Spain's Podemos and the Rise of the New European Bolsheviks

Third, but above all, the welfare culture and state paternalism have created several generations of what might best be described as "Europeans Light." The traditional values that have underpinned European civilization – effort, sacrifice, thrift, and prudence – and secured its economic strength are in crisis today while the welfare state continues to rob citizens of ever more responsibility for themselves.

The Road Ahead

Syriza holds power in Greece for the moment via a somewhat fragile coalition government. What happens there will have a significant effect in places like Spain, where local, regional, and general elections will all take place this year. The results may be somewhat counterintuitive. If the SYRIZA government cannot produce any positive results and ends up generating more chaos for the country, the appeal of Podemos should decrease among rational Spaniards. And if, in order to avoid a total collapse of the country, Syriza betrays its own ideology and electoral platform (as the conditions imposed by Greece's creditors could force it to do), it may also have a negative impact on Podemos: the Spanish party's supporters might lose some faith in the radical project as a whole if its flagship political success turns out to be a failure. But if, in order to avoid a breakup of the euro, the European Union decides to muddle through with Syriza, and to present its government in a relatively positive light, as seems to be the trajectory, then Podemos will gain in credibility and might see that reflected on election day.

Consider the current state of structural affairs in Spanish politics. Current polls show the collapse of the two Spanish establishment parties, Rajoy's conservative People's Party and Sanchez's socialist PSOE. Podemos stands to benefit the most from this collapse of sentiment. Increasing parliamentary fragmentation can be found across the democracies of southern Europe. In Italy, this traditional situation has worsened; in Greece, it is a growing phenomenon. And in Spain, all indications are that the next parliament will be the most fragmented in recent history.

Radical parties in Europe have in the past attained power through free elections at moments when all political legitimacy seems up for question. So it is naïve to not take the stated agendas of today's radicals at face value. According to the statements of their leadership and its programs, it is clear that, once in power, they will launch agendas to dismantle the system from within, using institutions against institutions. Podemos is paradigmatic here. Unlike classical Leninism, which postulates the seizure of power by a rapid and forceful blow, the emerging radicalism understands the need to progressively dismantle the democratic state, adapting to national and international circumstances and adjusting to the needs of the moment.

This dismantling will, perversely, usher in new systems far more quickly calcified than those it aims to replace. Hugo Chávez’s victory in 1999 in Venezuela is instructive. At the time, observers declared that Venezuela was not Cuba and that the assumption of the responsibility of power would change and force Chávez and his Bolivarians to integrate into Venezuela’s liberal economic and political system. Time has shown how dangerous and erroneous that analysis was. Similarly, most observers believe today that Southern Europe is not Venezuela, and that Syriza or Podemos will eventually integrate into the Spanish, Greek, and European systems, either voluntarily to stay in power or perforce as the realities of governing in the euro system intrude. And many people will vote for them as a protest against the current dominant parties, mistakenly believing that their radical agendas will be impossible to carry out.

These are dangerous errors. Syriza and Podemos have not denied at any time that they intend to destroy, once in power, the free market and the parliamentary system. It is folly to think that a sudden change in perspective will lead them to moderate their positions and integrate into these political and economic structures. Their project is in fact to kill them. The key to their success will be not only their strategy of institutional occupation, but the fact that nobody, nationally or internationally, seems to take the project seriously enough – and will not, I would argue, until it is too late to stop it.

The most likely scenario is not an outright victory for Podemos in the fall, but a win by narrow margins, allowing them to make miserable and brief the life of a minority government of the conservatives and then to force the socialists and other groups to form a kind of left-wing front and take over the government. But even an overwhelming victory for Podemos cannot be ruled out if current momentum continues. It is, the latest polls show, the number-two party from a standing start, overtaking the PSOE. If the PP is unable to recover its traditional conservative electorate soon, Podemos might even challenge it in a tight race. The situation is serious.

With all the problems that plague today's Spain, from the movement for the independence of Catalonia to corruption, it's hard to see a path to sustained economic recovery. And the bigger problem is, of course, that Spain is not Greece, and its falling into the hands of radical forces will bring drastic new problems to the euro, generating a crisis of confidence, aggravating an already-dire situation in France, and promoting the continuing growth of new extremist parties at the other end of the political spectrum, parties founded on nationalism, xenophobia, or anti-southern European sentiment. (These are already emerging in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom).

And as the political landscape in Europe transforms, so will its foreign policy. Expect to see more anti-Americanism, less NATO solidarity, and new outreach to regimes like Venezuela and Iran. As agreement has now been lost on Israel, Jews in Europe may (now as ever) be the first to feel what this change may entail in practical terms -- an always-frightening harbinger of future turmoil.

As was the case in the mid-1930’s during the civil war, the future of Europe will be fought over and determined in Spain, this time not in the mountain passes of Asturias or the streets of Madrid, but at the ballot box. It is a matter of months.