Spain - After the March 12th general election - the left-wing in crisis

Jul-Aug 2000

The result of the recent Spanish general election, on March 12th, was a spectacular step backwards for the left wing parties. This slide back was even greater than in the European and local election in June 1999. The right wing "People's Party" led by José Maria Aznar, which has been in government since 1996, won an absolute majority of the seats with 44% of the vote - an increase of 400,000 over the previous general election.

The Socialist Party (PSOE), which was in government from 1982 to 1996, lost 2 million votes compared to 1996 (around 20% of its electorate). The second left-wing party, the coalition known as Izquierda Unida (United Left), which was centred around the Communist Party (PCE), lost around 1 million votes, or almost half its 1996 electorate.

Unquestionably, the agreement made some months before 12th March between Almunia, the General Secretary of the PSOE, and the PCE's Frutos, which presented a sort of united left, in an attempt to contain the electoral retreat of the left-wing parties, failed in its aim to seduce the working class. The increased abstention (from 23% in 1996 to 30% in March 2000) seem to have come mostly from poor left-wing voters who were deeply disappointed by the policies of the left-wing parties. And it is hard to see how this united left programme, which was drawn up in haste with the aim of preventing a predicted electoral defeat, could have inspired confidence among Spanish workers who were demoralised by the consequences of the policies, implemented over the past two decades, by these parties claiming to represent their interests.

The present crisis of the left-wing parties is the continuation of a long process which began with the transition following Franco's death and unfolded in the subsequent years as the PSOE, having marginalised the CPE, took the front of the political stage as the recognised manager of capitalist interests in government.

The PSOE in power

After the PSOE's victory in 1982, it became the focus for the expectations of the population - of all the aspirations for change produced by the end of the dictatorship but not fulfilled by the previous government.

In its election campaign, the PSOE had promised to prevent the return of the right-wing and the dictatorship, arguing at the same time that it was not possible to satisfy all working class demands. However, the PSOE had talked about democracy, freedom, social justice, and the need to share sacrifices more equally. Its only specific promise had been the creation of 800,000 jobs, but without setting any time-table. They had also vaguely talked about the possibility of leaving NATO.

Felipe Gonzalez did not wait long before dropping all his promises and adopting policies in favour of capitalist interests. Once more the weight of the crisis fell on the shoulders of the working class. He used all his influence to explain to the workers that in order to end the economic crisis, company profits had to increase and that in order to fight unemployment, wage increases had to be constrained.

Shortly after their victory, the socialist government initiated a programme of industrial restructuring in the large state-owned sector. For thousands of workers this was a bitter pill to swallow. Boyer, the Economy Minister, admitted that the socialists' policy was the continuation of that of the previous government. But this was only made possible because of the unions' agreement. Year after year they accepted a policy of pay restraint - first with an agreement signed in 1983 by the UGT, Workers' Commissions and the bosses and then, in 1984, with another agreement signed by the UGT, the bosses and the government.

The restructuring affected all the main sectors of industry and big companies: first, the steel industry where the workforce shrunk from 28,000 in 1984 to 10,000 ten years later; then came shipbuilding, textiles, mining, the chemical industry, etc.. each of them being severely affected. All in all, one job in four was cut while unemployed soared to 57% among young workers.

On several occasions workers mounted strong resistance to these measures. There were strikes and street battles with the police at the Mediterranean furnaces; in El Ferrol; at shipyards in Puerto Real, Bilbao, Cartagena, etc.. But the unions did nothing to provide a common objective to these struggles nor to generalise them.

Solchaga, the Employment Minister, along with Corcuera, one of the UGT leaders, promised that those workers hit by unemployment would benefit from reconversion schemes thanks to the ZUR (Urgent Zones of Reindustrialisation) and from the funds for job creation. Of course workers got nothing out of this, but the companies pocketed millions and Corcuera concluded his trade union career by becoming a minister.

During this period, the number of unemployed increased by 800,000 (exactly the number of jobs which the PSOE had promised to create!). This meant that 21% of the active population was out of a job, a total of 3 million people. In addition, 15% of the active population had temporary jobs and while, in 1982, 75% of the unemployed received no state aid, by 1988, this proportion had increased to 83%.

While workers were taking the brunt of the crisis, companies enjoyed all kinds of tax breaks, reduced social contributions and various subsidies. Thus, when the state-owned SEAT was sold to Volkswagen , the "cleaning up" of the company cost the government £1.4bn, on top of the £90m which Volkswagen received over the following ten years! Meanwhile, between 1989 and 1991, banks announced profits of around £2bn and the biggest banks received £8bn in tax rebates connected to the bank mergers which were taking place. No wonder the daily paper El Pais could write by 1987 that: "the top 100 Spanish companies have increased their profits by 107%."

Nowadays the PSOE, an opposition party since 1996, criticises the way in which the right-wing People's Party carries out privatisations. But its criticisms are primarily aimed at showing that it did more and better, than the present government in this respect. And it is true that the PSOE government carried out more privatisations: in the second half of the 1980s, it privatised, totally or partially, forty major state companies.

If the socialists criticise the corruption of Aznar's People's Party today, it must not be forgotten that while they asked others to make sacrifices, the ministers and leaders of the Socialist Party behaved like nouveaux riches, showing off their brand new affluence. These were triumphant years of stock market and real estate speculation and fraud. As one minister, Solchaga, boasted, one could make a fortune in Spain faster than anywhere else.

1986 - a first electoral warning

Demoralisation and a sense of betrayal was widespread among the working class. Although the PSOE again won an absolute majority in the 1986 general election, they lost a million votes, mainly in working class towns and regions such as Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. This time, the workers' dissatisfaction expressed itself passively by an increasing number of abstentions.

Faced with this situation, however, the PCE did not try to offer workers any perspective. The PCE, its offshoots and the groups which revolved around it, carried on competing with the PSOE exclusively in the electoral sphere but certainly not in the sphere of the class struggle, and not even at the level of the immediate preoccupations of the working class.

This was how the United Left (Izquierda Unida) was set up before the 1986 election. It was a coalition of the groups which had campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum over Spain joining NATO". Through the United Left, the PCE leaders hoped to attract some of the 7 million who had voted against Spain's membership.

This was another failure as the United Left only won 900,000 votes, or 4.61%. Obviously the anti-NATO electorate was not necessarily radical, nor prepared to identifying with a coalition originating from the PCE tradition.

But this policy of trying to form a regroupment around the NATO issue was not initiated just by the CP and United Left. The far left made the same calculation by developing a policy based on the struggle against NATO. It sought to regroup all those looking towards pacifism, ecology, feminism and even nationalist autonomists - particularly in the Basque country. In the mid-eighties most of the far-left took this direction. By doing so, it cut itself off from the class struggle and the preoccupations of the working class, while seeking to attract other social layers, which were more receptive to fashionable issues, in the hope of winning their support.

Thus, the Spanish section of the United Secretariat of the IVth International, the LCR, went along with the anti- electoralist trend which was widespread at the time in the pacifist and ecologist milieus, and chose not to stand candidates in elections. By the same token, the LCR deprived itself of a means of addressing workers on the basis of a programme aimed at defending the interests of the working class. But this electoral abstention did not prevent the LCR from campaigning for the nationalists of Herri Batasuna, the political wing of ETA, in the Basque country. In the European election, the LCR went even further by campaigning for Herri Batasuna in the whole of Spain with slogans such as "vote for HB as that is what hurts them most".

The merger of the LCR with the Communist Movement of Spain (MCE), a Maoist, pacifist and feminist group, led to the setting up of an organisation in which the LCR was to dissolve itself, to the point of effectively renouncing the revolutionary programme. Eventually the merged organisation (or rather what was left of it) disappeared into the United Left.

Real working class resentment

The workers resentment was becoming increasingly deep. It surfaced in the spring of 1987 when strikes and demonstrations multiplied throughout the country. In the mines of the Asturias and in the shipyards of Puerto Real the workers confronted the police.

Following the killing of a worker by a civil guard, the population of Reinosa, a Basque town, encircled the police and disarmed them. These events took place whilst strikes were breaking out up and down the country. While feelings were running high in every workplace, the unions refused to take any initiatives which would have reinforced the workers' militancy. It took more than a year for the Workers' Commissions and the UGT to call for a one-day general strike.

Since 1985, the Workers' Commissions had countered their socialist rival, the UGT, by refusing to sign agreements. This policy had been successful in some ways. When they called for a first one-day general strike against pension cuts, it was well supported. It expressed the dissatisfaction felt by many workers towards the UGT's policy of open collaboration with the socialist government.

In the big companies the UGT had already lost votes to the Workers' Commissions in the 1986 union elections. Its leaders had learnt their lesson and made a stand against the government by demanding, along with the Workers' Commissions, some concessions in return for their past support for the "economic adjustments". The government gave way on certain demands to provide the UGT with a face-saving device. But it was not prepared to give up its anti-working class policy and in particular its Youth Employment Scheme which was aimed at imposing the casualisation of labour for young workers. This was the fuse which sparked off the one-day general strike on 14th December 1988.

This strike was overwhelmingly supported. The entire country was paralysed - trains, buses, large companies and even the television. On that day the working class showed that they were the ones who made everything work and when they stopped everything stopped.

But there was no follow-up to December 14th. For years the unions had competed by trying to capitalise on workers' discontent. But when the working class expressed this discontent too forcefully, the unions adopted a low profile.

Yet again the workers' militancy was wasted by union leaders whose objective was only to use the workers' anger in order to sit down at the negotiation table and play the role they aspired to.

Although Felipe Gonzalez admitted to having received a "severe shock", the prospect of forcing the government to concede on its anti-working class measures faded away in endless rounds of negotiations which allowed Gonzalez to regain the upper hand.

New attacks against the working class

In the following years, the attacks on workers continued. From 1990 onwards, unemployment increased by 1000 every day, reaching 3.6 million unemployed or 24% of the active population.

In 1992 the government passed a decree which reduced unemployment benefits. The unions' reply, this time, was a half-day strike, which was badly organised and left many workers disappointed. Two years later the government imposed "Work Reform", which increased flexibility and created new work contracts - workers immediately found an expressive nickname for these contracts, that of "junk contracts".

This new government attack led the unions to call another one-day general strike, but they did so without conviction and after this day the only perspective proposed by Antonio Gutierrez, the Workers' Commissions general secretary, was to fight company by company.

Once again the unions were doing nothing to unite the struggles, rather the opposite. The union leaders made a point of showing their sense of responsibility whenever possible, in order that they be seen as the "social mediators" which the bourgeoisie might need.

From the 1989 European elections onwards, the electoral decline of the PSOE increased, due both to its anti- working class policies and a series of corruption scandals. In addition there was the scandal surrounding the government's use of secret paramilitary groups, the GALs, which were financed by the Home Office to track down ETA activists and which had killed several alleged ETA members.

Despite the socialists' discredit, however, the United Left failed to regain some of their votes during these years. In the 1993 general election the PSOE lost its absolute majority in Parliament for the second time and began to look for an ally. This led to discussions between the socialists and the United Left over a possible common platform for government. These discussions did not last long as the socialists preferred to govern with the support of the Catalonian nationalists led by the president of the Catalonia General Council, Jordi Pujol.

The PCE in search of a "sorpasso"

From this time onwards any possibility of government participation became more and more remote for the United Left and the PCE. Julio Anguita, the PCE and United Left leader, began to talk about something he designated by the Italian word "sorpasso" - meaning the possibility for the United Left of overtaking the PSOE in order to become the largest left-wing party - thereby turning it into a real alternative against the right- wing.

During the transitional period after Franco's death, the PCE had already attempted the same policy, by seeking an alliance with the UCD - with no success. This time the United Left was going to join its votes to those of the People's Party (the main right-wing party) against the PSOE. This was how in the Andalusian parliament, for example, they won the parliamentary presidency with the People's Party's support. The only demand formulated by the United Left was that "Felipe Gonzalez must leave" ("marchese Senor Gonzalez"). Yet, when that happened it was obvious that he would be replaced by Aznar, the new leader of the right-wing, who had taken over from the old pro-Francoite, Fraga.

But apart from making the activists hope for the "sorpasso" the United Left's policy did not change under Anguita. In fact, Anguita was even noted for his frequent reminders of the need to respect the Spanish Constitution and his proposal to set up discussion forums about the Constitution.

The United Left was always involved in every institutional agreement, from the reform of criminal law to the agreement over pension cuts. It was always respectful of the electoral framework and the Constitution, which it portrayed as a kind of divine law, offering some sort of solution to the problems faced by the working class and the population as a whole.

The left-wing's backward slide

In the 1996 general election, the PSOE lost political power. After twelve years of anti-working class policies and scandals, it was totally worn out. However, the United Left's "sorpasso", dreamt of by Anguita, did not happen. The United Left won 10% of the votes - a slight improvement of 1% - but this was far behind the PSOE's 37%.

The failure of Anguita's policy led to a new crisis within the coalition. First, the "renovators", who advocated a rapprochement with the PSOE, were expelled. Then the federations of Galicia and Catalonia made local agreements with the PSOE regardless of the leadership's position, which led to their breaking with the leadership.

At the same time, however, the United Left's leadership was making gestures towards the PSOE. But its problem was to retain a position in the alliance which would enable it to negotiate without disappearing.

There were also changes on the PSOE's side. Once ousted from office, Felipe Gonzalez resigned, leading to primary elections within the PSOE. What it needed was someone who had not been implicated too closely in the various scandals which had discredited many members of the party machinery. The activists chose Borrell. But following the party's electoral defeat in the Basque country and various internal skirmishes, Almunia won the contest and led the socialists in the 1999 European elections and in the last March general election.

The European election saw another fall in the PSOE's vote and the collapse of the United Left. Anguita stepped down and was replaced by Frutos at the head of the United Left. Several months before the election, the United Left and the PSOE reached an agreement - a circumstancial agreement which could fool nobody.

This agreement provided for joint candidates to the Senate. It also gave assurances that the United Left's MPs would support Almunia's bid to become head of the government in case the left-wing parties won the election.

But if the left-wing politicians, from the PSOE and the PCE, were thereby trying to save their political future, they made no special commitments to the workers who for the last 25 years, under both left-wing and right-wing governments, had footed the bill for policies which were designed to protect capitalist interests and guarantee the profits of the richest at the expense of the working class.

Almunia talked cynically about the necessity for "economic rigour" and a stability plan. He made clear that he would not increase company tax and that the 35-hour working week would result in company subsidies. He boasted once again about the socialists' privatisation policy. As for Frutos, the United Left leader, he merely echoed Almunia's words and simply added that the vote for the United Left would perhaps enable the PSOE to progress further to the left, thus ensuring that the future left-wing government, if there was one, might have a slightly more "social" policy. From time to time he made the effort of addressing the older activists by talking about the return of the left-wing "for the first time since 1936".

But this agreement could no longer hide its true face, as an agreement based purely on convenience, between the PCE, which had been collapsing for years, and the PSOE, which was trying to revamp its image among workers after 14 years of anti-working class policies. The two parties perhaps thought that this alliance, which they had called the "plural left" as a reference to Jospin's 1997 electoral victory in France, would make them more credible in the eyes of their traditional electorate. But many workers and activists were not fooled by this manoeuvre. Over the previous 25 years, left-wing politicians had used their credibility among the working class and their electoral weight to serve capitalist interests. Thanks to them the bourgeoisie had been able to put the Franco era behind it, without having to face any major political or social crisis, to join the European Union and become rich thanks to the overexploitation of the working class - who had been told by the left-wing parties and the unions that unemployment, low wages and flexibility were unfortunately necessary and inevitable.

A sad balance sheet

For years, whatever their electoral manoeuvres, the policies of the left-wing parties in Spain have consisted in using their credibility among workers to get their share of the government cake. Only the PSOE was able to succeed in its attempts. And, once in power, it carried out pro-capitalist policies by implementing drastic anti-working class measures, supposedly "in the name of the left" and with the de facto support of its electoral rival, the PCE. Both parties played a role in demoralising the working class and leaving it without any perspective.

As for the country's two main union confederations, they carry on playing the same role under the right-wing government that they have played since the transitional period. Today, with the rightwing in government, under Aznar's People's Party, they continue to sign agreements which go against workers' interests, such as the "Work Reform" which makes redundancies even easier and retains temporary jobs (which represent 30% of all jobs today).

But the most damaging consequence of the PSOE's and PCE's action over the past 25 years, is that they have demoralised a large section of the working class and its activists.

The PSOE has never been a party which organised a large number of working class activists. But the trade union to which it is linked, the UGT, provides a framework for the militant activity of thousands of workers. The PSOE leaders have a decisive responsibility in their demoralisation. However, the most dramatic development is, unquestionably, the collapse of the PCE and the demoralisation of those of its activists who used to run the Workers' Commissions.

At the end of the Franco era the PCE was a real force. It included activists, cadres and youth who had managed to maintain and develop political and trade union organisations under the dictatorship. Thousands of them had risked their lives, or at least their freedom, in order to defend their ideas and to fight for social justice and equality. Tens of thousands of them wanted to change society. They were betrayed, cheated, muzzled and demoralised. Of course no one can claim that if any of the Spanish far left groups (which had limited means, but were far from negligible at the time of the "transitional period") had tried to win over these activists to another policy, by concentrating on the defence of the interests of the working class, it would have succeeded. But what is significant is that none of these organisations has even tried. That is, none of them chose as its priority, the task of building a proletarian revolutionary organisation.

The Maoists and the Trotskyists who came out of the student movement of 1968 in Spain did criticise the PSOE and the PCE, but not from the point of view of the interests of the working class. When they managed to pull workers behind them, it was only to place them behind the leadership of radical nationalist organisations or to give them the objective of "pushing to the left" the policies of the left-wing parties and trade unions, or even of the left government when it was in power.

And yet, the whole history of these 25 years shows that workers have nothing to expect from reformist politicians of any kind. And however difficult the task may be, there is no way to be a socialist or a communist today other than to rebuild the links that the past generations of activists managed to create, between the vanguard of the working class and the ideas and the programme of the social revolution.

2 July 2000