Spanish Social Democracy - How it Became Reformist

"Spanish society in the present time," said economist Ramόn Tamames in his Introduction to the Economy of Spain in 1967, "is in the midst of effervescent change; changes in the economy are rapidly transforming traditional habits and mentalities and are exposing myths that have acquired almost an aura of eternal verity." Just how little dictators and other politicians can alter the "course of history" with their decrees has become impressively evident in the case of Spain.

It is now nearly two years since Spain acquired its second "socialist" government in 43 years. Barbara Probst Solomon, in a New York Times Magazine article, "A Diary of the New Spain" (January 23, 1983) states how surprised she was in late 1982 on a visit to Spain:

My mind went back to a scene I had witnessed on the night of the 1977 elections: In a crowded cafe, students shouting, "Long live the Socialist Party!" and the policemen staring at the students, both groups staring at each other, apprehensive, unsure. And suddenly it occurred to all of us, for the first time: Why, the socialists are really legitimate now! Up from the underground, free of their miserable hiding places, more than just tolerated - so legitimate that it is all right to acclaim them in the very presence of the police.
And now, five years later, there they sit, neatly dressed, in a fashionable restaurant, recruiting managerial help from the country's technocratic élite.

Although the Socialist Workers' Party of Spain (PSOE) waited until 1979 to officially repudiate its identification with Marxism, the fact is that ever since 1899 it has been hobnobbing with the "advanced bourgeois parties". (A tendency calling itself the "Socialist Left" raised the issue of what it termed the "danger of the Party's becoming de-ideologized" in December of 1981, at a meeting of the Party's Madrid Federation but was rebuffed by the majority present.) It has now reached the point where innocent observers understandably come away with the impression that, while it might occasionally (and surprisingly) veer off in the direction of revolutionary rhetoric, it is mainly a party of progressive reforms- sensible, moderate, practical. (See, for example, an article by S.G. Paine in Current History, December 1982, entitled "Spain's Political Future".)

To understand how it came to this pass is to gain a clearer insight into the fatal pathology which affected Social Democracy since its very inception, not only in Spain but throughout Europe and, for that matter, the whole world. But before we can proceed to analyze this, we must first take a preliminary look at its historical context, its economic basis: capitalist production.

It is not necessary for a social revolution (a change that is, in the economic basis of society) to be sealed with a political change (of regimes) in order for it to be successful. Its mere occurrence is its success. What Spain experienced between 1868 and 1874 was an undercapitalized revolution which nevertheless established capitalism as the dominant economic system. The failure of this revolution at its last stage of realization - the political phase - was an inevitable consequence of the technological-organizational imperatives of the productive system being out of step with the actual condition of the markets.

The degree of political centralization of the class struggle is proportional to the degree of sophistication of the system of production, which in turn stands in a general relation to the concrete opportunities for turning a profit. The class organization of Spain has always kept pace with that of the rest of developing capitalism in Europe generally, particularly in Great Britain; its appearance of antiquarianism, of quaint and outdated backwardness, is due rather to the lack of capital than to the survival of feudal institutions or their vestiges. (Spanish feudalism had been among the weakest in Europe.)

Yet we find Juan José Morato, the acknowledged historian of the Socialist Workers' Party, repeating almost verbatim, in his book El Partido Socialista Obrero (Editorial Ayuso, Madrid, 1976) the traditional bourgeois legend handed down since the days of the Decadence:

The Party was born in a country whose forms of production were almost medieval, where as yet a strong and enterprising capitalism had not yet made its appearance, where a bourgeoisie almost did not exist, where the latter did not determine government policy as much as influence it.

If you think about this statement for a minute, its voluntaristic thrust is quite remarkable. It corresponds to an interpretation of Spanish history which is only remotely connected with the materialist conception of history. Political organizations and movements do not acquire any degree of development except in the measure permitted by existing economic conditions. A socialist party could not have been "born" in a country that was not economically ready for it, unless its founders were guilty of committing a serious misnomer.

Had conditions in Spain really been as unfavourable, as Morato suggests, as they were, for instance, in Tsarist Russia at the same period, even the modest and unenviable achievements of the early Socialist Workers' Party would have remained unattainable; nor, for that matter, could there have been much talk about democratic regimes and republican forms of government, except at the extreme periphery of the political spectrum (and on a strictly theoretical basis, at that). Morato's hybrid form of reformism and Leninism, however, required the making of such an assumption.

By 1886, the year in which the editorial guidelines for the PSOE's journal, El Socialista, were drafted, it had become clear that workers had lost at least some of their political naiveté and were no longer likely to vote Liberal. This made it all the more urgent, in the view of the PSOE, to persuade the workers of the vanity of the pernicious alternative offered by the Republicans, whose aims ranged from the barest change possible all the way to a vaguely defined "social justice".

The value of the Republican parties, as far as the Social Democratic movement was concerned, was that they promised to provide a regime in which the working class could carry out its own emancipation unhindered. In its characteristic preoccupation with doctrine, the PSOE regarded the Republicans as otherwise little more than "advanced bourgeois parties", that is, as merely ultra-progressive Liberals (with the notable exception of Pi y Margall). The Republicans' specific provenance was in fact that vanishing social class, the petty bourgeoisie, and their historical fate was to become what Morato styles their "near-proletarianization". By virtue, in other words, of the inherent internal dynamic of capitalist production, Republicanism in Spain became converted into the haven of wage-earners and professionals who believed that capitalism could be run in the interests of the working class.

In another place in his book, Morato tells us:

Men of enlightened will saw the evils of the country and wanted to direct their action to the remedy of these, and to the advancement of this unhappiest of nations. Everything pushed them away from the parties of the government. (p.196)

Individuals interested in using the PSOE for the purpose solely of reforming the country's administration, in short, were lining up to join the ranks of the organized working class. These individuals might otherwise have remained in the official parties, or even in the Republican parties which, at that time (around 1911 ), were entering into another phase of disarray and atomization as a movement only a year after they had helped get Pablo Iglesias, leader of the PSOE, elected to the Cortes or Parliament. These new members were attracted, moreover, says the author, by the fact that the PSOE alone maintained a consistent and disciplined presence in the political arena.

This development of course rendered the merely doctrinal superiority of the Social Democrats very hollow. Not surprisingly, it became ever more "sensible" to the bulk of the membership to admit that the Minimum Program (ie of reforms to be achieved within the framework of capitalism) of the PSOE made the "almost-proletarianized" Republicans seem like very compatible bedfellows indeed. All the while, the Minimum Program was becoming, year by year, at congress after congress, ever more complex and ever lengthier. This gradual disappearance of the Republican middle term corresponded, on a general scale, to the tendency of the class struggle to become reduced to a single, monolithic confrontation between capital and wage-labour, in the process erasing any distinction that may have once existed between the terms "republican" and "liberal".

One of the great imponderables of Spanish Social Democracy is how the man most intimately associated with it - a co-founder of the PSOE himself, Pablos Iglesias -could have ended his long career advocating what obviously resembled a policy of reformism (and without even so much as conceding it), when he had begun by sounding an unmistakably revolutionary note. It may be that his integrity was subject to severe pressures due to his absolute dependence on the Party's membership for a source of income that was not exactly abundant; that he found himself in the difficult position of having to swallow his pride and go along with the obvious groundswell of opinion in favour of reforms gathering strength among the majority, reasoning to himself that things might not get so far out of control if he could moderate their course in the name of doctrinal purity. The die, in any event, was definitively cast by the 1910 elections, when the Social Democrats joined with the united Republican parties in fielding candidates for national office for the first time.

The truly Republican, or bourgeois radical, strain of working class opinion in Spain was perhaps best exemplified by what was, between 1872 and 1890, the largest and most influential trade union in Spain, the Catalán Federación de las Tres Clases de Vapor (Federation of the Three Steam Trades), a textile-workers' organization founded sometime around 1869 and dominated by the Bakuninists, more or less subject to government repression from 1875 till 1881 and revitalized once again from 1882 to 1890, this time as a "Marxist-oriented" trade union. (We should add that the number of actual industrial workers in Catalonia as a whole was never overwhelming, and that the majority of the Tres Clases' members were women, even though its leaders were generally men.) In its latter phase, it earned a reputation for class collaboration, political opportunism and wishy-washy Possibilism.

It was detested by the Anarchists, who constantly attacked its officials and who brought about a series of mass defections that ultimately contributed to its eclipse, which set in more or less abruptly after 1891. It ended this second, more volatile phase of its existence by moving over to the side of Possibilism (the openly reformist doctrine propounded by Paul Brousse in France), even going so far as to establish an ephemeral political organization to promote it, although it never gained any support outside of Catalonia.

It was this fly-by-night party which ultimately set the pace for the PSOE's gradual transformation into an executive component of Spain's equivalent of the Labour Party of Great Britain (with the CNT or National Labour Confederation acting as its trade-union component). At a series of May 1886 meetings held by the Tres Clases in Xuriguera, Catalonia, for example, a union representative spoke of "arriving at an agreement between Capital and Labour in order to defend their common interests". The speaker went on to say that:

If it should unfortunately become necessary to have to save the interests of Capital, those of us who work for a living can be counted among the firmest partisans of such a course of action, in the anticipation that our attitude of cooperation will be reciprocated. (quoted in Miguel Izard, Industrializaciόn y Obrerismo, Editorial Ariel, Barcelona, 1973, p.36)

This statement would be indistinguishable from any similar policy declaration made by the PSOE today, except that the Tres Clases de Vapor were addressing themselves to the liberal capitalists, whereas the PSOE of Felipe González and Alfonso Guerra busies itself with the affairs of the heads of corporate capitalism.

Despite what Miguel Izard calls an "increasingly Marxist tendency" on the part of the union's officials, the countervailing tendency toward Possibilism finally gained the upper hand in 1889 (with the occasion of the "Socialist-Possibilist" Congress in Paris, the outcome of which was a final, irrevocable break with the PSOE). An article published in the union's journal, El Obrero (The Worker), declared, in defence of the position it had taken:

We have never been unyielding as socialists, although we certainly will be once it becomes plain that socialism [ie the "transformation of property relations" which is the PSOE's nominal object] is the next step to be carried out. In the meantime we intend to work for the realization of those gradual changes (evoluciones) which in the nature of things must occur, since an idea can have no worse fate than to be imposed in the form of laws while the people are lacking in adequate preparation for it. (quoted by Izard. p.158)

While this statement may contain some glimmers of sanity, it is still virtually indistinguishable from the sort of statements made, almost ninety years later, by spokesmen for the PSOE in the brief period between the continuing death of Franco and the Party's changeover to an official pragmatism of the Brandt-Schmidt variety. In point of fact, by 1915 the PSOE had become the most important of Spain's Republican parties; with the death of Franco it also became transformed into the full-blown equivalent of Britain's Labour Party.

The history of the "republicanization" of the PSOE demonstrates very aptly how the basic flaw in Social Democracy was not its takeover by a pack of opportunists (as Lenin would have it), but rather its very conception of its role. The process by which it came about was never concerned to any great extent with questions of principle, but revolved around the fitness of the "advanced bourgeois parties" to act as power brokers for the PSOE. And it was even necessary for the advocates of alliance to proceed by stages, at first limiting themselves to amending the Party's constitution to allow threats to political freedoms to serve as a justification for teaming up with the Republicans, and only later (1909) openly admitting the Party to an enduring, if vacillating, "Concert" (Conjunción). To top it all off, the whole controversy itself paid lip service to Marxism (and, until 1979, the PSOE actually prided itself on this score), when a cursory glance at the proposals for the 1918 Party Program shows only too clearly how ludicrous the bulk of the Party's members had come to consider its "aspiration" of the transformation of property relations and the abolition of the wages system.

Given that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, it can subsist indefinitely if it can muster enough of a majority in favour of prolonging its lifespan. Where previous social systems had their maximum limit, owing to their relatively static character, as a dynamic system capitalism has no such limit. Consequently, unless the decision is reached, consciously and deliberately (that is, politically), to put an end to it as such, capital will just go on being accumulated, even if this has to be done under some form or other of state ownership. Socialism, on the other hand, is based on the negation of this, concretely on the abandonment of the Minimum Program and on bringing the Maximum Program (ie socialism and nothing less) back down to earth.

The Social Democrats, however, emphasised mere doctrine (which is merely philosophical), as opposed to scientific method (which is concerned with material conditions for change), as can be seen in a direct and graphic manner in the controversy over the "Republican-Socialist Concert" of 1909-10. Interestingly enough, both of the two figures present back in 1879 as founding members of the PSOE - Antonio Garcia Quejido and Paulino (Pablo) Iglesias - took up opposing positions on this question. One is struck by the absence of any mention being made during this debate of the danger of reformism. What the whole confrontation suggests is that the early authentically revolutionary Social Democrats tended to misjudge a changing and increasingly complex social system. Because they had started from the position that reforms benefiting the working class could form a part of Party policy, they were poorly prepared for the effects on the social organization of capitalism that the evolution of the system of production was to have. This evolution rendered reforms increasingly necessary merely in order to run the system smoothly.

Admittedly, the pioneers of socialism had no way of anticipating the tendency of capitalist production to cause the parties which were critical of it, in one way or another, to move into positions which only the bourgeois radical left would have held previously. But whether this assumed the form of the same parties changing their identity by altering their policy, or whether it appeared as the decline of one generation of parties and the rise of another, the increasing complexity of the system did render the parties of the left a species of progressive Ariels, and those on the right, a pack of reactionary Calibans.

Having secured a constituency on the promise of reforms, the Social Democrats then found themselves on the horns of a self-perpetuating dilemma: to distinguish themselves from their bourgeois opponents, they had to limit their activities to upstaging them, only to find that, in the end, they had become locked into a vicious circle of supporting capital accumulation in order go get votes, and of getting votes in order to promote capital accumulation . . . . They found themselves forced by the logic of their own position to occupy a place on the extreme left wing of the capitalist political spectrum.

This, plus the emergence of a contingent of "new intellectuals" in the '90s and later on, is primarily what accounts for the shift toward opportunistic connivance which imperceptibly crept over Spain's Social Democrats, affecting even the original founders of the movement - who always denied being either reformists or opportunists. The "Minimum Program" had brought them to the pass of being unable to tell the difference between revolution (establishing a new social system) and reform (renovating an existing one). They were socialists by design but opportunists by default, revolutionaries "in general" but not in reality.

In the class struggle it is not only what you are against but what you are for that counts. Workers who advocate capital accumulation and production for profit are in the end just as welcome to the capitalist class as members of the élite itself, provided they realize on which side their bread is buttered. That working-class movements should have poured so much of their energy into securing approval from the master class to administer its system only testifies to general obtuseness on the part of the workers themselves in regard to their own material interests. Workers whose organizations do not act in accordance with a conscious and deliberate interpretation of these interests are in the end no better than spineless lackeys; they are not really free individuals. Having made their peace with profit, they cannot thereafter produce any organizations uniquely their own - even though there is not a recognizable capitalist to be found in their ranks.

It was precisely in the name of the "purity of ideals", in fact, that Social Democracy in Spain developed an ever more detailed programme of social, economic and political reforms. The problem, in this respect, is that treating the immediate economic problems of workers within capitalism as the business of a socialist party involves that party in introducing, on the political field, a general policy of reforms or else a tendency to move in that direction. But a socialist party cannot advocate policies contrary to its own raison d'ệtre without this having serious repercussions. If, for example, its principles are to be realized by means of the general policy of abolishing the wages system, then it cannot remain the same party and still advocate changes that amount, in the strictly political sense, to reforms of that system. This latent conflict of assumptions shows up even in the earliest (1879) version of the PSOE Program; and one of the most renowned theoreticians of Spanish Social Democracy, Jaime Vera (also a founding member) persistently urged the Party to make common cause with the "more advanced" of the Republican reformers.

The basis for action of a Socialist Party is the political class struggle to abolish the wages system, so that, if it proceeds to incorporate desirable reforms into its basic programme, it can only end, sooner or later, as a party of reform. In such a case, the means (ie the Party's "minimum demands") - which, in the language of the initial (1879) Program, were supposed to "realize" its "ideal" of abolishing private property - finish by swallowing the Party itself as an historic instrument for emancipating its nominal constituency, the working class, from the slavery of wage labour.

In this sense, the 1908 Congress marks the definitive demise of the PSOE as a socialist organization. A socialist party can only exist by denying the existence of any and all parties of capitalism. The parties of commodity exchange and production for profit have (on whatever justification) interests and assumptions they cannot afford to have brought into question; their action, unlike that of a socialist party - which practises a scientific form of materialism - is thereby limited to the sphere of political art.

To speak of making alliances and coalition with such parties is therefore obvious nonsense. Socialists have no freedom to make such a choice. (From a reactionary vantage point, this is indeed a handicap, and the ideologues of pragmatism will waste no time in saying so.) The resolution taken at the 1908 Congress (conceding to the Party Branches the right to make alliances with "advanced bourgeois parties" on approval from the National Committee) is thus plainly symptomatic of organic decay.

Symptomatically (as Morato's statement quoted earlier indicates), the "men of the liberal professions, loyal and, we could almost say, immaculate", the intellectuals who joined the Party in substantial numbers after this date, could not be persuaded to have anything to do with socialism until the party espousing it had already decided to abandon it. Meanwhile, the "old mole" of revolution thought it had acquired prestigious defenders, but it was dreaming . . .

"After the Republic has been established," Quejido wrote in 1902 during the debate on the "emergency" created by the imminence of a Conservative government, arguing for an electoral alliance with the Republicans, "one part of the problem will have been resolved in our nation, and then we will have our hands free to do battle against a bourgeoisie eager to settle down to the enjoyment of its spoils . . . " (quoted by Morato, p.196).

When we compare this, in fact, with Lenin's "proletarian republic" that was to come some years later, we begin to see that this concept of political régimes was a major stumbling-block for Social Democracy in general in that they never grasped the relation between the form of state and the economy. Capital accumulation for profit was not the key concept for them and in the context of the November Revolution in Russia, they even saw nothing wrong with speaking of "socialist accumulation". A party could perform all the functions of a party of capitalism and yet still - because its ideology or doctrine was theoretically socialist - be considered a party of the exploited class.

This dualism of consciousness explains how such a crusty old fighter of the working class as Quejido could have "deviated" towards opportunism, thinking all the while he was promoting socialist revolution. There was something defective in the very conception of Social Democracy itself (as a form of political organization); and this defect was none other than the notion that a party of socialist revolution should seek to achieve partial objectives, dividing up its labours between long- and short-term demands.

There is no inherent contradiction between having a policy of abolition of the wages system (based on the materialist conception of history) and encouraging workers to resist the encroachments of capital. The contradiction enters in only where the more class conscious socialist party links its policy to demands arising out of the less class conscious economic class struggle. Such an emphasis exercises a retarding influence on the Party's development as an organization representing the interests of the vast majority, causing it to retreat from its objective of common ownership even without formally abandoning it.

By framing the discussion of the property question in the narrowest legal terms, the PSOE missed the fact that expropriation has to be general, affecting the very function of accumulating capital, and not merely the entire body of capitalists.

Ron Elbert (World Socialist Party of the United States)