The Spanish Socialist Party: A History of Factionalism 
by Richard Gillespie.
Oxford, 520 pp., £40, January 1989, 0 19 822798 1
Show More
Show More

Camilo Jose Cela, the recent Nobel Prizewinner, remarked a few years ago that Spain remained ‘excessive’ in all things. ‘This country either destroys you or it puts you on its altars.’ Spanish excesses, the contrasts of landscape and architecture, the sensuality and austerity that exist side by side, often in the same person, have long appealed to outsiders. So have the mysticism and irrationality, the violence of politics, the idealism and barbarism of the Civil War. ‘Spain is different,’ said the Francoists in justification of their denial of human rights and democratic principles: it was not suited to representative government. Everyone else disagreed, rightly, while at the same time hoping that the country would retain its differences. Spain’s contrasts and contradictions were too interesting to be sacrificed for the sake of European conformity.

Things have changed rapidly. Eight years ago a gang of policemen captured the entire government in Parliament, tanks and martial law took over in Valencia, and Army units occupied the main radio and television buildings in Madrid. Only the King stood between the constitution and a military dictatorship. Since then, however, Spanish politics have become as stable and predictable as any in Europe. Last month’s election campaign provoked almost universal boredom, and it was difficult to find anyone intending to vote with enthusiasm or conviction. Yet perhaps the foreseeable result did contain some contradictions of its own. It is strange to see an electorate repeatedly electing a socialist leader who has no intention of carrying out socialist policies. And it seems hard to understand why conservatives should warm to a party which only a decade ago was still proclaiming its Marxism. I asked one elderly right-wing businessman why he was going to vote socialist, and he barked in that familiar authoritarian tone, reminiscent of past epochs: ‘Gonzalez is the best leader we have had since Franco.’

Anyone interested in the bewildering trajectory of Spanish socialism should read Richard Gillespie’s history of the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español or PSOE), appropriately subtitled ‘A History of Factionalism’. It is a remarkable work of research and scholarship which chronicles the entire saga, from the austere, puritanical beginnings through varying stages of notoriety and irrelevance to the flamboyant and very unpuritanical present. One cannot pretend that it is always exciting, because the meetings of exiled committees or the activities of anonymous cells during the dictatorship are by their nature unexciting. But it is the history that Spanish socialism needed and deserved.

The PSOE’s origins lie in the Madrid printers’ association of the 1870s and in the ascetic, incorruptible figure of its leader Pablo Iglesias. Distrusting intellectuals and making no theoretical contribution to socialist thought, the Party retained a working-class image for many years. Its leaders proclaimed themselves Marxists but Gillespie points out that they had read very little Marx and were heavily influenced by the more simplistic work of his French disciple Guesde. Perhaps they deserved Unamuno’s jibe that they received the doctrine ‘just like children learn the responses to the Catechism’. Certainly their problems were well described by the writer who depicted Iglesias as the ‘editor of a newspaper without readers and president of a party without members in a country without citizens’.

In spite of the corrupt and unpromising circumstances of the age, few socialists became revolutionaries. After Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état in 1923, the Party’s trade union (UGT) even collaborated with the military dictatorship. It was the coming of the Second Republic that created havoc within the Party, dividing it into three antagonistic factions which disagreed over both tactics and objectives. Largo Caballero, the trade-unionist leader who had promoted co-operation with Primo de Rivera, moved to the left and became known, absurdly, as ‘the Spanish Lenin’. The Socialists fought the 1936 elections in alliance with the Republicans but subsequently refused to govern in coalition with their allies. Failing to learn from the mistakes of the Italian Socialists in the early Twenties, Largo Caballero vetoed the idea that Prieto, a more talented rival, should join the government and thereby strengthen the Republic at a critical moment. Such irresponsibility proved fatal to the Party and the regime, and ‘the Spanish Lenin’ is not, understandably, included among the heroes of the contemporary PSOE.

During the war the PSOE suffered a further split over the level of co-operation with the Communist Party, and the vendetta this caused was pursued for many years in exile. After Franco’s victory the Party barely survived in Spain. Thousands of members were shot or imprisoned, and as late as 1950 twelve hundred militants were incarcerated in Burgos. In Madrid six successive executive committees were uncovered and arrested, and in much of the country the membership was reduced to a handful of veterans doing little more than pass around out-of-date copies of El Socialista.

The rival leaderships in exile campaigned vigorously for a few years but became demoralised by the Allies’ refusal to overthrow Franco after the Second World War. During the subsequent decade they remained mere spectators to the international community’s gradual acceptance of the Franco regime: in 1952 Spain joined Unesco, in 1953 it signed agreements with both the United States and the Vatican, and in 1955 it became a member of the UN. Prieto tried to establish an opposition front with the Monarchists, for which he was excoriated by fellow Socialists – but without success. Like the other Republicans, many Socialists spent their long exiles forming committees, passing resolutions and debating quite unrealistically how they might get rid of Franco. One former socialist deputy remarked: ‘the only thing we are doing is gradually dying.’ Eventually socialist legitimacy was preserved in Toulouse, in the inflexible and unimaginative figure of Rodolfo Llopis. Apart from providing continuity, the French-based leadership did little except discourage socialists inside Spain from re-organising.

After three decades of exile, Llopis and his associates seemed incapable of understanding that vast social and economic changes were taking place in Spain. Although delegates from the interior told them what was happening, they persisted in depicting Franco as a ‘fascist dictator’ oppressing millions of ‘starving workers’. By the early Seventies, as the regime neared its end, it was plain that the Party had to be reformed and control returned to an internal leadership. A lengthy contest with the obdurate Llopis followed, culminating in 1974 with the Socialist International’s endorsement of the ‘renovated’ PSOE under Felipe Gonzalez. Yet the Party was still astonishingly weak. In the 1977 Election it gained some five million votes, but less than three years earlier it had only 3586 members, many of them concentrated in the provinces of Vizcaya and the Asturias. The ubiquitousness of the PSOE in Andalusia today – swarms of bespectacled, black-bearded men who invariably turn out to be Socialist counsellors – is a recent phenomenon, the result of an extraordinary operation carried out by Gonzalez and his Sevillian colleagues, notably his ruthless deputy Alfonso Guerra.

The Gonzalez-Guerra relationship dominated Socialist and opposition politics in the Seventies and has dominated the Spanish Government since 1982. It works so well it is surprising that other politicians have not tried a similar formula. Guerra is the bully, the sacker of dissenters, the manipulator of the party machine, the unforgiving avenger of attacks on the leadership. Socialist critics in the parliamentary party receive no jobs and eventually lose their seats. Opponents on the right are attacked as fascists and reactionaries; opponents on the left are labelled anachronisms and in the recent campaign were compared unfairly to the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe. Guerra is one of the most widely – and deservedly – disliked men in Spanish politics. He courts hatred and seems to welcome it because it deflects criticism from Gonzalez. The Prime Minister can thus appear a charming, upright and charismatic politician whom nearly everyone likes. His hands are clean because the dirty work is done by his deputy. No wonder he is the first politician – since the young Fascist leader of the Thirties – to be known by his Christian name.

In fact, Gonzalez is also a ruthless politician, as Richard Gillespie demonstrates in his account of the Sevillians’ takeover of the Party. After demolishing the Llopis Old Guard in France, they set upon their fellow renovators inside Spain, savaging the Madrid Socialists and forcing the more cautious Basques to accept Andalusian primacy. In an aggressive and slanderous campaign, they hounded the Madrid leader, Pablo Castellano, scorning him as a social democrat and forcing his resignation; later, when they themselves moved to the right, they attacked him for being too left-wing. To accuse everyone else of being a deviationist is a typical Guerra tactic. Another ploy, used once with spectacular effect and always ready for re-use, is Gonzalez’s Achilles card – the threat of resignation if people don’t agree with him, the sulky withdrawal that leaves the Party in chaos. For the Socialists know that Gonzalez is a heel-less Achilles and that they owe their election successes to the cult of felipismo. At a conference in 1979, when delegates opposed his proposal to remove the word ‘Marxism’ from the Party’s resolutions, he resigned in a huff. But he knew and they knew he was indispensable, and four months later he was brought back. At the 1981 conference he received 100 per cent of the delegates’ votes, the Left was excluded from all positions of influence, and a moderate social democratic programme was adopted.

Ten years ago the old Communist leader Carrillo lamented that politics had become a beauty contest and elections ‘a plebiscite between two pretty boys’ (Gonzalez and the then prime minister Suarez). Politics have since become a plebiscite for one now ageing pretty boy who cannot lose. An extraordinary example of his appeal was produced by the Nato referendum of 1986. The Left was opposed to membership, the Right abstained, and the Prime Minister’s own position – he had only recently been converted to Nato – was unconvincing. Yet he won half the seats by turning an unpopular issue into a vote of confidence in himself. Last month’s election was also a vote for or against felipismo. In an election without issues, a campaign without interest except for the mild resurgence of the Communists, Gonzalez offered nothing to the electorate except ‘consolidation’. His victory was smaller than last time but he still achieved – what no other leader and no other party has been able to achieve in democratic Spain – an overall majority.

The most surprising thing about the PSOE is that it has been able to transform itself from a party proud of its strong Marxist traditions into a conservative instrument of government without having erected a welfare state. Gillespie, who suggests that Gonzalez and his colleagues are not really social democrats but simple pragmatists, offers several explanations for the swift move to the right. The Communists’ moderation and willingness to compromise during the transition years made it difficult to posture too radically. Intransigence was moreover a dangerous sport to play with an army obsessed by ‘reds’ and memories of the Civil War, itching to clamp down on the democratic transformation. Perhaps, too, the militants emerged from their clandestine existence realising that they could achieve more by being flexible. Yet the single most important reason was probably the ‘god-fathership’ of the German SPD. Mitterrand showed some interest in the Spanish Socialists but his ineffable arrogance infuritated them; a future PSOE minister who picked him up from the airport was treated like a chauffeur and not spoken to. But Brandt adopted Gonzalez as his protégé, provided the Party with ample funds and won it the support of the Socialist International. With the Deutsche Marks rolling in, and with communications between the Socialists and the first post-Franco government conducted through the German Embassy in Madrid, it would have been difficult to reject the moderating influence of the SPD.

Yet not even Brandt could have imagined how ‘moderate’ the PSOE would become in power, inheriting one of the most unequal societies in Europe and doing little to transform it. Everything has been subordinated to achieving the highest economic growth rates on the Continent, but much of this growth has taken place in the sectors least likely to benefit the country. Enormous, largely untaxed fortunes have been made in banking and property, but not much of this new wealth has ‘trickled down’. After years of unemployment and low wage increases, the Trade Unions declared a general strike last December. It was the first general strike in recent history – and it was called by socialist workers against a socialist government. Spain closed down for the day, but most of the strikers still voted for Gonzalez in October.

After the confrontations of the republic, after the long dictatorship, after the transitional years of centre-right government, a left-wing victory was necessary for Spain’s democratic health. But now the Socialists have held too much power for too long. The PSOE has become too much part of the state, its members are in too many public positions, its control of many things – most glaringly of television – is too strong and too obvious. Spain has become too felipista just as it used to be too franquista. For the health of constitutional government, the electorate should have compelled Gonzalez to form a coalition.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences