Spain - 25 years ago - a controlled transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy

Jul-Aug 2000

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in October 1975, Franco's death ended almost four decades of dictatorship in Spain. There followed a transitional period in which the Spanish left-wing parties - that is the Workers' Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Communist Party (PCE) - played a decisive role in helping the capitalist class to build up today's parliamentary regime.

Of course, their playing such a role was nothing new. Franco's 40-year long dictatorship was itself the tragic price paid by the Spanish working class for the betrayals of the socialist and Stalinist parties. From 1936 to 1939, these parties had been instrumental in protecting the capitalist state machinery of the "Republican camp" against the threat of the revolutionary mobilisation of the Spanish working class. In so doing they had demonstrated that their only perspective was to become the loyal trustees of Spanish capital in government. The transitional period following Franco's death gave these parties another opportunity to bid for such a role, thereby depriving the Spanish working class of a perspective which would have allowed them to defend their political interests.

The years preceding Franco's death were marked by the attempts of the Spanish bourgeoisie and their political leaders to prepare the ground for a regime of so-called "transitional continuity" which would lead to a parliamentary regime.

During its final years, the dictatorship was loathed by the majority of the population . The large and youthful working class blamed the regime for their exploitation - made even more unacceptable by the fact that Spain was experiencing a certain degree of economic development. The growing petit bourgeoisie, for whom the improvement in living standards should have been accompanied by basic democratic rights, was no longer prepared to be kept out of the political life. The national question had re-emerged in Catalonia and in the Basque country, where a radical opposition movement was developing despite the repression.

As for the bosses, even though they had benefited from the dictatorship's intervention in the economy and from the repression of the working class organisations, they feared that the absence of trade unions and political organisations with the ability to play the role (as in other capitalist countries) of intermediaries between the bourgeoisie and the working class could lead to a serious social and political crisis. The workers' struggles of the sixties had shown that the Falangist "vertical trade union" was incapable of playing the role of a safety valve.

The evolution towards a parliamentary regime including political parties, trade unions and regular elections seemed all the more necessary because it appeared to be a prerequisite for Spain's integration into the European community. And the majority of the Spanish bourgeoisie was intent not to miss on this.

So, during the years which preceded the death of Franco a growing section of the political class tried to prepare the necessary "reforms", even though these reforms were still opposed by a significant layer of people within the state machinery, who considered unacceptable the idea of legalising the working class parties, the PSOE but above all the PCE. However, the example of Portugal, where the retention of the dictatorship after the death of the dictator Salazar had led to the "Carnation revolution" in 1974, thereby shaking the army to its foundations, reinforced the position of those who, within the high sphere of the regime, wanted Franco's designated successor, Juan Carlos, to bring the dictatorship to an end in a controlled way - the problem being that Juan Carlos would have to ensure the continuity of power while working towards the smooth implementation of political reforms.

In this context, the Spanish ruling class had a number of problems to resolve. The long period of dictatorship had left a situation where there was no right-wing parliamentary party which had a history, a leadership, an electorate, a position within the state institutions nor any credit amongst the population. Of course, on the Left, there were the underground PSOE and PCE which aspired to the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. But on the Right, there was no party capable of exercising power within a parliamentary framework. This was why the most lucid political leaders saw no possibility other than to ally themselves to the parties of the working class which had survived underground and had, despite the repression, begun to rebuild an organised workers' movement with which the bosses and political leaders had to negotiate in times of strikes and social tension, even though it was still illegal.

The activists' hopes and the leaders' plans

Though underground, the PCE did not disappear during Franco's reign. Between 1960 and 1970 the devotion of tens of thousands of workers, the militancy of hundreds of thousands of others and the hope that things would change if the dictatorship collapsed, led to the development of the workers' organisations, particularly of the PCE itself and the trade unions.

But there was a huge contrast between the hopes which motivated the rank-and-file of these organisations and the petty manoeuvring of their leaders.

From 1975 onwards contacts were established between the government's representatives and the leaders of the illegal PSOE and PCE - while their activists were still being persecuted. Even if at the top level of the state apparatus no decision had been taken regarding the legalisation of the parties, the bourgeoisie's leaders knew that a smooth transition would not be possible without the approbation and the support of all political forces and in particular the PCE, which was a much larger party than the PSOE, with deeper roots and more influence, and whose activists had for a long time represented a tradition of struggles and resistance to the dictatorship in the workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Many workers and working class activists, including PCE activists themselves, hoped that the end of the dictatorship would mean an improvement in their living conditions. But the PCE leaders, acting in accordance with their past policies, proved themselves willing to collaborate unconditionally with the parties of the bourgeoisie in order to guarantee a smooth "transition" in exchange for the legalisation of their party.

Shortly before Franco's death, while the various political currents within the bourgeoisie and the regime were preparing themselves for a Spain without Franco, the PSOE and the PCE readied themselves to respond to any proposal for collaboration, competing with each other to occupy as much space as possible on the political scene, so as to become the largest left-wing party.

The PCE initiated a "Democratic Junta" which, on the 30 July 1974, made the first bid to become the focus for a regroupment of the opposition. It brought together the PCE, the Workers' Commissions (the trade union confederation linked to the PCE), a small party called the People's Socialist Party, the monarchists of the Carlist Party and some independent politicians looking for a career - like, for instance, Carlos Serer, a member of Opus Dei and counsellor of Juan de Bourbon (Juan Carlos' father), who once said that "the freedom of speech leads to demagogy, ideological confusion and pornography."

This alliance, however surprising it may appear, was just another example of the policy of class collaboration which had long been embraced by the PCE. Various statements made by the Junta or by Santiago Carrillo, the then leading PCE figure, emphasised the fact that Franco's regime was in crisis and "did not offer the best conditions to guarantee the interests and profits of the Spanish bosses." The Junta along with the PCE presented themselves as a safety net for the bourgeoisie against the "risk of anarchic violence" which might result from the end of the dictatorship. This was not a political U-turn. Santiago Carrillo, who was already part of the PCE leadership at the time of the Spanish revolution, was a Stalinist who had shared the responsibility for his party's betrayal of the Revolution. Subsequently, in the sixties, as the PCE's number one during the dictatorship, he had become a champion of "Euro-Communism", that is, the policy advocated by various Western European communist parties in order to distance themselves from Moscow and to be seen as respectable parties by their national bourgeoisies. Carrillo was aware that the legalisation of the PCE upon Franco's death was not inevitable and he multiplied the gestures of goodwill in order to demonstrate that he was a responsible politician from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, both in terms of his attitude towards social and political issues.

Carrillo was even overtaken on its left by the PSOE, which was much more acceptable to politicians but had much less credibility amongst those who had fought the dictatorship. Thus, by the time of the PSOE's 1974 congress, a new generation of leaders emerged, with Felipe Gonzalez at their head, announcing their intention to refurbish the PSOE's image and to regain the ground lost to the PCE during the dictatorship. Felipe Gonzalez set up his own opposition grouping, the "Democratic Convergence" with the UGT trade union and men like Ruiz Jimenez, a Christian-democrat and Franco's former education minister. However this grouping also included other left-wing groups and even far-left groups, like the ORT (Workers' Revolutionary Organisation) and the MCE (Spanish Communist Movement), both of them coming from the Maoist tradition.

At the time (and in the following years) the PSOE often distinguished itself from the PCE by using a more left-wing vocabulary. Thus, in 1975, the PSOE criticised Carillo's party, accusing it of siding with the bourgeoisie. In its paper "Socialist" one could read that "the PCE subordinates its activities to the interests of the bourgeoisie." But in fact there was so little difference between the PCE's and the PSOE's policies that in 1975, the two opposition groupings merged to form a "Democratic Coordination".

Their declaration of unity invited "the religious, military and judicial institutions to open a dialogue, in the superior interest of the nation, which would lead to the achievement of a peaceful alternative as defined herein." For the sake of the "superior interest of the nation" the interests of the working class were sacrificed. This would not be the first nor the last time. The declaration also outlined the way in which "negotiated reform" could be achieved. For the PCE this amounted to breaking with its past orientation which had referred to a "democratic break" with Franco's regime.

Standing on the same platform did not prevent the various parties involved from seeking to improve their positions independently from their partners in the coalition. The PSOE got the opportunity to do so first. Fraga, one of Franco's ministers and future leader of the Spanish right-wing did not wait for Franco's death to initiate discussions with Felipe Gonzalez, in particular over the possibility of the PSOE accepting the dictatorship's law on Associations and registering as a legal body. The result of these talks was the virtually public celebration of the UGT's (General Workers Union) 30th congress, the UGT being the trade union linked to the PSOE. As to Carillo, he embarked in negotiations with Areilza, the then Foreign Minister. Indeed, while the future legalisation of the PCE was still ruled out by many supporters of Franco's regime, for many politicians who aspired to a political career the PCE seemed to be the winning horse at the time. Only later were these politicians to join the PSOE.

The years of "political transition"(1975-1977)

In the period Immediately following Franco's death, the left-wing parties left the way free to the political personnel of the Franco regime who had been given the task to put in place controlled reforms which would respect the privileges of the former pillars of the dictatorship - the army, police, administration and judiciary.

First Juan Carlos kept in place the high ranking dignitaries of the Franco regime, including the president who had been appointed by Franco two years earlier and had distinguished himself in the repression during the last months of the dictatorship. Then, in the summer of 1976, replaced the president with a transitional nominee, Adolfo Suarez, a right-wing politician, who was young and obscure enough not to be too closely associated with Franco's heritage, but who, as a former Falangist cadre, was bound to reassure the dictatorship's machinery.

While reassuring the army chiefs (who were represented in government by general Gutierrez Mellado), Suarez' policy consisted in negotiating with all the existing political forces, within the framework of the institutions inherited from Franco's era, in order to define their future role on the political scene and to set a timetable which was to include a referendum over the planned reforms in December 1976 and the first free general election in June 1977.

Suarez made the rules of the game at each stage, without the left-wing parties raising any objections. While Suarez paid special attention to his relationship with the PSOE, the PCE made many gestures allegiance so as to obtain its legalisation. Carrillo announced before the executive committee of the PCE that "we must follow the path they are showing us, because there is no other." Meanwhile there were secret contacts between Carrillo and Suarez via José Maria Armero, one of the president's henchmen.

Politically, the PCE renounced its demand for a republican regime. But above all, in the first few months after Franco's death, it showed how effective it could be at controlling the struggles of the working class, thereby proving its loyalty towards the bourgeoisie.

Indeed, during these months there was a lot of political excitement among the petty bourgeoisie which demanded more freedom; there was also a great deal of political and social unrest within the working class. At the beginning of 1976, strikes broke out everywhere. Workers and youth sought to organise themselves in the unions, which were still underground, and particularly in the Workers' Commissions linked to the PCE. In Madrid 340,000 workers were involved in the strikes. This gave the PCE the opportunity of showing that it could act as an efficient shield against social unrest: instead of spreading and uniting the strikes, the Workers' Commissions called for a gradual return to work. The PCE thus appeared as the guarantor of public order.

But the PCE demonstrated its considerable influence over the masses in January 1977, at the funeral of labour lawyers working for the Workers' Commissions who had been murdered by the far-right. The activists and supporters of a party which was still illegal flooded the streets of Madrid in an impressive show of strength. Their hopes and expectations were certainly different from Carrillo's. But their action probably did more in favour of the party's legalisation than all of Carrillo's deals.

At a secret meeting between Carrillo and Suarez on February 27th 1977, just a few months before the first general election, Carrillo endorsed the monarchy and the "national" flag (the Franco flag and not the Republican one) and promised to avoid all social conflicts, in return for the legalisation of the PCE. He was to respect this agreement to the letter. At this meeting other more general potential political deals were discussed for after the elections. But it took another two month before the PCE was legalised in April 1977.

For many PCE activists who had been told that the party had been right to renounce the social revolution in 1936 because the most important issue was "the defence of the Republic", this endorsement of the monarchy and its flag was a bitter pill to swallow.

At this time the PCE had great ambitions. They saw themselves as becoming a major party taking its turn in office as part of the bourgeois political game - a classic social-democratic party in other words. Of course the PSOE was another potential contender, but the balance of forces weighed in the PCE's favour and Carrillo thought that it would be possible for the PCE to fill the social democratic slot, saying for example: "Today, we are not in a period when it is essential to differentiate our own policies and aims from those of bourgeois economic and political liberalism."

Electoral rivalry between the PCE and the PSOE

Another step was taken when the PCE renamed its "cells" as"groups", in the socialist style. The PCE wanted to win over the moderate voters, the middle class, the traditional social-democrat electorate. At the same time, the PSOE was, on the contrary, trying to win over the working class electorate and more radical voters. So it placed itself to the left of the PCE, which it must be said, was not very difficult.

At the 27th congress of the PSOE, in December 1976, Gonzalez and Guerra insisted upon the term "Marxist" appearing in their political resolution. During election meetings the PCE made sure that there was no Republican flag, but the PSOE made a point of showing it. In debates concerning the Constitution, the PSOE demanded and obtained a vote on the issue of the republican form of the state, knowing in advance that this would be refused. Of course Carrillo declared at that time "the Republic is out of the question, we support the monarchy and that is all."

But the PSOE's "left" gestures designed to appear more radical than the PCE without taking any risks soon came to an end. The two parties switched positions after the socialists achieved one of their aims in the June 1977 election - that of becoming the leading left-wing party. The PSOE won 30% of the votes and 118 MPs while the PCE won only 9.38% of the votes and 20 MPs. The combined 40% vote for the left-wing testified to their significant credit and the aspiration to changes among the electorate. But of course, while both parties had the same perspective of integrating the institutions of the state on the basis of an electoralist, bourgeois democratic and moderate policy, the PSOE appeared in a better position to achieve It and it won the contest.

Many activists were disappointed and discouraged by these results. They found it difficult to accept the Carrillo's allegiance to the monarchy, and therefore to politicians who came from the state machinery of the dictatorship. Nevertheless, the PCE, whose electoral slogan had been "to vote communist is to vote for democracy", stuck to this line. Its aim was not to regain the workers' confidence, but to woo a reformist electorate which it wanted to poach from the PSOE. By instituting geographical structures within the party - which resulted in breaking up the existing workplace structures and integrating working class activists into the larger neighbourhood structures - the PCE demonstrated its desire to loosen the most direct links it had with the working class and to dilute the influence of its working class base in order to turn the party into an electoral machinery - that is into a party which, as Carrillo said, would have to "learn to speak in the name of the vast majority of society, in the name of the nation."

This was the time when, despite the PCE's electoral defeat by the PSOE, Carrillo was saying on the platform of the 9th Congress: "we want to be, we are already potentially and we will be tomorrow a party of government."

The symbol of a policy - the Moncloa pact

In fact the PCE was aiming at a possible coalition government with the UCD (Union of the Democratic Centre), the centre-right party led by Suarez.

To this end, the PCE made yet more gestures and concessions aimed at making it appear as a responsible party, which supported the national interest and was capable of extracting sacrifices from workers in the name of stability. This policy attained its peak with the Moncloa agreements in Autumn 1977 (Moncloa being the name of the president's residence.)

In the name of democratic stability, the trade unions and the workers' parties, but above all the PCE, agreed to a policy of pay restraint for workers in the middle of an economic crisis. They committed themselves to maintaining social peace. The PSOE and the trade union linked to it, the UGT, signed and supported these agreements, but the party which was the most directly concerned, given its influence in the workplaces and the role played by its activists, was of course the PCE. The PCE leadership thought that their support for these agreements would be rewarded with some ministerial post. An editorial in Mundo Obrero, the PCE's newspaper said: "It has been said that at Moncloa met recently a sort of super-government operating on the basis of mutual consultation, that there was no discrimination. But indeed, wasn't it what really happened?"

Meanwhile the PSOE and the UGT could afford to stay in the background and to participate discreetly in the policy of national consensus, leaving the PCE to do the dirty work with the workers. This was brought up two years later by Diaz Cardiel, one of the then PCE leaders, who explained to the Central Committee: "At the time of the Moncloa agreements I saw a lot of the party leaders going to various different meetings In order to forbid any sort of demonstration or strike."

The part of the agreement which was actually implemented was the pay restraint. Suarez completed the first parliamentary term without major social unrest. The workers paid the bill with a drop in their standard of living. As to the PCE, it never got any seats in the government.

But while the PCE kept being pushed aside, the PSOE was marching on to win government positions. They were preparing for a victory over Suarez' UCD, the party which had carried out the "smooth transition". And they were able to do so because the UCD had failed to become the party of the right-wing as a whole. Indeed Suarez was considered a traitor by the most reactionary sections of Spanish society, for having opened the doors of Franco's fortress to the enemy. These sections preferred Fraga's People's Alliance (the future People's Party), but Fraga himself was too notorious as one of Franco's former ministers to be able to rally the entire Spanish right- wing.

By this time, the PSOE's aim was to win votes from the centre but also the left, from the PCE's voters. In the 1979 local elections, the PSOE still won many more votes than the PCE. But though the PCE continued to defend their national agreement with the UCD, at a local level it had pass agreements with the PSOE in order to win some seats at least.

The time had come for the PSOE to prove that it was a party capable of assuming the responsibility of power. Felipe Gonzalez had to show that he held the reins of the party and that he was in no way tied down by the vague left-wing impulses within its ranks. At the PSOE 's 28th Congress in May 1979, Gonzalez and his team asserted their authority at the head of the party and proposed to abandon the term "Marxist". At first the congress refused, but when Gonzalez threatened to resign his proposal was accepted. The right-wing newspaper ABC praised Gonzalez's consistency and honesty. The PSOE could be counted upon.

All these policies which had been put into practice by the left-wing parties and the major trade unions had enabled the bourgeoisie to make the transition out of Franco's dictatorship without any problems and to openly attack the standard of living of the working class standards of living without any major upheaval, even though the working class had shown its readiness to fight in the years following Franco's death.

In the summer of 1977 millions of workers had joined the Workers' Commissions and the UGT, which had been legalised at long last. But the leaders of these unions, linked to the PCE and the PSOE, offered no other perspective than the acceptance of the Moncloa agreements. The PSOE's only concern was to get closer to the point when it would be invited into office. The PCE had been disappointed by the failure of its dream of an alliance with the UCD. As a result, it had distanced itself from the centre-right government, but without providing the working class with a fighting perspective which could have at least ensured that workers were not alone to pay for the crisis and allowed them to reinforce their positions against the capitalist class.

The result was a drop in workers' standards of living, due to lower wages and rising unemployment.

The PSOE's triumph and the PCE's crisis

By the end of the transition period, nothing in the policies of the left-wing organisations had changed. They remained just as determined to make concessions to the capitalist class at the expense of the working class.

Thus, when Colonel Tejero attempted a coup, on 23rd February 1981, by entering the parliament building, gun in hand, with a group of "civil guards", the left-wing parties once again reiterated their policy of "national consensus". This time expressing their support for the King, presenting him as the best protection for democracy against a rebel military, thereby boosting his prestige.

Felipe Gonzalez stated that the Spanish military, like their European counterparts, realised that "Europe's socialist and democratic political organisations are parties which defend national interests as much if not more - but at the very least as much as - the right-wing parties. What is more they defend a system which often coincides with military ideals." And in fact, he did not wait long before putting his words into action.

But, to begin with, the left-wing along with the right voted for a series of laws (on the defence of the Constitution and on the state of emergency) which reduced democratic rights. Meanwhile, in the social sphere, the unions signed a National Agreement on Employment which was like an amended and updated version of the 1977 Moncloa agreements. This reduced workers' living standards, not only in the short term, but for several years to come, supposedly in the name of defending democratic freedom. Thus for the PCE and the PSOE it was not the putchists who endangered democracy but the workers! It must be noted that in exchange, the UGT and the Worker's Commissions, led by their respective leaders Redondo and Camacho, received £9m from the government as compensation for the confiscation of the unions' assets at the time of Franco's victory.

In the 1982 election, the PSOE won an absolute majority, with 10 million votes. But the PCE's vote collapsed to 3.8%, with only 4 MPs. Strangely enough, one of the PCE's leaders, Simon Sanchez Montero, would explain later in a central committee meeting and with involuntary irony, that part of the reason for the PCE's failure to win over PSOE had been that "the people voted for our policies but they put us aside."

Before the 1982 elections and in anticipation of predictable defeat, the PCE had already attempted a policy of rapprochement with the PSOE. In 1980, they talked about "a common left-wing strategy" and a "progressive majority". The problem, however, was that unlike in the 1979 local elections, the PSOE did not need the PCE.

Already before the 1982 election, the discontent and crises within the PCE had led Carrillo to expel some sections of the party and to disband various structures. But after this election, many disappointed rank-and-file activists dropped out of politics to concentrate on their activity in the unions. Between 1977 and 1981, the PCE had already officially lost 60,000 activists, but the haemorrhage was set to continue. The PCE's resounding defeat in 1982 and the PSOE's victory caused a crisis from which the PCE has never recovered. Carrillo resigned as general secretary and Gerardo Iglesias took over. The new leadership which came out of the party's 9th congress, in 1983, included many "renovators" like Julio Anguita, who was the PCE's number one up until 1999. The pro-Soviet tendency, led by Ignacio Gallega, set up a "Communist Party of the People of Spain" in 1984, whilst Santiago Carrillo gathered together his few followers in the "Workers Party-Communist Unity" before joining up with the PSOE.

Many in the PCE leadership, who realised how limited their career prospects had become within the party, began to abandon ship. Among them were a majority of the "renovators" who left to join the party which could offer them the most opportunities, the PSOE. As to the other communist parties, apart from differences due to the personalities of their founders, they all agreed on the policy followed by the PCE with respect to the working class.

By the end of this transitional period, parliamentary democracy was finally consolidated, with the PSOE emerging as the main trustee of the capitalist class. The Communist Party, which had put all its weight behind this smooth consolidation of bourgeois democracy, had allowed itself to be marginalised, thereby spreading demoralisation among the thousands of committed working class activists who had put their trust in its policies. The Spanish capitalist class had no longer anything to fear from the working class, at least not for the time being.

2nd July 2000