The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Basque Problem:
The Poisoned Legacy of Francoism

Oct 27, 1997

Last July 13, the Basque separatist group ETA murdered Miguel Angel Blanco, a young People’s Party municipal councillor it had been holding hostage. In the days which followed, millions demonstrated throughout Spain, demanding an end to terrorism. All political parties, right and left, together with the unions, had issued the calls for these demonstrations. Two weeks later, nearly thirty thousand people in San Sebastián in the Basque Country demonstrated; they came out in support of the separatist organizations which were demanding that six hundred ETA prisoners currently scattered in prisons far from home be returned to Basque prisons, a demand which the ETA had made a condition for the release of Miguel Angel Blanco, when they took him hostage. The government has declared its intention to be intransigent in the trial of Herri Batasuna leaders. Legally constituted in 1978, Herri Batasuna is a front of separatist organizations which stand for the same policies as the ETA, and whose election scores vary from 12 to 15%. Its leaders are accused of collusion with terrorism because they campaigned in favor of the right of self-determination in the elections of February 1996.

These facts alone show that a little over twenty years after Franco’s death, successive governments have been unable to offer a solution to the problems raised by the Basque situation. But neither have they been able to overcome the radical nationalist tendency which practices terrorism, and which is sufficiently large and well-established in the population to have defied the central government for many years.

The ETA leaders’ decision to execute the young local councillor of a small town in the Basque Country, a member of the ruling right-wing People’s Party, cannot be justified. Individual terrorism, even when it strikes representatives of the state apparatus, or those involved in repression, doesn’t contribute to the emancipation of the oppressed. And the execution of hostages like Miguel Angel Blanco, who do not occupy positions of significant responsibility, is even less admissible; as are the indiscriminate bombings, the liquidation of militants from rival parties (or former ETA militants who have stopped being active) and the attacks on bosses who refuse to pay the so-called revolutionary tax. There is a long list of ETA terrorist actions which are unacceptable in terms of both aims and methods. But these actions are part of the logic of bloody confrontation which has for years characterized relations between the forces of order controlled by the ruling elite in Madrid and the ETA. This violence persists because representatives of the Spanish state chose to use violence in an attempt to force the Basque separatist opposition to submit or disappear.

The execution of Miguel Angel Blanco came after a full-scale campaign by the government, which boasted that it had forced the ETA to release another hostage, Ortega Lara, who was employed in the prison administration. Aznar, the leader of the People’s Party and currently head of the Spanish government, had been publicly congratulating himself on the effectiveness of his intransigence. ETA’s response showed that neither the government’s intransigence nor the pressure of demonstrators demanding the release of Miguel Angel Blanco could make the ETA give way. Blanco thus paid with his life, in a sense, for the pretensions of the leaders of his own party.

On the surface, the guerilla war going on between the central government and the ETA seems very different from what was happening during the last ten years under Franco, when the ETA became a symbol of resistance to the dictatorship.

In 1970, when Franco organized a trial at Burgos to demonstrate his intransigence to Basque militants and to all opponents of his regime, the ETA could find a response in public opinion not only in the Basque Country but also throughout Spain and even worldwide. The accused became the accusers. The trial of the Basques turned into a trial of Franco’s regime, to such an extent that Franco had to back off and turn the death sentences pronounced by the court into terms of imprisonment.

When it was Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right-hand man, whom the ETA targeted in 1973, his execution in the middle of Madrid met with approval from all those in Spain who wanted an end to the dictatorship. The population’s solidarity with the ETA, not only in the Basque Country but also throughout Spain, was based on the fact that the ETA dared to confront the government, demonstrating that it was possible to make the government back down.

At the same time, it seemed less indiscriminate in the targets of its terrorism. When an ETA commando unit took the German consul at San Sebastián hostage, they soon released him.

But whatever differences there appear to be between the two periods, today’s ETA rests on essentially the same political basis as yesterday’s ETA. Its choices and actions come from a policy which has nothing to do with the struggle for emancipation of the exploited and the oppressed; nothing to do with the proletarian revolutionary movement. The bloody logic of its terrorist actions today stems from these basic choices.

The ETA, the Radical Wing of the Basque Nationalist Movement

From its beginning, the ETA has been a nationalist organization aiming to create and hold power in a Basque state independent from Spain. While the ETA may be more radical than other parts of the Basque nationalist movement, its struggle in no way aims at overthrowing capitalism.

The ETA came out of the Basque Nationalist Party (the PNV), which is the oldest and still the strongest nationalist organization, at least in electoral terms.

Created at the end of the 19th century, the PNV represented the interests of the bourgeoisie in the Basque country, which was economically more developed than the rest of Spain. It developed on the basis of reactionary ideas: anti-Spanish racism, the exaltation of the Basque race, and religious fundamentalism. It was openly hostile to any reference to class struggle in a region where the working class was increasingly composed of immigrants from Andalusia, Galicia or Estremadura.

The divisions which subsequently occurred within the nationalist movement did not call into question the nationalist and anti-working class choices on which the PNV rested. There were splits in the first decades of the 20th century between advocates of autonomy and independence. There were divisions concerning the assessment of the Irish revolution, just as there later were divisions over what attitude to take toward the Spanish Republican government between 1931 and 1936. The Basque Country (consisting of the provinces of lave, Biscay and Guipúzcoa) rallied to the republican side in the Civil War, making the Basque Country the symbol of anti-Francoism. But the nationalist movement itself exhibited hostility to the workers’ movement. It condemned the 1934 workers insurrection in Asturias. This hostility toward the independent organization of the working class continued throughout the whole Civil War.

Franco made the Basque Country pay for choosing the opposing side. Repression was fierce against the whole Basque population. Condemned to go underground, the PNV nonetheless continued to exist.

From 1952 onward, some PNV youth leaders began to contest the moderation of the party’s policy, but they did not call in question the traditions and political bases of the PNV. Creating the ETA in 1959, they expressed the radicalization of a section of the Basque petty bourgeoisie facing national oppression from the Francoist state.

The ETA in its early days dared to do what the PNV had never dared do. In 1961, it organized an attempt to derail a train carrying officials of the Franco regime. The derailing failed and the wave of repression which followed was harsh. But ETA was able to recover, and its spectacular actions won it the sympathy of Basques and many non-Basques, and soon made it the most daring opposition force in Spain.

But the ETA maintained its political references. It declared itself for the right of self-determination of the Basque people, which it took to mean that its enemy was the whole Spanish people. It advocated independence and the use of the Basque language. At the same time it declared itself in favor of armed struggle, referring to the example of the Irish nationalists and Israel.

The ETA quickly established itself among young people in the Basque Country, attracting elements from various political tendencies. Militants from Maoist, Castroist and Trotskyist movements worked within it and tried to influence its policy. For a time the ETA followed a Third Worldist line. Under the influence of the Maoists and the Trotskyists of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, it adopted a more workerist or even Marxist-leaning language. But it continued, nonetheless, to present the founders of the PNV as progressives and it refused to make any reference to class struggle, which it judged to be, as a matter of principle, "too reformist." For ETA’s leaders, the enemy remained the Spanish state and not the bourgeoisie. At a time when the workers’ movement was reconstituting itself, ETA’s aim was to integrate the working class in the "national liberation" struggle. The ETA spoke of "national class consciousness" and invented the concept of the "working Basque people." Whatever demagogic references were now made to "working people," they were only ways of reasserting the nationalist aims in the movement.

The absence of radical tendencies in the working class movement left the field free for ETA, and the radicalism of their policy gained them credit among the working class population as a whole, including among non-Basque workers living inside or outside the Basque Country. In this regard, it is significant that the Trotskyist tendency in the ETA which worked in the Basque Country was unable to define a policy independent from that of the nationalists.

The determination, radicalism and influence of the ETA did nothing to change the basic problem. The ETA still aimed to create an independent Basque state, proposing to set up a government whose backbone was to be the military apparatus on which it rested in the armed struggle. The split which occurred at the end of the Franco period between the military ETA (the ETA-m) and the politico-military ETA (the ETA-pm) was based on the degree of importance placed by certain leaders on mass action, but neither of these two branches called into question the nationalist aims of the movement.

As for the use of terrorism, this required the existence of underground armed commando units completely uncontrolled by the population and capable of standing up to or even defeating the central government and winning control within the nationalist movement. The years which followed were to show how this policy led to a dead end.

The Logic of Confrontation between the Government and the ETA: A Bloody Dead End

Because Franco’s regime not only had suppressed the autonomous regions, but also had tried to gag all forms of opposition by brutal repression, it had helped the separatist and terrorist organizations, the ETA-m and the ETA-pm, acquire an audience and political credit far beyond the Basque country.

At the end of the Franco dictatorship, the politicians leading the country feared that the transitional period would be accompanied by social upheaval. The events which were taking place in neighboring Portugal, after the army overthrew the Caetano regime, showed that their fear was well founded.

To forestall something similar in Spain, the politicians proposed to create autonomous entities not only in the three historic regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) where autonomous statuses had existed or had been envisaged in the thirties, but throughout the whole country. The Spanish government’s "autonomies" policy was a remarkable diversion. The Suarez government brought Tarradellas, the former leader of the Catalan government from 1936 to 1939, back from France to become president of the autonomous region of Catalonia resuscitated by a wave of a magic wand.

The new constitution ratified the autonomy of Andalusia, Aragón, the Valencia region and many other regions.

Did the populations concerned all aspire to autonomy? It’s not so sure, even if the Catalan problem was also likely to cause many problems for the government. On the other hand, this policy met with the consent of the petty bourgeoisie and also of all political groups of the left and even the far left. The petty bourgeoisie saw this as a possible source of elected positions and sinecures. The leftist groups were simply receptive to fashionable trends in the petty-bourgeois milieu.

At any rate, the "autonomies" policy proved to be an extremely effective distraction.

The one exception was in the Basque region. From the beginning, difficulties were created by the top levels of the state apparatus, in particular, the ruling bodies of the Spanish state and the highest dignitaries of the former Francoist army and police, who remained in their positions.

While the top levels of the Spanish state were ready to release Basque prisoners and to discuss autonomous status for three of the four Basque provinces, they refused any negotiation with the ETA until it laid down its weapons, just as they refused to recognize the right of the Basque people to self-determination.

The so-called Guernica agreement on autonomous status negotiated with the PNV gave rights and autonomy comparable to those which had been recognized in 1936, but it gave them to a Basque Country comprising only the three provinces of Biscay, lave and Guipúzcoa (excluding Navarre). A Basque police force coexisting and collaborating with the police force of the central state was to be set up progressively. But the government refused to recognize the ETA and negotiate with it; it refused to discuss attaching Navarre to the Basque Country; it refused to recognize the right of self-determination. This all constituted a veto by the ruling circles, a veto which no government coming after 1976 dared to break. The government thus placed the Basque question in an impasse since the ETA leaders could not accept such an agreement.

Politicians of all parties adopted the theme that armed struggle was no longer justified now that Spain was a democratic country. But the ETA, having been kept out of the political game, chose to defend its existence by systematically resorting to terrorist methods. It decided on actions regardless of the wishes and demands of the Basque population whose aspirations it claimed to represent. Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of the Basque population undeniably continued to view the ETA as their representative. Every working class family in the Basque Country had a father, a son, a neighbor or a friend who had been a victim of the dictatorship.

To impose its influence, the ETA stepped up its attacks, which led to 88 deaths in 1978 and 119 in 1979. It was a force to be reckoned with in political life. The PNV showed on various occasions that it was sensitive to the ETA’s pressure. In 1978, for example, it refused to approve the constitution. However, this did not prevent it, in 1979 and 1980, from declaring itself in favor of adopting the autonomous status proposed by the government. From this period onward, the military ETA went it alone, along with its legal extension Herri Batasuna.

The ETA’s goal continued to be the establishment of an independent state, including Navarre and the French Basque Country. In addition to this, it demanded negotiations on the basis of the six points of the so-called KAS (socialist patriotic coordination) alternative. It demanded the release of prisoners; legalization of separatist parties; departure of the "forces of occupation" and of all military and police forces of the central state; improvement of working class living conditions; immediate reinforcement of the autonomous status, and recognition of the right to self-determination.

The Holy Alliance

Leaders of the Spanish left did not oppose the policy on the Basque problem adopted by the right-wing politicians who were in power in the first years after Franco. The left merely criticized the government for its intransigence. In 1981-1982, Felipe González, the Socialist Party leader, declared that "the army is the backbone of the state." Bowing to the army, Felipe González chose to demonstrate his firmness against the ETA. There was no way he would risk discontent in the military by granting the Basques new freedoms, genuinely combating the use of torture and treating ETA prisoners more humanely. In place of such policies, he proposed a plan for "penitent" former separatists who abandoned armed struggle, promising them reintegration in society. The ETA, however, is an organization made up of militants who did not give in to these pressures.

The main thrust of Felipe González’s policy was to dismantle the military ETA at any cost. With the complicity of the French police, "anti-terrorist liberation groups" (GAL) were set up, recruited from the French underworld and acting in collusion with the Spanish police. Agreements with the French government led to the extradition of dozens and dozens of Basque refugees who, after being handed over to the Spanish government, were to meet the same fate as hundreds of other prisoners. Other anti-terrorist measures were taken. But in fourteen years in power, the socialists did not solve anything. Repression and the murder of many ETA leaders did not prevent an upsurge in bombings, hostage-takings organized by commando groups and reprisals against civil guards, prison warders and bosses who refused to finance the ETA.

In its 1996 election campaign, the People’s Party promised to step up the fight against the ETA, vowing that it would put an end to ETA terrorism. Recent events make these promises doubtful.

Faced with the upsurge in indiscriminate ETA terrorism, Spanish politicians adopted a kind of holy alliance policy. Such a policy has in fact been something of a tradition in Spain, beginning with the general consensus on the constitution (including the monarchical form of the regime) and continuing with the Moncloa Agreement which a few months later introduced a policy of austerity for the working class, with the agreement of all political parties, including the Communist Party. This unanimity led in 1987 to a pact of anti-terrorist unity. It has also been apparent for a number of years when large-scale demonstrations were organized: the political leaders of all parties walk side by side at the head of the march. This has not succeeded in isolating the ETA completely. Herri Batasuna, which has real links with the ETA, continues to win around 12% of the vote. This is less than ten years ago, when its scores reached 15% or more, but this means that the ETA is still a force to be reckoned with in the Basque Country and in Spanish politics as a whole.

A Problem Dragging All of Spanish Society Backward

Twenty-two years after Franco’s death, the Basque question is still a major factor in Spanish politics. The Spanish bourgeoisie could easily take a risk and grant the Basques the right to self-determination, allowing the population of Navarre to be consulted on attachment to the Basque Country and having the central government agree to talk openly with the ETA. Choosing this path would probably not cost the Spanish ruling classes any more than the persisting state of war. But as we have seen, the Spanish state apparatus inherited from the Franco period refuses to lend legitimacy to an organization which has been defying it for more than forty years.

For years, successive governments have been periodically claiming that the ETA has been dismantled, decimated, politically isolated and cut off from the population. And yet it regularly resurfaces with new actions. Its social base has shrunk, partly because autonomy has satisfied some of the demands of the Basque bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. But the ETA still remains an important political force. Herri Batasuna’s election results prove this. As do the demonstrations that the ETA is capable of organizing periodically. Even if more people today seem to disapprove of the ETA’s methods, the separatist militants continue to be seen in the Basque Country—and in the rest of Spain—as fighters, not as thugs or gangsters. A section of the Basque population sympathizes with them because of the repression they face, repression like that suffered by Basque militants under Franco’s dictatorship.

Democratic Spain’s anti-terrorist laws allow long detention in police stations where torture is commonplace. Prisoners, often sentenced to years or even tens of years in jail, are (illegally, as it happens) sent to prisons in every corner of the country where their families cannot easily visit them.

The leaders of so-called democratic Spain do not hesitate to break their own laws by constituting, as we have seen, parallel commando groups. These groups, with the consent of the Spanish and international authorities, have free rein to organize full-scale manhunts and flush out, arrest or murder presumed terrorists. When a prisoner dies or commits suicide in a police station or prison, the authorities usually block any inquiry.

This violence from above does not make the ETA’s terrorist policy any more justifiable, but it explains why even today the ETA can count on support in the population and reactions of solidarity. Moreover, a considerable proportion of the population in the Basque Country thinks that the ETA should be recognized and negotiated with; and that’s true even among those people who view independence as undesirable and those people who want an end to terrorism.

Nonetheless, the ETA’s struggle today seems to be more and more isolated: the ETA, as a military apparatus, attends to its own survival without taking into account the wishes of the population, including the Basque population.

In this regard, the ETA no longer plays the role that it played in Spanish society in the seventies, when its ability to force Franco’s dictatorship to retreat helped encourage all opposition forces.

The road the ETA has taken is not one which defends the interests of the exploited in Spain. It continues to spread reactionary nationalist propaganda in the Basque Country which helps divide the working class. It is not the only organization which does this. The other nationalist parties, whether they be Basque, Catalan, Andalusian, Galician or others also help get workers to tag along behind the bourgeoisie of each region and stir them up against each other by invoking ridiculous regional borders which are either inherited from another age or completely artificial. The Spanish working class, which for years has been suffering the effects of the anti-worker policy conducted by the whole of the Spanish bourgeoisie and by central or regional government, has everything to lose in the aggravation of this regional chauvinism and nothing to gain from the development of anti-Basque feeling accompanying the rejection of terrorism.

In a context of declining social and political struggle, the fearful and defensive reactions of a section of the population can be used to help unite the population behind the government. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Jaime Mayor Oreja, the current Minister of the Interior, declared: "The struggle against terrorism has become a powerful element in national unity. The state unites us more all the time." Of course, this should be discounted, at least partly, given the bragging of this politician who, like so many others, has continually boasted that he has reduced the ETA to impotence, only to be contradicted a few days later by news of another bombing.

In any case, this holy union set up by the various political leaders helps to justify restrictions on freedom and revive reactionary ideas favoring the death penalty; it encourages conformist and intolerant behavior. In so doing, it is dragging society back.

The development of nationalist ideas is not in the interests of the Spanish working class. ETA’s struggle and its methods are not those of the working class. But Spanish workers should not forget who their real enemies are. The worst thing would be for Spanish workers to align themselves behind those who claim to govern democratically while refusing to recognize the right to self-determination. The bourgeois politicians in Spain today use methods today to combat ETA militants which they will use tomorrow against all those who dare oppose them.