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The Spanish Socialist Party

John Sullivan

IN MARCH 1996 the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) lost power, enmeshed in allegations of corruption, after being in office since 1982. The PSOE has almost nothing to do with the historic party whose name it bears. At the time of Franco’s death in 1975 it had almost no members in Spain. One reason was that after the defection of most of its youth organisation, led by Santiago Carrillo, to the Communist Party (PCE) in 1936, the party aged rapidly. Another was the split between followers of Caballero and the pro-Stalinist Negrín. During the transition from the dictatorship to bourgeois democracy Carrillo, by then General Secretary of the Communist Party, sneered that the PSOE had spent forty years in "winter quarters". It was an unfair remark especially coming from someone who had done Spanish socialism such harm. Spanish socialists had tried to organise, and had suffered ferocious repression from the Franco regime. However, by the 1950s little was left apart from a few workers in Asturias and Vizcaya. There were, of course, many veteran Socialist Party members abroad but they hardly understood the Spain of the 1970s. There was also a Socialist Party apparatus in exile which was allowed to play its part in the Cold War struggle in the shadow world of the Second International. With the death of Caballero and Prieto, leadership passed to the General Secretary Rodolfo Llopis who had been Minister of Education in the Republic.

Llopis was unconcerned about events in Spain, concentrating on control of his apparatus in Toulouse, and suspecting that anyone within Spain who expressed interest in the party would be a communist infiltrator or, at least, a danger to his own control of the PSOE. The leaders of the Communist Party (PCE) were correct in believing that the PSOE was quite incapable of guaranteeing the transition from the Franco dictatorship to a parliamentary regime. The PCE, on the other hand, had by the 1970s a solid base of worker militants organised in illegal trade unions, and had the support of the cream of the intelligentsia, who were much less anti-Stalinist than elsewhere in Europe. However, it was the new PSOE, sponsored by the leaders of the Second International, which was to reap the rewards for the PCE’s services in facilitating the transition to a parliamentary regime.

By 1970 it was clear to all but a few hard-line rightists that Franco’s days were numbered and that change had to come. The fact that the PSOE hardly existed inside Spain was in some ways an advantage, but Llopis, with his horizons confined to Toulouse, was not an appropriate manager for the transition. The Second International leaders found the appropriate instrument in a group of middle-class people mainly in Seville. Alfonso Guerra, a young lawyer, was clear that his friend Felipe González was the ideal future Prime Minister. He himself, while clever and a good organiser, did not have the Kennedy-type looks to play that role. The International leaders agreed, and in October 1974, just over a year before Franco’s death, the "Sevillanos" replaced Llopis and his cronies at a Congress held in Suresnes near Paris. In December 1976 the Socialist International franchise was displayed when the PSOE held a Congress legally in Spain with Brandt and Foot as guests. The groups which tried to form socialist parties independently were unable to obtain international recognition or money and were gradually incorporated into the PSOE.

The next 20 years saw the party move steadily to the right, losing many of its original members but recruiting others. One of the first measures the leaders took was to replace the PSOE’s democratic organisation with a bureaucratic one centred on the González personality cult. Until 1979 there was considerable internal democracy, but fearing that left-sounding statements would scare away the electorate, Guerra introduced a system of selecting conference delegates which ensured tight control from the centre. The PSOE abandoned its Marxist definition.

The fact that half of the PSOE’s members are either party employees or hold a public position helps to keep them disciplined. Membership has more in common with that of a Stalinist party in power than it does with traditional Social Democracy. Many of the original recruits during the transition from Francoism have left. The disciplinary powers are summed up in Guerra’s much-quoted threat to a group of PSOE officials, "Don’t move or you won’t appear in the photograph". While many party members are deeply unhappy about the scale of the corruption, and there have been calls for a clean-up, it seems unlikely to happen.

Franco died in November 1975 and in the summer of 1976 the king appointed Adolfo Suárez, a former head of the Movimiento (the re-named Falange) as Prime Minister. Suárez legalised political parties and called elections in June 1977 which he won as leader of a party, the UCD, cobbled together from a collection of right-wing liberals, Christian Democrats and bureaucrats like himself who realised that Francoism without Franco was not an option. The PSOE had almost no members but it had lots of money. Its leaders waited to win the next election but Suárez won again in 1979. In October 1982, several years after the Francoist system was dismantled, a PSOE government was elected. The PCE got less than 4% of the vote, sacked its leader Santiago Carrillo and entered into a crisis which still persists.

When the PSOE came to power, Spain was a parliamentary democracy which already had regional autonomy and trade union freedom. The UCD had already dismantled most of the structures of Franco’s corporate state. The PSOE extended that work by carrying out many administrative reforms and legalising abortion. In return, Spanish capitalists got Thatcherite economics, especially labour flexibility. Under Franco it was extremely difficult to dismiss workers (a necessary measure if the development of illegal trade unions was to be discouraged). Under the PSOE, that became incredibly easy. The law has been changed so that young workers are taken on under temporary contracts at subsistence wages. Most young workers are recycled, spending perhaps six months on such a contract, a period out of work, and then another short contract. Employers prefer to do this even when there is permanent demand for labour, as the worker accumulates few rights. The trades unions’ response has been angry but they have been unable to reverse the trend. In consequence most Spanish workers live in much greater fear of the employers than they did under late Francoism.

The PSOE, like the rest of the Spanish Left, had been passionately opposed to NATO, so entry marked a crucial stage in abandoning its radical past. That was achieved through a referendum held in March 1986. The PSOE did not actually campaign for a favourable vote but as NATO was presented as a logical consequence of EEC membership, and the ruling class were in favour of joining, Spain joined the club. NATO membership was seen as essential to being accepted as a full member of Western capitalism. Later the PSOE leaders were enthusiastic about supporting the Gulf War just as they have been about intervention in Bosnia and elsewhere. The involvement of Spanish troops in such measures is seen as confirmation of Spain’s place as a developed capitalist country.

Corruption is not an excrescence on the PSOE but an integral part of its functioning, with well understood procedures for party fund raising and personal enrichment. One method is to create a company which acts as an intermediary for firms seeking government contracts so that bribes can be channelled to the party. Another scam is the use of secret funds, which are alleged to be used in the fight against subversion and terrorism. Roldan, a PSOE member and the first civilian head of the Civil Guard, became a multi-millionaire by obtaining bribes for building contracts, milking the secret funds, and stealing the benefits due to the widows and orphans of his underlings. Corruption exists lower down also, as it helps to be a PSOE member in order to get a job in any education or health authority which the party controls. Other parties (especially the Catalan and Basque nationalists – who also control patronage networks) do the same. As can be imagined this has a devastating effect on class consciousness. Most PSOE members are no more corrupt than Newcastle Labour Party members were in the Cunningham/T. Dan Smith era. However, there is a massive toleration of corruption by the party leaders.

The state’s sponsorship of murder squads is now common knowledge. In 1982 the newly elected PSOE leaders, terrified that they did not have the confidence of the army, feared a repetition of the coup attempt of the previous year if ETA was not smashed. At that time ETA was organised from the French Basque country, where Basque refugees enjoyed considerable rights dating from the Franco era. The government created the Grupos Antiterrorristas de Liberación (GAL) which targeted ETA suspects living in France, using assassins recruited from the French underworld. GAL, much less efficient than the British SAS, murdered dozens of people, most of whom were thought to be ETA sympathisers although the victims included children, bystanders and French citizens. Slowly the culprits are being exposed as those lower-down the scale inform on their superiors. Garcia Damborenea, the former PSOE General Secretary in Vizcaya, has admitted his guilt and alleged that his bosses were in on the plot. The then PSOE-dominated parliament refused to lift the parliamentary immunity of Barrionuevo, the Minister of the Interior who was included in the PSOE list for the March elections, so that he could not be interrogated by the investigating magistrate. It is widely assumed that the PSOE’s passivity in opposing the conservative government shows that a deal has been struck whereby Barrionuevo’s parliamentary immunity will remain and González will not be investigated.

The PSOE activists who have replaced the idealists who joined before the party looked like taking power, are of varied origins. From the beginning González and Guerra were short-handed and were prepared to take anyone who would do as they were told. Barrionuevo, the former minister of the interior, for example, had been an official of the Falangist student union. The long drawn out collapse of the Communist Party produced successive waves of defectors to the PSOE so that there are now many more Stalinist leaders from the 1960s and 1970s there than in the PCE itself. There are also lots of repentant leftists. However, careerists without a political past, such as Roldan, are the largest group. Traditional socialists were shocked at the style of the PSOE leaders. They were members of the "beautiful people" jet set whereas the conservative Partido Popular appeared dowdy and old fashioned.

It has been claimed that the PSOE is no longer a Social-Democratic party because of its abandonment of working class interests, its submission to imperialism, its co-operation with military and right-wing elements in murdering political opponents, its absence of internal democracy, its restriction of democratic rights and the enrichment of its leaders through corruption. The PSOE is certainly guilty on all those charges, but so are the French Socialists, German Social Democracy and the British Labour Party. The PSOE’s electoral base is evidence against that claim. All elections, including the 1996 one, show a geographical and class polarisation. Working class districts and impoverished areas such as Andalusia are predominantly socialist. Where nationalist parties are strong the PSOE emphasises its working class credentials, and aims for the vote of immigrants from elsewhere in Spain. Now that it is in opposition the PSOE demagogically attacks the new conservative government for carrying out policies similar to its own. While González tours Latin America forgetting his arms sales to Pinochet, Guerra reverts to traditional socialist rhetoric to enthusiastic applause from working class supporters.

If Spanish workers were to abandon the PSOE the alternatives are not inspiring. The main such alternative is the PCE and its electoral front, Izquierda Unida, which got 10.6% of the vote in the March elections. The PCE does behave like a left Social-Democratic party, taking socialist positions on peace, the economy, citizens’ rights, racism, etc. It is however an electoral force, not a party of mobilisation. The PCE seeks alliances with the PSOE but if these are not forthcoming it is capable of making deals with the right. The constant haemorrhage to the PSOE continues as the PCE is unable to deliver power, jobs or influence. The latest batch of defectors are led by former leader Sartorius who has transformed his Nueva Izquierda faction into a party which seeks a deal with the PSOE. In these circumstances the PCE leaders, aware of the left’s weakness, can be tolerant of it. The Maoist parties which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s have disappeared. The once-substantial Mandelite LCR has splintered and submerged itself in nationalism, ecologism and whatever else is fashionable.

The Spanish working class retains a considerable power of resistance. Both of the main trade-union organisations, the Workers Commissions and the UGT, have substantial tendencies opposed to the right-wing leaderships. The class struggle can be expected to heat up if the new conservative government tries to curb public spending by cutting pensions, health care and social benefits. The government is aware of that and has, so far, proceeded cautiously. There is little doubt that the PSOE will put on a left face in opposition. As the party’s structure provides few opportunities for rank-and-file action it is difficult for revolutionaries to work directly within it. However, whether as part of Izquierda Unida or as independently organised groups, the terribly weak Marxist forces will have to find a way to split the PSOE or remove its right-wing leadership.