Eighty years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and 40 years after the end of the Franco dictatorship which followed it, this is an issue which in Spain raises white hot passions. Far from this being an historical question, it is a burning one today. As a new revolutionary upswing is starting, the new generation is attempting to come to terms with the lessons of the past.
The main reason for this is the fact that the civil war was won by the ruling class, which backed the fascist military uprising. The Franco dictatorship which followed it for about 40 years, was not overthrown but rather, the regime made a deal with the leaders of the workers’ parties in order to prevent its revolutionary overthrow. That led, through the swindle of the so-called Transition, to the bourgeois democracy which we’ve had for 40 years since 1976, one which has many birthmarks from the Franco regime.
On April 14 this year, a number of town halls of important cities in Spain decided to fly the tri-colour red, yellow and murrey flag of the Spanish Republic of 1931-39. This was only possible because of the 2015 municipal election victory of “popular unity” lists which stand outside and against the two party system which has dominated Spanish politics since the end of the dictatorship, one composed of a main right wing party, PP, and a main social-democratic one, PSOE. Such popular unity lists, under different names and slightly different compositions, were able to take over local council governments in key cities, like Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Cadiz and others. That was a major turning point signalling the deep crisis of the 1978 regime, the one which followed the betrayal of the revolutionary uprising against the Franco dictatorship.
When many of these new popular unity councils decided to fly the Republic flag, the right wing media went into a fit of rage and the ruling right wing Popular Party (PP) got swift injunctions from the courts and used the police to remove them. One would think that there should be no real problem in flying the flag of a period in Spanish history which was after all one of democratic (bourgeois democratic) legality. There is.
A few months earlier, the Madrid council of “Ahora Madrid”, the popular unity list ruling the capital city, attempted to remove a few of the remaining Franco regime monuments, statues and street names. Again, there was a huge scandal. Harsh criticism was levelled against Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena, and the councillors directly responsible. This was coming not only from the ruling right wing PP, but also from the “Socialist” Party PSOE! There are still 170 names of streets and squares in Madrid alone which are related to prominent figures and symbols of the dictatorship.
One would think that removing street plaques and monuments commemorating the fascist side of the civil war and the dictatorial Franco regime which followed would not be a controversial matter. In fact, the question anyone would be tempted to ask is, why are they still standing 40 years after the end of the dictatorship!? After all, the Madrid council was within the law in taking the action it took. It was merely attempting to implement the so-called “Law of Historical Memory”, which was passed in 2007 at the initiative of the then Socialist Party government of Zapatero. It therefore took the Spanish democracy over 30 years after the end of the Franco dictatorship to officially condemn it and start the work of disentangling itself from its legacy. Such work was only started very meekly, not at all thoroughly and many parts of the law have remained a declaration of good intentions which is still to be put into practice.
One would think that condemning a dictatorial regime would be a matter of fact for democratic bourgeois politicians. Not in Spain. The Popular Party voted against the law. The reason is simple enough to understand. The main right wing party of the Spanish ruling class is the direct inheritor of the Franco regime, as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told them in March this year during the debates on the formation of a government: “Gentlemen of the PP, allow me to remind you that many of you are the political offspring of totalitarianism. Your party was born out of an agreement by 7 ministers of Franco”. The names of those seven ministers are: Manuel Fraga, Cruz Martínez Esteruelas, Federico Silva Muñoz, Laureano López Rodó, Enrique Thomas de Carranza, Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora and Licinio de la Fuente. The party, which was founded under the name of Alianza Popular (People’s’ Alliance) also contained 170 former members of Franco’s Cortes (the fake “parliament”).
The first name in the list, Manuel Fraga, who was for many years the undisputed leader of the PP, gave a speech at the founding congress of Alianza Popular in 1977 making the following appraisal of the dictatorship: “Alianza Popular is a political force which refuses to accept the demolition of the gigantic work of the last forty years, which is not ashamed of a period in history in which the country has taken a colossal step forward”. He was also the president of Galicia for 15 years until 2005, and then became a Senator. He never hid his admiration for the Franco regime and despite that, when he died in 2012, a bust of him was installed in a prominent place in the Senate building. All the great and the good of the Spanish political class, high society, the Monarchy and the Church attended his funeral.
This “great democrat” had been a Minister of Franco since 1962 and in the revolutionary years of the struggle against the dictatorship he was directly responsible (as Minister of Interior) for the death of five workers killed by the police during the general strike in Vitoria in March 1976.
Fraga is just one of the most glaring examples which illustrate the way in which the old Franco dictatorship morphed into the new 1978 bourgeois democracy. There are many others. Two more are perhaps worth mentioning, as they are both linked to the bloody repression of the March 1976 city-wide strike in Vitoria, which had insurrectionary features and in which workers set up soviet-type bodies (Comisiones Representativas). One is Adolfo Suarez, widely praised as one of the “fathers of the Constitution” of 1978. Suarez was a provincial figure within the dictatorship from the early 1960s. By 1970 he had become a minor national figure in the regime, becoming director general of radio and television, and then in 1975, vice-secretary general of the Movimiento (Franco’s political party). During the repression of the Vitoria strike he was in-charge of the police, as Manuel Fraga was away on a trip to Germany.
He was the Prime Minister of Spain from 1976 until 1981, when his party collapsed. He continued in politics in 1991. When he died in 2014, he was given a state funeral presided over by the King and Queen. All sorts of ancient nobility titles were given to him, some in life, some posthumously and the Madrid airport was renamed after him. It says something when the airport of the capital city is named after a man who was secretary general of the fascist party which ruthlessly ruled Spain for 40 years.
The other man worth mentioning is Rodolfo Martín Villa. He was a member of Franco’s Cortes since 1964 and general secretary of the fascist “trade unions” since 1969. He then became the governor of the Barcelona province in 1974, a position which put him directly in charge of repression in this rebellious city. As a Minister of Trade Union Affairs his hands are also soaked in the blood of the 5 Vitoria martyrs. During the revolutionary period of the struggle against the Franco dictatorship and the first years of the 1978 democracy he was known for his liking of brutal repressive methods, which earned him the nickname of “the truncheon of the Transition”. As a Minister of the Interior in the first democratic government of Adolfo Suárez he oversaw the involvement of the security forces in several cases of state terrorism and dirty war, among them the Scala affair against the CNT trade union in 1978 as well as the attempted assassination of Canary Islands nationalist leader Cubillo in 1980. When Suarez’s party finally collapsed, he joined Manuel Fraga’s Popular Party and remained a member of parliament until 1997.
As a reward for his “services to democracy” he was then given a position on the board of state-owned electricity company Endesa, only to later move onto a similar position in private cable TV company Sogecable. Finally in 2014, an Argentine judge opened a case against the Franco regime crimes, a case which could not be prosecuted in Spain as a result of the 1977 Amnesty Law, a key piece in the refurbishing of the Franco regime into a functioning bourgeois democracy. As part of this court case, Martin Villa and 19 other high ranking Franco regime figures were issued with arrest and extradition warrants. Even after the Spanish government was aware that the case involved Martín Villa, it appointed him to the Administration Board of SAREB, the state-owned banking institution dealing with the bad assets resulting from the banking bail out.
Not surprisingly, the Spanish government of the Popular Party, the party set up by 7 Franco regime ministers with the main aim of recycling Franco regime politicians into “democrats”, refused to comply with these orders. The crimes of the Franco regime remain unpunished and most of those who perpetrated them are now dying of old age.
Of course, the Popular Party represents those politicians who can trace their heritage directly back to the Franco regime, either personally, through family links or just by political allegiance. However they would not have been able to get away with burying the crimes of the regime without the full collaboration of the leaders of the main workers’ parties, Communist and Socialist.
Spain in the late 1960s and 1970s underwent a period of revolutionary ferment amongst the workers and youth of epic proportions. Hundreds of thousands joined left wing parties and organisations, workers set up underground trade union organisations, there were neighbourhood associations, democratic student unions, women’s organisations, illegal newspapers and bulletins, movements for democratic and progressive education methods, etc. This was in a period where the regime was carrying out systematic torture and killing political opponents. Becoming organised represented a risk to one’s life.
The workers’ movement responded to the repression with regional general strikes, demonstrations, democratic workers’ committees, etc. The struggle was all-encompassing: for better working conditions, for decent living conditions in the working class areas, against the power of the Church, against the censorship of the media, for abortion and women’s rights, for the democratic rights of the oppressed nationalities, for trade union and political freedom.
When the challenge to the regime reached a certain point, a section of the ruling class understood that they had to make concessions or else they would be swept away by a revolutionary uprising, and with them, the whole capitalist system. They looked at Portugal and Greece and worked hard to prevent a revolutionary overthrow to save their skins.
To achieve their aims, a controlled transition towards bourgeois democracy, which would leave their power intact, they needed the collaboration of the workers’ leaders. Felipe González, the general secretary of the Socialist Party PSOE, and Santiago Carrillo, general secretary of the Communist Party PCE, were happy to oblige. The role of the PCE leaders was particularly treacherous, as the PCE had a dominant position in almost every single underground movement: the Workers Commissions union (CCOO), amongst the intellectuals, in the women’s movement, etc.
Carrillo, a Euro-Communist, pushed the party not only to abandon any pretence of fighting for socialism, but also to adopt wholesale a series of institutions and symbols from the Franco dictatorship. Thus the PCE was the first of the left parties to adopt the current Spanish red-yellow-red flag instead of the Republican tricolor, to accept the Monarchy, which had been instituted by Franco, to renounce the right of self-determination for the nationalities, impunity for the crimes of the fascist regime, etc. All of this in exchange for a limited bourgeois democracy.
Of course, under the enormous pressure of the masses who were on the streets in their millions fighting for fundamental change, the regime had to make important concessions: legalisation of all political parties and trade unions, democratic elections, an amnesty for most (though not all) political prisoners, an end to censorship of the media.
Felipe Gonzalez had a lot of trouble in keeping his own Socialist Party under control. At that time, PSOE still declared itself a Marxist party and had the Republic and the right of self-determination in its programme. A big section of the Socialist Youth was defending revolutionary Marxist ideas, arguing that the way forward was socialist revolution. Gonzalez and his trusted ally Alfonso Guerra could count on plenty of money and advice from the German Social-Democracy and the CIA to de-rail the Spanish revolution. In order to do so they did not hesitate in carrying out a massive purge in the socialist organisations, chiefly the Youth, but also the PSOE itself and even the UGT trade union.
That is the origin of the 1978 regime, the limited form of bourgeois democracy Spain has at the moment, one which is in deep crisis. The 2007 crisis has plunged Spain into turmoil, creating a massive questioning of the capitalist system as an economic system which cannot guarantee basic living conditions for the majority, but also a crisis of legitimacy of all the political institutions. The Monarchy, the Supreme Court, Parliament, the two party system, they are all looked at with suspicion, as bodies which are mired in corruption, aloof from the interests and needs of ordinary working people.
In this context we have seen a questioning of the Monarchy and a growing Republican mood which involves not only the older generation but above all the youth. Two years ago, in June 2014, when the Spanish King Juan Carlos I abdicated, hundreds of thousands came out in demonstrations across Spain against the Monarchy.
There has also been the emergence of a Movement for the Recovery of the Historical Memory, in which many young people have become involved, attempting to reclaim their own history, which has remained hidden (in many cases literally buried, in common graves) for generations. Thousands have joined associations dedicated to unearthing and identifying the remains of tens of thousands of Spaniards who were killed under the Franco dictatorship and buried in mass graves or in ditches (memoriahistorica.org.es).
The exact figures are disputed, but it is calculated that between 80 and 100,000 people were killed by the fascists during the war in a campaign of systematic repression town by town, city by city, and a further 50,000 were executed by firing squads in the immediate aftermath. Up to half a million were detained in concentration camps after the end of the war in 1939. Tens of thousands of them were used as forced labour both in public works projects as well as in private companies and in the estates of landowners.
The most glaring example is the huge fascist monument of the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), in El Escorial, marking those fallen in Franco’s “Glorious Crusade”, presided over by an enormous 150 metre tall cross. This was built mostly by forced labour, with many dying in the process. The monument still stands today, without the slightest modification of its meaning and symbology. Both Francisco Franco and founder of the Spanish Falange fascist party Primo de Rivera are buried here.
Hundreds of thousands left the country as exiles and refugees during and after the war, probably up to half a million. Many of them were confined in camps in the South of France with about 12,000 being later sent to nazi concentration camps.
About 30,000 children were taken into custody by the Franco regime, some from Republican mothers who were jailed and others whose parents had died in the war of been executed afterwards. Many were given in adoption to Franco supporting families.
The repression which followed the victory of fascism in the war was so brutal because it was a question of putting down a revolution, of erasing any memory of the time when workers and peasants had taken over the running of society. There was heroic resistance in the first years immediately after the war, with guerrilla groups operating in several parts of the country. It was a desperate and sadly futile struggle. The working class and peasants had been decisively defeated, crushed by the ruling class which used fascism as the only way to preserve its power and privileges. The aftermath of World War Two, which defeated fascism in Europe but left Spain untouched and progressively moved towards a de facto recognition of the fascist regime by the Western powers, finally extinguished the embers of the remaining maquis guerrilla fighters.
It took a complete renewal of the Spanish working class for another wave of revolutionary struggle to arise. Millions of Spanish people were forced to migrate to Europe (France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland) as cheap labour, and millions more emigrated from the poorer rural areas to the big industrial cities in Catalonia, Madrid and the Basque Country. In 30 years over 5m people moved into Madrid and Barcelona alone.
Finally, on the back of the huge post-war upswing and over the dead bodies of hundreds of thousands, the Spanish economy started to recover and a whole new working class was created. This was a young, fresh working class, many of them first generation migrants from the country-side, not saddled by the burden of defeat. They undertook, with great courage, the task of overthrowing the Franco dictatorship. They would have been successful, had they had a revolutionary leadership.
Today, Spain stands at the beginning of a new revolutionary wave. Many of the tasks which the revolutionary workers and peasants faced in 1931 when the Monarchy was overthrown and the Republic was proclaimed, remain unsolved, others are no longer relevant.
Spain is no longer a country in which agriculture plays a decisive role, but one in which the working class in industry and services represents the overwhelming majority of the population. However, still today, particularly in Andalucia and Extremadura, there remain tens of thousands of landless agricultural labourers who etch a living by working a few months a year in the estates of absentee landlords.
The national question remains unsolved as it could not be resolved during the farce of the Transition. At that time, one of the impositions of the ruling class was to enshrine the forced unity of Spain, guaranteed by the Armed Forces, in the constitution. Thus, the demand for the right of self-determination for the nationalities (Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia) is a powerful battering ram against the 1978 regime. It is not by chance that the clear defence of this right on the part of Podemos has allowed this party and its allies to become the first political force in Catalonia and the Basque Country, and a powerful second in Galicia.
The question of the Monarchy, closely linked to the whole edifice of the power of the backward Spanish ruling class, is also unresolved and has come to the fore. The question of the historical memory, that is, an end to the impunity for the crimes of the fascist uprising and the 40 year long dictatorship is also an important part of the struggle.
None of these can be solved within the limits of capitalism. The current wave of the Spanish revolution, around issues like jobs, housing, dignity, will have to incorporate all of the above into a single struggle against the 1978 regime.
However, the conditions are not the same as they were in the 1930s. Eighty years have changed many things. The class of small proprietors, rural and urban, has been whittled down. The percentage of the population living in rural areas has gone down from 70 to 5%. The social basis for fascism has all but disappeared. The working class, potentially, is stronger than in the 1930s. Over a period of years it will recover its own revolutionary traditions, those of the 1930s as well as those of the 1970s.
For the most advanced workers and youth today, it is imperative to study the Spanish revolution of 1931-37 and draw all the necessary lessons. At that time the workers and peasants posed all the questions which had to be resolved: agrarian reform, democratic rights, the colonial and national question. Having gone through the experience of the first Republican government of 1931-33, they increasingly realised that the proclamation of the Republic itself would not solve any of those fully and began to move further, to take matters into their own hands. The ruling class responded by switching en masse to fascism, as the only way to defend their system. That’s what led directly to the civil war, after the second victory of the left in 1936.
The main contradiction was this: both the workers and peasants as well as the ruling class had realised that bourgeois democracy could not solve their problems, nor guarantee their interests. Only the leaders of the workers’ organisations remained wedded to the idea that the struggle was one between democracy in abstract and fascism, and worked to curtail and prevent any movement of the workers beyond its limits. That emptied the struggle of any real meaning and led directly to defeat.
Over the next few years, the Spanish workers and youth will go through a similar experience. They will attempt to solve their pressing problems of jobs, housing, education, health care. In doing so they will increasingly come up against the limits of the capitalist system in crisis. It is our task to make sure that this time we have a leadership worthy of the name, one which can take the movement to its final conclusion: the abolition of wage slavery and the creation of a genuinely humane system in which the resources of society are democratically used in the benefit of the majority and not the private gain of an unelected and unaccountable few. That is the best homage we can pay to the struggle of the generations which preceded us. In the words of the Spanish revolutionary Durutti,
“It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.”