David Gilmour

  • The Spanish Socialist Party: A History of Factionalism by Richard Gillespie
    Oxford, 520 pp, £40.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 19 822798 1

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’.

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