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The labyrinth of Spain’s history

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The history of Spain is one of imperial conquest, repression and mass resistance to its rulers. Mike Gonzalez examines the struggles for change that have defined its existence
Issue 2254

In the 1930s, several years before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War the poet Antonio Machado imagined his country as a rusting suit of armour lying on the harsh brown soil of Castile. It was an image of a once imperial power that had lost its empire.

The Moors dominated the Iberian Peninsula for almost ten centuries. The province of Al-Andalus was its most important and enduring. It was a centre of Arabic learning and culture, whose highest expression were the great cities of Seville and Cordoba.

The gradual Reconquest ended with the siege of Granada in 1492. This established Spain as we know it, under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of the kingdoms of Leon and Castile.

Spain was a latecomer to the imperial adventure. By 1492 Portuguese mariners had already sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and controlled the sea routes to the East and the spice trade.

Spain needed access to these riches and it was a Genoese sailor, Christopher Columbus, who offered them a different route to India, sailing west. His first landfall wasn’t India, however, but the Caribbean island of Tortuga.

Within 30 years, Spain ruled a vast continent, stretching from Mexico to the southernmost points of what is now Chile and Argentina.

The merchant adventurers—such as the conqueror of Mexico Hernan Cortes and Fernando Pizarro, who overcame the empire of the Incas—delivered vast silver wealth to the Spanish Crown.

Indian and African slaves clawed this out of the earth in deadly mines.

The human cost was huge, but the slaughter was justified by rewriting its history as a crusade against barbarism. In Spain, this first century of empire was called the Golden Age.

It made some people fabulously rich, and they patronised the playwrights, painters and musicians who made this a high point in the European arts.

But the effect of imperial wealth was to freeze society in a three century long feudal regime. The Catholic Church and its storm troopers, the Inquisition, jealously watched over the country.

The gold and silver of the Indies financed Spain’s wars and stopped its industry in its tracks. The country was dominated by church and crown, which could buy whatever it needed from the workshops of northern Europe.


The Spanish empire lasted for over three centuries until, in 1810, the new republics of Latin America fought and won their political independence.

However, they fell into the arms of British, French and German capital.

The last Spanish colony, Cuba, broke free in 1898, only to become a prisoner of the growing empire of the US.

Spain now had to face reality. It was an ex-colonial power, left behind by northern Europe’s development, dominated by the Catholic church and the wealthy landowners of the south.

In 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera took dictatorial powers aiming to modernise Spain quickly.

But the Great Crash of 1929 wrecked the world economy and closed down external markets for Spain’s agricultural and industrial products.

Primo resigned and the ineffectual king abdicated. A new coalition government, involving Socialists, Republicans and Conservatives, was elected in 1931.

The anarchists, whose National Labour Congress (CNT) had nearly two million members, were not in government. But they supported its programme of agrarian reform, limiting the power of the church, professionalising the army and recognising trade unions.

The courts and the military blocked any attempt at change. At the next election, two years later, the anarchists withdrew their support from the government and the right won. It was determined to take back every gain.

There was widespread resistance. Its high point was the extraordinary struggle of the miners of Asturias in October 1934, which was eventually broken by Moorish soldiers led by an ambitious colonel called Francisco Franco.

By the next election, in February 1936, tens of thousands of militants were in jail. The Popular Front coalition—including Socialists, Communists and Republicans—had a programme of reform that was far from revolutionary.

But the rank and file saw its election victory as an opportunity to drive the process of change forward.

There was mass activity in the cities and the countryside, land takeovers, a radical Catalan nationalism, the rise of factory committees and an open attack on the power of the church.


The right backed a military coup in July 1936, which Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini supported.

The military expected a quick victory. Instead mass resistance challenged the armed forces for three years.

When fascism did finally win, it was in part because of the political machinations of Joseph Stalin’s regime.

It was prepared to sacrifice the Spanish working class to Russia’s foreign policy needs, while the Western allies looked on indifferently.

Franco, now the undisputed leader, wreaked a terrible revenge on the Spanish people. He particularly targeted Catalan and Basque nationalists, who wanted freedom from the Spanish state.

Franco’s one-party state restored the Catholic church to its position, banned trade unions and restricted the rights of women. There was heavy censorship.

None of this concerned the US, which signed a treaty establishing military bases in Spain in 1953.

Later that decade, international capitalists had no compunction about investing in the cheap labour market that Spanish fascism offered them.

From 1962, strikes in Barcelona’s tyre factories and in the mines of Asturias—and a wave of student demonstrations—marked a new era of struggle.

Mass tourism and modern industries may finally have arrived in Spain, but the regime remained repressive, despite minor cosmetic changes.

High levels of working class struggle marked Franco’s last years. After his death from natural causes in 1975, those struggles intensified.

In 1976, 110 million hours were lost in strikes. In the Basque Country there were 13 general strikes in a year.

Though Franco was dead, his state and its supporters were still in place.

Franco had named his successor—King Juan Carlos. The king and the capitalist class had seen with dread the Portuguese events of 1974 when a mass movement exploded after the fall of that country’s fascist dictatorship.

They moved quickly to head off the threat of mass struggles and the demand for a republic. The new prime minister, Adolfo Suarez, had been a leading fascist. Now he sat down to negotiate with Socialists and Communists.

In 1977 an amnesty law allowed political prisoners of both sides to be released—it was later used to block investigations of Franco’s crimes.

The Communist Party was legalised, in exchange for accepting the monarchy and agreeing not to sing the song of revolution, the Internationale.

All sides supported the new constitution of 1978. It enshrined the idea of a unitary state—a rejection of the claims for national self-determination of Basques and Catalans.

The Basque Country opposed the constitution. The Catalan leaders argued that it was a “first step” because it made Catalan an official language.

The social clauses—the guarantee of decent housing, full employment and proper pension rights—proved worthless.


But these agreements, known as the Moncloa Pacts or the Pact of Forgetting, shaped the new Spain. And it included limits on public spending and restrictions on wage demands.

The right, and its Socialist and Communist allies, had headed off the social explosion that might have followed the end of the dictatorship. The militancy was largely defused.

A failed military coup of February 1981 was proof that the fascist threat still remained.

The beneficiary and inheritor of the post-Franco consensus was the Socialist Party. It came to power in 1982 promising “change”.

Yet the Socialists supported a new statute that further limited national rights and put new limits on workers’ rights. It delivered the continuity that Spanish capital demanded, which was rewarded with Spanish entry into Nato and the European Union.

The involvement of its leader in armed plots against the Basque Country, a series of financial scandals, and its failure to address the problems of unemployment and inflation, opened the door to the right.

The Popular Party won the election in 1996. Its leader Jose Maria Aznar took pride in his membership of Franco’s youth organisation.

Aznar supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But when he blamed the Al Qaida attack on Madrid’s Atocha station in 2004 on the Basque ETA organisation, people erupted with rage. The Socialists were re-elected.

It seems powerfully symbolic that in recent years public pressure has built up to open the mass graves of the Civil War, confronting the past and its still unfulfilled hopes.

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