Chris Harman

Birth of resistance

(July 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, July/August 1989, pp. 27–28.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Dictatorship, workers and the city: Labour in Greater Barcelona since 1939
Sebastian Balfour

THE EXAMPLE of the Spanish workers’ commissions is raised wherever people are faced with the problem of how to develop a workers’ movement in the face of a dictatorial regime. They were discussed by members of the workers’ defence organisation, KOR, in the years 1976–80 before the birth of Solidarnosc. They are still talked about by activists in Moscow’s Popular Front today.

The reason is simple enough. Spain was still a fascist totalitarian state in the 1960s. Yet a workers’ movement developed which was able to force employers to negotiate with its representatives and, eventually in 1975-76, to force Franco’s chosen heir to negotiate over legalisation of unions and opposition political parties.

Sebastian Balfour’s book shows this growth admirably.

He begins by showing how the development of the workers’ movement could not be separated from the development of capitalism. The ideologues of Spanish fascism dreamt of a society physically cut off from the “degeneracy” of the world around it and of a protected market for the output of Spanish industry and agriculture. But by the late 1950s the harsh realities of modern capitalism forced them to change course decisively, to restructure the Spanish economy along a path of increasing integration in the outside world.

New industries attracted vast numbers of immigrants from the countryside and the impoverished south of the country to industrial centres. The country’s great cities were transformed in die space of a very few years as old working class areas were torn down or gentrified and great new industrial suburbs were thrown up.

Workers’ living standards rose in these years “by an average of 232 percent”.

“Over a 20 year period the infant mortality rate was halved and index of nutritional levels doubled. Hunger and disease no longer ravaged the homes of the poor. The caves and shanty towns in which the first immigrants had made their home gave way to massive tenement blocks equipped at least with running water and proper heating.”

But to achieve these living standards workers had to toil long hours, the majority working a 55 hour week in 1969. Social services in the new working class suburbs remained at an appallingly low level, with overcrowded schools, miserable health provision, unpaved and unlit streets.

It was against this background that the new labour movement sprang up with a wave of strikes which spread right across northern Spain in the 1960s. As workers struck they held mass meetings and elected delegates to press their claims. These were the first workers’ commissions.

At first, the motive force behind the strikes was economic, not political. They were aimed to exert pressure on the negotiations over pay which the regime allowed between its state run unions and the employers.

But there can never be a complete divorce between economics and politics, especially in a totalitarian state. When the commissions organised mass meetings where workers discussed who to vote for in the elections for the state run unions, that was itself a political act. When the commissions won massive support in those elections, that was the beginning of a political challenge to the whole Francoist regime. The regime retaliated by literally thousands of arrests of commissions’ members in 1967–9.

Part, at least, of the Spanish left had already understood the significance of the commissions. The Communist Party joined them enthusiastically, and was soon a considerable influence. It provided a clandestine structure which enabled the new activists to communicate with fellow activists in other industries and other parts of the state. The courage and commitment of its militants soon attracted to it many new followers.

Meanwhile, to the left of the CP, revolutionary groups arising with the influence of Guevarism, Maoism and then the student movement of 1968 began to have an impact in a number of important localities.

The left, Balfour argues, tended to misunderstand the character of the new movement. The Communist Party encouraged its militants, both older and new, to call for one day “pacific general strikes” for “national reconciliation”. The far left expected much more violent confrontation. But both encouraged activists to make public their opposition to the regime through street demonstrations.

But the mass of workers still identified with the workers’ commissions mainly on the basis of economic demands and would not follow the militants into the one day strikes or on to the streets.

The situation was made worse when the Francoist regime suddenly imposed a freeze on collective bargaining. The annual bargaining round which had enabled activists to renew their links with the shop floor was gone. The workers’ commissions changed very quickly from delegate bodies thrown up by the economic struggle into minorities of militants.

This second period of existence for the workers’ commissions was not a wholly negative one. The militants themselves often underwent considerable politicisation and a much wider layer of workers than before began to be drawn to political as well as economic action.

What is more, it was not all that long before the militants who had been thrown out of the factories began to find new possibilities for mass agitation. In the early and mid-1970s rising inflation created the conditions for a new explosion of economic militancy, and an important section of the Francoist establishment responded with crude forms of repression that gave it a much sharper political edge than previously.

By the last two years of Franco’s life, 1974 and 1975, industrial strife was becoming the major headache facing his government. It was at this point that a grouping emerged within the government itself that concluded the only way to reduce inflation was to hold back wages, and that the only way to hold back wages was to do a deal with the underground opposition.

This was what effectively happened in the year after Franco’s death when his successors legalised first the Socialist Party and then, under pressure, the Communist Party.

The strategy was a remarkably successful one from the point of view of Spanish capitalism. What had been a powerful and relatively unified underground labour movement was transformed in a couple of years into a weak and divided legal one. Left wing political leaders agreed with a government of ex-fascists to hold back workers’ living standards and to accept high levels of unemployment, and the unions persuaded their members not to do anything about this.

How is this reversal in the fortunes of the workers’ movement to be explained?

Balfour stresses objective factors which contain important elements of truth. The objective conditions of Spain’s workers did not impel them to revolutionary action once the Francoists conceded reforms. But it fails to explain why the workers’ movement became so weak after legalisation.

Here a central part of the explanation has to be the politics of what most workers saw as the most militant and courageous force in the opposition, the Communist Party.

In 1975 and 1976 it consciously moved from a policy of forcing reforms through a “democratic break” from Francoism to one of negotiating with the Francoists for reforms. This involved making political concessions over questions like the monarchy, the integrity of the national state (against the Basque separatists) and the power of the generals in the armed forces. It also involved persuading the workers’ commissions to make important economic and organisational concessions.

From the spring of 1976 onwards the Communist Party influenced leaders of the workers’ commissions no longer pressed the concrete economic demands which, Balfour rightly insists, were so central in getting them support from many rank and file workers. They refused to support calls for general protest strikes after the Vitoria massacre of spring 1976, sought to curtail strikes like the Sabadell metal strike of late 1976 and opposed outright the scattered strikes which broke out early in 1977.

In order to have a free hand to do such things, they imposed a tight bureaucratic grip on the structures of the workers’ commissions, transforming them from an expression of a wide, deeply based mass movement into a narrow party controlled trade union of the old sort.

At the same time these leaders bent over backwards to placate employers by showing how well disposed they were to the moderate leaders of the Socialist Party led UGT union, an organisation which hardly played a role in the workers’ struggles from the early through to the mid-1970s. At one stage the workers’ commissions had stood for the formation of unitary union organisation through a democratic “constituent congress”, drawing together all forces which had made up the illegal labour movement. In 1976 they abandoned this for a policy of doing a deal at the top with UGT leadership which had, as yet, little base inside the working class.

This turnabout was very convenient for the UGT leaders. Under the cover of an alliance with the workers’ commissions they were able to build up from virtually nothing their own organisation in opposition to them – something very welcome to employers who were given the present of a weak trade union movement divided along political lines as in France.

You do not have to believe that Spain was in a pre-revolutionary situation in 1976 to hold that the workers’ commissions leadership played a disastrous role in weakening the movement, and that this role followed from the reformist politics of the Communist Party.

Balfour recognises that such things happened, but he does not give them enough weight. Like many studies which rightly stress the objective economic and social factors determining working class militancy, his book tends to down play the role at vital historical turning points of the subjective factor, of the ideas which are hegemonic among the worker activists.

This can even mean giving the impression on occasions that the workers’ commission leaders had little alternative but to behave in the way they did – although he later points out what really happened. “The opposition parties put the achievement of moderate parliamentary consensus before the building of independent union organisation”.

The book is, nevertheless, an important contribution to the history of the international workers’ movement, and will be especially valued by those seeking today to harness the power of the working class to the struggle against dictatorial regimes.

Last updated on 19.9.2013