Coups

Ronald Fraser

  • Modern Spain 1875-1980 by Raymond Carr
    Oxford, 201 pp, £7.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 215828 7

From a distance, the image of a pistol-toting Civil Guard colonel holding prisoner Spain’s cabinet and members of parliament recalled Marx’s phrase that history, tragic in its first occurrence, repeats itself as farce. From a lesser distance, the long night of 23-24 February, with tanks in the streets of Valencia, national television taken over, ministers and deputies incarcerated under armed guard in the Cortes, sometimes seemed like history setting out to repeat itself as tragedy.

Over the last hundred years three major ruling-class crises have shaped Spanish history. Each of these, including the present one, has of necessity involved the economically-dominant classes in trying to find new means to legitimise their continued domination in the face of the growing strength of the social classes which threaten it. In each of these crises, directly or indirectly, the Army has played a role. The first, inaugurated by the Glorious Revolution of 1868, was a crisis of the old landowning class and Bourbon monarchy. The latter’s refusal to admit to political power the exiguous but nonetheless growing middle classes ended with General Prim, a chemist’s son, packing Queen Isabella off to the hospitality of Napoleon III (Marx’s original ‘farce’). Prim’s attempts to instal a liberal constitutional monarchy on the English model foundered, however. Pettybourgeois radicalism drove the revolution forward to a Federal Republic. Frightened at the threat to the nation’s unity as well as to their future as the dominant classes, the bourgeoisie and the old ruling class sealed their pact to put an end to this state of affairs. General Pavia marched into the Cortes and dissolved the Federal Republic barely twelve months after its inauguration. A year later, in 1875, as a final act of legitimation, General Martinez Campos ‘declared’ for Alfonso XII, Isabella’s son, and the monarchy was restored.

Substituting for an as yet uncertain bourgeois ruling class, the Army’s role in initiating and finally containing the revolution was decisive. Its intervention, moreover, as Raymond Carr stresses, took place under a new ideological banner. In place of partisan political motives, the generals claimed to act in the higher interests of the patria to ‘save society and the nation’ from dissolution at the hands of bad governments. Such motives have remained fundamental to its subsequent political interventions.

But the resolution of the crisis had even more profound consequences. Inevitably, the opportunity of achieving a fully-developed bourgeois democracy was missed in 1868-75. Less inevitably, the new ruling class, dominated by an agrarian oligarchy, succeeded for half a century thereafter in preventing any amplification of the pseudo-parliamentary democracy that it had brought in with the restoration monarchy. A democracy for the dominant classes only, it was maintained by a manipulated electoral system which excluded peasantry and proletariat from representation. With parliament not even formally expressing the nation’s will, social peace was maintained by police methods.

The system was resilient enough, however, to permit the Army to retire from active political intervention until 1923. Canovas, the great parliamentary architect of the restoration, regarded the Army as the ultimate bulwark against a ‘barbarian invasion of the proletariat’. But the electoral glacis he and others erected was not ineffectual either: in 1907, as Carr points out, Spain was the only major European country without a working-class deputy in parliament. From the turn of the century, industrial development began to advance. Between 1910 and 1930, the industrial proletariat more than doubled in size and, in the era of the October revolution, grew increasingly militant. In Catalonia and the Basque country, the centres of industrial development, nationalist sentiment was also increasing. But restoration politics could not evolve beyond its original limits to ‘incorporate’ – and thus ‘contain’ – these new social forces.

The second ruling-class crisis opened in 1917, was ‘postponed’ by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship from 1923 to 1930 and, on the latter’s fall, reopened with greater virulence. By the following year, the ruling classes saw that the old political system, now totally discredited in the opinion of the new social forces, no longer effectively protected their interests. In disarray, they abandoned the monarchy, opening the way to the bloodless proclamation of the second Republic (1931-36). The new Republican regime was the expression – and attempted resolution – of this crisis, a crisis so deep that, faute de mieux, the ruling class had to leave it to petty-bourgeois left-wing Republicans to manage. The latter’s task was to achieve political reform with the dual but complementary objectives of ‘modernising’ the old, pseudo-parliamentary democracy and of preventing proletarian revolution or nationalist secession, either of which would threaten Spanish capitalism itself. In short, to usher in an advanced bourgeois democracy. There were some successes, but there were more important failures, particularly on the land question, Army reform and the religious settlement. What became rapidly apparent was that an advanced bourgeois democracy would have to be introduced not only without the bourgeoisie’s support but in opposition to it. Lacking all experience of governing through political consensus, the bourgeoisie had no faith that democracy would protect them against revolution. The Army, historically, was their real guarantor.

On the other hand, large sectors of the industrial and rural proletariat were disillusioned by the Republic’s failure to satisfy their aspirations, particularly on agrarian reform, and became increasingly radicalised. As Carr writes, the left Republican governments of 1932-3 and of February to July 1936, after the Popular Front victory, raised ‘expectations among the underprivileged which were not satisfied, while the mere existence of these expectations and of parties to promote them was regarded by the privileged as the prelude to social revolution.’ The dominant classes, which feared that any threat to the unity – ‘the hollow unity’, as Unamuno called it – of the Spanish state would affect their ultimate power, were aroused by the Republic’s concession of autonomy to Catalonia (although not to the Basque country until the Civil War). The Army was, if anything, even more suspicious. Since the crisis of 1868-75, the Army had seen itself not only as the incarnation of the national will but as the defender of territorial unity.

In these conditions – to which must be added the effects of the Great Depression and increasing political polarisation in Europe as a whole – the Republic was unable to resolve the fundamental crisis. Fearing a social revolution, which failed to materialise, the dominant classes supported a military coup as the ultimate solution to proletarian and secessionist threats. The initial balance of forces was so nearly equal that it took three years of civil war to settle the issue. Franco’s victory consecrated the ruling classes’ determination to liquidate once and for all every possible threat to their dominance. Parliamentary democracy and politics – especially working-class politics – were the major threats: brutal, calculated repression the major means of eliminating them. But Franco’s power was exercised with another, equally fundamental aim. The old ruling class had shown itself incapable of ruling under the Republic. Franco would now rule on its behalf: his regime was, in effect, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In the immediate post-Civil War years, with working-class organisations smashed, the bourgeoisie was given ample scope to accumulate in a society where the majority was close to starving. Agricultural profits, the black market and speculation provided the initial accumulation. The American loans of the Fifties, and, later, the earnings of mass tourism and the remittances of hundreds of thousands of workers forced to emigrate, provided the capital for the industrial take-off of the 1960s. A decade and a half of economic development produced a greater change in the structure of Spanish society than anything that happened in the previous century. Industrial interests replaced landowners in the economically-dominant classes. Rapid industrialisation produced a new type of working and lower-middle class. Increasingly militant, these new social forces were excluded de jure from political representation. De facto, the industrialists had no direct political means of expressing their economic interests. This situation, which combined the most serious elements of the previous two crises, inevitably led to a new one. After forty years of repressive authoritarianism, Spanish capitalism had advanced to the stage where the dictatorship was proving counter-productive to the dominant classes, especially the industrial bourgeoisie, by not allowing them to legitimise their domination in the eyes of the new social forces, especially the working classes. In a modern capitalist economy only a parliamentary democracy could fill that need.

The ruling-class crisis, apparent from the end of the 1960s, had to await the dictator’s death in 1975 before its resolution could begin in earnest. By then the crisis was so profound that within a year a young Franquista, Adolfo Suarez, was able to persuade the Franquista ruling class to commit hara-kiri and vote in parliamentary democracy. In this he was supported by the King, a Franco appointee, who realised that only a regime of this kind could legitimise his reign. Disunited, the opposition to the old regime reneagued on its demand for a ‘democratic rupture’ with the past and accepted Suarez’s dismantlement. In doing so, it helped the new ruling class to consolidate both its own position and the new regime, and prevented a thorough democratisation of the state apparatus, let alone the Army.

The attitude of the opposition – basically socialist and communist – was in part conditioned by fear of being outmanoeuvred by Suarez, in part by fear that mobilising democratic opinion might provoke a backlash from Franquista elements in the Army and elsewhere. Although the Army played no direct role in the crisis, the self-invoked threat of an Army coup hung over the political scene. But at all times the ruling classes were sufficiently in control of the transition from dictatorship to democracy to make a coup not only unnecessary but also liable to be destructive of their political objectives. For Army intervention to be successful in the long term, a crisis must reach such proportions that a large part of the dominant classes is prepared to support it as the only solution. This was never the situation during the transition, nor is it now. No significant sector of civil society is prepared to back a coup: indeed the presidents of the Employers’ Federation and the Bankers’ Association roundly condemned the recent attempt.

The short-term view is less encouraging. Despite its failure, the coup attempt appears to have succeeded in many respects. The most apparent is to have reintroduced the actuality of military coups into Spanish political life. The major parliamentary parties’ determination after 23 February not to give the Army any cause for ‘provocation’ led to a deliberate refusal to mobilise wide-scale popular support for measures to prevent a recurrence of the threat. This refusal has done nothing to turn the trauma of 23 February to democracy’s advantage, and has contributed a great deal to giving the military (or rather the reactionary elements in it) an important, perhaps decisive, leverage, behind the scenes, on political decision-making. The centre-right government has introduced repressive emergency legislation and the Socialist Party finds its role as major opposition party distinctly curtailed by the threat of military reaction.

That there is serious disquiet among sectors of the officers corps cannot be doubted. The probability of a future socialist government is amongst the causes. But of much more immediate concern is the Basque situation and the continuing high toll of ETA assassinations which, to the military mind, reveals the government’s weaknesses. To assuage the Army, the ruling UCD has now, for the first time, given it a direct role in the fight against ETA in the Basque country. This is fraught with danger. The military will obviously become a prime target for ETA’s military wing, whose avowed strategy, in order to mobilise support for separate statehood among Basques, is to provoke the Army into a coup or into occupying the Basque country. Secession remains anathema to the Army, which continues to see itself as the defender of national unity. And increased intervention, especially military intervention, by the Spanish state in the affairs of the Basque country is anathema to even moderate Basque nationalists. If the situation were to deteriorate dramatically, another coup might be attempted. It would still lack serious civilian support, but could find sufficient backing within the Armed Forces to establish itself. In such conditions, it could not take real root, as Francoism did, nor last very long: but it could last long enough to be tragically bloody.