Left populism: learning from the past, preparing for the future

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras at a rally in 2012 (photo: Asteris Masouras (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

Marina Prentoulis outlines key arguments and lessons for socialist strategy to be drawn from Spain, Greece and the Corbyn experience

Marina Prentoulis has been a prominent figure in left wing activist circles over the past decade. During the heady days of the Greek defiance of the ‘Troika’ (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) and its ultimately successful campaign to impose the most draconian version of austerity on the country, she represented the left wing party Syriza, then operating in populist mode, at countless protest events and conferences here in the UK.

She no longer speaks for Syriza, and is highly critical of the path it took after the party’s leader, and then Greek prime minister, Alex Tsipras, capitulated to the Troika’s austerity demands in 2015. But she has remained committed to the style of politics that was being developed by social movements and political parties committed to representing the viewpoints of the indignados who launched themselves in militant opposition to the austerity being demanded by the governing elites of Europe in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Her new book on this subject, Left Populism in Europe, was published by Pluto Press in May. She spoke to Chartist‘s Mike Davis and Don Flynn about the book in a Zoom discussion recorded in early April.

She began by explaining that she does not use the term ‘populism’ in the way that it is commonly understood – as a syllogism for anti-democratic, demagogic politics.

“I start from a different perspective. For me populism is much more a political logic.” She contrasts it with conventional politics, which seeks small incremental change but otherwise leaves the system intact.

“Populism works differently, by creating a mass of people with different demands but they come together, and they are against the institutions as they are.”

What populism of all kinds does – in its right and left wing versions – is create a ‘people’ out of this process of coming together which pits itself against the established elites. At this initial point the political content of the movement is raw material that can turn out to have a left or right wing orientation. It is there to be taken in one direction by a figure like Donald Trump, or another by the Spanish populist left party, Podemos.

She is keen to stress the difference between the left populist approach and that of traditional Marxism to these movements of ‘the people’.

“Populism needs a crisis. [My] book stresses the importance of the financial crisis of 2008. This created a large political and economic issue. It put question marks against what the political elite is doing with the crisis.“ The important point for Prentoulis is that the turmoil cut across classes and made possible a large social bloc that was now in opposition to conventional politics.

“This is the importance of the ‘99%’”. She is adamant on this point. Whilst the impact of the crisis was felt in economic terms, it also went to the heart of people’s identities as they stood prior to the meltdown.

“The people – as they come together, their identities are changed as they start to understand themselves as a part if this people. It is not only an alliance – it is more than that. The 99% slogan is trying to get to the idea that ‘the people’ – not only a class – is suffering because of the system.”


During the discussion it became clear that, for Prentoulis, the question of nationalism is critical in determining whether the populism movement goes in a right wing or left wing direction.

“[The right] uses the nationalist discourse very effectively. People feel very emotional about nations. This is one of the reasons why the right is successful.

“For the left the situation is different. It is globalisation which is pushing us to think beyond the nation-state. The reality was the crisis was happening across Europe and the US. People were going beyond borders when their livelihoods and situation was under threat. We had to realise that it cut across borders to create solidarity.

“When it came to putting content into the populist logic, the right wing approach was nationalism. But for the left it had to be different. The left position has to be inclusive and anti-nationalist. It has to go beyond borders.”

She pondered the relationship between nationalism and patriotism. Left populist movements in Latin America have certainly used patriotic themes to rally the masses against the constraints on progress in that region, which means using anti-American, anti-imperialist sentiment. But whilst this is patriotic, Prentoulis insists it isn’t nationalistic.

But in any event the situation in Europe is very different.

“In Europe you have some of the biggest ex-empires, so talking about nationalism is like a slap in the face. Nationalism in England? You created an empire. You pushed this path [towards globalisation]. What is nationalist in Britain and what is nationalist in Venezuela I think is very different.”

Left populism stalled

The discussion moved on to consider why the left populist wave in Europe seems to have subsided. The case studies here cover the examples of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and also the Corbyn movement in the UK.

Prentoulis argues that, although all of these currents flirted with different elements of left populism, none of them worked on a consistently left populist strategy.

“For example, the Labour party – I don’t think that it has ever managed to create ‘a people’ in the way right wing populism did around Brexit.” What Corbynism did, she argues, is draw a new generation of left wing people into activity within Labour and then use their energy to fight in very traditional party terms against the right. It was not the social movement which populist theory sees as the first step in severing the emotional identification with the established order.

This continues to show itself in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She asks what Labour’s involvement has been in organising resistance at grassroots community level. The Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, had excited people with his criticism of Government policies over support for people in poorer communities who were required to isolate during lockdown, and this was very good. But had the party really forged an identity with civil society activities running food banks and similar? She sees a radical municipalism as a critical element of a left populism – examples in the UK being the Preston community funds model or the Brixton Pound, building community empowerment through local government and civil society initiatives.

In both Greece and Spain the social movement element of left populism had seen activists establishing health clinics and running food banks in the areas where austerity had hit hardest. The strategic problems for left populism in these countries, which Prentoulis considers in detail in her book, were connected to the challenges of moving from functioning as a social movement at the level of communities to becoming a force in electoral politics. In Greece, the challenge had been catastrophic for Syriza; in Spain, Podemos still wrestles with its role as being a movement of the indignados and a partner in a conventional centre-left government with the Socialist Party (PSOE).

Success is never guaranteed in politics, and when mistakes are made it is essential that we learn from them. For Prentoulis, the period of left populism deserves to be studied because it provides rich lessons on the way politics folds itself across mass society in the conditions of neoliberal post-democracy when politics are run by elites and people have been kept away from making meaningful contributions. The conditions that once allowed politics to be represented as a contest between monolithic parties of the centre-right on one hand and centre-left on the other, constantly switching roles as parties of government and opposition whilst leaving the architecture of the state fundamentally unchanged, are now coming to an end.

As democracy seeks to get a grip on the situation once again, identities are as much in the mix as social class, and populism allows us to think through some of the dilemmas of what is inevitably a more fluid and volatile situation.

The discussion drew to a conclusion with thoughts as to what the future has in store for democratic politics. The conditions that facilitated the populist surge after 2008 will happen again, Prentoulis insists. Back then the catalyst was an economic crisis triggered by the greed of a globalised financial elite. The current pandemic and the adjustments that will be required to survive this and future contagions will be the starting point for the next wave of populist insurgency. Not so far beyond that there will be the challenges of climate change and the rebuilding of democracy from the ground up to ensure that doesn’t produce carnage for the mass of people on the planet.

“Transnationalism – working in and out of the institutions, for example the European Union – to create projects together, local, municipal and wider” is critical. “Brexit may give us the opportunity, we are Europeans, we believe in solidarity so we need to think about ways to connect and exchange, a new mutuality.”

As we move into the next phase of crisis, Prentoulis’s message is that the left had better learn how to do politics in this world of increasing social dislocation and turmoil. If we haven’t learnt to think and act as an effective populist political movement, we can be sure that the right will.

Left Populism in Europe is published by Pluto Press.

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