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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

The Lessons Of Spain

By Alan Woods

A file photo shows railway workers removing debris from the wreckage of a bombed train at Madrid's Atocha train station. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Spain’s Socialists won a sensational victory in yesterday’s general elections. This vote confounded the polls, which predicted that the Popular Party (PP) would win. This was a sudden and complete change in the whole situation. It represented a massive shift in the mood of the masses in a matter of days.

These events deserve the closest attention because they throw into sharp relief the fundamental processes that are taking place on a world scale. The suddenness of the transformation is a reflection of the general crisis of world capitalism that now affects every country in the world.

The present period of world history is characterized by colossal and unprecedented instability on a global scale. This expresses itself in tremendous volatility at all levels and can manifest itself in sudden and violent swings in the mood of both the ruling class and the masses. Moods of despair alternate with moods of euphoria. Violent swings to the right are followed by even more violent swings to the left.

Taken together, these phenomena are the surface reflection of the organic crisis of capitalism. This is far deeper than a mere conjunctural crisis of the economy. It has a universal and intractable character. At bottom, it expresses the fact that the productive forces have outgrown the narrow confines of private ownership and the nation state.

Globalization was an attempt to find a way out of this impasse. It had an initial effect, enabling the capitalists to avoid a deep slump in the last period, but has now reached its limits. All that has been achieved is to reproduce all the contradictions on a far vaster scale than ever before. Globalization manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. This expresses itself in many different ways. It is expressed by economic, financial and monetary crises, but also by political, diplomatic and military crises.

Terrorism, which has acquired the characteristics of a chronic and incurable disease, is only another symptom of this crisis. By concentrating on the symptom, while ignoring its root cause, the bourgeoisie hopes to divert the attention of the masses from the fundamental impasse of their system. They are trying desperately to solve the problems that arise from the crisis of world capitalism by the use of brute force.

By attempting to restore “order” by the use of overwhelming military power, they merely add to the convulsions and turbulence, giving them an even more violent and barbaric character. Thus, the military intervention in Iraq has solved nothing but created even greater chaos and instability than that which existed before.

Terrorism and war feed off each other and create an infernal cycle of action and reaction. The kind of barbarism we have seen for decades in the Third World is now spreading to the advanced capitalist countries. The Madrid massacre is a terrible confirmation of this. But this has immediately set in motion a chain of events that has rapidly transformed the situation.

A lesson in dialectics

Dialectics teaches us that things change into their opposite. This morning, as he contemplates the electoral disaster suffered by the right wing P,. José Maria Aznar had a good opportunity to meditate on the correctness of dialectics on Sunday night as he listened, ashen-faced, to the news of the defeat.

Even one week ago the dominant mood of the working class was one of pessimism. But not now! The mood of the workers and youth of Spain has been transformed overnight. Today’s Independent describes the scenes that followed the announcement of the election result:

“The street outside the Socialists’ headquarters in Madrid was awash [with] scarlet and white flags. “Za-pa-tero Pre-si-dente!” ecstatic supporters chanted. Cars drove around the capital with their horns honking in triumph until the early hours.”

How do we explain this dramatic change? The decisive role was obviously played by the terror attacks that killed 200 people and injured 1,500 in Madrid last Thursday. These events produced a huge mobilization of the electorate. The participation was massive. Turnout reached 74 per cent, 9 percentage points more than in the last election in 2000, which had produced an absolute majority for the Popular Party. However, the predictions that the terrorist atrocity would help the PP were shown to be false. The people voted massively to kick out the PP, thereby showing considerable political maturity and class-consciousness.

Aznar and the pollsters were not alone in supposing that the PP would easily win the general election. This was the universal opinion of the polls and was shared by the great majority on the Left. For years the Spanish working class has had to put up with a reactionary right wing governments that seemed to have no end. There was a mood of pessimism, even of fatalism. Now all that has changed, and this change occurred in the space of a couple of days.

The reason for this lightning change in the whole situation is attributable to one thing and one thing only—the sudden eruption of the working class on the scene. After the terrorist attacks last Thursday the mood of Spanish society passed swiftly through a wide gamut of feelings—from stunned shock, to sadness, confusion, frustration and finally rage. The indignation of the masses finally focused on the government itself.

The PP government had at its disposal almost complete control of the mass media, and they used this control with astounding cynicism to manipulate the information. They mounted an unprecedented campaign of lies and distortions, designed to sow panic and stampede public opinion behind the government. But contrary to the view commonly held by left intellectuals according to whom, control of the media poses an insurmountable obstacle to the socialist transformation of society, all the press propaganda counted for nothing in the moment of truth. In fact, it proved completely counterproductive.

Aznar cynically used the massacre to try to foment a mood of panic and stampede the electorate behind his party on the basis of the so-called “war against terror.” The authorities told blatant lies and concealed the facts in order to persuade people that ETA was responsible for the outrage. They did not want people to know that there was evidence of al Qaeda involvement, because they knew that this would raise questions about the PP’s decision to back Bush’s war in Iraq.

The leaders of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and United Left (IU) foolishly fell into line behind the government and supported the call for “national unity.” The mass demonstrations held all over Spain last Friday were backed by 12 million people, over two million in Madrid alone. But even on these demonstrations, which were supposed to be a manifestation of national unity, symptoms of disunity were already becoming evident. When Aznar appeared at the head of the Madrid demonstration together with the Prince of Asturias, there were whistles of disapproval from a section of the crowd.

With every passing hour, it became known that the version issued by the government, which insisted that ETA was responsible for the atrocity, was not the only hypothesis. To the degree that people understood that this was probably an attack by al Qaida, the initial shock turned to indignation. Everywhere the cry went up: “Who is responsible?”

Intervention of the masses

The differences that could already be discerned on the demonstrations on Friday continued to grow and become sharper and more focused. On the numerous demonstrations and vigils over the weekend, there were altercations between different sections. The usual form these clashes took was between young and old, working class and middle class. This already revealed the beginning of a class differentiation in the mass movement.

The murderous attack of Thursday, March 11th struck the working class. The districts affected were not the bourgeois Barrio de Salamanca but places like Vallecas and Pozo. The people who were killed were not bankers and stock exchange speculators but workers going to work in their overalls and children from working class families on their way to schools and colleges.

In the funerals there were few suits and ties. The faces of grief were the faces of ordinary working class people, consumed with grief and suffering. They were people who had been forced to pay a terrible price for actions beyond their control or comprehension.

In normal times people like these pay little or no attention to politics. They do not interest themselves in events that unfold on the world scale, because such events seem very distant and remote. They do not impinge upon their everyday lives, or those of their families. But now, like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky, the world crisis blasted the world of ordinary men and women and turned their lives upside down.

The main reason why the people of Spain voted massively to eject the PP is that they correctly thought that Aznar’s slavish support for George Bush and his so-called “war on terror” had put Spain in the front line as a target for Islamist radicals, and directly produced the devastating terrorist attacks in Madrid on Thursday. However, none of this would have happened without the direct intervention of the masses.

The demonstrations called by the PP were everywhere turning into anti-PP demonstrations. By Saturday, the movement was beginning to take the form of attacks on the PP itself. People saw that Aznar and his government were hiding information pointing to al-Qaida’s possible involvement, through fear that it would rebound against it in the elections. This produced an explosion of indignation that was manifested on Saturday in angry demonstrations outside the PP’s headquarters.

The television reports showed incredible scenes of peoplez—some of them obviously old age pensioners—confronting the forces of public order, arguing and remonstrating the heavily armed riot police. The latter, clearly nervous, responded by striking out with batons and even pointing their guns at the demonstrators. There seemed to be a danger of a serious clash. But the huge numbers of demonstrators, numbering up to 10,000 in the end, forced the police to give up.

Demonstration in front of PP headquarters

Government spokespersons made statements to the effect that the demonstrations were “illegal,” since they were taking place on the so-called “day of reflection” [i.e. the day prior to the elections when all political events are banned by law]. This shows how out of touch the leaders of the right wing were. Under such circumstances to imagine that the masses would sit with their arms folded was absurd. We are talking about Spain here, and anyone who is acquainted with the traditions of the Spanish working class would not be surprised at what happened on Saturday.

The attempt to criminalize these demonstrations backfired. The demonstrators chanted defiantly: “What the people does is not illegal!” and also, “Illegalize the PP!” There were other slogans that showed the anger of the people: “Liars!” “Assassins!” “Tell us the truth!” and always: “Down with the war!”

The mood of anger among the masses was shown in Barcelona, where the PP leaders Rato and Piquet were driven from the demonstration by the violent hostility of the crowd. Similar events were reported all over Spain. The mood of panic in the governing party was shown by the fact that they issued a formal appeal to the electoral commission, blaming the opposition parties for deliberately fomenting the attacks on the PP headquarters.

The commission rejected the complaint, for the simple reason that it lacked any basis in fact. Nobody had organized these demonstrations. The workers and youth who protested outside the PP headquarters did so quite spontaneously, in the best traditions of the Spanish working class. The leaders of the opposition were nowhere to be seen.

It is this spontaneous movement of the masses that produced the historic victory of the Socialists in the election, and nothing else.

Decisive role of youth

Another important element in the equation was the youth, who played a decisive role both on the demonstrations and in the elections. The electorate was swelled by some two million first-time voters. The youth of Spain was supposed to be non-political and apathetic, but they participated massively in the elections and voted overwhelmingly for the Socialists.

The reawakening of the youth is a vital factor in the whole situation. The Marxist-led Students’ Union [Sindicato de Estudiantes, or SE] has played a key role in organizing, mobilizing and politicizing the youth. It reacted swiftly and decisively to the recent events and has been to the forefront in all the mobilizations.

The day after the massacre, the SE called strikes and demonstrations that were massively supported throughout Spain. It was the only political force in Spain that understood the revolutionary potential of the youth. Without the decisive intervention of the SE, it is possible that right wing and fascist elements could have had an influence, at least in the first stages when confusion reigned.

In Madrid at the beginning of the demonstration some fascists turned up brandishing Spanish flags. But they were quickly silenced by the members of the Students’ Union who seized the microphone and began chanting “Workers and Students Unite!” The statement of the SE was listened to in complete silence and then the crowd broke into loud applause.

The SE’s demonstrations were held all over Spain: 50,000 in Barcelona, 20,000 in Madrid, 10,000 in Salamanca, 10,000 in Gijon, 8,000 in Bilbao. The militant approach of the Marxist students corresponded completely with the militant mood in the streets. Everywhere the union’s communiqués were enthusiastically applauded by people, most of whom had never even been on a demonstration before.

The role of reformism

It is a law that when the masses begin to move, they will inevitably express themselves in the first place through the traditional mass organizations. If anyone doubts this, let them look at what happened in Spain. Despite the fact that the leaders of the PSOE played no role in the mass movement against the PP, when the workers looked for an alternative, they voted massively for the PSOE. Even in the Basque Country, the PSOE increased its votes and seats, becoming the second political force, after the nationalist PNV.

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who will become Spain’s new Prime Minister, won 43 per cent of the vote, which gives him 164 seats in the 350-seat chamber. The Socialists can count on the support of other left-wing or regional parties, enabling them to form a government without holding a majority of seats.

As a matter of fact, the support for the Socialists is far greater than these results suggest. Election results only give a very partial idea of the real frame of mind of the masses. They are only a still photograph of a mood that is changing all the time. In the case of Spain, the mood of the people was changing by the hour, and the current was turning swiftly against the government.

These elections took place only three days after the atrocity. The mood was still confused. The mass media, scandalously manipulated by the government, were still attempting to cast doubt on the al Qaeda connection. To the degree that the authorship of al Qaeda is conclusively proved, and the manipulation of the news by the PP completely unmasked, the indignation would have been even greater. The Socialists’ majority would have been correspondingly increased, giving them an absolute majority.

However, to tell the truth, the Socialist leaders were more astounded than anyone else at the election result. That is always the way! The reformist leaders have no confidence in the working class, and are always astounded when the masses hand power to them. In the same way, the Spanish trade union leaders were astounded when the workers responded massively to their call for a general strike.

Let us speak clearly: the defeat of the PP had nothing to do with the actions of the PSOE leadership, who did nothing to bring it about. On the contrary, by immediately accepting Aznar’s call for “national unity” after the events last Thursday, they played right into the hands of the PP. If it were up to them, the PP would still be in power today. What changed everything was the spontaneous movement of the working class from below.

Mass Demonstrations on March 12

With trembling hands, Zapatero has accepted the power that has been unexpectedly given to him by the working class. He said last night: “Today Spaniards have spoken with a massive voice. They have said they want a government of change. Thank you for this confidence.” That is quite right. The working class has given Zapatero their votes and their confidence. But this confidence is based upon the idea that a Socialist government will break with U.S. imperialism and withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

The youth flocked to the Socialist cause. In addition, Socialists who stayed at home last time, disillusioned by the policies and conduct of the leadership, came out in huge numbers in their determination to teach the government a lesson. This was therefore not a vote of confidence in the Socialist leadership, as Zapatero imagines, but above all a vote of protest against a hated right wing government for its collaboration with U.S. imperialism in a criminal war in Iraq.

One of the main planks of Zapatero’s platform was his promise to bring home the 1,300 Spanish troops now serving with the coalition in Iraq. This is a position supported by all the other parties in opposition to the Popular Party. It now becomes the most burning question and one that will immediately act as the focal point for the workers and youth who, having brought down the PP government with their votes, will now demand that the PSOE does what it has promised.

Will the Socialist leaders honor their promises? The speech of Zapatero after learning of the PSOE’s victory did not seem very promising. His style was not that of someone who had just won an outstanding victory. Rather it was that of a man who is afraid of the power that has been placed in his hands and wishes to dampen the spirits of his supporters and reduce expectations. He said he wanted a “tranquil change,” which sounded very much like no change at all.

The report in today’s Independent says: “Mr Zapatero was conciliatory to his opponent, Mariano Rajoy, whom he described as a ‘worthy rival.’ The incoming Prime Minister said that the result was ‘a victory for us all.’” Zapatero pledged himself to be just as determined in the fight against terrorism as Aznar was. He said he wanted the “maximum unity of all political forces to pursue that struggle.” This is not at all the kind of thing the millions of workers who voted for the PSOE wanted to hear!

The international implications

The cause of the election result in Spain must be sought, not in Spain, but in the turbulent arena of world politics. And the repercussions of the events in Spain will not be confined to the borders of Spain but will have profound international consequences.

Last night’s vote was a crushing defeat, not only for the right wing PP and its leader, but also for Bush and Blair. Aznar had hoped to hand over power effortlessly to his handpicked successor, Rajoy. Like Franco, he thought that everything was “tied up, and well tied up.” But he was wrong. Now Bush and Blair must be deeply concerned that similar processes can affect them. They are not wrong. The masses in Britain and the USA will be following the events in Spain with interest.

The masses inflicted a severe punishment on the Popular Party government for supporting the war in Iraq. This has set the alarm bells ringing in London and Washington. Bush and Blair have lost their most reliable European ally. Now isolated in Europe but for the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Blair must be contemplating the prospect that his absolute majority may, like Aznar’s, melt away. The lesson will not be lost on Tony Blair and his friend in the White House.

The Bush administration has even more reason than Blair to be alarmed. With Presidential elections just around the corner, the mood of the American public is also slowly turning against a war that seems to have no end. They fear that the defeat of the PP will leave them even more exposed, and may lead to Spain pulling out of Iraq. That would increase demands in the USA for withdrawal.

This morning, Zapatero has issued a statement to the effect that the war in Iraq was a disaster and warning that Spain would pull its troops out of Iraq by June “if things did not change.” This statement suggests that he means to honor his election pledge to withdraw from Iraq. But it contains certain sub-clauses that may still affect the outcome. Already Tony Blair is arguing that “things are changing” in Iraq, so there is no need for Spain to withdraw.

There is also the possibility of some new maneuver in the United Nations, with some resolution designed to make the occupation of Iraq “legal,” and thus provide an excuse for keeping Spanish troops there. The Spanish workers and youth must be on their guard! At the slightest indication of a retreat, they must mobilize.

In the next few weeks Washington and London will place enormous pressure on the government in Madrid not to withdraw. Even before they have formed a government, the leaders of the PSOE are coming under pressure from the ruling class and imperialism. Zapatero will have received telephone calls from London and Washington, congratulating him on his success and, in passing, reminding him of his “international obligations.” With astonishing arrogance, even before the election result was announced, Powell and Rumsfeld were issuing warnings to the Spanish Socialists that they must not pull their troops out of Iraq and that they must continue to back the “war against terror.”

The American imperialists imagine that they have a god-given right (a “manifest destiny” they used to call it) to dictate to every other government in the world. To weak states that cannot fight back they say: “Do as we say, or we will bomb you!” “Do as we say, or we will occupy you!” They bully Cuba and Venezuela. Now they wish to bully Spain. But this will only provoke greater anger in the mass of Spanish people.

But it will not be so easy for the Socialist leaders to ignore the wishes of their supporters. This election has taken place at a time when the masses have entered into action. The genie has been let out of the bottle. It will not be easily put back. The masses will give the new government a little time, but Zapatero does not have a blank check. If he does not withdraw the Spanish army from Iraq, the stage will be set for massive mobilizations.

Any suggestion that the new government is bending the knee to Washington and London will be met by an explosion of opposition by the workers and youth, and also by the rank-and-file of the PSOE. The PSOE leaders will be ground between two millstones. Already banners are appearing everywhere with slogans like “No to war!” Any attempt to break the PSOE’s election pledge will cause a furor.

A revolutionary policy is needed!

Under these circumstances, the Communist Party and the United Left should be growing. But in these elections, the IU lost a lot of ground. Although the votes for IU remained more or less stable, they lost many seats, being reduced from nine seats to five. They lost all their seats in their traditional strongholds of Andalusia and Asturias—a very serious setback.

In part, this can be attributed to the so-called “useful vote” [i.e. tactical voting]—those who wanted to kick out the PP voted for the Socialists in order not to split the Left vote. But this does not explain everything. It is a law that where the working class is confronted with two workers’ parties, one bigger and the other smaller, with a similar program and policies, the workers will vote for the bigger of the two, and the smaller will tend to disappear.

If the Communist Party stood for a real Communist policy, radically different to the policies of the PSOE, then at least the most advanced workers and youth would see the difference and vote Communist. But at the present time, the difference is not at all clear. The leaders of IU have gone steadily to the right, abandoned Marxism in all but name, and adopted a reformist program.

In the recent crisis that preceded the election, the position taken by the leaders of IU was completely indistinguishable from that of the PSOE. They immediately fell in behind the PP’s demand for “national unity.” They had no independent position. Now they have paid the price for opportunism.

In the ranks of Izquierda Unida (United Left) and the Communist Party there are many honest Communists who want to fight for a Communist policy. They must demand a change of course. If ever the ideas of Marxism were shown to be correct, that moment is now. The demand for a revolutionary policy will grow in the coming months and years, as an increasing number of people come to understand that on a capitalist basis no way out is possible.

The stage is set for new explosions, nationally and internationally. The masses are learning some very hard lessons, but they are learning quickly. It is the duty of the Marxist tendency to march shoulder to shoulder with the masses, to push the movement forward, actively advancing the most militant policies and tactics. Above all, however, it is necessary to win over the working class, beginning with the most advanced elements and the youth, to the program of the socialist revolution.

Whatever happens, this will not be a tranquil period. The stage will be set for an even bigger movement to the left in the next period. Ideas that today are listened to by a small minority will find an echo in a growing number of people.

Lenin once said that capitalism is horror without end. We saw the face of that horror in Madrid last Thursday. But today we see another face: the face of a triumphant working class that has dealt a heavy blow against its enemies, nationally and internationally. In place of pessimism there is optimism. In place of defeatism there is a new confidence that we can win. Armed with the correct policies and ideas, we can win—not only in Spain but everywhere.

The lessons of the past few days in Spain must be studied carefully by all those who wish to understand the nature of the period through which we are passing. What has occurred in Spain will tomorrow happen in Britain, the USA and every other country. We must be prepared!

In Defense of Marxism, March 15, 2004





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