Spain: Crisis in social democracy

PSOE and the class struggle

Marxists from Spain and Britain met recently in London to discuss the dynamic developments taking place in the world today. At that meeting from 20 to 22 September, representatives from El Militante/Izquierda Revolucionaria, the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International agreed to an exchange of material to be published in their respective magazines and journals. We are pleased to be able to publish the first two articles from that initiative: Juan Ignacio Ramos, Izquierda Revolucionaria general secretary, explains how the recent dramatic crisis in Spanish social democracy is being driven by class struggle.

Later this week, we will post the second article, by Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, who puts the Corbyn movement in the context of an international wave of left-wing populism.

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is passing through its worst crisis in many decades. The ‘coup’ by Felipe González, Susana Díaz and the party’s regional ‘barons’ (regional leaders on the right-wing of the party, with an enormous weight in its structures) against Pedro Sanchez, who was the party’s general secretary, was part of a premeditated decision. It has the full support and open backing of big capital and the financial oligarchy, and will have deep consequences.

The breaking point, the opposition of Pedro Sanchez and a section of the leadership to abstaining in parliament to allow Mariano Rajoy (conservative Partido Popular leader) to form a government, kicked off an explosive internal war. However, the underlying context of it all is the crisis of the Spanish social democracy, in line with the rest of Europe, as a result of its support for cuts and its fusion with the ruling class.

The crisis had one of its climaxes on 1 October when, in a chaotic meeting of PSOE’s Federal Committee, Sanchez was forced to resign as general secretary. Beforehand, Felipe Gonzales and the barons had orchestrated the resignation of 17 members supportive of their position from the party’s executive, in order to force the resignation of Sanchez. However, Sanchez’s refusal, and his public refusals to subordinate to the PP, caused a great confrontation in the Federal Committee. 

The victory of the coup plotters in that meeting, by 133 votes to 107, far from leaving them euphoric and full of confidence, has only led to greater uncertainty. None of the questions posed in the dispute have been resolved. The internal split in the party has sharpened, which is yet another blow to the crisis-ridden capitalist Spanish regime. This weak victory for the coup plotters reflects the change which has taken place in the class balance of forces. Moreover, in recent weeks we have seen that the bid to impose abstention of PSOE MPs in order to elect Rajoy has been met with a solid rejection by the majority of socialist voters and rank-and-file members. 

Most significantly, the openly bourgeois sector of PSOE has been put in an extremely delicate position. Its brutal removal of Sanchez has situated it clearly on the side of the PP. All the demagogy of the barons has been exposed. When they speak of prioritising ‘Spain itself’ over their own party, they are not talking about the millions of unemployed, the thousands of evicted families, or the youth who have been forced to emigrate. They don’t care about the millions of households with no income, or the workers who have been robbed of their rights, or the public education system which is being degraded and privatised. These politicians, who despite their ‘socialist’ membership card are in the service of the ruling class, are really interested in guaranteeing political stability so that the PP can maintain the cuts and austerity which the national and European capitalists demand.

If the caretaker leadership appointed in PSOE by the coup plotters imposes a position of allowing Rajoy to come to power – despite presenting it as only a ‘technical abstention’ – depriving the membership of the right to decide, the crisis will only deepen. If this is the road they go down we cannot rule out a section of PSOE MPs breaking party discipline and voting No to Rajoy. However, regardless of this, a Rajoy government formed on that basis will be marked with illegitimacy and fraud, which will hardly serve to bring about the political stability which the bourgeoisie needs to carry through its plans.

This option would, of course, avoid the need to call a third round of general elections. However, it would result in an even weaker government, openly questioned by the PSOE rank and file, and which sooner or later will confront mass mobilisations. The ruling class would also lose definitively what has been a fundamental factor in Spanish capitalism’s stability over 40 years: a united PSOE capable of controlling and putting a brake on the workers’ movement.

At the time of writing, it is difficult to establish a clear perspective. Avoiding new elections needs more than just the abstention of some MPs. The PP has already indicated that it would need a commitment to guarantee the stability of the government so that the cuts which the EU urgently demands can be passed in parliament. Therefore it is not only a question of abstention to allow a government to be formed, but of backing up the reactionary agenda of the right wing, which in practice would be an indirect form of grand coalition, as has been seen in Germany and Greece.

In these conditions we can also not rule out elections in December. Of course, the Spanish capitalists and European Commission fear this option, which would mean postponing many important decisions. However, even though timing is important in politics, the most important thing for the capitalists is their strategic interests. Therefore, many voices are calling for elections on 18 December to try and win a clearer right-wing majority, with more seats for the PP and a disaster for PSOE, which would see the biggest electoral debacle in its history. This option would represent ‘bread for today and hunger for tomorrow’.

Whatever happens, PSOE faces the perspective of an accelerated Pasokisation – mirroring the complete collapse of Pasok, the mass, former social-democratic party in Greece – and internal divisions which could lead to a split in the party. This would give Unidos Podemos (the electoral alliance of Podemos, Izquierda Unida and other left formations in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia) the best possible conditions to definitively overtake PSOE.

Social Democracy in crisis, a global phenomenon

As we have pointed out, the fundamental cause which explains the crisis of Spanish social democracy – in line with the rest of Europe – is its fusion with the ruling class and its acceptance of austerity policies, applied by PSOE in government with the greatest of enthusiasm. The electoral defeats which PSOE has suffered since 2011, starting under José Luis Zapatero’s leadership and continuing under Alfredo Rubalcaba, are directly related to the party’s support for cuts and constitutional reforms in the interests of the banks, its nauseating support for Spanish nationalism, and championing capitalist ‘governability’.

This political strategy has clearly situated PSOE on the right. The eruption of Podemos which won half of PSOE’s electoral base is another clear indicator of the fundamental tendencies in this crisis. There is a shift to the left among the working class and youth which was expressed in an extraordinary level of social mobilisation, not seen at least since the mass struggles against Francoism in the 1970s. In the ‘15 May’ indignados movement, general strikes, the massive ‘march for dignity’ in 2014, and the mass movements in defence of public education and health, mass student movement, and protests in favour of the right of self-determination in Catalonia, millions of workers and youth turned their backs on PSOE.

It is the impact of the class struggle which explains the nature and brutality of the current crisis within PSOE. It faces a critical dilemma: continue down the road of Pasok in Greece, to become an irrelevant auxiliary force for the right wing, or break from its subordination to the bourgeoisie and become regenerated as a fighting left-wing force.

The possibility of taking the latter option is far from straightforward, as the situation is showing. The fusion of the PSOE apparatus – both its federal leadership and its territorial regional structures – with the interests of the oligarchy has gone very far. The huge mistakes made after the elections of 20 December 2015 have also contributed to this. Pedro Sanchez’s attempt to lean on Ciudadanos (a new right-wing populist party) to become prime minister – based on a pact of cuts and austerity – was a miserable failure. Does this deal made with Ciudadanos, the ‘PP 2.0’, have anything to do with a real government of change? Sanchez’s strategy was exposed as a total fraud, leading to a new and more intense phase in PSOE’s crisis.

The class struggle

The impossibility of forming a government after the December elections reflects the depth of the crisis of Spanish capitalism. Decades of alternation of PSOE and PP in power have come to an end, and chronic instability in parliamentary life has become the norm. This has wreaked havoc on the parliamentary system – that rotten puddle of charlatans where careerists could do as they pleased with impunity.

After the 26 June elections, the numbers still do not add up. As we have explained in other material, the absence of mass and sustained mobilisations against the right, mainly down to the policy of the Podemos and major union leaders (CCOO and UGT), was essential to the minor shift towards the right in the elections. This has been repeated in the recent Basque and Galician elections. However, this ‘shift’ is very fragile and mainly reflects the electoral demobilisation of workers and youth who are demoralised by the vacillations and ambiguities – essentially by the social democratic turn – of the leaders of Podemos. The frustration with the Podemos-led administrations in the biggest cities and their refusal to return to social mobilisation is also a factor.

After 26 June, it seemed like a government would be formed, and it was taken for granted that PSOE would abstain when the time came. All the pressure from the start was directed at Pedro Sanchez, to force his hand. The big capitalist media outlets unanimously published one article after another and wrote scathing editorials to smash any chance of a ‘no’ vote in parliament. The bourgeoisie was delighted with the attitude of the UGT and CCOO leaders, who seemed more anxious than anyone to bring an end to the situation of political instability. Above all, big capital felt it could count on PSOE and its submissive overlords to do the dirty work ‘for the good of Spain and the party’. 

Felipe Gonzalez symbolises more than anyone the fusion of the majority of PSOE leaders with the interests of the bourgeoisie. He gave the signal to begin the savage public attack on Sanchez, in collaboration with the media and PSOE barons. There was no mercy for Sanchez, who became public enemy number one, standing in the way of the ‘governability of Spain’. In the words of El País, Sanchez was “senseless and shameless”, and should be eliminated for everyone’s sake.

Given this insidious campaign against Sanchez, who had recently been described as “a great, moderate and sensible leader” by the same papers, it is no surprise that his position aroused much sympathy. However, it is not a question of sentiments, but of politics. We must try to answer the questions: Why did Sanchez take this path? Why did he challenge Gonzalez and the barons? How far could this clash go?

Sanchez’s resistance has, without doubt, bureaucratic motivations – to survive as the leader of the party. Sanchez has abundant experience in supporting neoliberal policies, and has never failed to come out in defence of the ‘honour’ of Gonzalez, who has repaid him with a stab in the back. But these bureaucratic motivations are not the only ones.

This clash also represents the pressures of opposing classes, though in a distorted fashion. Those of the bourgeoisie, which has mobilised all its resources both inside and outside the party, and those of a wide section of the membership and electoral base, which in turn reflects the thoughts of millions of workers and youth. The latter want PSOE to refuse to support the PP and to turn towards the left and rediscover the socialist programme it abandoned decades ago. The lobbies of hundreds of PSOE members at the party’s headquarters in support of Sanchez, and the thousands of supportive messages on social media, are more than a symptom of this. 

It remains to be seen how far the battle will go, and how far Sanchez is prepared to go. His call for the membership to decide whether the party abstains in favour of Rajoy, and his position of maintaining a ‘no means no’ approach, has aroused the sympathy of many. However, if he really wants to win the battle and bring PSOE back as a real left force, there is only one road possible: mobilise the socialist social base, area by area, on the basis of a left-wing programme, against cuts and austerity, in favour of an alliance with Unidos Podemos, and of the right to self-determination for Spain’s oppressed nationalities.

The dynamic of the clash is very difficult to predict. Could it end with a split, as with Oskar Lafontaine (who left the SPD to join Die Linke in Germany in 2005) or Jean-Luc Melenchon (who left the Parti Socialiste to found the Parti de Gauche in France in 2008)? Could there be a fleeing of PSOE leaders towards Podemos, as with the Pasok cadres who joined Syriza in Greece? Could there be a Corbyn-type phenomenon? Could Sanchez abandon his position and come to an agreement with his opponents?

All of these possibilities are open, but following the Federal Committee’s decision and seeing the behaviour of the caretaker PSOE leadership, it is clear that the clash could escalate. At the same time, Sanchez has also shown signs of weakness recently, declaring his ‘loyalty’ to the caretaker leadership and refusing to stand up to the manoeuvres of the right wing in the parliamentary group. 

If this split deepens, it will find a political expression, as it already has in an incipient fashion. It is no accident that the PSOE crisis takes place at the same time as the crisis within the leadership of Podemos, with the clash between Pablo Iglesias, and fellow leader Iñigo Errejón’s sector. These differences also reflect contradictory class pressures, with Errejón on the right and Iglesias moving towards the left, trying to reclaim the combative language of the origins of Podemos.

Of course, the development of a left current within PSOE would be great news. However, it is still premature to state that this will happen for sure. Whatever the case, all these developments show the need for organisation, struggle and the building of a mass organisation armed with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, based on the mobilisation of the working class and youth to transform society and end the dictatorship of capital. This is the task before us, and the task which Izquierda Revolucionaria sets itself.



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October 2016