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Santiago Carrillo: A Life in Six Acts (Part 2)

John Sullivan

This is the concluding part of a political biography of the former general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party. The first part was published in What Next? No.22.

FRANCO’S DEATH in November 1975 speeded up the process of political change. Franco had already appointed Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, as his heir, but few observers thought that the regime’s Fascist trappings could survive, especially as the Basque separatist ETA had blown up Admiral Carrerro Blanco, who had been entrusted with overseeing the succession two years before, in an action which Carrillo attributed to the hard line "bunker", perhaps aided by the CIA. The Spanish bourgeoisie was eager to gain entry to the Common Market and knew that would require some kind of Parliament, recognition of the right of association and the release of political prisoners. The Army and the Falange bureaucracy were much more conservative than the bourgeoisie, while the Catholic hierarchy, although divided, generally favoured liberalisation.

Carrillo thought that the transition would be negotiated between himself, as the representative of the workers and intellectuals, and the modernising capitalists and progressive elements in the army and the church. However, it would probably take mass demonstrations and strikes to force the regime to change. The famous peaceful general strike (HNP) was not renounced but was put on the back burner. Carrillo was correct in seeing that the capitalists realised the need for interlocutors between workers and bosses, but he was wrong in thinking that he was the sole candidate for that position. The Socialist International grew impatient at the PSOE’s passivity and critical of its General Secretary, Rodolfo Llopis, who waited patiently at party headquarters in Toulouse for the "free world" to reinstate democracy. Consequently, on the eve of the transition to a parliamentary regime, the party had little influence. However, after a PSOE congress at Suresnes in 1974, the International recognised a new leadership based on a small nucleus of lawyers in Seville. When Carrillo paid a courtesy visit to the congress he met the new PSOE leader, Felipe González, but did not afterwards recall the encounter. After all, the PCE had a hundred times more members in Spain than the PSOE.

Christian Democrats, who included a number of notables who had held important positions in the regime, also aspired to a place in the political sun. Their wealth and social standing gave them immunity from persecution, but they were generals without troops, especially as the church hierarchy refused to back the formation of a Catholic party. Bourgeois reformers needed allies who could mobilise the population, and no one could do that better than the PCE.

Now that significant bourgeois forces were finally convinced that the maintenance of the corporate state was no longer desirable, a body was needed to coordinate the transition. Carrillo achieved a breakthrough when, on 30 July 1974, the Democratic Junta was launched simultaneously in Paris and Madrid. There had been negotiations with Don Juan, the Bourbon heir to the throne, who it was hoped would head a regency which would preside over elections and a referendum to decide whether Spain would be a monarchy or a republic. However Don Juan was warned that such a measure might destroy the monarchy, and that it would be wiser to let his son succeed Franco, so the Junta was formed without him. In the event, very few representatives of the traditional Right were prepared to join. Neither were the PSOE, the Carlist supporters of a rival dynasty, the Basque nationalist party nor the Catalan nationalists. Apart from Carrillo its best known figures were Calvo Serer, a former member of the religious order Opus Dei, and Garcia Trevijano, a lawyer and businessman. It hardly amounted to a strong presence of the modernising bourgeoisie, although Don Juan’s withdrawal persuaded the Carlists to join.

The left participants included the Workers Commissions, which were led by the PCE, a small socialist party, the PSP, led by Professor Tierno Galvan, and several regional groups in Andalusia. The line up was impressive enough to persuade the PSOE that it needed a rival broad front, so it formed the Platform of Democratic Convergence in June 1975, which included Dionisio Ridruejo and Ruiz Gimenez, important figures in the regime’s past, as well as the Maoist ORT. The Platform did not try to combine a cross-class alliance with plans for strikes and mass demonstrations, nor did it attempt to negotiate with Don Juan. In March 1976 the two organisations merged, largely on the Platform’s terms. Carrillo had become convinced that the way forward lay through negotiation with the liberalisers within the regime and that threats of strikes would scare them off . The monarchy, bitterly attacked only months earlier, was tacitly accepted.

In July 1976, King Juan Carlos appointed Adolfo Suárez, a relatively unknown functionary, as prime minister. Suárez moved quickly to dismantle the regime’s fascist structures and prepared for elections in 1977. To do so he needed the cooperation of the opposition, which was readily forthcoming. Until 1976 the PCE called for a "ruptura democrática", that is a firm break with the old regime, through mass activity, but that perspective was now quietly abandoned. The PCE remained illegal and when the government refused to allow its Central Committee to meet in Madrid, Carrillo staged a publicity coup by having it meet publicly in Rome in July 1976.

Always contemptuous of his subordinates, he decided that he must be in Spain to lead the transition personally, so on 7 February 1976, carrying forged papers and wearing a wig, he secretly crossed the frontier in the Mercedes of a sympathiser. Once the police detected his presence the government faced a dilemma, as it dared neither to arrest him nor grant him legal residence. The situation was not ideal for Carrillo, who became concerned that things were slipping out of his control, as the leaders of other political tendencies were working openly, while he was not. More alarmingly, other PCE leaders were taking day to day decisions. Carrillo broke the deadlock by calling a press conference attended by 70 journalists in Madrid on 10 December. He was arrested twelve days later, but freed at the end of the month. Political rivals, particularly the PSOE, would be unable to come to an agreement with the government behind his back and his dominance of the PCE was consolidated. However, the PCE remained illegal and the PSOE, enjoying enormous economic backing from German Social Democracy, was establishing an organisation preparing for parliamentary elections.

The political situation was transformed on 24 January 1977, when ultra-rightists, with the tacit approval of the secret services, murdered a group of lawyers who were sympathisers of the PCE. The killings may have been intended to provoke retaliation and an intervention by the army, but in the event the party’s response of calling massive peaceful demonstrations supported by wide sections of the population impressed most people. The party showed itself as important, prudent and disciplined.

Suárez became convinced that the transition to a parliamentary regime required that the PCE be brought on board, although such a step would be bitterly opposed by the most reactionary sections of the regime. Suárez had already discovered that the other tendencies in the opposition had very limited ambitions. He had spoken to their leaders separately and privately and had realised that they were aspirants to political influence, rather than representatives of distinct social forces.

At a secret meeting between Suárez and Carrillo on 27 February, both men discovered they had much in common. Suárez had always travelled light ideologically. As general secretary of the Falange he had accepted the structures derived from fascism as a fact of life, rather than as revealed truth. Carrillo had more pretensions as a political thinker, but his Marxism-Leninism was always a convenient tool, not a guide to action. The two men became the main architects of the transition to a parliamentary monarchy. The PCE was to be legalised, but under Suárez’s terms, abandoning its anti-capitalist aims and the demand that the opposition should be part of a provisional government. Suárez was to be left free to oversee the transition, marginalising the opposition forces and the general population. The agreement, which seemed the culmination of Carrillo’s career, was to lead to his political demise.

Act Five: Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
To fight the 1977 elections Suárez created a government party, the UCD, from people in the state apparatus, former Falangists, Christian Democrats and personal friends. He had been almost unknown until becoming prime minister the previous year and many Francoists were reluctant to accept his leadership, fearing the risks involved in the move to a parliamentary regime. He had, at first, hoped that the moderate opposition would agree that the PCE would not be legalised before the elections, but came to realise that it would be more dangerous if excluded, so it was legalised at Easter. Party members were understandably jubilant, but were unaware that Carrillo had agreed to alter the party statutes, eliminating all reference to proletarian internationalism, the struggle against imperialism, the right to national self-determination, and opposition to capitalism and landlordism.

Until then the PCE held that Spain was ruled by a narrow "Franco clique" of landowners and bankers who had a very slight social base. That conception underlay the theory of the "Popular Front" which was supposed to unite most of the population against a handful of exploiters. The theory, which was not based on a serious analysis and was a poor guide to Spain in the 1930s, became fossilised in the long years of exile, when the PCE leaders owed their position to their loyalty to Moscow, not to their understanding of Spanish society. They were hostile to Claudín’s theories in the 1960s largely because his observations disturbed their dream of an imaginary Spain.

Once back from exile, reality intruded as they were confronted, not by a "Franco clique", but by a capitalist society with a bourgeoisie attempting to dismantle the authoritarian state structure, while ensuring its own survival in the face of massive unrest. No tendency in the PCE tried to grapple with the problem of developing a political practice which would intervene in the real world, nor did the party’s new "realism" represent an attempt to develop socialist politics in a difficult situation. Instead, the leadership underwent a dramatic conversion and became cheerleaders for Spain’s modernised capitalism. Yet, once the struggle for socialism and a democratic republic was abandoned, the party became redundant.

At its April 1977 meeting the PCE’s Central Committee learned that the party now recognised both the monarchy and its flag. Its members were given reasons why the party’s traditional principles had been abandoned, but were not told about the secret negotiations between Carrillo and Suárez. Nevertheless, they accepted the changes with their customary discipline. Eleven members abstained but no one voted against. Most PCE members and interior leaders had joined within the past twenty years, although most Executive Committee members were veterans who had returned from exile. None were as well known as Carrillo, so his domination of the party was hardly challenged.

The party now prepared for the elections in two months’ time. Its programme hardly differed from that of the PSOE and most of its criticisms were directed against the right wing Alianza Popular led by Fraga Iribarne, a former minister of the Interior, while Suárez’s party, the UCD, was practically ignored. Carrillo hoped for a broadly based coalition government which would include capitalist parties, Socialists and Communists, but failing that, he wanted a UCD government supported by the PSOE and the PCE. The ruptura democrática was quietly forgotten, as it became accepted that the population was to take no active part in the transition.

At that time the PCE claimed to have 150,000 members and its weekly journal, Mundo Obrero, had a circulation of more than 200,000. The party was immensely dynamic and, released from the restrictions of clandestinety, threw itself into the election campaign. Day to day work in trade unions and neighbourhoods was neglected, while election meetings attracted enormous audiences where those daring to display republican flags were beaten up by the stewards.

In the elections on 15 June the UCD, predictably, came top with 34.3% of the votes, more than the PSOE’s 28.5% Although there was no systematic vote rigging and the opposition parties were given time on television, the mainstream media coverage favoured the government. Carrillo revised his predictions of a PCE vote down from 30% to 20%, but it got just over 9% giving it 20 members of parliament, well behind the PSOE. Carrillo denied that the result was a disaster, describing it as very positive for the democratic and left forces. He attributed the defeat of the hard Right in Alianza Popular to the PCE’s campaign rather than to the main capitalist forces backing for the UCD. In fact, Suárez had passed his first hurdle, by avoiding the formation of a provisional government.

As the UCD did not have an overall majority in parliament, Carrillo called for a broadly based government, such as those which had been formed in several European countries in 1945 after the fall of fascism. However, Suárez saw no need for a formal coalition with parties who were willing to cooperate without one, while the PSOE understood that it would be political suicide to take responsibility for the government’s actions. On 23 June the Kremlin launched an attack on Carrillo in the Soviet journal, New Times, accusing him of wanting Spain to join NATO, and of trying to form an anti-Communist alliance. He was annoyed that the attack had not been made before the elections, but it was unreasonable to expect the Kremlin to time its statements to suit the PCE’s electoral campaign. Nevertheless, the article helped to ingratiate him with conservative forces in Spain and elsewhere, and secured him an invitation to the British Labour Party’s 1977 conference.

Carrillo’s performance as the PCE’s spokesman when the parliament convened in July was disappointing. Although he had been a parliamentary reporter for El Socialista in the early 1930s, his style was modelled on the lengthy reports he had been accustomed to give to party meetings, where no one dared interrupt. That appeared incongruous to those unfamiliar with the PCE’s culture, and he was clearly unhappy that MPs did not show him more respect. The only people interested in his proposals for a coalition government were some Christian Democrats and small Social Democratic factions at odds with the PSOE.

A party with only 20 MPs could make little impact in parliament, but the PCE was in a stronger position in the trade unions through its control of the Workers’ Commissions. The UCD government desperately needed to impose wage control, but workers wanted to use their new freedom to extract real wage concessions. The government’s solution to that dilemma was the Moncloa Pact, where an austerity package was negotiated with the workers’ organisations in October 1977. The PCE benefiting from the continuing Suárez/Carrillo alliance was the main advocate of the pact. The PSOE was more reluctant to demand that workers make sacrifices, and its control over the UGT was not as firm as that of the PCE on the Workers’ Commissions. The pact showed that, despite its weak parliamentary presence, the PCE was still a major influence. The unions accepted wage increases well below the level of inflation, while the government embarked on monetarist policies which increased unemployment. The political concessions which were promised in return for wage restraint were not implemented. Carrillo, speaking at the fiesta of Mundo Obrero, hailed the pact as an immense victory, so the PSOE now had no fear of being outbid on its left.

Suárez recognised that the Francoist political structure no longer served the needs of capitalism, mainly because economic struggles which met with police repression soon became politicised. He knew it would be difficult to control the mass opposition movement once the repression was relaxed and that concessions would be needed. In the event, remarkably few concessions were given, mainly because of agreements with the opposition, especially the PCE. Carrillo, following Eurocommunist theory, saw the UCD as a fraction of the bourgeoisie which had come to terms with the workers’ movement, rather than as the option favoured by most of the ruling class. Given the smooth cooperation between the government and the workers’ movement, Leninist theories of the State were obviously redundant, so in April 1978, the PCE congress was told that "Leninism" was to be abandoned.

Parliament now voted for a constitution, validated by a referendum in December 1978, which stipulated that Spain was a parliamentary monarchy and a market economy, with provisions for regional autonomy. The trade unions would replace the state-run sindicatos, but the police and army were not to be reformed. The constitution was ratified by a large majority of those who voted, although abstention was very high. The general expectation that Spain was to be radically transformed was dissipating and political activity declined sharply. Suárez called new elections in March 1979, which produced another UCD victory. The PCE vote increased slightly to just over 10%, a much worse result than in 1977, considering that the party had been free to organise in the interval.

Its membership and activity were declining, it had broken with the Kremlin and, having abandoned its ideology and programme, it suffered a crisis of identity. Its main remaining difference from other parties, Stalinist discipline, had little appeal to voters. Mundo Obrero after becoming a daily soon folded, largely because it was edited by former exiles influenced by Pravda. Carrillo continued to believe that Spain needed a historic compromise, that is an agreement between Communists and conservatives on the Italian model, and that he and Suárez were the ones to carry it out. Felipe González, the PSOE leader, disagreed and attacked the UDC vigorously for its failure to press ahead with reforms. Carrillo opposed those tactics, which he feared would destabilise the government and favour the ultra-right, but the PSOE, lacking the PCE’s activists and social base would have been foolish not to use its strength in parliament.

Unfortunately for Carrillo, Suárez was running into trouble both from the army and from within his own party. His creation of the UDC from a rag bag of opportunists had been a brilliant feat, but the different components made uneasy bedfellows, and some objected to the tight control he exercised over them. Suárez’s opponents were not themselves united: some objected to the extent of regional autonomy, others to legalising divorce. There were rumours of a coup as the military became restive over ETA’s killing of army officers. Finally, the King and his advisors decided that Suárez had served his purpose and, in January 1981, he was forced to resign, thereby depriving Carrillo of his main ally. On 23 February, Colonel Tejero seized the parliament building, holding the MPs prisoner. In circumstances which are still unclear, and after a delay, the King came out against Tejero, and the army was pacified.

Carrillo’s leadership of the PCE was now being challenged. His main opponents were the renovadores, who wanted to drop Marxist rhetoric in order to compete with the PSOE’s modern image. They were mainly professional people, many of whom had joined the party since the 1960s. They were happy about the break with the Soviet Union, abandoning Marxism, accepting the monarchy and adopting capitalist economic and social policies, but they wanted to relax the party’s hierarchical structure and allow internal dissent and collective decision making. Those were unrealistic aspirations, as changes which would have given them more say in the running of the PCE would have made it less effective in controlling the mass movement. Carrillo’s support was among an older generation, especially returned exiles. Rank-and-file workers were largely silent and took little part in decision making.

By 1981 the party was falling apart in a bewildering and chaotic fashion. In Catalonia the renovadores allied with Carrillo against a working class left, the so called "Leninists" or "Afghans", while the Basque renovadores broke away and merged with radical nationalists to form a new party, Euskadiko Ezkerra. Pro-Soviet members hated the renovadores and no longer trusted Carrillo, but as divisions were complicated by personal ambitions, some arrived at surprising destinations. Tamames, Spain’s best known economist, once tipped as Carrillo’s successor, ended up in the Partido Popular, which had emerged from the Francoist machine, while Pilar Bravo, another aspirant to that position, became a PSOE Civil Governor. In attempts to rescue political careers, intellectual Eurocommunists joined pro-Soviet splinter groups and veteran Stalinists became liberals. Such divisions strengthened Carrillo’s conviction that he was the only person who could hold the party together. Members voted with their feet, leaving the party or dropping out of activity, but his position was not directly threatened until key activists decided the party would collapse if he remained.

In the third post-Franco elections, held in October 1982, the PSOE got more than 47% of the votes and a majority of MPs, and was able to form a government. It was eventually free to embark on a programme of privatisation and attacks on living standards which led to a split between it and the UGT. The PCE got only 3.6% of the votes and was reduced to four MPs, one of them Carrillo. The result was hardly surprising, as it had been preceded by equally disastrous ones in regional elections in the PCE’s Andalusian stronghold. Nevertheless, Carrillo declared that he had no intention of resigning nor of calling a special party congress to consider the situation. After all, he had emerged strengthened from previous disasters. Now, for the first time, his own position was threatened.

When the party executive met in November 1982 Carrillo still expected to retain power, and at first no one dared challenge him. The pro-Russians, already considering a breakaway, could not ally with the renovadores. Carrillo realised that the election defeat had been so disastrous that he would be unable to carry on as before, and on the third day of the meeting he announced that he was giving up as General Secretary in favour of Gerardo Iglesias, a young, fairly obscure organiser from Asturias. Only a few close collaborators had been told of his decision and the executive had not been consulted. Iglesias was an ideal replacement, with a reputation as "the hammer of the intellectuals" when he had presided over the splintering of the Asturian PCE in 1977, several years before the party had begun to fall apart nationally. Carrillo’s manner of leaving avoided criticism or debate over his responsibility for the party’s debacle. He stayed on the executive, made no self-criticism, and continued as parliamentary spokesman.

Iglesias was intended as a stop gap, so that Carrillo could continue to rule from off stage, and possibly resume formal leadership later. In the event, Iglesias betrayed Carrillo by making peace with the renovadores, thereby remaining in a position he was manifestly unfit for until 1988. Carrillo retained his seat in parliament, but could not accept a subordinate role and formed his own faction. Spanish Communism became yet more fragmented in 1984 when a Kremlin-loyal party, the PCPE, founded by an Executive Committee member, Ignacio Gallego, was joined by former Carrillo supporters.

As the government, now freed from any substantial opposition on its left, pressed ahead with neo-liberal policies and intensified its support for NATO, the PCE was unwilling to resume the mass mobilisation which had been abandoned in 1977, yet could find little political space between the PSOE and the UCD. Meanwhile there was a continual tide of defections, mainly to the PSOE, while the PCE vote in provincial elections continued to fall.

The majority tendency, led by Iglesias, responded to the crisis by proposing to form an electoral front which would include anti-war activists, feminists and ecologists, as well as former PSOE members who opposed the government’s headlong rush to the right. Carrillo denounced such plans as a ruse to dissolve the PCE within an amorphous grouping, similar to those formed by right wing Eurocommunists a few years earlier. He favoured a "regroupment of Communists", which in practice would have meant a rapprochement with Gallego’s PCPE and other smaller groups. As it became clear that the PCE would split yet again, Carrillo waited for his faction to be expelled, while Iglesias would have preferred that they leave. Iglesias issued an ultimatum which allowed the minority to express criticisms internally but not publicly, and ruled that they were not to control any party organisation. That would have given them more freedom than Carrillo had ever granted to his critics, but would have ensured that they would never be able to change party policy.

The division was not one between left and right. Iglesias’s proposed recomposition was entirely electoral and was aimed at Social Democratic factions, not at left tendencies leading active campaigns against the government’s neo-liberalism. Carrillo continued to argue that the PSOE’s ultra-leftism from 1977 to 1981 had endangered the transition to democracy. The split was formalised in spring 1985, when nineteen of Carrillo’s supporters were expelled from the party’s Central Committee. By then the PCE was a shadow of it former self, having an estimated 35,000 members compared to 180,000 in late 1977. When the government’s attacks on workers’ conditions forced the UGT to break from the PSOE, and to call a general strike for June 1985, the PCE leadership supported the UGT’s initiative, while Carrillo and his supporters opposed it until it became clear that it had massive support.

In 1986 Carrillo formed a new party, the PTE, which failed to win a seat in parliament in the elections of that year. It produced a very curious journal, Ahora, a kind of Carrillo family magazine, which carried articles written by his wife and son, and had no clear political orientation. As the inventor of Eurocommunism he was unacceptable to the Kremlin, while his dictatorial practice was still resented by many former Communists. Carrillo resumed his travels, being welcomed in his role of statesman in minor Stalinist regimes such as North Korea and Romania. However, old friends such as President Ceaucescu faced a troubled future and their good will counted for nothing in Spain. As most Stalinist regimes collapsed at the close of the 1980s, there seemed little future for Carrillo’s amalgam of late Eurocommunism and eccentric Stalinism. In 1991 he negotiated entry into the PSOE for all PTE members except himself, recognising that the future lay with the party he had abandoned in 1936. The PSOE, always short of cadre, welcomed the new recruits and gave them posts in the party and administration, but the return of the former secretary of its youth group would have been too much of an embarrassment.

Act Six: Afterlife
Carrillo’s political life is over, although he remains highly popular with bourgeois politicians and the media. At a meeting in London in the late 1990s celebrating the anniversary of the transition from Francoism, he remained convinced that his party’s disastrous fate was due to a combination of objective circumstances and the idiocy of those who had opposed him. He was particularly scathing about the then PCE leader, Anguita, for squandering his magnificent political legacy.

Carrillo’s services to Spain’s elites were greater during the transition from Francoism than in the revolution and civil war of the 1930s, when he was a relatively junior participant. Few observers at the time of Franco’s death imagined that the dictatorship’s structures could be liquidated while keeping the process securely in elite hands and maintaining the apparatus of repression intact. We cannot tell what might have been, but Spain’s ruling class was not forced to make structural changes such as those implemented in Greece and Portugal. The ruling clans of the Franco regime are still active and there is a striking continuity of family names such as Aznar and Oreja in political life. Carrillo was not responsible for all of that, but a Stalinist party in his skilful hands was an ideal mechanism for controlling the popular movement and stifling democracy.

There is no longer a Carrillo tendency and his Eurocommunist theories are almost forgotten. He always accepted whatever arrangements suited his career, whether it was Stalin’s rule, the cult of Pasionaria, or the PCE’s authoritarian structure. That career foundered when he transferred his allegiance from the Kremlin to Spanish capitalism. Once the transition to a parliamentary regime headed by a PSOE government was completed, Spanish capitalism no longer needed his services. It is impossible to tell how seriously he took the Marxist rhetoric which he deployed throughout his long career, but in his combination of political cunning with simple minded devotion to a fantasy he was typical of Stalinists of his generation.