Syriza, the return of the mass party and Scotland’s radical left

In the fourth in a series of articles in response to the Greek elections, Thomas Swann, a PhD student at the University of Leicester School of Management, discusses the prospect of a Scottish Syriza and the return of the mass party to radical politics. Click here, here, here and here for the first, second, third and fourth parts in this series.

Since the 2011 uprisings, the focus of the radical left in Europe seems to have shifted from direct democracy and direct action to the familiar form of the mass party. Syriza’s success in Greece, which of course preceded the 2011 movements with its own radical uprising and square occupations, may well signal the next step in the realignment of Europe’s radical left. Podemos in Spain seems to be heading for a similar win in elections at the end of this year.

Closer to home, for me at least, the pro-independence movement in Scotland, which while aimed at a constitutional change reflected much of the self-organisation and autonomous activism of the 2011 movements, has similarly turned (or returned) to the mass party in the form of the Scottish National Party, but also the Scottish Greens. Both parties have seen unprecedented rises in membership and, in the case of the SNP, popular support since losing the referendum on Scotland’s independence.

Scotland's pro-independence social movement. Source: Thomas Swann, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons License

Scotland’s pro-independence social movement. Source: Thomas Swann, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons License

For some this return to party politics and, crucially, some level of centralised leadership is a good thing. Paolo Gerbaudo has argued that the ‘leaderlessness’ of the 2011 movements was one of their biggest failures. For him, establishing new forms of political leadership in the likes of Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras and Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias brings with it the potential to overcome the limits of horizontalism and direct democracy. On the other hand, he notes, it could also lead to a renewal of an uncritical leadership, something even those opposed to horizontalism are wary of.

Returning to Scotland, this danger is ever present in the SNP. While it has taken on huge numbers of pro-independence activists it has also shown itself to be a highly centralised party machine, prioritising the careers of party elites over popular activists, like former UK ambassador Craig Murray.

But Scotland has also seen a reinvigoration of the radical left (or at least of a more radical version of social democracy than the SNP offers). The Radical Independence Campaign held a conference of 3,000 activists in November last year, a number limited by the size of venue they were able to find at short notice. The Scottish Left Project has emerged as a successor to the Radical Independence Campaign and several Scottish activists have spent time with Podemos and Syriza in order to learn and apply their strategies and tactics in Scotland.

While those heavily involved in The Scottish Left Project and the Radical Independence Campaign have talked a lot about participation and direct democracy, it remains to be seen to what extent they carry this through into the actual structures and institutions of the radical left that emerge in the coming months and years.

They clearly seem intent on replicating something like Syriza or Podemos in Scotland, as Paul Mason pointed out after spending time with these activists during the referendum campaign, and Cat Boyd has written about trying to elevate a radical left party to the role it has even in countries where it doesn’t have a shot at winning elections (around the 10% support mark).

While a Scottish Syriza or Podemos could be a good thing, there is a lot in this strategy that makes me very uneasy. For one thing, Scotland has had its own left-wing party rise in the polls in the past. The Scottish Socialist Party, which has also grown since the referendum, once had 6 seats in the Scottish Parliament and winning almost 7% of the popular vote. The SSP also had a charismatic leader, Tommy Sheridan, who acted as a beacon on the left in the way Podemos’ Iglesias and Syriza’s Tsipras do now. Ultimately, Sheridan’s political demise in the midst of a tabloid scandal tore the SSP apart, losing them members, popular support and all their seats in the parliament.

More worrying is the potential that a shift towards a centralised leadership and a party focused on winning elections could cause the self-organised and autonomous elements of the radical left in Scotland to wither and give up the day-to-day struggle, replacing it with trying to win electoral support. The momentum and enthusiasm that originated in the referendum campaign could end up lost. This is perhaps unlikely, especially with groups like Women for Independence remaining autonomous of party politics, but it remains a possibility, certainly in the strategies of those involved at the heart of The Scottish Left Project.

Syriza’s win in Greece and a future win of Podemos in Spain could spell the return to the mass party as the focus of the radical left, as could the rise in memberships of parties like the SNP and the Greens in Scotland. Ultimately it will be up to activists in the more radical social movement organisations to resist a totally centralised approach and perhaps find ways of engaging with such parties in a productive way while maintaining their autonomy and the direct democracy and self-organisation that still holds an attraction for many.

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