The fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in June coincided with the re-election of the “socialist” government of Gonzalez. It presents some curious reversals. The Popular Front government of 1936, which was overthrown in the armed revolt led by Franco, was solidly republican while Franco was monarchist. Now the Spain of Gonzalez is firmly monarchist and was opposed in the general election of June by the party of Franco sympathisers.
In 1936 the Republican government declared that its aim was to establish in Spain a parliamentary system on the British model, though most of that Popular Front’s supporters were entirely opposed to a parliamentary system. In 1976 a two chamber parliament, much like that in Britain, was endorsed by 94 per cent of the voters in a referendum, and the “socialist” government of Gonzalez in its four years of office has been running a policy rather like that of Thatcher, a “toughly Gladstonian economic policy”, with “tight control of the money supply” (The Economist, 28 June 1986).
Just as the aim of the Popular Front in 1936 had nothing to do with socialism, the same is true of the Gonzalez government. (The Economist, in a nice choice of words describes its policy as “pale pinkery” and says it is socialist “in name only”). The Spanish “Socialist Party”, like the British Labour Party, is concerned only with trying to show that it can run capitalism better than can its conservative opponents. Present day Spain has another resemblance to Britain. It has its equivalent of Northern Ireland in the violence accompanying the attempts of sections of the Basque population to set up an independent state.
The Civil War, which cost 600.000 lives, ended with a Franco victory in March 1939. and the fascist dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975. In Britain, the civil war was largely presented in ideological terms of “democracy versus dictatorship”, and “atheism versus religion”, with supporters of both sides levelling charges of atrocities, but the reality was very different inside Spain. Franco was backed by the Catholic hierarchy and the big landowners but many of the poorer priests supported the Republican government, as did most of the air force and part of the army and navy. It was estimated in 1931 that more than half the land was owned by less than one per cent of the population, the Catholic church being the biggest landowner. It was not the Spanish capitalists who backed Franco. Avowedly capitalist political parties belonged to the Popular Front and although in 1936 the Spanish “Socialist” Party was the largest party in parliament, they were not represented in the government until six months after the war started.
The whole question was overshadowed by the rivalries of other powers, of Germany seeking a base in Spain which would give them control of the Mediterranean and Britain, France and Russia wanting to prevent it. Germany and Italy gave massive support to Franco, as did Russia to the Republicans. The German condition for giving support was an agreement giving them control of the rich Spanish iron ore deposits. The Russian government insisted on being paid for the aid it provided. In Britain most Labour and Liberal sympathy was with the Republicans. The Tory government maintained a policy of “non-intervention” but an influential section of the Tory Party favoured helping the Spanish government against the Franco rebellion. Thousands of volunteers from outside Spain fought for the Republicans and others for Franco.
It was clear from the outset that the issue in the civil war would be largely determined by the amount and the type of aid coming from Germany, Italy, France and Russia. As the war took its course, first one side and then the other gained the advantage. It was the view of Hugh Thomas in The Spanish Civil War that “Germany committed enough war material to tip the balance finally towards the Nationalists”. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Modern History (p.306) what led to the final collapse of the Republican armies was a change of Russian policy “which cut off aid from that source”. As a Republican writer complained, within six months of the Russian government backing the Spanish Republicans against German arms and troops. Stalin and Hitler were “hobnobbing” under the Stalin-Hitler pact of September 1939. The aid-giving powers. Germany, Italy and the Popular Front government in France were all using the war to test out their new weaponry.
The League of Nations was quite impotent to prevent the civil war or the intervention by the other powers. Its successor, the United Nations, condemned the Franco dictatorship and resolved that member nations of the UN should withdraw their ambassadors. This was largely ignored and it did not prevent the British government allowing a Spanish ambassador in Britain and a British ambassador to be based in Franco Spain. The United States government in 1953 concluded an agreement with the Franco government to give military and economic aid in return for the lease of air and naval bases in Spain. It was the turn of American capitalism to see a vital interest in controlling the Mediterranean, against Russia.
When the Popular Front finally had to admit defeat some of those who had uneasily worked and fought together during the war began to lay at least part of the blame for defeat on each other. The Communist Party view was put by Jose Diaz in Lessons of the Spanish War 1936—1939.
The Communists were the only party to realise how important it was to secure the Unity of the Working Class. That is why the Communist Party strove so stubbornly for the creation of a united trade union centre. But the “Socialist” and Anarchist leaders persistently worked to defeat this end. For they knew that the effect of such a unity would be to strengthen the influence of the Communists in the trade unions and would lead to victory over the forces of reaction. The Communists redoubled their efforts to create a single party of the working class based on the principles of Marxism- Leninism. But the “Socialist” leaders steadily opposed the formation of such a party, which would have ensured the hegemony of the proletariat in the People’s Front and the government.
The counter version of the Anarcho-Syndicalist and Anarchist organisations and the “Socialist-Communist” General Workers’ Union was given in Three Years of Struggle in Spain 1936—1939. This accused the Communist Party and “Agents of the USSR” of wanting to impose their forcible control on the Spanish Libertarian Movement; of murdering thousands of non-Stalinist comrades; of Stalinist intrigues which brought about “despair and the loss of their best men”. About unity it said that in the first two years the slogans of the Communist Party can be summed up in “Better lose the war than allow the Revolution”.
“What unity did the Communist Party respect or attempt to establish?— none whatsoever” and finally. “Neither in war nor revolution has anti-fascist Spain had a worse enemy than Stalinism”.
The simple truth was that at the time there never existed the basis for unity on the Republican side.
The government, backed by the “Socialist Party” and some trade union elements, could proclaim the establishment of a parliamentary system as the aim of their resistance to the Franco rebellion but the Communist Party, with its Russian links, and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalists, each from a different standpoint, were both violently opposed to that aim. Oliveira, a supporter of the aim of the government, writing in the British Labour Party magazine Labour at the beginning of the war (September 1936) said that the conditions necessary for a successful parliamentary system did not exist in Spain at the time.
But the Spain of 1986 differs considerably from before the civil war. Under the 1982—86 term of office of the Gonzalez government, inroads had been made against the privileged position of the church and the landowners and one critical experience appears to have strengthened the hand of the government in controlling the armed forces, and preventing them from playing politics. This was when an attempt was made by some army officers to stage a revolt, including the seizure of parliament. The rebels may have been expecting support, or at least neutrality, from the king but he immediately came out strongly against them and the attempt was defeated. Spanish capitalism has made great strides towards modernising its industries and making them competitive in world markets. The Gonzalez government has also joined the European Community and entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation along with most European countries.
What the Gonzalez government now has to worry about in its task of running capitalism is not military revolt but the kind of problems faced by governments in all the industrialised countries, notably the problem of unemployment. From 11 per cent in 1980 it has risen steadily year after year until it is now 24 per cent, the highest in Europe and almost double what it is in Britain. Like other governments who mistakenly believe that they have only to find the right policy to be able to reduce unemployment Gonzalez, four years ago promised to “create” 800.000 new jobs. As The Economist (28 June) unkindly points out. unemployment has risen by 800,000 since Gonzalez made his promise to reduce it by that amount.