion of the current movement has confirmed the perspective of the CWI. Throughout Europe, the working class found itself relatively unprepared to face the current onslaught of capitalism on the living standards and the gains of the past. The main trade union leaders have pursued a strategy of de-mobilisation and collaboration with capital, rather than acting upon the desire from below to fight. Generally workers and youth are without a political reference point to express their anger against the system and the anti-social, pro-rich policies being pursued by the government. These factors weighed heavily on the situation in the first years of the crisis in Spain.

However, despite all of this, capitalism was laying the basis for new and inevitable social earthquakes. The economic boom of the last 2 decades lifted Spain, and its young generation in particular, to new heights with living standards up and a “golden future” was promised to them. These expectations have now come crashing down. Almost 5 million people fill the ranks of those officially unemployed. Almost half the population under 25 years old are without work – most entitled to absolutely nothing in benefits. 11 million work in precarious jobs. A tidal wave of anger has been accumulating as a result of this devastating situation. The movement that developed in the recent period was able to overcome the obstacles placed in its path.  Spain will not return to what it was before this movement erupted. 

Where should the movement go from here?

Having said this, the 15-M movement, called after the starting point on 15 May, is at present passing through a crucial stage. A clear, united and offensive plan to develop the movement is now especially necessary to strengthen and develop it,  in order to avoid a temporary retreat or derailing of the movement. The “acampadas” plaza occupations have had an electrifying effect. They have become vibrant centres of debate and resistance in every major town. They have enjoyed overwhelming support, collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, as well as attracting massive numbers of visitors – workers, the unemployed, pensioners and others. These visitors come not as passive observers but participate in the debates and assemblies, inspired by the movement’s energy and militant spirit. A form of protest inspired by the Egyptian revolution has taken Spain and now Greece by storm.

However, it is also clear that only the occupation of city squares and plazas throughout the country alone will not be enough to win real and lasting change change. Although in recent weeks, the plaza occupations have been decisive in pushing the protest into the public eye, must now move forward, to take effective action to achieve its aims. Mass participation in campouts on stone plazas in noisy town centres is not sustainable in the long term for obvious reasons. Tiredness and infrastructural problems have been impressively overcome by protestors thus far. The capitalist press is full of speculation as to how long the indignados can hold out.

The real significance of the camps, the threat they represent to capitalism and the political elite, of course does not stem from the act of camping itself! What the plaza protests really represent is potential; the potential for a mass movement which could set society alight, drawing the mass of people into a serious struggle which could shake capitalism to its foundations. They represent a mass politicisation not in the sense of joining political parties but in unleashing discussion and debate about how society should or could be run. The emphasis of the movement needs now to develop beyond the occupation of squares – to change society. It should take place on the basis of a democratically discussed and agreed programme of action, with a sustained plan of continued mobilisations based around agreed demands and objectives. And on the basis of the continued right to use the people’s plazas as gathering points for regular assemblies and other actions of the movement.

It should be a bold step forwards not backwards, to ensure that the movement is widened out. A layer of activists in the struggle argue that dismantling the camps should be avoided at all costs, that the movement’s perspective should be to dig in for the ’long haul’, “until the system changes”. Some even have illusions that a “new world” can be built within the plazas themselves, a parallel world which rejects capitalist society. In some areas, campers have even begun to build huts and houses in trees and on grass patches in preparation! But the tens of thousands of youths, with the working class behind them, have joined this struggle not to build a parallel world in town squares, but to change the world around the squares! The key to such a struggle lies not in the plaza, but in the workplace, the school, university, community, hospital and other centres were workers, the unemployed, students and all those exploited by capitalism are to be found.

The “decentralisation” of the movement, into the ’barrios’, (workers districts) with local assemblies and protests, is a positive step. If consolidated, coordinated and built upon, it could be a key element in the creation of a sustained, broad, democratic movement with real roots amongst workers and youth. The participation of a wide layer of community and anti-cuts activists and trade unionists in many local assemblies shows the potential for the movement to galvanise the resistance to austerity and capitalism. However, “decentralisation” alone will not lead to this. A mass movement needs to co-ordinate actions on a city-wide, regional and state-wide level, to maximise their impact, and to democratically agree its main demands and aims. We support the formation of assemblies of a united movement in every barrio, and for the extension of the assemblies into workplaces, schools and universities. We also call for a democratisation of the movement, with barrio assemblies electing delegates to city and region-wide assemblies, with the right to change or recall representatives, and for these in turn to elect representatives to regular state-wide assemblies to plan the next steps of the struggle.

Towards a general strike now!

The 15-M revolt is obviously the worst nightmare of Spanish capitalism at the present time as it is struggling to give an image of “stability” to the international markets. But it is a nightmare not only for them. In the offices and headquarters of the UGT and CCOO (Spain’s largest trade union federations), the movement is also causing headaches. After the general strike of 29 September, which saw over 10 million workers down tools, the leaders began to demobilise the resistance to the government’s programme of attacks. Pacts were agreed on the labour reform package (which since its passing has seen unemployment swell by hundreds of thousands!) and the raising of the retirement age. They have now set their sights on accepting an attack on the right to collective bargaining, a long-held ambition of Spanish bosses since the fall of Franco.

However, the revolt of the youth has put a spanner in the works. With its impact and the brutal cuts set to be implemented in the next months, whether the leaders will be able to continue with their policy of agreement with the bosses and the government without provoking a revolt from below remains to be seen. The consequences of 15-M will be to increase the confidence and pressure from the workers for a determined struggle. This may be reflected in more militant rhetoric from the union leaders. They may be compelled to call a general strike soon to try to regain their diminishing authority.

In the fight for a widening out of the current youth movement, the demand for a new general strike is crucially important. This importance primarily stems from the need for the movement to take effective and powerful action, using all of the potential power of those under the boot of austerity. It is crucial for the youth to link up in struggle with the workers in the workplaces. The working class, facing attack after attack, represents the most decisive power in Spain and in any capitalist society. It is the decisive force in production and with its collective consciousness as a class can lead the building of a new democratic socialist society. It has also the power to paralyse economic life, the workings of the state and society. The general strike is the most powerful expression of this potential power. As part of a sustained programme of struggle, and armed with an alternative to the austerity of capitalism, the general strike is a weapon which can break governments and shake the ruling classes. After all, the Egyptian revolution, which brought down Mubarak, reached its most intense point not through the occupation of Tahrir square alone, but when workers entered the struggle as a class, through a widespread strike movement. The coming Spanish revolution must learn this lesson (of the role of the working class) in the fight to topple the dictatorship of the markets.

The demand for a general strike has huge popularity within the movement. In Barcelona, organised delegations of young activists from the plaza protests, have visited factories and other workplaces in the area facing redundancies and wage-cuts, to show solidarity and raise the need for a general strike. But this instinctive solidarity and appeal to join forces in action needs to be given a concrete form, through democratic mechanisms of discussion and decision-making within the movement, as outlined in our proposals above. The 15-M revolt, as a movement, must come out in favour of a general strike as the next step in the struggle. This would have an enormous impact, with many workers and trade unionists already looking to the plazas for inspiration in the absence of the same from their so-called leaders.

However, the general strike which is necessary is not one like on 29 September, which from the point of view of the trade union leadership, was merely an exercise in letting off steam, a one-day parade before going back to business as usual. A new 24-hour general strike must be built from below, fought for by the movement and rank and file trade unionists, giving the leaders no choice but to follow. And it should be planned, controlled and followed up by workers themselves, through democratic assemblies, which draw up demands and plans for a sustained struggle. Moreover, one 24-hour strike will not be sufficient to resist the agenda of a ruthless and determined capitalist class. A plan for a series of 24 hour general strikes, escalating to 48 hours if necessary, with other co-ordinated mobilisations must be drawn up and acted upon. This has to be part of a strategy to enforce fundamental changes to alter society as a whole and end the dictatorship of the markets and profit.

Unity between the precarious and unemployed youth and students, and organised workers with powerful traditions of trade union militancy is essential. The CWI does not agree with idea that has emerged amongst from some during this movement that the “precariado” (precarious workers) represents a different, ’more revolutionary’ class to the ’more privileged’ unionised “proletariado” (proletariat). The worse, more desperate conditions of the precarious younger layer of the working class are a direct result an offensive over the last 20 years against the power of the trade union movement, pursued by successive neo-liberal governments, with easy and cheap sackings, short term contracts and poverty wages the norm. The improved conditions of organised workers are not proof that they are “less revolutionary” (!), but on the contrary, proof that class organisation and struggle can be effective in achieving better conditions.

That the trade union movement is currently mostly led by those who want to collaborate with the bosses and the government, does not negate the potential power of these organisations, built up during periods of revolutionary class battles. 29 September was a glimpse of this power. The hostility of some towards the trade union movement as a whole, fails to distinguish between the rank and file of the unions and its bureaucratic leadership. These wrong ideas can potentially split the movement and weaken it rather than unite the workers and the youth and unemployed. However, these are sentiments that can be quickly overcome when the real power of the workers is demonstrated in struggle. If the union organisations can be claimed back and transformed into democratic, fighting instruments of struggle, and together with workers forming committees or organisations of struggle, they can become to be seen by the majority of the youth as points of reference for militant action, instead of conservative relics of the old order. 

“Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes“

Another feature of the movement has been its complete rejection of the political establishment. We saw how the movement almost pushed aside the electoral fiasco between the capitalist parties in the days leading up to the local and autonomous elections on 22 May. It seemed as if the two main parties, PSOE and the PP, along with right-wing nationalist formations like the Catalan CiU and Basque PNV, were living in a different country. They tried to turn the non-existent differences between them into the focus of public discussion and debate. But the tens of thousands of youth mobilized all around the state were the ones with their fingers on the real pulse of “public opinion”: massive opposition to the policies of all of these parties! PSOE was forced to move its main final election rally in Madrid, from close to the Puerta del Sol (epicentre of the acamapadas movement) to outside city boundaries and was  virtually thrown out of the capital by thousands of indignant youths.

“Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes” is a widespread slogan, etched on placards in every plaza. It reflects very well both the antipathy towards the capitalist political establishment, and the audacious and radical ambitions of the youth for change, which are given no clear expression on the political plane by any important force. It also reflects the failure of the left, most importantly of Izquierda Unida, to put forward a consistent anti-capitalist alternative programme capable of channelling these dreams and ambitions. Like the trade unions, the “old” left, with its history of government pacts with capitalist parties, has come to be seen by many young people as simply “part of the furniture” of capitalist society.


The movement is not “a-political” in the slightest. Despite not putting forward clear proposals or policies for change, the movement is definitely anti-capitalist in an undeveloped sense. In fact, in the first days of the movement, the assemblies at Puerta del Sol even agreed upon many demands of a socialistic type. These were not fully rounded out or part of a comprehensive programme. They included the nationalisation of empty property to tackle the housing crisis, the lowering of the retirement age to fight youth unemployment, the nationalisation of the bailed-out banks etc. Aside from some conscious and convinced “anti-political” elements, there is a general appetite in the movement to discuss political alternatives, although this is often found alongside a hostility to all political parties and organisations in general. Most plaza occupations have taken votes “forbidding” political interventions of any type in assemblies etc. In some areas, even the mention of “left” or “socialist” at an assembly will get a speaker’s microphone cut off! 

The CWI is opposed to the ‘traditional’ pro-capitalist policies and methods of the established political parties. We defend the idea of new political organisations of the youth and workers to democratically organise and channel the struggle for a new revolutionary democratic socialist society.  The history of capitalism, of struggles and movements, has demonstrated time and time again that a successful break with the old order cannot be achieved without a widely-understood political programme which expresses the concrete needs of the hour. Without a clear alternative to existing policies, capitalism’s attacks can be fought and stalled for sure, with a struggle powerful and determined enough. But in the long run, capitalism can only function on the basis of its own logic, the logic of profit and the dictatorship of the markets. And as long as this system remains intact, as long as it continues to be seen that “no alternative exists”, then policies dictated by this logic – i.e austerity, misery and declining living standards to pay for the crisis of the bankers and the rich – will continue to prevail. Thus arises the need for political proposals, which attack the problems facing workers and youth at their root, the dictatorship of capital, and can take society to a higher plane, through taking society’s wealth into the hands of the majority. This is the essence of the revolutionary socialist politics put forward by the CWI. 

On the other hand, we understand perfectly the roots of this mood of hostility to political organisations. In analysing, and intervening into the current movement it is necessary to remember that it represents the beginning, the entry of a new generation of fighters into battle, after a period of relative “social peace”, despite the constant class struggle from the ruling class on wages, living conditions and jobs. As such, it is inevitable that some complications, inherited from the past, will be present in the movement. The past decades of political betrayals and the corrupt, bureaucratic monstrosities which have dominated the political scene, from left to right, were bound to leave their impact on the consciousness of young people. But the experience of struggle and of counter-attacks by a united capitalist political elite will push this anti-capitalist generation en masse towards the recognition that a political alternative is necessary. 

Democracy or dictatorship?

’Real democracy now!’ was the main slogan around which the Spanish youth began their revolt on 15 May. And what better indictment of the rotten capitalist system, which values the tranquility of the all-powerful markets over the misery of millions. A system in which all the decisions affecting our lives the most, on jobs, housing, the economy etc, are taken by a small elite in the interests of maximising their profits can know no real democracy. “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich — that is the democracy of capitalist society.”, is how it was put by Lenin. Life under this sham democracy has pushed millions towards revolutionary conclusions, that in order to achieve a real democracy, the system must be changed.

The task now is how can these sentiments be given real revolutionary content. The axis of the dictatorship of the markets and the super-rich is their control over the means of survival, the economy, the banks, jobs etc. Therefore, the key to a revolutionary programme is measures that could be taken to break that control. Revolutionary socialist measures, the nationalisation under democratic control of the banks, finance sector, and main industries and services would turn economic life on its head, with the economy planned to meet the needs and ambitions of workers and youth. Widely supported measures such as the lowering of the retirement age to 60, the shortening of the working week with no loss of pay, public investment to create millions of jobs, could only be really and sustainably achieved with the wealth of society under democratic control.

This movement has opened the eyes of many. In a way, the mass participation in the movement, the democracy and discussions of the assemblies, the assertion of popular control over the country’s town squares etc, gives a glimpse of real democracy. It is not voting every few years for representatives who will represent your class enemies. It is active and genuine participation in the organisation of society and the economy, which is only possible on the basis of public ownership. Real democracy has no truck with corrupt, millionaire MPs, or royal families, or the denial of the right to national self-determination. The assemblies of the 15-M movement must be developed and extended, democratised and structured on local, city, regional and state-wide levels and ultimately, united in fighting for revolutionary socialist policies as outlined above. On such a basis, these bodies could form the basis for an alternative government and society, infinitely more democratic than the status quo. 

The rapid international spread of the “#spanishrevolution” also gives a glimpse of how such an example would be met around Europe and the world. With jubilation, and rapid action to emulate such a revolutionary change. Thus could a democratic socialist federation of Europe, as an alternative to the capitalist EU be built, as part of a new world of real revolutionary socialist democracy.

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June 2011