2010s >> 2018 >> no-1362-february-2018

Franco, Fascism and Modern Spain

I regularly drive along the A348 – a meandering secondary road that cuts through a long valley – the Alpujarras – sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and Contraviesa mountain ranges in Southern Spain. Just off that road, between the towns of Orgiva and Lanjaron, there lies what some historians reckon is possibly the largest mass grave in Spain dating from the Civil War (1936-39). El Carrizal is a barren ravine, desiccated by a recent bushfire, which may contain the remains of up to 4000 individuals, including children, brutally executed by the fascists in that horrendous war.

Burying the Past

The story of El Carrizal is recounted in Juan Gonzalez Blasco’s Orgiva: Hitos de su Historia (2002). Night after night truckloads of prisoners were brought to the spot and summarily executed. They came from all over Granada province and beyond. El Carrizal was not the only site of execution – there are reputedly 25 mass graves locally – though it was the largest. Throughout the Alpujarras Franco’s forces rounded up suspected Republican sympathisers and had them shot. Little ‘pueblos’ like Torviscon, not far from me, lost a sizable chunk of its population to the Terror.

The physical reminders of those years still remain – the monuments to the dead, the occasional lookout post and the trenches hewn into the craggy mountainside from which anarchist snipers sought to resist Franco’s advancing army. Then there are the psychological scars. The valley retains the memory of those years as a sponge does water; squeeze it and the bitterness soon oozes back. Even today some people are reluctant to talk about the subject. In a merciless war that pitted neighbour against neighbour and relative against relative, with atrocities being committed by both sides (though far more died at the hands of the ‘White Terror’ than the ‘Red Terror’), that is perhaps not all that surprising.

Spain, post Franco, never really had something akin to South Africa’s’ post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a model of its kind. As David Smith writing in the Guardian, noted:

‘Spanish judges’ hands are doubly tied when it comes to investigating the thugs who served General Francisco Franco’s right wing dictatorship. Abuses not covered by the statute of limitation are protected by an amnesty law passed two years after Franco’s death. Politicians anxious not to place Spain’s fragile new democracy under stress, tacitly agreed to sweep the past under the carpet in what became known as the ‘pact of forgetting’ (24 June, 2014).

A belated attempt to change this situation came in 2007, when the PSOE government of Zapatero passed its Law of Historical Memory, which effectively condemned the Franco regime and cleared the way for the victims’ relatives to seek some redress. However, resistance to investigating the crimes of the Franco era is deeply embedded within the Spanish judiciary and when one leading magistrate, Baltasar Garson, sought to do just that, he was stymied in his efforts and eventually expelled from the judiciary in 2012, albeit on another matter.

It’s not just the judiciary that put up resistance, it came also from the official opposition to the Zapatero government at the time, the Partido Popular. The PP under Mariona Rajoy, now the governing party of Spain, had its origins in the Alianza Popular (AP), founded by one of Franco’s former ministers, Manuel Fraga. Fraga was on the reformist wing of fascism and sought to steer his party more towards the centre ground. This he succeeded in doing by joining forces with moderate conservatives. An organisational metamorphosis then followed, going through a succession of coalitions, culminating in the formation of the PP in 1989.

Spanish nationalism

We tend to associate fascism with extreme nationalism. However, the odd thing about Spain before Franco was the comparative weakness of nationalist sentiment there. True, the war of independence against Napoleon in the early 19th century had fostered some nationalist fervour. But this was the nationalism of a liberal elite. It chafed against, and was effectively blunted by, the institutional hegemony of the Catholic Church which constituted itself almost as a rival to the state in the enormous influence it wielded over Spanish society. 

Nationalism and the nation-state are essentially the products of capitalist development but in Spain, this occurred comparatively late in the day. Significantly, it was focused initially on just a few pockets – like Catalonia, the Basque country and around Madrid. Though agriculture began to be organised on a more capitalistic footing from the mid-19th century onwards, the largely backward rural hinterland provided poor soil in which nationalist sentiments could take root. Indeed, according to Jared Spears: ‘In the rugged isolation of Spain’s poor mountain villages, early anarchist adherents pioneered the organisational forms that later shaped the Civil War-era trade unions and peasant assemblies.’ (Jacobin magazine, May 2017). In a sense, geography aided the remarkable spread of anarchism in Spain and its emphasis on decentralisation and local autonomy. However, anarchist influence declined sharply in the course of the Civil War, ground down on the one hand by the rising power of the Stalinists on the Republican side and, on the other, by military defeat at the hands of Franco’s nationalist forces.

Thus, to the extent that nationalism existed in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century it was relatively muted and, furthermore, tended to take an ‘inverted’ form – a nationalism of the regions rather than an all-embracing Spanish nationalism. In fact, this is what marks Spain off as somewhat different from other European countries. For it was precisely in some of these regions that industrial development was most advanced. Sharp inequalities in the spatial economy of the country, reinforced by a pattern of cultural and linguistic differentiation, meant that the project of ‘nation-building’ in Spain could not be fully completed.

The Rise of Fascism

It was against this somewhat inauspicious background that fascist ideas began to circulate within Spain – essentially as a foreign import, to begin with. Mussolini’s Italy was the primary source of inspiration  (Stanley Payne in his 1996 book, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 charts in detail the growth of Spanish fascism).

The first openly fascist group operating in Spain was the short-lived (1931-33) Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (JONS) led by Ramiro Ledesma Ramos. However, JONS proved spectacularly unsuccessful in making any kind of impression. It was succeeded by another grouping, the Falange Española (‘Spanish Phalanx’), led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the dictator who ruled Spain from 1923 to 1930. José Antonio, Payne points out, ‘had become interested in something rather like fascism (Italian-style) as the vehicle for giving form and ideological content to the national authoritarian regime attempted so uncertainly and unsuccessfully by his father’. Falangism was anti-monarchist and populist in orientation, attacking what it called ‘capitalism’, as many radical rightists are prone to do, in a language that sometimes sounded distinctly leftist.  Up until the Civil War the Falangists, like JONS, made little headway in attracting support, though.

The ascent of Hitler’s Nazis to power in Germany in 1933 engendered more interest in fascism – and funding too. Although Spanish fascism exhibited many of the core attributes of generic fascism – its hyper-nationalism and rigid authoritarianism – it also differed from other fascisms in ideological content – most notably in its accommodation of Catholic traditionalism. There was even a certain reluctance to clearly identify itself as fascist or to employ the usual street tactics of fascists elsewhere.  Unlike with the Nazis, little emphasis was placed on notions of racial purity (not surprising, perhaps, given Spain’s Moorish past, particularly in Andalucía)

It was the army rebellion led by Franco against the Republic in 1936 that changed the fortunes of the Falangists whose numbers swelled to several hundred thousand in the course of the Civil War. While Falangism was deployed as an ideological battering ram to infuse nationalist sentiments into the populace, the movement itself was effectively contained and subordinated to the military. In 1937, Franco unilaterally imposed a unification plan, bringing together the Falangists, pro-monarchists (Carlists) and a number of small right wing parties within a new organisation called the ‘Falange Española Tradicionalista’ with the Generalissimo himself at the helm.

Though Franco’s forces had received decisive military support from Germany and Italy during the Civil War, Spain was unable to reciprocate upon the outbreak of World War Two, with so much of the economy in ruin. This, plus the failure to secure a deal with Hitler on a post-war carve up of the world that would grant Spain its territorial claims in North Africa, meant that Franco had little option but to declare Spanish neutrality. That was just as well for neutrality ensured the survival of a fascist regime long after the Allied Powers had triumphed in their ‘war against fascism’. The differences between Spanish fascism (or ‘semi-fascism’) and other, no-longer-extant, fascisms subsequently become more accentuated. An opportunist at heart, Franco increasingly began to lean towards monarchism and the traditional authoritarianism of the conservative Right in a bid to distance himself from Falangism. He also set about liberalising the economy which would have been anathema to a die-hard Falangist. His rabid anti-communism led to a rapprochement of sorts with the West as the Cold War got underway. America extended its Marshall Aid plan of economic assistance to Spain and in 1953 entered into military pact with it. The economic boom of the 1960s cemented Franco’s reputation as a popular leader among some sections of the population but, for many other Spaniards, he remained a reviled figure and his death in 1975 was regarded as a cause for great rejoicing.

The post-Franco years and Catalonia

Franco’s legacy was, thus, one of a bitterly polarised society. The strong association between nationalism and fascism provided a powerful subtext, shaping the contours of a post-Franco settlement.  Compromise was considered essential. One example was the Amnesty Law of 1977 already referred to.  Another was the decision to divide Spain into 17 ‘autonomous regions’ each exerting decisive control of such key services as social welfare, education and health. However, and crucially, the central government retained control over finance. It was empowered to levy and collect taxes from the autonomous regions – apart from the Basque country and Navarre which exercised tax autonomy – and to redistribute the proceeds back to the regions in a manner that ensured ‘fiscal equalisation’. In effect, poorer regions paid less taxes and got more revenue while conversely, richer regions paid more and got less.

However, this has become a major bone of contention between Madrid and, above all, Catalonia – one of the richest regions of Spain – fuelling the ‘independista’ movement there in its bid to secede from Spain. While Catalonia accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s taxes it receives back only 14 percent of the revenue. The 2008 economic crisis made matters worse with the highest level of budget cuts falling on Catalonia.

For its part, the central government is in no mood to accede to the separatists’ wishes. Catalonia has 16 percent of the Spanish population but accounts for 19 percent of the GDP and 25 percent of Spain’s exports, quite apart from paying a disproportionately large share into the state’s coffers. The loss of Catalonia would be a serious blow to the Spanish economy and the Rajoy government has moved decisively to prevent this happening, obstructing the independence referendum held in October 2017, organised by the Catalonian parliament, with a bungled police crackdown and then declaring the vote that delivered a thumping 92 percent in favour of independence (on a turnout of 43 percent) as legally null and void. It also invoked article 155 of the constitution, suspending Catalonia’s autonomous status and imprisoning some of the leading independistas.

Though independence would adversely affect Spain the likely impact on Catalonia would probably be even more severe. Two thirds of Catalonia’s exports go the EU but the EU has pointedly declined to recognise Catalonia’s right to secede, fearful that it might spark off secessionist movements in some other European countries. Since the October referendum more than 3000 business, including some major banks, have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia.

How do socialists view these developments? The unedifying choice between Catalan nationalism and Spanish nationalism is one that we point-blank refuse to make.  The political theorist, Tom Nairn, once declared that the ‘theory of nationalism represents Marxism ‘s great historical failure’ (‘The Modern Janus’, New Left Review, Nov/Dec 1975). If so, it is failure of influence, not of analysis.

Nationalism is predicated on the myth of a common interest uniting the citizens of a given country.  This has been cynically and opportunistically promoted by the Catalan nationalists particularly in relation to the tax issue. However, taxes are ultimately a burden on the capitalist class, not the working class, though the accounting ploy of routing some taxes via the workers’ payslips might very well prompt some to embrace the concept of a “stakeholder society” so central to nationalist mythology. At the end of the day, the real wages workers receive boils down to a question of economic circumstances – whether, for instance, the capitalist trade cycle is in its boom or recessionary phase – as well as what Marx described as the ‘respective powers of the combatants’ in the class struggle (Value Price and Profit, 1865). You don’t enhance the power of workers in their economic struggles against the capitalists by taking the same side as those sitting opposite you at the negotiating table and fraternally regarding them as your ‘fellow citizens’.

Nevertheless, in a manner that has become depressingly predictable, large swathes of the Left have opted for a course of action that effectively submerges and obliterates working class identity in favour of national identity in the current constitutional crisis in Catalonia. It is the perceived threat of an emergent fascism that drives such class collaborationism. As the philosopher Anna Hennessey put it in an article in Counterpunch (29 September): ‘Franco was victorious and did not lose his war, as Hitler and Mussolini lost theirs, but this must not mean that we should let the dictator’s toxic ideological infrastructure persist any further into the twenty-first century. Supporting Catalonia is a necessary step in putting an end to fascism in Europe’.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything was calculated to encourage the growth of fascism it is Hennessey’s recklessly naive endorsement of Catalan nationalism. We should not be beguiled by the anti-monarchist and superficially ‘progressive’ character of this nationalism. Boris Kagarlitsky characterises it as a self-indulgent and greedy ‘revolt of the rich against the poor’ in sharp contrast to the Civil War years, when ‘Red Barcelona’ was the throbbing heart of a Spain-wide republicanism: ‘More developed regions with a high standard of living do not want to give up their resources to support less prosperous and backward provinces. “We don’t want to feed Andalusia anymore”, they say in Barcelona’ (Counterpunch, 11 September). He talks of the Catalan-language press being ‘full of racist delirium about dirty and lazy Spaniards trying to live at the expense of hard-working Catalonia’. That is surely a grotesque exaggeration but there is unquestionably some tension between incomers and natives. While Franco banned all languages except Castilian Spanish, the Catalan authorities have recently pursued a policy displacing the Spanish language with Catalan – for instance, making it a requirement for government jobs – to the detriment of many non-Catalan speakers.

There is a Fascist presence in Spain but the movement is small, fragmented and backward-looking in its nostalgia for the Franco era . Whatever populist appeal it might have has been effectively contained by the rise of the Leftist anti-corruption party, Podemos. Fascists may brawl and sieg-heil on the streets of Catalonia but their high visibility in the media is nowhere near matched by electoral success. Furthermore, for all their fanatical opposition to any kind of break-up of Spain as a centralised unitary state, they have also been comprehensively outflanked and side-lined on that issue as well by mainstream parties like the Centre Right and vehemently anti-independence, Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) Party, which after the December 2017 elections, emerged as the single largest Party in the Catalan Parliament.

As for Rajoy, he clearly misjudged the situation, hoping to benefit politically by calling for these elections. Not only did the PP lose seats but Rajoy himself has been hoisted by his own petard. Having denounced the October referendum as illegal he sought to decisively stop the juggernaut of Catalan nationalism in its tracks by legal means. As it happens, the pro-independence parties emerged victorious as a result, having between them, won a majority of the seats– something that is likely now to prolong and aggravate the Catalonian crisis.

However, while the Far Right might currently be marginalised it would be rash to rule out a renaissance. There are suggestions that it might adopt the approach so successfully used by Le Pen in France in tapping anti-immigrant sentiment. What has been most striking about the Catalan crisis is the surge in Spanish nationalism it has provoked. In other words, Catalan nationalism has awakened Spanish nationalism, not just in Catalonia but throughout Spain. This nationalist groundswell may, indeed, bode well for the Far Right – a point those left-wing supporters of Catalonian independence would do well to heed.


The relationship between nationalism and democracy is more complicated and vexed than liberals like Hennessey would have us believe.  While Catalan nationalists invoke ‘democracy’ in defence of their cause, an independent Catalan state, like any other, would be operating within the framework of a capitalist society that, by its very nature, can never really be democratic. How could it be when the means of wealth production are monopolised by a tiny minority to the exclusion of the great majority who produce that wealth? That aside, and disturbingly, this escalation of nationalist hostility we are witnessing on all sides is likely to further erode what limited bourgeois democratic rights there are. In 2015, for instance, the government introduced its Orwellian-sounding ‘Citizens Security Act’, popularly known as the ‘gag law’, among other things banning unauthorised gatherings and making acts such as desecrating the Spanish flag punishable with a fine of up to 30,000 euros – possibly with Catalan and other separatists in mind.

Back in the Alpujarras, a young man of my acquaintance, normally quite left wing in his opinions, was holding forth in a bar.  Venting his anger towards Catalan nationalists, he intermittently blurted out ‘Viva Espana!’ in a loud voice, whilst jokingly (or perhaps only half-jokingly) making fascist salutes. I remonstrated with him for his tactlessness, pointing out that, conceivably, there were individuals in that very bar whose relatives had perished at the hands of the fascists back in the 1930s. To me such behaviour was symptomatic of the times we are living through, an ominous portent of what might come.

Truly it might be said that nationalism is fascism’s Trojan horse.


One Reply to “Franco, Fascism and Modern Spain”

  1. we received this comment twhich hasn’t shown for some reason.
    /DJP/ wrote:

    Dragon festival it was, 2002 I think. Cigarrones was the place.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Festival [1]

    Incidentally I was in Barcelona earlier this year, there was an exhibition in
    Montjuic Castle about German fascism in Barcelona. The Nazis had a strong
    prescence with long Nazi banners being hung across the city from 39-45


    Of course Catalonia is the region where the authorities now take the
    exhumation and identification of war remains most seriously.

    Yep Cigarrones is the place. We lived for 5 years in Tijola directly opposite
    and on the side of the river until literally last month .

    This will bring back a few memories for you, DJP – the Green Dragon
    Festival in 2006. I went then and in 2007 when it was at its height (my ex
    wife was one of the peformers on stage in 2007). Very Woodstock and all that

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elRM-ZRK_vw [3]

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Festival
    [2] http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/castelldemontjuic/en/activitats/exposicions/nazis-and-fascists-symbolic-occupation-barcelona-1939-1945
    [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elRM-ZRK_vw


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