Spain: the Indignados movement five years on

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If you were to ask a high school student about the Russian revolution of 1917, most likely she would reply that it was a Bolshevik coup which, despite the good intentions of its protagonists, ended up in a nightmare: the Soviet dictatorship, the Gulag, etc.

And if you to ask her what happened on 15 May 2011, it’s possible that the response would be that it was a movement for ‘real democracy’ and that it was very closely linked to the Podemos political party[1].

Anyone who is looking for the truth will not be satisfied with such simplistic answers, which have nothing to do with what really happened, stuffed as they are with the ‘common sense’ views promoted by the deformed education we are subjected to and the brow beating of the ‘means of communication’. In short, by the dominant ideology of this society.

It’s true that the proletariat is today in a situation of profound weakness. But the history of society is the history of the class struggle, and the capitalist state knows very well that the proletariat could one day return to the struggle. This is why it attacks it at its most vulnerable points, and one of these is its historical memory. The bourgeoisie has a great interest in destroying this memory by re-writing the past experience of our class. It’s as if it was trying to format the hard disc and reinstall a very different programme. 

The most intelligent form of rewriting is to take advantage of the real weaknesses and mistakes of proletarian movements. These always carry with them a whole burden of errors which posterity can then rewrite in ways diametrically opposed to what they originally stood for.

Marx, commenting on the difference between the struggle of the bourgeoisie and the struggle of the proletariat, argued that

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success... On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals.”[2]

This is why, for the proletariat

 “its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey – its emancipation depends on this – is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement.” [3]

The aim of this article is not to make a critical analysis of the 1917 revolution. We only want to go back over the movement of the Indignados in 2011, the ‘15 May’ movement[4] and the way it has been ‘rewritten’ by the ideology of the ruling class.

2003-2011: new generations of the proletariat enter the struggle

After the long night of the counter-revolution which crushed the revolution of 1917, the proletariat revived its struggles in 1968. But this revival was not able to politicise itself in a revolutionary direction. In 1989, the fall of the so-called ‘Communist’ regimes resulted in an important retreat in consciousness and combativity whose effects can still be felt today[5]

From 2003, there was a new upsurge of struggles, but they mainly involved the new generations of the working class (students, unemployed, precarious workers), while the workers of the big industrial centres remained passive, only engaging in sporadic struggles (the fear of unemployment was a major inhibition). There was no unified and massive mobilisation of the working class, but only of a part of it, the youngest part. The revolt of young people in Greece (2008), the movements in Tunisia and Egypt (2011) were in this sense the expression of a wave whose highest points were the fight against the CPE in France (2006) and the 15 May movement.[6]

Despite their positive and promising aspects (we will come back to this later), these movements took place in a context in which the working class was losing its sense of identity and confidence in its own strength. This loss of identity meant that the great majority of those who took part in the struggles didn’t see themselves as being part of the working class, but rather as citizens, Even when they talked about being ‘at the bottom of the pile’ and about being treated as ‘second class’, they didn’t break the umbilical cord with the ‘community’ of the nation.

As we wrote in 2011: “Although the slogan of ‘we are the 99% against the 1%’, which was so popular in the occupation movement in the United States, reveals the beginnings of an understanding of the bloody class divisions that affect us, the majority of participants in these protests saw themselves as ‘active citizens’ who want to be recognized within a society of ‘free and equal citizens’”. This prevented the participants from seeing that “society is divided into classes: a capitalist class that has everything and produces nothing, and an exploited class -the proletariat- that produces everything but has less and less. The driving force of social evolution is not the democratic game of the “decision of a majority of citizens” (this game is nothing more than a masquerade which covers up and legitimises the dictatorship of the ruling class) but the class struggle”[7].

There were thus two fundamental weaknesses within the 15 May movement, which mutually reinforced each other and which made their current falsification possible: most of their protagonists saw themselves as citizens and were aspiring to a renewal of the democratic game.

Because of this, the movement, despite its promising beginnings, was not articulated around the struggle of the principle exploited class -the proletariat- who collectively produce the main riches and ensure the functioning of social life: factories, hospitals, schools, universities, offices, ports, construction, post offices.”[8], but ended up being diluted in a powerless protest of ‘indignant’ citizens. Despite some tentative efforts to extend the movement to the workplaces, this was a failure, and the movement was increasingly restricted to the city squares. Despite the sympathy that it inspired, it more and more lost its strength until it was reduced to a minority that succumbed to a desperate kind of activism.

Furthermore, the difficulty of recognising itself as a class movement was reinforced by the lack of confidence in its own strengths. This gave a disproportionate weight to the elements of the radicalised petty bourgeoisie which joined the movement, thus boosting confusion, inter-classism, and belief in the worst formulas of bourgeois politics, such as ‘no more two party system’, ‘fight against corruption’ etc.

These social strata contaminated the movement with an ideology which reduced capitalism to “a handful of ‘bad guys’  (unscrupulous financiers, ruthless dictators) when it is really a complex network of social relations that have to be attacked in their totality and not dissipated into a preoccupation with its many surface expressions (finance, speculation, the corruption of political -economic powers”[9]

Despite some attempts at solidarity based on mass action against police violence, it was the idea of struggle as a form of peaceful pressure by citizens on the institutions of capitalism that very easily led the movement into a dead end.

The ‘Nuit Debout’ movement takes on the worst of 15 May

As our section in France has pointed out, “there was nothing spontaneous about Nuit Debout. It’s something which has been prepared and organised over a long period by the radical defenders of capitalism. Behind this “spontaneous” and “apolitical” movement lurk the professionals, the groups of the left and extreme left who use “apoliticism” as a means of control.” [10]

The aim of this set-up was to imprison social discontent and all discussion “in the optic of citizenship and republican values, and diverting reflection to the problem of making capitalism more human and democratic[11]. As a leaflet by the collective which animated the movement, ‘Convergence des Luttes’ put it, “humanity must be at the heart of the concerns of our leaders”.

This pious wish simply reiterates the reactionary utopia where governments are really concerned with human beings. But this only serves to hide their real concern, which are the problems and necessities of capital. Asking the state to defend the interests of the exploited is like asking a burglar to look after your house.

The demands put forward by Nuit Debout all go towards sowing the illusion that a capitalist system which is fleecing us more and more can still offer something. A ‘universal basic income’ is called for, healthier food, more money for education and other ‘reforms’ which are always part of electoral promises and which are never kept.

The most ‘ambitious’ demand put forward by the promoters of Nuit Debout is the call for a ‘social republic’, which is seen as going back to the ‘revolutionary ideas of 1789’, when the bourgeoisie demolished the feudal power to cries of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. This is the reactionary utopia of the “’true democracy’ promised by the French revolution of 1789. But what was revolutionary two and half centuries ago, i.e. installing the political power of the bourgeoisie in France, overcoming feudalism by the development of capitalism, building a nation…all this today has become irredeemably reactionary. This system of exploitation is decadent. It’s not a question of making it better, because that has become impossible, but of going beyond it, of overthrowing it through an international proletarian revolution. But here the illusion is being sewn that the state is a neutral agent on which we have to put pressure, or even protect from the shareholders, the corrupt politicians, the greedy bankers, the oligarchs…”[12]

The real antagonism, the one between capital and the proletariat, is replaced by an imaginary antagonism between, on the one hand, a corrupt minority of financiers and venal politicians, and, on the other side of the barricade, an immense majority which can include the good politicians, the honest capitalists, the soldiers, the people, the citizens. In this scenario the proletariat abandons its class ground and submerges itself in a conflict between all good citizens and a handful of bad guys.  

What’s more, just as the populism of Trump or the Front National blames everything on certain people and not on the social relations of production, the ‘radicals’ of Nuit Debout also put forward a project based on personalisation. The right puts the blame on migrants; the left on a few bankers or politicians. But it’s the same reactionary logic. The problems of the world can be resolved by getting rid of a few people who are seen as the root of all evil.

What is left of 15 May?

The promoters of Nuit Debout have wiped out the hard disc of the 15 May movement and written over it. But what really remains of this movement? What can we hold onto for future struggles?

The assemblies

We reproduce here what we wrote in our international leaflet drawing the lessons of the Indignados, Occupy and other movements:

The mass assembles have concretised the slogan of the First International (1864) ‘The emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves or it is nothing’. This is the continuation of the tradition of the workers' movement stretching back to the Paris Commune, and to Russia in 1905 and 1917, where it took an ever higher form, continued in Germany 1918, Hungary 1919 and 1956, Poland 1980.” [13]

The assemblies of the future will have to strengthen themselves by drawing a critical balance sheet of the weaknesses in the assemblies of 2011:

  • Only a small minority of them were extended to the workplaces, the neighbourhoods, the unemployed…even though the central nucleus of the assemblies does have to be the general assembly of the city, based on the occupation of public squares and buildings, they have to be fed by a wider network of assemblies, especially in the factories and workplaces;
  • The commissions (coordination, culture, actions, etc) have to be under the strict control of the general assembly and have to be scrupulously accountable to them. We have to avoid what happened in the 15 May movement where the commissions became instruments for sabotaging the assemblies by shadowy groups like ‘Real Democracy Now’[14].

Solidarity

Through all its pores, capitalist society secretes “marginalisation, the atomisation of the individual, the destruction of family relationships, the exclusion of old people from social life, the annihilation of love and affection and its replacement by pornography,”. In sum, “the destruction of the very principle of collective life in a society devoid of the slightest project or perspective.”[15]

A barbaric expression of this social decomposition is the hatred towards immigrants encouraged by populism, which won a spectacular victory with ‘Brexit’ in the United Kingdom and Trump’s election in the USA.

Against all of that, the 15 May movement and Occupy sowed the first seeds of something different

“The demonstrations in Madrid called for the freeing of those who have been arrested or have stopped the police detaining immigrants; there have been massive actions against evictions in Spain, Greece and the United States; in Oakland ‘The strike Assembly has agreed to send pickets or to occupy any company or school that punishes employees or students in anyway for taking part in the General Strike of the 2nd November’. Vivid but still episodic moments have happened, when everyone can feel protected and defended by those around them. All of which starkly contrasted with what is ‘normal’ in this society with its anguished sense of hopelessness and vulnerability”[16].

However, this very important experience could be overwhelmed and buried by the present populist wave (which is supported by politicians who present themselves as ‘antagonists’ to the ‘elite’). Proletarian solidarity still has to put down firmer roots[17]

The culture of debate

This society condemns us to inertia in work and consumption, endlessly reproducing alienated models of success and failure, manufacturing stereotypes which reinforce the dominant ideology. In the face of this, all sorts of false responses serve to further deepen social and moral putrefaction:

“ -   the profusion of sects, the renewal of the religious spirit including in the advanced countries, the rejection of rational, coherent thought even amongst certain “scientists”; a phenomenon which dominates the media with their idiotic shows and mind-numbing advertising;

  • the invasion of the same media by the spectacle of violence, horror, blood, massacres, even in programmes designed for children;
  • the vacuity and venality of all “artistic” production: literature, music, painting, architecture, are unable to express anything but anxiety, despair, the breakdown of coherent thought, the void”

[18].

Against these two poles of capitalist alienation, movements like the 15 May or Occupy “thousands of people began to look for an authentic popular culture, making it for themselves, trying to animate their own critical and independent criteria. The crisis and its causes, the role of the banks etc, have been exhaustively discussed. There has been discussion of revolution, although with much confusion; there has been talk of democracy and dictatorship, synthesised in these two complementary slogans ‘they call it democracy and it is no’” and ‘it is a dictatorship but unseen’”. These were the first steps towards a real politics of the majority, far away from the world of intrigues, lies and shady manoeuvres which characterise the politics of the ruling class. A politics which raises all the questions that affect us, not just economics and politics but also the environment, ethics, culture, education and health”[19]

The importance of this effort, however tentative, however weakened by democratist and petty bourgeois illusions, is obvious. Every revolutionary movement of the proletariat can only be based on mass discussion, on a cultural movement founded on free and independent debate.

The vertebral column of the Russian revolution of 1917 was this culture of massive debate

The thirst for education, so long held back, was concerted by the revolution into a true delirium. During the first six months, tons of literature, whether onhandcarts or wagons, poured forth from the Smolny Institute each day, Russia insatiably absorbed it, like hot sand absorbs water. This was not pulp novels, falsified history, diluted religion or cheap fiction that corrupts, but economic and social theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky”[20]   

Concern for an international struggle

The proletariat is an international class with the same interests in all countries. The workers have no country, and nationalism, in all its varieties, is the graveyard of any possible perspective for the liberation of humanity.

Capitalism today is assailed by a contradiction: on the one hand, the economy is more and more global, production is more and more inter-dependent. But on the other hand, all states are imperialist and wars are increasingly destructive; the environment is deteriorating as competition between national states, especially the most powerful ones like the USA and China, gets sharper and sharper. As economic life becomes more and more international, there is a blind, irrational retreat into all kinds of false communities, whether national, racial or religious…

These contradictions can only be overcome through the historic struggle of the proletariat. The proletariat is the class of worldwide association. It produces across frontiers. It is a class of migrants, a melting pot of races, religions, cultures. No product, from a building to a threshing machine, can be made by an isolated community of workers stuck in a national or local framework. Production needs raw material, transport, machines, all of which circulate on a world scale. It can only be realised by workers trained in a universal culture, through incessant exchanges on an international level. The internet is not only a cultural instrument, but above all a means without which capitalist production would be impossible.

In 2011, expressing these realities and what they mean for the proletarian struggle, even if in a still vague manner, “this movement of indignation has spread internationally: to Spain, where the then Socialist government imposed one of the first and most draconian austerity plans; to Greece, the symbol of the crisis of sovereign debt; to the United States, the temple of world capitalism; to Egypt and Israel, focus of one of the worst and most entrenched imperialist conflicts, the Middle East.

The awareness that this is an international movement began to develop despite the destructive weight of nationalism, as seen in the presence of national flags in the demonstrations in Greece, Egypt or the USA. In Spain solidarity with the workers of Greece was expressed by slogans such as ‘Athens resists, Madrid rises up’. The Oakland strikers (USA, November,2011) said ‘Solidarity with the occupation movement world wide’. In Egypt it was agreed in the Cairo Declaration to support the movement in the United States. In Israel they shouted ‘Netanyahu, Mubarak, El Assad are the same’ and contacts were made with Palestinian workers”[21].

Today, five years on, these gains seem to have been buried deep underground. This is the expression of an inevitable feature of proletarian struggles which Marx referred to in the quote we put at the beginning of this article - that “they seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever

But there is a vital task which the advanced minorities of the proletariat have to carry out: draw the lessons, place then in an evolving Marxist theoretical framework. This is the task we call on all committed comrades to address, to “start the most widespread possible discussion, without any restriction or discouragement, in order to consciously prepare new movements which could make it clear that capitalism can indeed be replaced by another society[22].

 

Accion Proletaria ICC section in Spain, 6.7.16     

 



[1]When in reality the role of Podemos was to neutralise and derail everything that was authentically revolutionary in the Indignados movement, as we showed in our article ‘Podemos, new clothes at the service of the capitalist emperor’ http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201604/13907/podemos-new-clothes-service-capitalist-emperor

[2] The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

[3] Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius pamphlet

[4]We’ve written a lot about this experience in which our militants actively participated, not only from the section in Spain but from other sections as well. Two documents which summarise our analysis are:

‘Indignados in Spain, Greece and Israel: from indignation to the preparation of class struggle’, IR 147

http://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201111/4593/indignados-spain-greece-and-israel

And our international statement, ‘2011: from indignation to hope’: http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201203/4766/statement-social-movements-2011

[5] See IR 60, ‘Collapse of Stalinism: new difficulties for the proletariat’ http://en.internationalism.org/ir/60/difficulties_for_the_proletariat

[6]There were weaker echoes of these movements in Canada in 2012, Brazil and Turkey 2013, 2014 in Burgos, and 2015 in Peru.

[7] ‘From indignation to hope’

 

[8] ‘From indignation to hope’

[9] ibid

[10] ‘What is the real nature of the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement?’ http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201605/13953/what-real-nature-nuit-debout-movement

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

[13] ‘From indignation to hope’

[14] See our article ‘Real Democracy Now: a dictatorship against the mass assemblies’ http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2011/special-report-15M-spain/real-democracy-now

[15] See ‘Theses on decomposition’ http://en.internationalism.org/ir/107_decomposition. This text develops our analysis of the present historical period, a period characterised by the continuation of a decadent, obsolete society which the proletariat has not managed to eradicate from the planet.

[16] ‘From indignation to hope’

[17] See our orientation text on confidence and solidarity http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/200301/1893/orientation-text-2001-confidence-and-solidarity-proletarian-struggle

[18] ‘Theses on decomposition’

[19] ‘From indignation to hope’

[20] John Reed, 10 Days That Shook the World

[21] ‘From indignation to hope’

[22] ibid