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International Socialism, June 1977


Notes of the Month

Spain: Control by Any Other Name


From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, pp.7-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


RECENT events have revealed the pitfalls in the path of the Suarez government’s programme of controlled “democratisation” in Spain. Less than a month before the general election scheduled for June 15, the regime was confronted in the Basque country (Euzkadi) with what the Financial Times called “the most complete general strike that union leaders could remember since the civil war” (May 17 1977). Nearly half a million workers came out in support of the demand for a complete amnesty for all political prisoners.

Behind Suarez’ policies lies the attempt by the main sections of Spanish capital to carry through the controlled reform of the repressive and ideological apparatus by which they hold power. This attempt has gathered pace especially in the last 18 months since Franco’s death.

The chief reason for the “democratisation” programme is that the fascist structures inherited since the civil war have proved less and less capable of controlling a working class that has grown considerably in size and massively in self-confidence. The final death-knell for the old structures was sounded by the huge strike-wave in 1975 and early 1976. The secondary (and less important) reason for the reforms is to gain democratic credentials that will speed up Spain’s admittance to the EEC. But the transition from one structure of power to another always involved immense dangers. Spain’s rulers have the awful example of Portugal close at hand as a warning of the need to preserve the repressive state apparatus intact. The key personnel in the military and police sections of the Spanish state machine are elements closely associated with the “bunker” – the section of the ruling class opposed to any reforms. Moreover, even limited reforms could have explosive consequences at a time when economic crisis is biting into workers’ living standards.

In order to control the workers’ movement during the transition period, the Suarez government has encouraged the formation of “free” bureaucratic trade unions. A virtual precondition for this “freedom” has been the acceptance by the largest of the formerly underground trade union organisations, the Workers’ Commissions, of “pluralism”, in other words, the acceptance of a divided trade union movement in which a growing role would be played by unions like the social democratic UGT drawing heavy support from the TUC and other western trade unions, who raised £300,000 for the UGT, compared to only £30,000 raised within Spain. If government’s plans are successful, then the workers’ movement in Spain will, as in France and Italy, find itself divided into rival trade union federations.

At the same time, the government and the employers have used vicious repression against those workers’ struggles that have been based on unitary forms of organisation elected from mass meetings. Hence the four big strikes in which the workers were beaten in the last nine months, Motor Ibirica, Sabadell, the Madrid transport strike and Roca, as well as the current struggle at Ford Valencia.

The aim of these policies is the creation of a conservative trade union bureaucracy’ capable of policing the working class. Its first job will be to win acceptance for a tough austerity programme of wage restraint and cutbacks in public spending, probably supervised by the IMF. Prices are rising by over 20 per cent a year; about one million people are unemployed; Spain ran up a balance of payments deficit of four billion dollars in 1976 and is suffering a massive illegal flight of capital. The Economist reported recently that “economists in the political centre” want “a round-table conference of government, business and the new unions with a view to concluding a ‘social and political pact’ (which Banco de Vizcaya’s think-tank considers ‘indispensable’), securing a ‘calm socio-economic climate’ and reviving the confidence of Spanish and foreign investors.” (April 2 1977)

The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the Workers’ Commissions, which they dominate, have accepted the path laid down for them by Suarez. They too talk openly of a “social pact”, and even a “social contract”. So too have the social democratic parties like the PSOE, which controls the UGT. The symbolic expression of this new unity between Suarez, the former head of the fascist Movimento, and the former “underground fighters” like Carrillo of the PCE and Gonzalez of the PSOE was the joint call for “serenity” after the murder by right-wingers of five Communist labour lawyers earlier this year.

Moreover, the Financial Times could write of the May 16 Basque general strike:

“The only limited support for the Government from non-official sources seems to be coming via the recently legalised communist-influenced Workers’ Commissions, which issued a statement in Madrid last night opposing calls for a general strike in the Basque region and saying it is in the workers’ interest not to allow anything to interfere with the general election.” (May 17 1977)

Nevertheless, there are powerful obstacles to this “national reconciliation” between “ex”-fascists and “ex”-Stalinists. These may express themselves in the elections and certainly will afterwards.

Suarez’ moves to the “centre” have upset the old-style fascists and the other ex-Francoist opportunists he has replaced. He had to sack some generals after the row they kicked up when the Communist Party was legalised in April. The former Minister of the Interior, Fraga Iribarne, once regarded as Spain’s “liberal” hope, is trying to stitch together a powerful Francoist coalition to the right of Suarez called the Popular Alliance.

Although the main body of Spanish capital wants “reform”, it is opposed to any “rupture”, or break in the continuity of the structures of repression. And it will become increasingly concerned with the need to reduce its labour costs as the crisis of Spanish capitalism persists. It needs Fraga in the wings, if not at the centre, of the stage. But even his presence off-stage limits Suarez’ room for manoeuvre as the latter attempts to prevent the unravelling of the contradictions of Franco’s Spain from ending in cataclysm.

Suarez, in order to placate Fraga and the Francoists in the state machine, has allowed the police a fairly free hand against the extreme left and the Basque nationalists. As last month’s general strike showed, this is a policy full of dangers.

The splits in the regime mean that a shock result to the election could produce a “rupture”. Even a good vote for the PSOE, whom the Francoists regard as “reds” despite their moderation, could provoke a confrontation fatal to the continuity of the institutions of the old dictatorship.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that the PCE and the social-democrats can between them deliver the working class. There have been a number of big strikes which the Workers’ Commissions union has tried to oppose. The tradition of militant rank-and-file unity in the factories is very strong. There so exist workers’ organisations that do not accept the carve-up between the rival reformist unions – the “unitary unions” controlled by the Maoist PT and ORT and some unitary factory councils and representative commissions; there is also a less significant “unitary trend” within the Workers’ Commissions union itself. There are very large number of unknowns in the situation: when the Anarchist CNT called a rally in Madrid 30,000 people turned up – yet the CNT had virtually no underground organisation at all in the capital.

Finally, there is the uncertainty created by the national question. In the abstract, the national question in Euzkadi, Catalonia and Galicia could be solved without upsetting the main economic structure of Spanish capitalism: the country is more unified and centralised economically than it was before the civil war. But in the Basque country in particular, the traditions of national opposition to the Francoist state raise immense problems for the peaceful reform of that state. At the same time, the workers’ movement in the area is much less dominated by the PCE than elsewhere in the Spanish state. Hence the failure of its attempt to sabotage the Basque general strike in May.

Overall, events appear to be moving out of the control of the ruling group. But they have two great assets on their side, which are likely to prevent a pre-revolutionary “Portuguese” situation developing. The first is the continued cohesion of the armed forces, and the second the fact that there is no powerful revolutionary party capable of leading the working class in a united assault on the state. Although the working-class is, far from dominated by a single reformist organisation, it is fragmented into a number of reformist (PCE, PSOE, PSP, EPS) or semi-reformist (PT, ORT) formations. Unless this conundrum is solved, the Spanish crisis is unlikely to lead to a revolutionary rupture.

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