In March 1986, the first popular referendum on a military alliance in history was held in Spain. The ruling Socialist Party (psoe)—committed only four years earlier to withdrawal from nato—campaigned for Spanish integration into the Atlantic Alliance, deploying a massive battery of official manipulation, threats and promises to pressure the country into accepting its volte-face. The psoe’s eventual success in this enterprise, at whatever cost in moral discredit, make its position virtually impregnable in the elections scheduled for autumn of this year. Today Spanish Socialism enjoys a political supremacy which, with the exception of pasok in Greece, has no parallel among the neo-socialist parties of Southern Europe that have also risen to governmental power in the past decade. In France, the Mitterrand term has dwindled to a presidential hold-over, evacuated of political substance, as the Right has regained a large sociological majority and control of the Assembly. In Italy, Craxi has put his premiership to good personal profit, and somewhat strengthened his party; but the psi remains greatly outnumbered by Christian Democrats and Communists alike, a hinge-formation for possible coalitions rather than a dominant force in its own right. In Portugal, the psp has suffered heavy electoral losses and finds itself in opposition for the first time in ten years—Soares squeaking into the presidency only by grace of the last-minute support of a pcp that has always detested him. Compared with these experiences at their height, the psoe victory in 1982 was on a qualitatively different scale and seems capable of being repeated, if only in parliamentary terms, four years later. What are the reasons for this preeminence of Hispanic socialism? How is it related to the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship? What has been the record of the Socialist Party in office? The purpose of this article is to offer an analytic balance-sheet that will provide some answer to these questions.

The historical portents did not look favourable for the psoe when Franco’s legions marched into Barcelona in the spring of 1939. Quite apart from the disaster of military defeat itself, by the end of the Civil War two decades of wrenching political turns and internecine strife had left the psoe in a state of exhaustion from which it seemed unlikely ever to recover. During the twenties, when the anarchist and Communist movements were subject to intense repression, the psoe and its ugt union federation had consolidated their position as the majority force of the Spanish labour movement, thriving on the indulgence of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and participating at top level in its institutional structures. The fall of the military regime in 1930 ushered in a period of equally unproblematic collaboration with the bourgeois republicans. But then in 1933–34, as European labour was reeling from ignominious defeats in the German and Austrian heartlands of Social Democracy, the principal fraction of Spanish Socialism tore itself away from traditions of passive accommodation and charted a course of revolutionary struggle. The sexagenarian workers’ leader Largo Caballero, whose previous career had been in the mould of, at best, a Spanish Lassalle, boldly placed himself at the head of the deep mass radicalization. Yet the ‘Spanish Lenin’, as he became affectionately if not altogether seriously known, had neither the theoretical nor the political resources to fashion the psoe into a flexible instrument of a coherent revolutionary policy. The Asturias Rising of October 1934 was not followed through elsewhere in the country and went down to rapid defeat; while in the Revolution of July 1936 to May 1937, the Caballerist Socialists gradually lost all sense of direction as they fell under the constrictive pressure of the Communist Party. The last two years of the Second Republic would be dominated by an alliance between the Stalinized Comintern and Negrin’s right-wing Socialists, who shared a ruthless determination to marginalize the other forces of the Left within the beleaguered state.

Another thirty years were to pass before the psoe again showed real signs of life. As European fascism collapsed between 1943 and 1945, the emigré leaders placed all their hopes in an extension of Allied political or even military action to the Iberian peninsula. However, the overwhelming priority in London and Washington at that time was to prevent an anti-capitalist dénouement to the war in Europe, and once its links with Nazi Germany had been broken the Franco regime appeared less as a problem than as a prop for the new Atlantic order. Similarly, the psoe’s strategic overtures to the royalists were confounded in 1947 when the dictator proclaimed Spain a monarchy, with himself as Regent for life. Lacking confidence in its own capacity for effective political intervention, unable to achieve the most elementary generational renewal, the exiled leadership under Rodolfo Llopis gradually withdrew into the cold war shell that was assumed by European Social Democracy as a whole, with the exception of the psi. While the Communist Party rebuilt an organizational structure within Spain, energetically involving itself in such struggles as the 1956 university revolt, Llopis and his associates in Toulouse grew increasingly remote from—indeed, often morbidly suspicious of—the opposition forces that were emerging among the working class and intelligentsia.

It is thus not surprising that the radicalism of the early sixties, where it was not directly influenced by the Communists, tended to pass through the various Catholic Action groups that sprang up in response to the Second Vatican Council and the new Christian militancy in Latin America. This was particularly the case in the traditional psoe bastion of Andalusia, where the syndicalist moac (Catholic Action Labour Brotherhood), its youth wing the joc, and the university-based Frente de Liberación Popular enjoyed a degree of official toleration and support from sections of the clergy. It was in 1963 that a 21-year-old student, Felipe González, who had become active in this milieu without ever joining its organizations, first encountered a grouping of Socialist students at Seville University, themselves virtually unknown to the psoe leadership. However, it would be some time before he established formal relations. After graduating in 1965, he received a grant from the West German Episcopate to continue his studies in Louvain. Here, in an atmosphere then far from congenial for a Spaniard, González became acquainted with elements of socialist theory and the practice of Belgian Social Democracy. But the deepest impression during that year seems to have been made by the treatment to which his fellow-countrymen were subjected. ‘A large number of bars in Brussels,’ he wrote home, ‘had an announcement: No entry for Spaniards, Africans and North Africans . . . The railway stations are packed with Spaniards who spend hour upon hour in a state of disorientation. They’re not shown the slightest consideration and are in the saddest human and spiritual misery.’footnote1 Over the next twenty years this formative experience, in which economic and national oppression were so closely intermingled, would be progressively emptied of social content and condensed into a single political ambition: to make Spain a West European nation, just like the rest.

Upon his return to Seville in 1966, González immediately applied to join the psoe and went on to found a practice of labour lawyers that became a kind of Party centre for the region. One of the leading members of the local Socialist group was a talented young theatre producer, Alfonso Guerra—now vice-premier in the psoe government—who first made contact with the emigrés at a Party school in Toulouse in 1966. His own subsequent relationship with González, recounted in a number of uninhibited interviews, has been a significant factor in the development of a ‘personalist’ regime in the Party. For Guerra, a man of great energy and skill in organization and partial argument, appears to have concluded at a very early date that González’s ‘charismatic personality’ was the key to future success, incomparably more weighty than any programme and worth the sacrifice of many a political principle to be maintained.