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

After the March 12th General Election—The Left-Wing in Crisis

Jul 2, 2000

The result of the recent Spanish general election, on March 12th, was a spectacular step backward for the left-wing parties. Their regression was even greater than in the European and local elections in June 1999. The right wing "People’s Party," led by José Maria Aznar, which has been in government since 1996, won an absolute majority of the seats with 44% of the vote, an increase of 400,000 over the previous general election.

The Socialist Party (PSOE), which had been in the government from 1982 to 1996, lost two million votes compared to 1996, about 20% of its electorate. The second left-wing party, the coalition known as Izquierda Unida (United Left), which was centered around the Communist Party (CP), lost around one million votes, or almost half its 1996 electorate.

Some months before the election, Almunia, the General Secretary of the PSOE, and the CP’s Frutos, made an agreement to present a sort of united left, in an attempt to contain the electoral retreat of the left-wing parties. Unquestionably, it failed in its aim to seduce the working class. The increased abstention (from 23% in 1996 to 30% in March 2000) seems to have come mostly from poor left-wing voters who were deeply disappointed by the policies of the left-wing parties. And it is hard to see how this united left program, which was drawn up in haste with the aim of preventing a predicted electoral defeat, could have inspired confidence among Spanish workers. They were already demoralized by the policies these parties had carried out over the past two decades, even while claiming to represent the workers’ interests.

The present crisis of the left-wing parties stems from the long process which began with Franco’s death, unfolding in subsequent years as the PSOE, having marginalized the CP, took the front of the political stage as the recognized manager of capitalist interests in government.

The PSOE in Power

After the PSOE’s victory in 1982, the population focused their expectations on it—all their aspirations for change produced by the end of the dictatorship, but not fulfilled by the previous government.

In its election campaign, the PSOE had promised to prevent the return of the right-wing and the dictatorship, arguing at the same time that it was not possible to satisfy all working class demands. However, the PSOE had talked about democracy, freedom, social justice and the need to share sacrifices more equally. Its only specific promise had been the creation of 800,000 jobs, but without setting any time-table. They had also vaguely talked about the possibility of leaving NATO.

Felipe Gonzalez did not wait long before dropping all his promises and adopting policies in favor of capitalist interests. Once more the weight of the crisis fell on the shoulders of the working class. He used all his influence to explain to the workers that, in order to end the economic crisis, company profits had to increase; and that, in order to fight unemployment, wage increases had to be constrained.

Shortly after its victory, the socialist government initiated a program of industrial restructuring in the large state-owned sector. For thousands of workers this was a bitter pill to swallow. While Boyer, the Economy Minister, admitted that the Socialists’ policy was the continuation of that of the previous government, the unions agreed to the "restructuring." Year after year, they accepted a policy of pay restraint—first with an agreement signed in 1983 by the UGT (the union confederation led by the PSOE), the Workers Commissions (led by the CP) and the bosses; then, in 1984, with another agreement signed by the UGT, the bosses and the government.

The restructuring affected all the main sectors of industry and of the big companies: first, the steel industry where the workforce shrunk from 28,000 in 1984 to 10,000 ten years later; then came shipbuilding, textiles, mining, the chemical industry, etc., each of them being severely affected. All in all, one job in four was cut while unemployment soared to 57% among young workers.

On several occasions, workers mounted strong resistance to these measures. There were strikes and street battles with the police at the Mediterranean furnaces; in El Ferrol; at shipyards in Puerto Real, Bilbao, Cartagena, etc. But the unions did nothing to provide a common objective to these struggles nor to generalize them.

Solchaga, the Employment Minister, along with Corcuera, one of the UGT leaders, promised that those workers hit by unemployment would benefit from reconversion schemes thanks to the ZUR (Urgent Zones of Re-industrialization) and from the funds for job creation. Of course workers got nothing out of this, but the companies pocketed millions; Corcuera concluded his trade union career by becoming a minister.

During this period, the number of unemployed increased by 800,000—exactly the number of jobs which the PSOE had promised to create! This meant that 21% of the work force was out of a job, a total of 3 million people. In addition, 15% of the work force had temporary jobs. In 1982, 75% of the unemployed received no state aid; by 1988, this proportion had increased to 83%.

While workers were taking the brunt of the crisis, companies enjoyed all kinds of tax breaks, reductions in social security taxes, and increases in subsidies. Thus, when the state-owned SEAT was sold to Volkswagen, the government paid 2.1 billion dollars " to modernize" the company, on top of the 135 million dollars which Volkswagen received over the following ten years! In 1987, the daily paper El Pais wrote: "The top 100 Spanish companies have increased their profits by 107%." Between 1989 and 1991, banks announced profits of around three billion dollars, and the biggest banks received 12 billion dollars in tax rebates connected to the bank mergers that were taking place.

Nowadays the PSOE, in opposition since 1996, criticizes the way in which the right-wing People’s Party carries out privatization. But its criticisms are primarily aimed at showing that it did a better job of privatizing than the present government is doing. And it is true that the PSOE government carried out more privatization: in the second half of the 1980s, it privatized, totally or partially, forty major state companies.

The Socialists may criticize the corruption of Aznar’s People’s Party today. But while they were asking others to make sacrifices, the ministers and leaders of the Socialist Party behaved like nouveaux riches, showing off their brand new affluence. These were triumphant years of stock market and real estate speculation and fraud. As one minister, Solchaga, boasted, one could make a fortune in Spain faster than anywhere else.

1986—A First Electoral Warning

Although the PSOE again won an absolute majority in the 1986 general election, they lost a million votes, mainly in working class towns and regions such as Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. With demoralization and a sense of betrayal widespread, the workers expressed their dissatisfaction passively by an increasing number of abstentions.

Faced with this situation, the CP did not try to offer workers any perspective. The CP, its offshoots and the groups which revolved around it continued to compete with the PSOE exclusively in the electoral sphere but certainly not in the sphere of the class struggle, and not even at the level of the immediate preoccupations of the working class.

The CP set up the United Left (Izquierda Unida) before the 1986 election as an electoral vehicle. It was a coalition of the groups which had campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum over Spain joining NATO. Through the United Left, the CP leaders hoped to attract some of the seven million who had voted against Spain’s membership.

This was another failure as the United Left won only 900,000 votes, or less than five percent. Obviously the anti-NATO electorate was not necessarily radical, nor prepared to identify with a coalition originating from the communist tradition.

But the CP and the United Left were not the only ones who subscribed to a policy of trying to form a regroupment around the NATO issue. The far left made the same calculation by developing a policy based on the struggle against NATO. It sought to regroup all those looking toward pacifism, ecology, feminism and even nationalist autonomists, particularly in the Basque country. In the mid-eighties most of the far-left took this direction. By doing so, they cut themselves off from the class struggle and the preoccupations of the working class, while seeking to attract other social layers, which were more receptive to fashionable issues, in the hope of winning their support.

Thus, the Spanish section of the United Secretariat of the IVth International, the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League), went along with the anti-electoralist trend which was widespread at the time in the pacifist and ecologist milieus and chose not to put up candidates in elections. By not putting up candidates, the LCR deprived itself of a means of addressing workers on the basis of a program aimed at defending the interests of the working class. But this electoral abstention did not prevent the LCR from campaigning for the nationalists of Herri Batasuna, the political wing of ETA (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), in the Basque country. In the European election, the LCR went even further by campaigning for Herri Batasuna in the whole of Spain with slogans such as "vote for HB as that is what hurts them most."

The merger of the LCR with the Communist Movement of Spain (MCE)—a Maoist, pacifist and feminist group—led to the establishment of an organization in which the LCR finally dissolved itself, effectively renouncing the revolutionary program. Eventually the merged organization (or rather what was left of it) disappeared into the United Left.

Real Working Class Resentment

The workers’ resentment was becoming increasingly deep. It surfaced in the spring of 1987 when strikes and demonstrations multiplied throughout the country. In the mines of Asturias and in the shipyards of Puerto Real, the workers confronted the police.

Following the killing of a worker by a civil guard, the population of Reinosa, a Basque town, encircled the police and disarmed them. These events took place while strikes were breaking out throughout the country. While feelings were running high in every workplace, the unions refused to take any initiatives which would have reinforced the workers’ militancy. It took more than a year for the Workers Commissions and the UGT to call even for a one- day general strike.

Since 1985, the Workers Commissions had countered their socialist rival, the UGT, by refusing to sign agreements. This policy had been successful in some ways. When they called for a first one-day general strike against pension cuts, it was well supported. It expressed the dissatisfaction felt by many workers toward the UGT’s policy of open collaboration with the socialist government.

In the big companies, the UGT had already lost votes to the Workers Commissions in the 1986 union elections. Its leaders thus learned their lesson and made a stand against the government by demanding, together with the Workers Commissions, some concessions in return for their past support for the "economic adjustments." The government gave way on certain demands to provide the UGT with a face-saving device. But it was not prepared to give up its anti-working class policy and in particular its "Youth Employment Scheme," which was aimed at turning young workers into a part-time, temporary workforce. This was the fuse which sparked off the one-day general strike on the 14th of December, 1988.

This strike was overwhelmingly supported. The entire country was paralyzed—trains, buses, large companies and even the television. On that day, the working class showed that workers were the ones who made everything work and that, when they stopped, everything stopped.

But there was no follow-up to December 14th. For years the union federations had competed with each other by trying to capitalize on workers’ discontent. But when the working class expressed this discontent too forcefully, all the unions adopted a low profile.

The workers’ militancy was wasted by union leaders whose only objective was to use the workers’ anger in order to sit down at the negotiating table and play the role they aspired to.

Although Felipe Gonzalez admitted to having received a "severe shock," the prospect of forcing the government to back off from its anti-working class measures faded away in endless rounds of negotiations which allowed Gonzalez to regain the upper hand.

New Attacks against the Working Class

In the following years, the attacks on workers continued. From 1990 onward, unemployment increased by a thousand workers a day, reaching 3.6 million unemployed or 24% of the active population.

In 1992 the government passed a decree which reduced unemployment benefits. The unions’ response was a half-day strike, which was badly organized and left many workers disappointed. Two years later the government imposed "Work Reform," which increased flexibility and created new work contracts. Workers immediately found an expressive nickname for these contracts, "junk contracts."

This new government attack led the unions to call another one-day general strike, but they did so without conviction. After this one- day strike, the only perspective proposed by Antonio Gutierrez, the Workers Commissions general secretary, was to fight company by company.

Once again the unions did nothing to unite the struggles, rather the opposite. The union leaders made a point of showing their sense of responsibility whenever possible, in order that they be seen as the "social mediators" which the bourgeoisie might need.

From the 1989 European elections onward, the electoral decline of the PSOE increased, due both to its anti-working class policies and a series of corruption scandals. In addition, there was the scandal surrounding the government’s use of secret paramilitary groups to track down ETA activists. These paramilitaries, which had been financed by the government, had killed several alleged ETA members.

Despite the Socialists’ loss of credit, the CP’s United Left failed to regain votes during these years. In the 1993 general election, the PSOE lost its absolute majority in Parliament for the second time and began to look for an ally. This led to discussions between the Socialists and the United Left over a possible common platform for government. These discussions did not last long as the Socialists preferred to govern with the support of the Catalonian nationalists led by the president of the Catalonia General Council, Jordi Pujol.

The CP in Search of a "Sorpasso"

From this time onward, any possibility that the CP and the United Left might become part of the government became more and more unlikely. Julio Anguita, the CP and United Left leader, began to talk about something he designated by the Italian word "sorpasso"—meaning the possibility for the United Left to overtake the PSOE in order to become the largest left-wing party, thereby turning it into a real alternative to the right-wing.

During the transitional period after Franco’s death, the CP had already attempted the same policy, by seeking an alliance with the UCD (Union of the Democratic Center), with no success. This time the United Left proposed to join its votes to those of the People’s Party (the main right-wing party) against the PSOE. In the Andalusian parliament, for example, they won the parliamentary presidency with support from the People’s Party. The only demand formulated by the United Left was that "Felipe Gonzalez must leave." Yet, it was obvious that when that happened, the PSOE would be replaced by the right- wing parties.

Apart from making the activists hope for the "sorpasso," the United Left did not change its policy under Anguita. In fact, Anguita was noted for his frequent reminders of the need to respect the Spanish Constitution and his proposal to set up discussion forums about the Constitution.

The United Left was involved in every institutional agreement, from the reform of criminal law to the agreement over pension cuts. It was always respectful of the electoral framework and the Constitution, which it portrayed as a kind of divine law, offering some sort of solution to the problems faced by the working class and the population as a whole.

The Left-Wing’s Backward Slide

In the 1996 general election, the PSOE lost political power. After twelve years of anti-working class policies and scandals, it was totally worn out. However, the United Left’s "sorpasso," dreamed of by Anguita, did not happen. The United Left won 10% of the votes—a slight improvement of 1%—but this was far behind the PSOE’s 37%.

The failure of Anguita’s policy led to a new crisis within the United Left coalition. First, the "renovators" in the CP, who advocated a rapprochement with the PSOE, were expelled. Then the federations of Galicia and Catalonia made local agreements with the PSOE regardless of the leadership’s position, which led to their breaking with the leadership. At the same time, however, the United Left’s leadership was making gestures toward the PSOE.

There were also changes on the PSOE’s side. Once ousted from office, Felipe Gonzalez resigned, leading to primary elections within the PSOE. What it needed was someone who had not been implicated too closely in the various scandals which had discredited many members of the party machinery. The activists chose Borrell. But following the party’s electoral defeat in the Basque country and various internal skirmishes, Almunia won the contest and led the Socialists in the 1999 European elections and in the last March general election.

The European election saw another fall in the PSOE’s vote, as well as the collapse of the United Left. Anguita stepped down and was replaced by Frutos at the head of the United Left. Several months before the election, the United Left and the PSOE reached an agreement—a circumstantial agreement which would fool nobody.

This agreement provided for joint candidates to the Senate. It also gave assurances that candidates of the United Left who were elected would support the bid of the PSOE’s Almunia to become head of the government in case the left-wing parties won the election.

While the left-wing politicians from the PSOE and the CP were thereby trying to save their political future, they made no special commitments to the workers.

Almunia talked cynically about the necessity for "economic rigor" and a stability plan. He made clear that he would not increase company taxes and that the 35-hour working week would result in company subsidies. He boasted once again about the Socialists’ privatization policy. As for Frutos, the United Left leader, he merely echoed Almunia’s words, adding that a vote for the United Left would perhaps push the PSOE to move further to the left, thus ensuring that the future left-wing government, if there was one, might have a slightly more "social" policy. From time to time he made the effort to address the older activists by talking about the return of the left-wing "for the first time since 1936."

But this agreement could no longer hide its true face. It was an agreement based purely on convenience between the CP, which had been collapsing for years, and the PSOE, which was trying to revamp its image among workers after 14 years of anti-working class policies. The two parties perhaps thought that this alliance would make them more credible in the eyes of their traditional electorate. But many workers and activists were not fooled by this maneuver.

The workers, for the last 25 years, under both left-wing and right- wing governments, had footed the bill for policies which were designed to protect capitalist interests and guarantee the profits of the richest at the expense of the working class. Over the previous 25 years, left-wing politicians had used their credibility among the working class and their electoral weight to serve capitalist interests. Thanks to them the bourgeoisie had been able to put the Franco era behind it, without having to face any major political or social crisis. They were able to join the European Union and become rich, thanks to the over-exploitation of the working class, who had been told by the left-wing parties and the unions that unemployment, low wages and flexibility were unfortunately necessary and inevitable.

A Sad Balance Sheet

For years, whatever their electoral maneuvers, the policies of the left-wing parties in Spain have consisted of using their credibility with the workers to get their share of the government cake. But only the PSOE was able to succeed in this attempt. And, once in power, it carried out pro-capitalist policies by implementing drastic anti-working class measures, supposedly "in the name of the left" and with the de facto support of its electoral rival, the CP. Both parties played a role in demoralizing the working class and leaving it without any perspective.

As for the country’s two main union confederations, they go on playing the same role under the right-wing government that they have played since the transitional period. Today, with the right wing in government, under Aznar’s People’s Party, they continue to sign agreements which go against workers’ interests, such as the "Work Reform," which makes it easier to cut permanent jobs, even while increasing temporary jobs (which represent 30% of all jobs today).

But the most damaging consequence of the PSOE and CP’s action over the past 25 years is that they have demoralized a large section of the working class and its activists.

The PSOE has never been a party which organized a large number of working class activists. But the trade union to which it is linked, the UGT, provides a framework for the militant activity of thousands of workers. The PSOE leaders have a decisive responsibility in the demoralization of these workers. However, the most dramatic development is, unquestionably, the collapse of the CP and the demoralization of those of its activists who used to run the Workers Commissions.

At the end of the Franco era, the CP had been a real force. It included activists, cadres and youth who had managed to maintain and develop political and trade union organizations under the dictatorship. Thousands of them had risked their lives, or at least their freedom, in order to defend their ideas and to fight for social justice and equality. Tens of thousands of them wanted to change society. They were betrayed, cheated, muzzled and demoralized. None of the Spanish far left groups (which had limited means, but were far from negligible at the time of the "transitional period") tried to win over these activists to another policy, by concentrating on the defense of the interests of the working class. No one can claim that this would automatically have succeeded. But what is significant is that none of these organizations even tried. That is, none of them chose, as its priority, the task of building a proletarian revolutionary organization.

The Maoists and the Trotskyists who came out of the student movement of 1968 in Spain did criticize the PSOE and the CP, but not from the stand point of the interests of the working class. When they managed to pull workers behind them, it was only to place them behind the leadership of radical nationalist organizations or to give them the objective of "pushing to the left" the policies of the left-wing parties and trade unions, or even of the left government when it was in power.

The whole history of these 25 years shows that workers have nothing to expect from reformist politicians of any kind. However difficult the task may be, there is no way to be a socialist or a communist today other than to rebuild the links that past generations of activists managed to create between the vanguard of the working class and the ideas and the program of the social revolution.