For Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s most vocal and authoritative critic of austerity, politics is “the art of accumulating power”. Yet after Iglesias’ recent electoral success (Podemos claimed 69 parliamentary seats and, along with them, the potential to enter a governing coalition) it becomes necessary to ask what type of power the European left should deploy.

Can emergent anti-austerity parties in Britain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece actualise their goals by ‘playing the game’ of bourgeois democracy? By vying for the same legitimacy and respectability as their conservative counterparts and subordinating distant ideals to concrete, pragmatic policy decisions, can they reform the EU (and indeed wider systems of class oppression) from within? Is this tactical position preferable to a more grassroots, bottom-up activist movement (like, say, the Socialist Workers’ Party) which refuses to dilute its programme in the sphere of establishment politics? Or should this very dichotomy between ‘state power’ and ‘people power’ be subject to question?

Those who believe that state power is inherently corrupting have, unfortunately, been vindicated by the actions of current anti-austerity governments. In Greece, Syriza’s full-scale capitulation to Troika-imposed cuts and privatisations was not the ‘only option’, as Prime Minister Tsipras maintains. It was the result of a political strategy which tried to retain power within the limited framework of contemporary economic orthodoxy. 

Their failure to adopt a parallel currency, nationalize the Bank of Greece or insist on debt reduction (in other words, their failure to directly challenge the forces of neoliberalism) stemmed partly from the dogma that conscientious governance implies an abandonment of leftist principles. 

Similarly in Portugal, new Prime Minister António Costa has stated his intention to cut €46 million from the public sector, while simultaneously using €2.26 billion in state funds to bail out Banif, one of the country’s largest commercial banks. For swathes of the organised left, political credibility depends on disowning class politics.

This submission to EU spending rules paralyses the both the Portuguese and Greek governments’ capacity to implement policy or legislate in an autonomous manner. So far, Costa has made only superficial adjustments to the last budget, many of which will be off set by new price hikes on rents and utilities. Meanwhile, Tsipras’ ‘parallel programme’ – that last relic of Syrizan leftism, intended to alleviate the impact of austerity on critically impoverished Greeks – was withdrawn in December. 

If this analysis is correct, and the left’s most recent democratic victories have been followed by a betrayal (in which progressive parties become spineless reformists or unprincipled administrators) one might argue that opponents of austerity should not overstate the import of parliamentary success. However, the alternative offered by ultra-left fringe groups (like the Communists in Greece, the Workers’ Party in Portugal or the SWP in Britain) is no more capable of reversing the Europe-wide assault on welfare, public industry and labour rights. It relies on a doctrinal approach which spurns the particularities of real, situational politics for the abstracted ideals of ‘working class solidarity’ or ‘socialist revolution’. 

For such organisations, electoral politics is pointless before a major shift occurs in the distribution of wealth and power. It is barely worth pointing out that Lenin had to run capitalism in order to replace it. Nor should it be necessary to ask how a bankrupt, financially asphyxiated nation could conceivably democratize its wealth. Yet the kind of poor logic whereby the end point – ‘socialism’, ‘the transformation of the economic base’ – must also be the first step, prior to any practical maneuvering within capitalism, is still prevalent in anti-austerity discourse. Overreacting to cynical politicians like Tsipras, it elevates the quasi-religious ideal of socialism above real-world political calculation.

Is the solution, then, to establish a comfortable balance between these poles of idealism and pragmatism? That was the initial aim of Corbyn’s Labour, which strove to preserve its unqualified anti-austerity message while employing a ‘broad church’ approach, including centrist politicians on the front bench, to avoid the appearance of a fringe party.

But the result of this method was perpetual self-contradiction: divisions emerged over Corbyn’s plan for a “people’s quantitative easing”, while the Shadow Chancellor first supported George Osborne’s fiscal charter to demonstrate “economic credibility,” before swiftly rejecting it to “underline our position as an anti-austerity party.”

Therefore, in lieu of a harmonious middle ground, perhaps we should question the value and reality of this fantasist/sell-out binary. The structural constraints of liberal democracy can be overcome if the leftist party is directly accountable to its supporters: a pragmatic instrument, whose only purpose is the strategic implementation of their (visionary, idealistic, but also wholly sensible) aspirations. Uncompromising opposition to austerity within an opportunistic parliamentary setting is the short-term goal. Unless that can be achieved, left formations like Podemos will either accumulate useless power, or fail to gain it in the first place.”