From outrage to adaptation: Critical notes on the reformist “new left”

nueva izquierda reformista

By Luis Meiners and Martin Carcione

The last decade has witnessed the emergence, rise and decline of a series of political formations that presented themselves as a rupture with the traditional political parties, the institutional order and the neoliberal model. They emerged in moments of crisis, polarization and political radicalization of which they discursively identified themselves as representatives. However, they became defenders of the institutional order that they had questioned and integrated government coalitions with the parties they had come to bury.

This brief description covers phenomena such as Podemos in the Spanish State, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the United States, the Chilean Frente Amplio and others. Beyond the differences and specificities of each one, this article seeks to analyze the common features of these experiences, the context in which they arose and their limits, seeking to contribute to the debate on the tactics and strategy of revolutionary socialists.

The origins

Various factors and processes contributed to this phenomenon. The fundamental starting point to analyze them is the 2008/9 crisis that inaugurated a period of economic stagnation and political polarization. The crisis shook the neoliberal model and the political structures that had built it. It produced a wave of mobilizations and a rise in class struggle internationally. The Arab Spring, the rebellions and occupations of the “squares” from Tahrir in Egypt to Puerta del Sol in Madrid, passing through Syntagma Square in Athens and reaching Occupy Wall Street in the streets of New York. In Latin America this cycle was strongly felt in the streets of Santiago de Chile with the student rebellion of 2011 and in Brazil against the increase in transport fees in 2013.

In this climate of rising class struggle, radicalization and political polarization, the political regimes, that is, the specific institutional articulations through which ruling class power is exercised, were shaken. A common feature of many of the bourgeois-democratic regimes during the previous period had been their articulation around a consensus of the traditional political parties towards the neoliberal “center”. The alternation, commonly bipartisan or built around two large coalitions, did not imply substantial modifications in government policies. This was built on the basis of a shift to the right by the Social Democratic, Labor or “progressive” political parties, which in many cases were the main implementers of neoliberal reforms and austerity plans. The crisis and the rise in the class struggle hit hard on this reality, particularly punishing the old “center-left” parties. Thus, political space was opened up for the emergence of new alternatives to the left.

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This first wave of mobilizations and rising class struggle after 2008/09 found the leaderships of the working class tied to the path of bourgeois management of the State, not being part of the resistance to these plans. Therefore the participation of the working class took place in a rather disorganized way, diluted in the more general “popular” character of the wave. This feature, which had already been expressed in Argentina in 2001 for example, constitutes a global limitation of the process.

At the same time, this characteristic affected the physiognomy and structure of the new political formations that emerged without organizational roots in the working class, with a weak organizational model at the base and essentially built for the electoral dispute and political activity within the framework of the institutional order. Although they appealed to the “social movements” and programmatically incorporated environmental and feminist debates, the channels of participation and concrete political organization were electoral. This marks, moreover, a significant difference with the historical reformist parties that had a solid base in the working class and organic ties with their organizations.

Finally, a determining factor was also the weakness and dispersion of the revolutionary left at the international level. Without clear reference poles and with entire sectors of the spectrum openly yielding to the postulates of this “reformism 2.0”, while other sectors focused on the characteristics of the leadership and in a sectarian manner ignored the need to have an offensive line to be part of the process without neglecting party building.


Programmatically, these formations defined themselves in opposition to the political regimes associated with the implementation of neoliberalism and in favour of democratic transformations. Thus, Podemos presented itself as an alternative to the “caste”, Sanders spoke of the need for a “political revolution”, the Frente Amplio of the “democratic revolution”, to name a few examples.

However, their development demonstrated a growing (and rapid) assimilation to the regime and an abandonment of the “radical democratic” program. Podemos turned its back on the struggle for the self-determination of the Catalan people, later reached an agreement with the PSOE and ended up co-governing within the framework of the 1978 regime. Sanders remained within the Democratic Party, calling to vote for Hillary Clinton first and Biden later, to end up joining the latter’s administration. The Frente Amplio ended up agreeing on an institutional solution in the midst of a historical mobilization process.

This evolution is rooted in a strategy limited to the framework of bourgeois-democratic institutions. An electoral orientation, which reduces everything to electoral tactics. Fearful of scaring “public opinion” and losing votes, they moderate their speech and political practice in line with their electoral progress. And thus end up defending the institutional framework  thay had previously opposed. The specter of “fascism” in a polarized world is used as an argument to move from criticism to the defense of the regime.  

A fundamental point explains this evolution to a great extent: the absence in his program of a deep, systematic and radical critique of the capitalist system. These formations and their “theorists” have concentrated their efforts on denouncing neoliberalism, which is just a particular phase or mode of capitalism. This limitation is not minor, the political regime is not based on ideas or concepts, but on a certain social structure in which class domination, in this case of the bourgeoisie, is decisive.

As expressed in the Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Therefore, a program that contemplates simply the replacement of this government or even a more “democratic” reformulation of its fundamental institutions, will be sterile without questioning the “common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” and its domination. Ignoring the specific conditions of regimes and governments can certainly lead to sectarian deviations. Hiding that these specificities arise from a certain class structure, and therefore are determined by the struggle between exploiters and exploited, has led “neo-reformism” to go down the steps of classical reformism, managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.

And now what?

The balance sheet of the previous period and its lessons are of great relevance today. We are witnessing the beginnings of a dynamic rise of the mass movement worldwide. The rebellions and revolutions that have swept through different countries of the world since the end of 2019, with new and profound chapters in Colombia and the Middle East, together with the elements of instability and crisis contributed by the pandemic, point to the development of a global pre-revolutionary situation.

Undoubtedly, the cycle of “novelty” of the “neo-reformist” leaderships that emerged in the previous stage is closing. They have crudely shown their decadence as alternatives, in some cases disguised under good elections. Faced with this scenario, the debate on how to achieve radical transformations that can resolve the situation in favour of the working class resurfaces.

In the period after the second world war, a series of factors produced a historical exceptionality: petty-bourgeois and reformist leaderships that exceeded their own programs and, driven by concrete circumstances, advanced further than they had intended. This, however, did not replace the need to build independent revolutionary working-class organizations, as the very evolution of these processes demonstrated tragically in many cases. Today, the concrete circumstances go in the opposite direction. “Neo-reformism” has proven incapable, not only of producing revolutionary changes by advancing beyond its objectives, but even of accomplishing its own limited goals. Its evolution to the right has occurred in many cases even before reaching the government.

Does this imply that one should not have a political line towards these phenomena, which in some cases may be to participate in them? No at all. On the contrary, we defend the need to develop tactics towards phenomena of this type based on the concrete circumstances of the class struggle. What this analysis seeks is to underline their limits in the light of the actual experience of the last decade, highlighting the transitory nature of the tactics and underlining the strategic need to maintain political independence. This is only possible if we build revolutionary leaderships as the International Socialist League does in each country and globally.

Sectarianism, which denies in advance the necessary tactical flexibility, and opportunism, which adapts and dilutes itself in the political phenomena that impact the mass movement, have proven sterile to contribute to this task. A critical balance sheet of these experiences is a key tool for intervention in the present and is expressed in the struggle for a radical left pole within the PSOL in Brazil, the fight for a bloc between the independent phenomenon and the anti-capitalist left in Chile or the efforts to build rank and file democratic organizations to promote the organized action of the working class and youth in the Colombian rebellion, just to mention some of the processes currently underway.

We are living in historical times, the objective conditions to provoke revolutionary transformations in reality are more than mature, let us redouble our efforts to set up a political tool that meets the moment. Achieving it is possible and necessary.

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