Movement Parties: A New Breed of Radical Democratic Politics?

By Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen

After the financial crisis and the square movements of 2011 and beyond, we have seen the emergence of a new breed of political parties: movement parties. These parties include SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Left Unity in Slovenia and Alternativet in Denmark. Even traditional parties such as the British Labour Party has a claim as a ‘movement party’ thanks to Momentum, the group that sprang from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and is now one of the most powerful formations within Labour. While these parties are often grouped together by laypersons and academics, there are, however, important differences between them.

The first thing to note is that movement parties are not an entirely new phenomenon. In a chapter published more than a decade ago, Herbert Kitschelt defined movement parties as a hybrid between movements and parties, having in mind the Northern European Green parties.[1] The Green parties rose out of the environmental movement, which, like other new formations, was critical of the ways in which the state, as well as traditional parties and interest groups, did politics. Their concern with a more horizontalist and participatory form of politics was brought into the Green parties. For Kitschelt, movement parties were transitional phenomena: they were basically movements on their way to becoming parties. The German Greens would be a case in point.

After the financial crisis and the square movements of 2011, the relationship between movements and formal politics has been reinvigorated, and a new phenomenon is emerging: movement parties. Such parties can be seen as a response to a general crisis of representation,[2] the crisis that some associate with the post-democratic condition of the last thirty years,[3] but they differ from the movements of the preceding decade by accepting the need to engage formal political representative institutions. This new phenomenon raises a host of questions, including whether it is possible to combine radical politics with formal political institutions.

Like Kitschelt, Donatella della Porta and others define movement parties as hybrids of movements and parties where organisational and environmental linkages between the two are close.[4] Their main examples are SYRIZA, Podemos and the Italian Five Star Movement. Movement parties thus differ from traditional (non-movement) parties. For instance, historically, socialist and social-democratic parties have emerged from social movements, most of all from trade unions. But, in these cases, parties quickly emerged as hierarchical structures firmly embedded within political institutions, even when retaining close links to trade unions. Movement parties differ with their insistence on keeping the links to social movements and organising in a more horizontal and participatory way.

While it is useful to define movement parties in this way, we argue that there are important differences among them. Those differences are important when we assess the strategies developed by, and available to, these parties, and when we assess their future prospects. While there are right-wing variants of movement parties – such as the Tea Party Movement and the Republican Party in the US – here we focus only on left-wing variants. The brief typology we develop here is developed in a bottom-up fashion. Rather than providing a set of clear-cut distinctions, we use the typology to raise a number of questions about the nature and prospects of movement parties, based on how their relationship with social movements was shaped at the point of origin.

The first type of movement party arises when a particular movement becomes a party but self-consciously seeks to retain key characteristics of a movement. The Green parties would be an earlier example of this, as are the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and the African National Congress (ANC), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and possibly the United Front (UF) in South Africa. As it is also clear from this list, the risk of reproducing the logic of the formal political system – verticality, closure, and so on – are huge, and the question is to what extent they differ from socialist and social-democratic parties with their background in the labour movement. In the European context, the Five Star Movement in Italy would be an example as it has emerged out of different protest movements, among them the protests against the privatisation of water. But, at the same time, the movement/party has centred on the personality of Grillo, and it is not exactly a party of the Left. Whatever the case may be, the choices they are facing after the March 2018 elections regarding forming a government reflect the strategic dilemmas of most, if not all, movement parties. These dilemmas are accentuated because this type of movement party undergoes a mutation from movement to movement party, and therefore the identities of activists and potential voters are tied to the grassroots nature of the movement.

The second type of movement party consists of parties that emerge on the back of social movements or protests with the aim of tapping the energies of the latter and transpose them into electoral politics. Podemos would be an example, although there is an important time-lapse between the 2011 Spanish Indignados Movement and the emergence of Podemos in 2014. The United Left in Slovenia would be another example. The dilemmas facing a party like Podemos are slightly different. On the one hand, they are not a movement that became a party, and so they are not tied to a movement identity. On the other hand, they presented themselves as a different kind of party from the very beginning: more horizontal, more participatory and more inclusive.

Perhaps more importantly, they presented themselves as the party of the Indignados, or at least the party that would carry forward the spirit of the Indignados movement. This is also the reason why today so many people have become disillusioned with Podemos. The Indignados movement opened up space for an alternative form of politics, and Podemos took advantage of it occupying that space. In the case of Podemos, we have a highly mediatised (but unconventional) leadership who connects with the broader population in a direct manner through mainstream and non-mainstream media and through new social media, including platforms for direct voting on policies. This allows for a combination of vertical and horizontal structures, but it does not rely on the active participation (and influence) of large numbers of activists.

While Podemos initially relied on local and thematic “circles”, these have gradually lost influence. (Having said that, there is a marked difference between Podemos at the national level and some of the political movements at the municipal level, such as Barcelona en Comú, which has retained more of the horizontalist and participatory structure.) This is perhaps one way in which Podemos differs from movement parties that have emerged more gradually and organically from social movements.

The third type, often associated with Podemos but quite different, is the case of SYRIZA. In Greece, we are dealing with a party that pre-existed the protests and movements of the squares. From its inception, SYRIZA sought relations with social movements, and especially the youth wing of the party was very much involved in the European Social Fora, leading to the formation of the Greek Social Forum in 2003, and finally the hosting of the 4th European Social Forum in Athens in 2006.[5] In this respect, SYRIZA already had problematized the relationship between party and movements while actively engaged in the latter.

The link between party and movements was reaffirmed in the declaration of the Founding Congress of SYRIZA in 2013 when it was stated that SYRIZA’s aim was not only the parliamentary presence of the movements of the squares but also the involvement in the creation and support of a strong united popular movement. Thus, when the 2011 protests erupted, SYRIZA sought to tap the energies of the protests and transpose them into electoral politics, similarly to what Podemos attempted, but with a time-lag. However, SYRIZA has experienced the same disjuncture between leadership and activists faced by Podemos, especially after the formation of the Greek government.

The 2013 SYRIZA Congress Declaration states that “the transference of powers to elected representatives leads sooner or later to stagnation and retreat, if not destruction: those who entrust them are transformed into passive accepters of a policy that opposes their interests and desires, while those who assume the responsibility of such an assignment are mutated and corrupted.”[6] Despite this attempt to materialise a more horizontal and participatory structure inside and outside the party, the Congress did not represent a break from traditional forms of party organization: the resolutions were voted by delegates elected from SYRIZA’s local groups.

The final type of movement party is the case of a party being taken over from within by a movement, using the party as a platform and trying to change the party’s structure, in order to promote its own line and a more participatory form of politics. This is the case of Momentum and the Labour Party in the UK and, to a lesser extent, of Sanders and the Democratic Party in the US. In these cases, the shift is not from the movement to a party; instead, activists enter the arena of formal party politics in order to change the party into a movement, both in their politics and in their structure. As a result, those involved have usually accepted the vertical logic of the political system from the start, as they try to influence these parties in a more horizontalist direction, amplifying their influence within these structures.

This typology opens up an interesting field of inquiry regarding the different expressions of movement parties, and the difficulties they face in bridging electoral with grassroots politics. Although the typology refers to the origins of movement parties, we claim that this shapes how the movement party engages with participatory structures and electoral politics. The typology is not the final word on the differences we can observe between different movement parties.

We have also not considered a number of new phenomena such as Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise. Both share characteristics with movement parties but may be seen more as electoral machines supporting a particular political leader, even if Melenchon’s movement draws on the anti-labour law protests. There is also the question of the relationship between movement parties and populism. Many of the movement parties mentioned here are also (seen as) populist, which raises the question of what populism shares with a movement party. In particular, one would have to ask how the vertical relationship between leader and masses interacts with the horizontal organisation of movement parties.

What is clear is that the appearance of movement parties constitutes a challenge to those who associate radical politics and radical democracy with horizontalism, but also to those who insist that radical politics is only effective insofar as it works through existing institutions.

The article was first published in engagée #6/7 “Radical Cities”.

[1] Herbert Kitschelt (2006), ‘Movement Parties’, in Richard S. Katz and William J. Crotty (eds.), Handbook of Party Politics (New York, Sage), pp. 278-90.

[2] Simon Tormey (2015), The End of Representative Politics (Cambridge: Polity).

[3] Colin Crouch (2004), Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity).

[4] Donatella Della Porta, Joseba Fernández, Hara Kouki and Lorenzo Mosca (2017), Movement Parties Against Austerity (Cambridge: Polity), p. 7.

[5] Myrto Tsakatika and Costas Eleftheriou (2013), ‘The Radical Left’s Turn towards Civil Society in Greece: One Strategy, Two Paths’, South European Society and Politics, 18:1, 81-99.

[6] Launching statement, accessed 18/03/18.

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