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The Spanish Communist Party and the United Left

John Sullivan

IZQUIERDA UNIDA (IU), the electoral alliance backed by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), is by far the largest force on the Spanish left. It can be seen as a predecessor of the realignments in Italy and elsewhere, in response to the sharp move rightwards of the established Socialist and Communist Parties. To what extent does it represent a new departure? IU received more than 10% of the votes in the March 1996 Congress elections and had 21 MPs elected, three more than in 1993. The vote was disappointing as it was only a slight increase on the 1993 total. IU had been doing quite well in municipal and regional elections, while the Socialist Party (PSOE) government’s credibility had suffered from its neo-liberal economic policies, its endemic corruption, and its "dirty war" of assassinations against the Basque nationalist armed group, ETA. In the event, many on the left were afraid of a victory for the conservative Partido Popular (PP), so the vote was polarised between the PSOE and PP, to the detriment of IU. The PP ended up as the leading party, but with fewer seats than predicted, and has to rely on the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists.

Besides the PCE, IU includes several small parties, the largest of which is PASO, originally the PSOE (Histórico) adherents of the socialist leadership, who had lost out to Felipe González in getting recognition from the Socialist International in 1974. The PSOE had been to the right of González, but the PSOE government’s rapid move rightwards put it to its left. Other components include the Greens and the Republican Left, an archaic remnant of the bourgeois republicanism of the 1930s. IU is a product of the crisis suffered by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) during the transition to a parliamentary regime from the mid-1970s onwards. After Franco’s death in 1975, the leading sectors of Spanish capitalism were determined to liquidate Franco’s system: that meant parliamentary elections and incorporating the only strong Left party, the PCE, which, led by its veteran General Secretary, Santiago Carrillo, was more than willing to co-operate. In the 1970s Carrillo’s concept of Eurocommunism was popular among wide circles outside Spain who were perhaps unclear about its meaning inside that country. In return for being legalised, the PCE would ensure that capitalism was safeguarded. Carrillo abandoned the party’s historic aims, embraced the monarchy and agreed that the torturers of the workers go unpunished. Most PCE members at that time saw the party’s moderation as a tactic, not a capitulation.

In the first post-Franco elections, held in 1977, the PCE got 9.4% of the votes, which was neither a triumph nor a disaster. The party had been legalised only a few months before and many thought that a stronger performance would provoke military intervention. The UCD, a party hastily cobbled together by Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister appointed by the king, won the election, while the Second International-sponsored PSOE got 29% of the vote. As the PSOE did not have the social weight or trade-union strength to restrain the workers, the PCE’s help was essential in winning acceptance of wage restraint and in agreeing a Constitution. Surprise was expressed at the time at how well Franco’s heirs and the leaders of the left parties got on, but a powerful bond was their mutual determination to exclude the general population including their own supporters, from making decisions. The UCD was a collection of elites, many originating in the Francoist bureaucracy, while the PSOE had very few members, resting as it did, on the support of the Second International. In contrast, the PCE, by mobilising hundreds of thousands of people, had helped make the survival of Francoism impossible, but the Stalinist tradition of unquestioning support to the leadership produced a remarkable consensus on how the transition was to be managed. The Constitution was agreed mainly by private meetings among the leaders of the political parties, and subjected to pressure by the Church and the Army, rather than by parliamentary debate. Incredibly, some ex-leftists now elevate the Constitution into a quasi-religious icon.

The converging elites produced a weak parliament, a strong executive, and state funding of political parties. Combined with an electoral system which gave power to the party bureaucracies, the stage was set for competition among themselves with little opportunity for the participation of citizens or party members. Undemocratic features of the Spanish state, such as provincial military governors, were left in place. The corruption scandals of the 1980s demonstrated how the absence of parliamentary scrutiny allowed ministers and officials to organise death squads and embezzle public money. The PCE and IU have not yet called for more democratic arrangements. In the second electoral contest, in 1979, when the PCE vote increased only marginally, the contradictory and incoherent nature of its project became apparent and it began to fall apart. The bourgeoisie had needed the party, but only till the transition to a parliamentary regime was completed. Militants remained impatient for social change and unhappy with a party which now needed them only for fundraising. Membership plunged and there were a number of splits. The regime within the PCE-controlled trade union, the Workers’ Commissions, tightened as the aim to create a democratic union based on mass participation was replaced by the traditional Stalinist top down model. Ambitious middle-class professionals, seeing little prospect of advancement within the PCE, began to defect to the PSOE.

Carrillo’s attempt to straddle several horses was doomed to defeat, but he made it worse by combining Eurocommunist rhetoric with an internal Stalinist regime. Veteran cronies from exile were preferred to activists who had led the struggle inside Spain. For example, the party’s daily newspaper, Mundo Obrero, was a disaster which had to be abandoned in spite of the availability of competent communist journalists. Party activists were bewildered by the returning leadership, whose sojourn in East-European bureaucratic ghettos had isolated them not only from Spain, but from the rest of the planet. The party’s decline continued, so that on the eve of the 1982 elections which brought the PSOE to power, expectations were low, but nevertheless the results were shattering: with less than 4% of the vote and with only 4 MPs, the party seemed finished. Militants joked that Carrillo had succeeded where Franco had failed, in destroying the Communist Party. The Executive Committee rebelled and forced him to resign as General Secretary. He succeeded in having a trusted henchman, Gerardo Iglesias, appointed to replace him in what he hoped was a temporary absence. However, Iglesias betrayed Carrillo by throwing in his lot with the remaining Eurocommunists and, in spite of his manifest incapacity, retained his position for nearly six years. Carrillo’s internal faction did not prosper, so he formed his own party and sought allies in North Korea and Romania. When that flopped, he negotiated the entry of his supporters into the PSOE in 1989. It was a return to his origins although he himself did not join: As the former Secretary of the Socialist youth organisation, who had delivered it to Stalinism in 1936, he was still something of an embarrassment.

Once the PSOE was in power the PCE was forced to adopt a more activist role, and it became much more critical of the PSOE than it had been of the UCD. When the government took Spain into NATO, to the dismay of broad sectors of the population, the PCE promoted an anti-NATO coalition for the May 1986 Referendum, which provided the model for lzquierda Unida, established early in 1987. The PSOE’s consolidation as a reliable custodian of Spanish capitalism scuppered the PCE’s chance of playing that role and forced a move to the left. Yet, adopting more militant policies, although popular with militants, alienated Eurocommunist members, who continued to defect to the PSOE. When Gorbachev began to demolish the Soviet system, the pro-Russian groups collapsed, thereby eliminating some PCE competitors. The fall of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe was much less traumatic for the PCE than for many other Communist Parties, and was not a major cause of the party’s weakness. Carrillo had come into conflict with the Soviet leaders as early as 1968 over the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when support for Russia’s action would have been unacceptable to the bourgeois forces which the PCE was then courting.

In 1988 Iglesias was replaced by Julio Anguita, who was acceptable partly because he had not been a key player in previous factional struggles. An Andalusian from a military family and a Christian background, he joined the PCE in 1972 and was elected mayor of Cordoba in 1979. The "Caliph of Cordoba" is popular among party members and, to some extent, the general public. He has tried, with some success, to create a more activist party involved in social movements and extra-parliamentary activities. Anguita’s style differs markedly from that of the Stalinist apparatchiks who surrounded Carillo. There are similarities to Tony Benn in his moralism and popular appeal, but he has none of Benn’s acute tactical skill. Under his leadership the recovery in IU’s votes has been real, but slow and limited. The desertion of ambitious cadres to the PSOE continues, with IU acting as a staging post on the journey. The latest such tendency is the, misnamed, Nueva lzquierda (NI) (New Left), which complains that Anguita is too negative and anti-PSOE, now proclaims itself to be a political party, not merely a tendency within IU. As its members have no intention of initiating independent political activity, their options are limited to pressurising their coalition to moderate its policies, or persuading the PSOE to include them in an alliance.

Anguita has annoyed NI by proclaiming his commitment to Republicanism, as a response to the king interfering in politics. It may be rather absurd for the PCE to raise the call for a republic now, rather than in 1977, when its acceptance of the monarchy helped ensure that the republic would not be established, but the issue is important. Both the state-controlled and private media devote great effort to promoting the royal family in order to make it the symbol of Spanish unity, in a way reminiscent of Francoist propaganda for a "Spain, united and indivisible". The king is now depicted as not merely a compromise figurehead, whom republicans could accept, but as a more traditional royal figure. It is routinely asserted that he was responsible for the defeat of the attempted military coup of February 1981. As time passes, the extremely obscure events surrounding the coup are presented as a simple story of the king saving the day for democracy. The fact that military threats were successful in preventing further reforms is conveniently forgotten. The myth which is being created is extremely useful for Spain’s rulers now that politicians are generally distrusted. The PCE’s adherence to the myth of the "Democratic Forces" (i.e. those which negotiated the Constitution) leads it into dangerously sectarian positions. In the Basque country it rightly condemns the rather indiscriminate killings by ETA, but it does so in the company of Franco’s heirs.

The PCE no longer controls the Workers’ Commissions, although it retains an influence there. Its General Secretary, Antonio Gutierrez, put into power by the PCE machine, is no longer a party member. Being a minority in the union has helped push the party to the left. As the UGT, the union historically linked to the PSOE, broke from that alliance in response to the government’s attacks on the working class, the opportunities for united action improve. At municipal level IU councillors use their resources to help refugees, the homeless and conscientious objectors, rather than enabling themselves to live a comfortable life. Any left-wing party which has a share in local administration will have a conflict between the need to administer and to agitate, but this is particularlv difficult for the PCE/IU because of the stifling tradition of paternalism and bureaucracy which it has inherited.

IU was an ad hoc response to a specific situation in 1980, rather than a worked-out strategy. As the PCE advocated a Popular Front with bourgeois forces, rather than a United Front of the labour movement, it always sought bourgeois allies, but there have been few takers. The preferred partners were moderate regionalist parties, while the more radical nationalist forces in the Basque country and Alicia have seen IU as either centralist or moderate. Given the failure to create a real Popular Front, the social movements (Greens, gays, feminists) have had to substitute for them, but such movements have declined greatly since their heyday in the early 1980s. The most important of them, the Greens, are less absurd than the eco-warriors of Northern Europe, as there are serious conflicts in Spain over issues such as the use of water. However, such conflicts often pit region against region rather than provide a focus of resistance to capitalism. A permanent alliance with other parties has considerable advantages for the PCE leadership. IU’s policies have to be acceptable to its partners, and as those have very few members, the decision-making process is obscured. The logic of parliamentary politics constantly tempts IU to cross the class line and ally with anti-working-class forces. The crassest example of its Popular Frontism was making an alliance with the PP in Andalusia to depose the PSOE from the regional government. That resulted in a loss of votes in the general election, demonstrating that many workers had a better erase of class politics than the PCE.

With a PP government in power the PSOE began, inevitably, to make left noises, although the new government merely continued the policies of welfare cuts and privatisations which it had itself began. The PCE leaders will see the coming period as a chance to replace the PSOE, rather than to work for united action with sections of that party. It would be foolish to deny the survival of the most boneheaded Stalinism in the PCE. For example, some members wanted to erect a statue of Dolores lbarruri in Madrid, in spite of the availability of books and films detailing the part the party played in suppressing the revolution in the 1930s. Spanish capitalism does not need the PCE as a replacement for the PSOE, so it is unlikely that it will a be invited into partnership as it was during the transition from Francoism. It might seem odd that a party which betrayed the workers’ movement both in the 1930s and the 1970s could still be a focus of resistance to capitalism. However, the PCE shares the dual nature of mass working-class parties, in having to balance between its supporters’ needs and the interests of capital. To become a radical force linked to workers’ struggles would require mobilisation, participation, and a rejection of the bureaucratic undemocratic features of the Spanish state which the PCE was instrumental in creating. The party shows no sign of making any serious examination of its past, and any attempt to do so would provoke unbearable tensions. PASO and the other forces within IU, although not mere satellites, present no hope for change, being generally to the party’s right. However, Spanish Marxists have little choice but to orientate toward IU, as there are no substantial forces to its left.