Ian H. Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian Birchall

Spain, Italy, Portugal

Taking on the workers

(May 1984)

From Socialist Review, No.65, May 1984, pp.22-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the mid-seventies the Mediterranean fringe of western European capitalism was at risk. Portugal, Spain and Italy all saw a huge working class upsurge. In all three countries the revolutionary left was numbered in thousands.

Ian Birchall looks at a legacy they all share from the seventies – all three have Socialist governments.

Today there is little left of that revolutionary euphoria that shook the Mediterranean in the seventies. In Spain, Italy and Portugal workers are facing the downturn with bitter defensive struggles. In Spain Felipe Gonzalez heads a Socialist government, elected in 1982; last April Mario Scares bounced back to head a coalition of Socialists and Social Democrats in Portugal; and in Italy Bettino Craxi, despite the relatively small size of his own party, has become Italy’s first Socialist prime minister.

In each case the role of Socialists in power is to help carry through a certain modernisation made necesary after decades of fascist or clerical rule. Thus Craxi has triumphantly negotiated a new Concordat with the Catholic Church which makes it clear that Catholicism is not the Italian state religion. Scares has been denounced by the clerical right as a ‘Marxist-Atheist’ for introducing a rather timorous legalisation of abortion (permissible only in cases of rape, possible deformity or risk to the mother’s health), and a somewhat similar measure has been brought in by Gonzalez. Both Gonzalez and Scares intend to lead their countries into EEC membership.

In all this modernisation there is no specifically ‘socialist’ content, and a balance sheet of all three governments will show that their main function is to defend and strengthen capitalist rule.

Little has been heard since the autumn of 1982 of Gonzalez’ pre-election promise to get out of NATO. Gonzalez may have entertained Fidel Castro in Madrid, but he has also become the USA’s biggest arms customer.

On the economic level, Gonzalez has introduced the forty hour week and increased pensions. But on the crucial issue of jobs, his role has been a straightforward defence of capitalist interests. His pre-election pledge of 800,000 new jobs long forgotten, Gonzalez is presiding over 2,300,000 jobless (a rate of 18 percent). In some areas, such as the shipbuilding regions of Galicia, unemployment is up to one third of the active population. And only a quarter of Spain’s jobless receive unemployment benefit. But the government is pushing ahead with plans to cut back further in basic industries (especially steel and shipbuilding) with a further 65,000 redundancies planned by 1986. The Economist (7 January) has praised Gonzalez for deciding not to make unemployment a priority, as Mitterrand had done in France in 1981; it describes his first year in office as ‘a model of responsibility’ compared to Mitterrand’s.

Redundancies continue

One part of Franco’s heritage that Gonzalez is particularly keeri to dismantle is the degree of job security which workers received in return for being deprived of trade union rights. The government is anxious to encourage temporary Work contracts; Le Monde (19 November) quotes a ministry of labour official arguing the novel thesis that reducing job security is a weapon against unemployment: ‘We must encourage firms to take on workers at the first signs of an upturn, knowing that they can sack them if the conjuncture changes.’

All this has not gone without resistance from the working class. There were three times as many strikes in the first two months of 1984 as in the same period of the previous year. In February half a million workers struck for two days against cuts in living standards; unions have rejected an attempt to hold wage rises to 6.5 percent (as against predicted inflation of at least 8 percent).

Gonzalez’ reply is repression thus undermining workers’ organisation and their ability to resist a possible threat from the right in the future.

Appeasing the army and the ex-fascists means taking a tough line against the left. In the Basque country rising unemployment in steel and shipbuilding has given a new lease of life to the armed struggle by the nationalists of ETA.

In response Gonzalez has tightened anti-terrorist laws (including one which says that expressing political support for ETA is an offence) and strengthened the police anti-terrorist unit. The government also seems to be giving at least tacit support to the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group, a set of off-duty police who have been crossing into France to murder Basque refugees. Little wonder that The Economist (4 February) said: ‘Most Spanish generals have a good reason to admire Mr Felipe Gonzalez’s socialists.’

In Portugal, still a bitterly poor country, Soares’ attempt to make workers pay for the crisis has taken on an even more naked form. Thousands of workers in state-run industries have not been paid for several months, in some cases over a year. Once again Soares’ response is repression. When workers demonstrated outside his residence early in April, 285 arrests were made.


The United States have got their base in the Azores for another seven years, in return for financial aid to Portugal. Five thousand Lisnave shipyard workers are idle, and in February police attacked a demonstration of four thousand shipyard workers, wounding twelve. The 1975 legislation which forbade the creation of private banks and insurance companies has just been repealed, and various public sector banking firms are being privatised.

In Italy there has been yet another sharp confrontation between a ‘socialist’ government and the organised working class. The crunch issue has been wages. As The Economist enthusiastically put it: ‘One of Europe’s most powerful trade union movements is being pounded to pieces – by a government headed by a Socialist.’ The issue is Craxi’s attempt to smash a fundamental component of Italian workers’ living standards – the automatic wage-indexation system, which guarantees workers 75 percent of any increases in the cost of living. Craxi intends to chop off three percent of any increases, which it is estimated, a loss of over five pounds a month to the average worker.

This has unleashed the fury of Italian workers. A demonstration against the proposed cut mobilised some seven hundred thousand people in what was almost certainly the biggest demonstration in Italy since the end of the second world war.

But Craxi is not without allies, and his position has been bolstered up by the trade union bureaucracy. The two smaller union federations, the CISL and the UIL, are backing his measures. But, breaking a unity of action that has existed ever since 1972, the largest union federation, the Communist-led CGIL, has come out strongly against the measures and helped to organise the mass demonstrations.

However, CGIL opposition is not all that it appears. The CGIL has made it clear that it does not oppose revision of the indexation system in principle, and it has also made it clear that it opposes working for a general strike. The CGIL’s real concern is that the action against Craxi’s decree was originally called by factory councils in Turin and Milan; if the CGIL had not stepped in to take the leadership of the movement, opposition might have developed outside its control. It was crucial that the opposition should not cut across the political ambitions of the Italian Communist Party. As Luciano Lama, secretary general of the CGIL, told the mass demonstration in March: ‘We are not here to oppose Parliament; we respect its powers. We are simply asking the members of parliament to take account of our desire for justice’. With enemies like that, who needs friends?

Craxi’s government has welcomed cruise missiles, and is planning to chop 26,500 steel jobs by 1986. Craxi has also put to death one of the liberal measures of the late seventies – the reform of psychiatric hospitals, a reform which didn’t work because the funds to make it work were never available. (At his inauguration Craxi tastefully observed: ‘We must get the lunatics back in the asylums’).

All three Socialist prime ministers are still in fragile situations. Craxi and Soares preside over coalitions which could collapse at any time; Craxi in particular is constantly at the mercy of votes of confidence. And Gonzalez, who seems to have the firmest base, may also be insecure; February saw the resignations of his finance minister and of the Socialist president of the Andalusian regional government.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that all three may prove resilient. In Spain and Italy, at least, there are signs of economic recovery. Spain is now the world’s tenth industrial power, and is getting increased foreign investment, notably from Arab countries and the American multinational ATT. Italy has seen a marked improvement of exports and the balance of payments. If the ruling class want to continue this recovery without too much working class opposition, the Socialists may be the best people to do the job.

On the left the only alternative force are the Communist Parties, and these too are increasingly bankrupt. The Spanish CP has fallen from quarter of a million members to 40,000 since 1977; its recent conference was bitterly divided between pro-Russian and Eurocommunist wings, and a new pro-Russian party has been launched by Ignacio Gallego. The Portuguese CP still gets 17 percent of the vote, but is trapped in a sterile Stalinist dogmatism. Communism in southern Europe is not dead, but terminally ill. (Of course, between terminal illness and death there can be a great deal of blood and slime).

So for Spain and Portugal Gonzalez and Soares seem set to remain the least unacceptable alternative for the ruling class. Italy is more volatile. For the moment the Christian Democrats (who advocate the free market, spending cuts and a pro-US foreign policy) are very happy to serve under Craxi. There are still some Christian Democrats who would like to do a deal with the CP, but this looks increasingly unlikely. For electorally things are going slowly but surely in Craxi’s direction. The CP is going into electoral decline. This will also weaken the Christian Democrats, who have kept their vote largely by being the only bulwark against Communism; as the threat subsides, so does their claim to be the automatic party of government. Moreover, the Christian Democrats have long suffered from inability to pick up middle class votes, which have increasingly gone to the Socialists. Craxi should be able to fill the electoral vacuum.

Interviewed in March’s Labour Herald, Eric Heffer said of the Labour leadership: ‘At present we have what I call the Felipe Gonzalez syndrome – in other words, image building. Everything is geared to building the image of the movement’s leadership.’ Kinnock is certainly not as good looking as Gonzalez, and probably not as intelligent; but the performance of Socialist prime ministers in southern Europe should be food for thought for anyone who thinks we shall get an easy ride’ from the next Labour government.

Ian H. Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 28 March 2010