Revolutionary Spain by Karl Marx 1854

First Published: in New-York Daily Tribune, September 9, 1854.


The revolution in Spain has now so far taken on the appearance of a permanent condition that, as our correspondent at London [A. Pulszky] has informed us, the wealthy and conservative classes have begun to emigrate and to seek security in France. This is not surprising; Spain has never adopted the modern French fashion, so generally in vogue in 1848, of beginning and accomplishing a revolution in three days. Her efforts in that line are complex and more prolonged. Three years seems to be the shortest limit to which she restricts herself, while her revolutionary cycle sometimes expands to nine. Thus her first revolution in the present century extended from 1808 to 1814; the second from 1820 to 1823; and the third from 1834 to 1843. How long the present one will continue, or in what it will result, it is impossible for the keenest politician to foretell; but it is not much to say that there is no other part of Europe, not even Turkey and the Russian war, which offers so profound an interest to the thoughtful observer, as does Spain at this instant.

Insurrectionary risings are as old in Spain as that sway of court favorites against which they are usually directed. Thus in the middle of the fifteenth century the aristocracy revolted against King Juan II and his favorite, Don Alvaro de Luna. In the fifteenth century still more serious commotions took place against King Henry IV and the head of his camatilla, Don Juan de Pacheco, Marquis de Villena. In the seventeenth century the people at Lisbon tore to pieces Vasconcellos, the Sartorius of the Spanish Viceroy in Portugal, as they did at Catalonia with Santa Coloma, the favorite of Philip IV. At the end of the same century, under the reign of Carlos II, the people of Madrid rose against the Queen’s camarilla, composed of the Countess de Berlepsch and the Counts Oropesa and Melgar, who had imposed on all provisions entering the capital an oppressive duty, which they shared among themselves. The people marched to the royal palace, forced the King to appear on the balcony, and himself to denounce the Queen’s camarilla. They then marched to the palaces of the Counts Oropesa and Melgar, plundered them, destroyed them by fire, and tried to lay hold of their owners, who, however, had the good luck to escape, at the cost of perpetual exile. The event which occasioned the insurrectionary rising in the fifteenth century was the treacherous treaty which the favorite of Henry IV, the Marquis de Villena, had concluded with the King of France, according to which Catalonia was to be surrendered to Louis XI. Three centuries later, the treaty of Fontainebleau, concluded on October 27, 1807, by which the favorite of Carlos IV and the minion of his Queen, Don Manuel Godoy, the Prince of Peace, contracted with Bonaparte for the partition of Portugal and the entrance of the French armies into Spain, caused a popular insurrection at Madrid against Godoy, the abdication of Carlos IV, the assumption of the throne by Ferdinand VII, his son, the entrance of the French army into Spain, and the following war of independence. Thus the Spanish war of independence commenced with a popular insurrection against the camarilla, then personified in Don Manuel Godoy, just as the civil war of the fifteenth century commenced with the rising against the camarilla, then personified in the Marquis de Villena. So, too, the revolution of 1854 commenced with the rising against the camarilla, personified in the Count San Luis.

Notwithstanding these ever-recurring insurrections, there has been in Spain, up to the present century, no serious revolution, except the war of the Holy League in the times of Carlos I, or Charles V, as the Germans call him. The immediate pretext, as usual, was then furnished by the clique who, under the auspices of Cardinal Adrian, the Viceroy, himself a Fleming, exasperated the Castilians by their rapacious insolence, by selling the public offices to the highest bidder, and by open traffic in law-suits. The opposition against the Flemish camarilla was only at the surface of the movement. At its bottom was the defense of the liberties of medieval Spain against the encroachments of modern absolutism.

The material basis of the Spanish monarchy having been laid by the, union of Aragon, Castile and Granada, under Ferdinand the Catholic, and Isabella I, Charles I attempted to transform that still feudal monarchy into an absolute one. Simultaneously he attacked the two pillars of Spanish liberty, the Cortes and the Ayuntamientos — the former a modification of the ancient Gothic concilia, and the latter transmitted almost without interruption from the Roman times, the Ayuntamientos exhibiting the mixture of the hereditary and elective character proper to the Roman municipalities. As to municipal self-government, the towns of Italy, of Provence, Northern Gaul, Great Britain, and part of Germany, offer a fair similitude to the then state of the Spanish towns; but neither the French States General, nor the British Parliaments of the Middle Ages, are to be compared with the Spanish Cortes. There were circumstances in the formation of the Spanish kingdom peculiarly favorable to the limitation of royal power. On the one side, small parts of the Peninsula were recovered at a time, and formed into separate kingdoms, during the long struggles with the Arabs. Popular laws and customs were engendered in these struggles. The successive conquests, being principally effected by the nobles, rendered their power excessive, while they diminished the royal power. On the other hand, the inland towns and cities rose to great consequence, from the necessity people found themselves under of residing together in places of strength, as a security against the continual irruptions of the Moors; while the peninsular formation of the country, and constant intercourse with Provence and Italy, created first-rate commercial and maritime cities on the coast. As early as the fourteenth century, the cities formed the most powerful part in the Cortes, which were composed of their representatives, with those of the clergy and the nobility. It is also worthy of remark, that the slow recovery from Moorish dominion through an obstinate struggle of almost eight hundred years, gave the Peninsula, when wholly emancipated, a character altogether different from that of cotemporaneous Europe, Spain finding itself, at the epoch of European resurrection, with the manners of the Goths and the Vandals in the North, and with those of the Arabs in the South.

Charles I having returned from Germany, where the imperial dignity had been bestowed upon him, the Cortes assembled at Valladolid, in order to receive his oath to the ancient laws and to invest him with the crown. Charles, declining to appear, sent commissioners who, he pretended, were to receive the oath of allegiance on the part of the Cortes. The Cortes refused to admit these commissioners to their presence, notifying the monarch that, if he did not appear and swear to the laws of the country, he should never be acknowledged as King of Spain. Charles thereupon yielded; he appeared before the Cortes and took the oath — as historians say, with a very bad grace. The Cortes on this occasion told him: “You must know, Señor, that the King is but the paid servant of the nation.” Such was the beginning of the hostilities between Charles I and the towns. In consequence of his intrigues, numerous insurrections broke out in Castile, the Holy League of Avila was formed, and the united towns convoked the assembly of the Cortes at Tordesillas, whence, on October 20, 1520, a “protest against the abuses” was addressed to the King, in return for which he deprived all the deputies assembled at Tordesillas of their personal rights. Thus civil war had become inevitable; the commoners appealed to arms; their soldiers under the command of Padilla seized the fortress of Torre Lobaton, but were ultimately defeated by superior forces at the battle of Villalar on April 23, 1521. The heads of the principal “conspirators” rolled on the scaffold, and the ancient liberties of Spain disappeared.

Several circumstances conspired in favor of the rising power of absolutism. The want of union between the different provinces deprived their efforts of the necessary strength; but it was, above all, the bitter antagonism between the classes of the nobles and the citizens of the towns which Charles employed for the degradation of both. We have already mentioned that since the fourteenth century the influence of the towns was prominent in the Cortes, and since Ferdinand the Catholic, the Holy Brotherhood (Santa Hermandad) had proved a powerful instrument in the hands of the towns against the Castilian nobles, who accused them of encroachments on their ancient privileges and jurisdiction. The nobility, therefore, were eager to assist Carlos I in his project of suppressing the Holy League. Having crushed their armed resistance, Carlos occupied himself with the reduction of the municipal privileges of the towns, which, rapidly declining in population, wealth and importance, soon lost their influence in the Cortes. Carlos now turned round upon the nobles, who had assisted him in putting down the liberties of the towns, but who themselves retained a considerable political importance. Mutiny in his army for want of pay obliged him, in 1539, to assemble the Cortes, in order to obtain a grant of money. Indignant at the misapplication of former subsidies to operations foreign to the interests of Spain, the Cortes refused all supplies. Carlos dismissed them in a rage; and, the nobles having insisted on a privilege of exemption from taxes, he declared that those who claimed such a right could have no claim to appear in the Cortes, and consequently excluded them from that assembly. This was the death-blow of the Cortes, and their meetings were henceforth reduced to the performance of a mere court ceremony. The third element in the ancient constitution of the Cortes, viz: the clergy, enlisted since Ferdinand the Catholic under the banner of the Inquisition, had long ceased to identify its interests with those of feudal Spain. On the contrary, by the Inquisition, the Church was transformed into the most formidable tool of absolutism.

If after the reign of Carlos I the decline of Spain, both in a political and social aspect, exhibited all those symptoms of inglorious and protracted putrefaction so repulsive in the worst times of the Turkish Empire, under the Emperor at least the ancient liberties were buried in a magnificent tomb. This was the time when Vasco Núñes de Balboa planted the banner of Castile upon the shores of Darien, Cortés in Mexico, and Pizarro in Peru; when Spanish influence reigned supreme in Europe, and the Southern imagination of the Iberians was bewildered with visions of Eldorados, chivalrous adventures, and universal monarchy. Then Spanish liberty disappeared under the clash of arms, showers of gold, and the terrible illuminations of the auto-da-fe.

But how are we to account for the singular phenomenon that, after almost three centuries of a Habsburg dynasty, followed by a Bourbon dynasty — either of them quite sufficient to crush a people — the municipal liberties of Spain more or less survive? that in the very country where of all the feudal states absolute monarchy first arose in its most unmitigated form, centralization has never succeeded in taking root? The answer is not difficult. It was in the sixteenth century that were formed the great monarchies which established themselves everywhere on the downfall of the conflicting feudal classes — the aristocracy and the towns. But in the other great States of Europe absolute monarchy presents itself as a civilizing center, as the initiator of social unity. There it was the laboratory in which the various elements of society were so mixed and worked, as to allow the towns to change the local independence and sovereignty of the Middle Ages for the general rule of the middle classes, and the common sway of civil society. In Spain, on the contrary, while the aristocracy sunk into degradation without losing their worst privilege, the towns lost their medieval power without gaining modern importance.

Since the establishment of absolute monarchy they have vegetated in a state of continuous decay. We have not here to state the circumstances, political or economical, which destroyed Spanish commerce, industry, navigation and agriculture. For the present purpose it is sufficient to simply recall the fact. As the commercial and industrial life of the towns declined, internal exchanges became rare, the mingling of the inhabitants of different provinces less frequent, the means of communication neglected, and the great roads gradually deserted. Thus the local life of Spain, the independence of its provinces and communes, the diversified state of society originally based on the physical configuration of the country, and historically developed by the detached manner in which the several provinces emancipated themselves from the Moorish rule, and formed little independent commonwealths — was now finally strengthened and confirmed by the economical revolution which dried up the sources of national activity. And while the absolute monarchy found in Spain material in its very nature repulsive to centralization, it did all in its power to prevent the growth of common interests arising out of a national division of labor and the multiplicity of internal exchanges — the very basis on which alone a uniform system of administration and the rule of general laws can he created. Thus the absolute monarchy in Spain, bearing but a superficial resemblance to the absolute monarchies of Europe in general, is rather to he ranged in a class with Asiatic forms of government. Spain, like Turkey, remained an agglomeration of mismanaged republics with a nominal sovereign at their head.. Despotism changed character in the different provinces with the arbitrary interpretation of the general laws by viceroys and governors; but despotic as was the government it did not prevent the provinces from subsisting with different laws and customs, different coins, military banners of different colors, and with their respective systems of taxation. The oriental despotism attacks municipal self-government only when opposed to its direct interests, but is very glad to allow those institutions to continue so long as they take off its shoulders the duty of doing something and spare it the trouble of regular administration.

Thus it happened that Napoleon, who, like all his cotemporaries, considered Spain as an inanimate corpse, was fatally surprised at the discovery that when the Spanish State was dead, Spanish society was full of life, and every part of it overflowing with powers of resistance. By the treaty of Fontainebleau he had got his troops to Madrid; by alluring the royal family into an interview at Bayonne he had forced Carlos IV to retract his abdication, and then to make over to him his dominions; and he had intimidated Ferdinand VII into a similar declaration. Carlos IV, his Queen and the Prince of Peace conveyed to Compiègne, Ferdinand VII and his brothers imprisoned in the castle of Valençay, Bonaparte conferred the throne of Spain on his brother Joseph, assembled a Spanish junta at Bayonne, and provided them with one of his ready-made constitutions. Seeing nothing alive in the Spanish monarchy except the miserable dynasty which he had safely locked up, he felt quite sure of this confiscation of Spain. But, only a few days after his coup de main he received the news of an insurrection at Madrid. Murat, it is true, quelled that tumult by killing about 1,000 people; but when this massacre became known, an insurrection broke out in Asturias, and soon afterward embraced the whole monarchy. It is to be remarked that this first spontaneous rising originated with the people, while the “better” classes had quietly submitted to the foreign yoke.

Thus it is that Spain was prepared for her more recent revolutionary career, and launched into the struggles which have marked her development in the present century. The facts and influences we have thus succinctly detailed still act in forming her destinies and directing the impulses of her people. We have presented them as necessary not only to an appreciation of the present crisis, but of all she has done and suffered since the Napoleonic usurpation — a period now of nearly fifty years — not without tragic episodes and heroic efforts, — indeed, one of the most touching and instructive chapters in all modern history.