• 1989: Left Without Ideology


    Left Without Ideology

    Review article written for International Socialism, but never published.


    In October 1974 the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) had 3586 members, over a thousand of them living in exile; it was so poor it could not afford  a single full-timer. Just eight years later, it triumphantly won a general election with no less than 48.4% of votes cast. It is a success story that undoubtedly makes Neil Kinnock green with envy, and a newly published book(1) makes a useful contribution to our understanding of how it happened. (Of course Kinnock isn’t into reading 520-page books, but perhaps one of his high-powered ‘advisers’ could read it and summarise the main points in capital letters on the back of an envelope).

    Whereas the Portuguese Socialist Party was founded in West Germany less than two years before the dictatorship fell, the PSOE had a continuous – and tortuous – history from the Civil War to the death of Franco. A ‘history of factionalism’ (as Gillespie subtitles his book) must necessarily make wearisome reading (except perhaps for participants in search of a name-check), and the account of the PSOE’s long years of exile and clandestinity contains mainly negative lessons. In 1976 Felipe Gonzalez claimed that the Party was drawing on the ‘ideological accumulation’ built up during Franco’s rule. But Gillespie’s account suggests that there was precious little ideological accumulation. The factionalism – of which there was more than enough – derived not from a relentless quest for political clarity, but from personal antagonisms, gossip and accusations of corruption; Civil War veterans clashed with the younger generation, exiles could not agree with those working on the ground inside Spain. It is no disrespect to those Socialists who died fighting Franco, or to those who produced propaganda with no more than a home-made wooden duplicator, to note that PSOE militants made little impact on the struggle in the forties and fifties. For security reasons militants from the interior could play little role at Congresses, and the exile leaders were able to manipulate them easily.

    The first task of any revolutionary is to identify the enemy, but the PSOE never produced an adequate analysis of the Franco regime, mainly using a theoretically feeble concept of ‘totalitarianism’ which embraced both Franco and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). This was of little use in understanding the Spanish reality, but it helped to endear the PSOE to the Western camp in the Cold War, with which it became increasingly aligned. Obviously the PSOE’s anti-Communism had its roots in the experience of the PCE’s disgraceful role in the Civil War, but it became fossilised as the PSOE lined up with the pro-Western Socialist International (the PSOE was the only predominantly exile party to be admitted to the Socialist International).(2) Such links had other advantages. It is rather hard to be an aspirant bureaucrat in a situation where there is no career to be made, and several PSOE activists became full-time officials with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions or its affiliated sections.

    Potentially the PSOE had a pivotal role to play as the organisation able to develop links with both the PCE and the liberal centre. But the anti-Communism of the apparatus meant a dogmatic refusal to work with the PCE; this was one of the main issues of contention between the exiles and the militants of the interior, who were able to see that the PCE was at the centre of the struggle in Spain and that it could not be ignored.

    In this situation the PSOE’s politics consisted of little more than waiting for the disappearance of Franco. Economic analysis became dominated by wishful thinking, with the hoped-for catastrophe ever on the horizon; the reality of Franco’s Spain was thus disregarded. The endless debates about possible cooperation with the monarchists were an exercise in futility; the Party was sunk in a passivity which could only engender new and deeper factionalism.(3) If the disjunction of theory and practice is typical of reformist parties, the PSOE raised it to a higher level by virtually abandoning practice altogether.

    The PSOE did not get itself out of this situation by its own bootstraps. What changed things was the rise in the level of class struggle from the early sixties, reaching a peak in the 1975-77 period. The PSOE played very little part in initiating or leading these struggles. The key role was played by the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), and within them, the PCE. The union closely linked to the PSOE, the UGT, attempted to build independent factory committees, but with relatively little success. It became ever clearer that there could be no effective anti-Franco alliance without the PCE.

    The effect of the rising level of struggle was to produce a division in the PSOE, which was eventually to lead to an open split, between the ‘historical’ and ‘renovating’ wings. The former stood for maintaining the Party’s traditions, while the latter wished to develop new strategies to relate to the changed economic realities of the sixties.

    The ‘renovators’ drew much of their support from the membership active inside Spain, and by 1971 representatives of the interior had a majority on the Executive. An important role was played by a group of young members from Seville – one of them called Felipe Gonzalez. The Seville members, recognising the reality around them, urged that the PSOE should work through the CCOO, despite their Communist links. In 1970 Gonzalez set a new style by breaking with the tradition that delegates from the interior did not address the Party Congress.

    But contrary to the myths that have arisen since, the transformation of the Party was not the work of Gonzalez; it was a response to the rising level of struggle. The ‘moderates’ kept their heads down while the Youth – the only section of the Party to do such work as distributing propaganda at factory gates – was given its head.

    By the time Gonzalez became leader in 1974 things had changed considerably. The ‘historic’  wing had split to form a separate organisation. But it would be difficult to characterise the split as a left-right one. For the ‘historic’ wing had little radical about it other than a rhetoric of the past, while the ‘renovators’ had something of a working-class base; yet their talk of renovation had much in common with the appeals to adapt to ‘changing reality’ that have come from right-wing revisionists in many countries.

    Gonzalez himself was a pragmatist for whom the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ had little meaning. In 1970 he had been active raising money for strikes and his grouping had even collaborated with Trotskyists. Often he allowed his colleague Alfonso Guerra to act as his ‘left face’. And the PCE’s Popular Frontism (notably its willingness to compromise with monarchists) made it easy for the PSOE to put itself demagogically to the left of the Communists. But the PSOE’s leftism, even in the radical atmosphere of the mid-seventies, was no more than skin-deep. The Party’s rhetoric was designed to evade issues rather than to confront them; thus it claimed to be:

    ….young, modern, the axis of the Spanish political process: the Party that offers the most guarantees of a radical transformation of society, respecting liberty and pluralism, and basing its action on a scientific interpretation of reality by following the dialectical method. (p. 313)

    It is in this context that the debate on Marxism in the PSOE took place. Gonzalez himself clearly did not care about the issues (though in his youth he liked to use selective quotes from Gramsci and Luxemburg); in 1976 he equivocated by declaring that the PSOE was ‘methodologically but not ideologically Marxist’ (p. 316), whatever that might mean.(4)  Before 1976 the PSOE programme had never contained any formal reference to Marxism, although its principles were obviously of Marxist inspiration. Gillespie – who labels the debate about Marxism as the ‘debate that never was’ – seems very convincing when he claims that the whole argument about Marxism in the Party programme was devoid of any real theoretical significance. So when Gonzalez offered his resignation at the 1979 Congress because a resolution referring to Marxism had been carried, the issue was not ‘Marxism’ but rather Gonzalez making a clever manoeuvre to assert his indispensability as leader. He succeeded because the left was unprepared for the challenge and didn’t really want to replace him as leader anyhow, and so was unable to find an alternative candidate. In general it is hard to identify a coherent ‘left’ within the PSOE that offered any significant alternative to Gonzalez.(5)]

    By 1979 Franco was dead and the mid-seventies wave of struggle was declining; the possibility of electoral success was already on the horizon. Gonzalez’ aim  was therefore to rid the PSOE of any kind of ideological attachment, so as to give himself maximum room for manoeuvre. Gillespie argues that Gonzalez is not even a ‘social democrat’ (in the sense that that term might be applied to a David Owen or a Michel Rocard) but a pure pragmatist.

    The discarding of ideology involved a transformation of the organisation. Under clandestinity the PSOE was a party of activists; no-one became a member who was not prepared to risk imprisonment, even death. Now the leadership openly proclaimed its contempt for the membership, with the deputy leader declaring that he preferred ’10 minutes of television to 10,000 militants.’ (p. 366) The party that had enjoyed such a rich history of internal factionalism was  subjected to dictatorial leadership; Gillespie, who rarely strays from the restrained language of a professional academic, goes so far as to say:

    …the picture that emerged was of a Stalinist party, replete with personality cult, strong party apparatus, rigid internal discipline, a ban on tendencies, and the persecution and expulsion of dissenters. (p. 364)

    In the 1982 elections Gonzalez drew the lesson of Mitterrand’s France and attempted to produce a programme that would antagonise nobody and lead to no disillusion when it was not fulfilled. Only the slogan of opposition to NATO was a gesture to the left. Yet the PSOE’s votes came primarily from the left – over a million of them from former PCE-voters – despite the appeal to the centre.

    But having won power Gonzalez and the PSOE faced the problem that all reformists face. In general, capitalism only allows reformist parties to take the reins of government when mass struggle – independent of them – has created a situation  which only the reformists can sort out. The struggles of 1975-77 enabled Gonzalez to come to power. Yet when reformists feel themselves close to power they discourage and demobilise militancy, thus acting against the very forces that could bring them to power. (It was this paradox that prevented the Italian Communist Party from entering government in the 1970s, despite constantly being proclaimed as standing on the very brink of so doing). Gonzalez now faces a bleak prospect; if he succeeds in damping down class struggle, then the Spanish ruling class will no longer need him and he will be replaced by a government of the orthodox right; but if he fails to hold down militancy, then he will be seen as ineffective and likewise replaced.

    The same paradox applies to the question of ideology. Gonzalez has tried to evacuate all ideology from the PSOE, in order to give himself greater flexibility in government. But rising waves of struggle generate ideas; the PSOE grew in the mid-seventies because its rhetoric appealed to those radicalised in struggle. When a new wave of struggle erupts the ideology-free PSOE will not be able to coopt it.

    The record of the PSOE in power has been abject; unemployment has risen, inequality has increased, and opposition to NATO has been abandoned. A crucial factor has been the changing relation between the PSOE and the UGT union federation. Under clandestinity PSOE and UGT were inseparable; the risks of joining a clandestine union were such that only those committed enough to join a party would do so. In the seventies, in order to oppose the PCE grip on the CCOO, the UGT began to develop the argument that unions should be independent of political parties. Unfortunately for Gonzalez the UGT eventually began to take this principle seriously.

    At the time of the Moncloa Pact (Spain’s social contract) in 1977 the PSOE backed the pact while the UGT rather ambivalently opposed it. This could still be seen as a fraternal division of labour. But by 1985, when two million workers struck against the government, the pressure was on the UGT to make a stand. And in December 1988 the UGT and CCOO jointly called strike action against government policies. The UGT leader, Nicolas Redondo, was forced into opposition to the government, despite his long record as a PSOE militant.(6) Since the PSOE’s credibility as a party of government depends on its ability to make deals with the UGT, the situation is a serious one for Gonzalez. He may yet regret having abandoned his ideological baggage.


    1.         Richard Gillespie, The Spanish Socialist Party: A History of Factionalism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, £40.00 – all page-references in the text.

    2.         However, the International does not seem to have taken the PSOE terribly seriously; Julius Braunthal’s History of the International: 1943-1968 (London, 1980) makes no mention of Spain or the PSOE.

    3.         The other side of the coin was an occasional lapse into voluntarist stunts, as when Socialists attacked a bookshop displaying a monarchist book, hoping that the Falange would be blamed.

    4.         He then covered himself to his left by going to Cuba and holding a five-hour meeting with Fidel Castro at which he described the PSOE as a ‘revolutionary party’.

    5.         As far as a hard left was concerned, Trotskyists – followers of both Militant and the French OCI – attempted entry work in the PSOE but eventually came up against the limits of the apparatus.

    6.         If he had not refused to be nominated, Redondo could have become party leader instead of Gonzalez.