In the brief political history of Eurocommunism, which emerged as a public international current in 1974 and has lived only the shadowiest existence since the break-up of the Union de la Gauche in 1977–78, the course of the Communist Party of Spain (pce) merits at least as much attention as those of its French and Italian sister-parties. It began the period as, in many ways, the most dynamic of the three: not only did it largely set the tone, if not the content, of the search for eurostrategic directions autonomous of cpsu foreign and domestic policy; its top leaders were also planning for their long-awaited return to Spain and the beginning of a political transition that would establish the pce as the cornerstone, first of a new democracy and then of a steady advance toward socialism. As is well known, the sequel could hardly have been more brutal. The party which had been the backbone of the anti-Franco resistance, at times its only bone, did not quite manage to win ten per cent of the vote in June 1977, in the first free elections held since 1936. By October 1982 that figure was down to 3.7 per cent: its membership had been leaving in droves, its high prestige among intellectuals had been dissipated, and it was in the throes of the most acute internal crisis in its history. What happened? This is the question posed in recent booksfootnote1 by Santiago Carrillo, Manuel Azcárate and Fernando Claudín—three men who, once collaborators in the emigré leadership of the pce, have gone their quite separate ways on the basis of an attachment to the ‘Eurocommunist’ project of the seventies.

When Franco died in November 1975, the ruling classes in Spain were still far from united on strategy for the transition. There was a general feeling that some changes were necessary in order to bring Spain into line with Western Europe and to secure bourgeois rule on more stable foundations, but the first post-Franco government never reached agreement on the pace, scale or destination of such changes. For its part the pce leadership entered the transition arguing that only a provisional government and an elected constituent assembly could achieve the decisive ‘democratic break’; and indeed that mass struggles, including a ‘peaceful national strike’, were the only way to overcome the resistance of the old establishment. Since Carrillo’s later analyses of the period invariably downplay or ignore this orientation, it is worth quoting, for example, his statements to an Italian journalist in October 1975: ‘A national strike that will suddenly paralyse the whole country, from the factories to the universities, from trade to communications. A gigantic, total strike that will block every mechanism of the state and against which the regime will be unable to do anything. Everything will have to happen at that moment, everything.’footnote2 There was of course something unreal, fetishistic about this vision of sudden paralysis, and it may well be doubted whether Carrillo ever intended it to be more than a card in his negotiations with bourgeois politicians. What was not unreal, however, in that winter of 1975–76, was the wave of economic strikes and the growing self-confidence of the mass movement that culminated in the response to the shooting of four demonstrators in March.footnote3 Such events receive no mention from any of the three authors—not even from Azcárate, who has become the most committed to a grassroots inflection of Eurocommunist politics. Yet the character of the transition might have been very different if the Left had resolutely built on these struggles to advance a genuine democratic break.

Carrillo himself is unable to produce a coherent account of pce policy during these crucial months. At times he quite unconvincingly argues that the eventual reform from above corresponded to what the pce had always understood by the democratic break: ‘A break contracted with those in the regime who were evolving towards democratic position . . . Thus, people who felt cheated by the form of the change never understood the content of our Pact for Freedom, our policy of reconciliation, whose content we at that time termed the democratic break.’footnote4 Elsewhere in the same book, he sharply accuses the Socialist Party (psoe) of seeking an agreement with reformist circles, instead of working towards a ‘direct confrontation’ and mass struggle to bring about the downfall of the dictatorial regime (pp. 31–32). At still other times he implies that the pce was too weak, the psoe too treacherous and the peoples of Spain too apathetic for the perspective of mass struggle for a constituent assembly ever to have had any realistic chance of success.

These contradictions in pce policy, and in Carrillo’s retrospect, give way in the winter of 1976–77 to an increasingly unambiguous line of partnership with the bourgeois-reformist ucd—a line which both illuminates the basic thrust of earlier positions and prefigures the collapse of support for the Communist Party. Once Adolfo Suárez had replaced the vacillating Arias as head of government and made clear his intention to negotiate with the opposition, the pce leadership under Carrillo became a model of caution and moderation. It would drop its call for a provisional government and constituent assembly, pledge respect for the monarchy and the red-and-yellow flag, accept the continuity of the judicial institutions—in short, allow the transition to parliamentary democracy to take place under the control and the emblems of self-reforming franquistas, rather than through a radical democratic break. The quid pro quo, legalization of the pce, was obviously not an insignificant gain, and Carrillo shows that Suárez had to contend with the hostility of Washington and the army high command in order to force it through before the first national elections. Nor could the pce count upon more than lukewarm support from the psoe, itself under pressure from its Social Democrat tutors in Bonn to avoid any alliance with the Communist Party. Nevertheless, if the pce leadership had stood firm on its republican principles, it is far from clear that the Reform parties, now in the saddle of bourgeois strategy, would have felt able indefinitely to exclude it from political life. By surrendering its radical impulse in the initiation rites of bourgeois-monarchist democracy, the pce was laying the ground for the desencanto that would sweep the Left and its own membership in the years to come.

First, however, there were to follow two years of ucd government between the general elections of June 1977 and March 1979. Not having succeeded in its original project of a provisional government to superintend the transition to democracy, the pce now called for a ‘concentration’ of democratic forces to support the Suárez government from outside—or, if he so chose, presumably from inside. This startling new proposal, modelled on the pci’s ‘historic compromise’ but advanced by a party with little more than nine per cent of the vote, was not unnaturally welcomed by Suárez as a sign that further tactical use could be made of the pce. For a short time Carrillo became Suárez’s privileged interlocutor: ‘In this country there are two politicians, you and I,’ the pce general secretary boasted of being told.footnote5 The two collaborated closely on the elaboration of the so-called Moncloa Pacts, which traded economic austerity for a package of constitutional and fiscal reforms. Indeed, it began to seem to sections of the pce leadership that here was ‘the political form at last discovered’ for an organic advance of the whole society towards at least the threshold of socialism.footnote6 In the meantime, however, the Party’s national propaganda contained fewer and fewer references to a goal which, everyone could agree, lay in the rather distant future.

The history of the workers’ movement provides many examples of the fate of such illusions, and the ucd–pce ‘concentration’ was to prove no exception. On the eve of the March 1979 elections, after a period in which Suárez had been lulling Carrillo with talk of a possible coalition government, the ucd apparatus decided that it had no further use for the pce and began to issue strident warnings of the ‘Marxist danger’. Suddenly it became apparent to many Communists that—whatever Suárez’s own perception of his role—the Party had walked into a trap and been cynically manipulated by the main bourgeois party in an apparatus game all too familiar from more mature parliamentary regimes. Carrillo, of course, does not believe that it was a trap. Or rather, as he once put it in a celebrated interview with Régis Debray: ‘This is something which I feel physically, in my bones: I am not afraid, not in the least afraid, either of being caught in a trap or of being assimilated or integrated.’footnote7 It is not surprising, then, that even today he regards the 1977–79 experience as one of the finest chapters in the pce’s history, as ‘the most serious progressive accord achieved between working-class and bourgeois forces in our country since the thirties’ (p. 53). More disturbing still, he believes that this strategy of democratic concentration ‘remains the only valid strategy today. Otherwise the transition, democracy, the perspective of social changes run up against an impenetrable wall’ (p. 217). How, then, does Carrillo account for the disastrous collapse of the pce vote and membership after 1979? First he makes a mock self-criticism of his and the leadership’s two real mistakes: namely, that they gave the membership a weak Marxist training, so that petty-bourgeois ‘leftist’ and ‘anti-pactist’ currents appeared in its midst; and that they did not deal more firmly, from the very beginning, with ‘anti-centralist’ deviations in the Party. In other words an inadequate degree of ideological and organizational vigilance—the one mistake Stalin ever admitted to. Secondly he points to the clever scheming of the Party’s multiple enemies: the treacherous psoe which, by keeping a critical distance from the ucd and posturing as a left opposition, confused the electorate and marginalized the Party from its own rightist project of a capitalist two-party system; the bourgeois right, which suddenly swooped on the honest ‘pactist’ Suárez and pulled the king himself away from collaboration with the pce; and internal oppositionists who, perhaps with the best intentions, objectively aided the enemies of the Party. Thirdly he argues that the abortive coup by Tejero and his associates in February 1981 traumatized the Spanish population and drove many former pce voters into the arms of the more respectable psoe. The Party was powerless to counter this ‘possibilist earthquake’, because people wanted at all costs to avoid a second civil war.

It must be said that although some of these points have a kernel of truth to them, they do not add up to a satisfying explanation. Thus, if the González leadership of the psoe was able to posture as a force to the left of the pce, this was because during the period of its manoeuvre it did not compromise to the same degree with the main party of the bourgeoisie. After the manoeuvre was completed, as Carrillo rightly says, it revealed its true colours as a pro-capitalist party whose function was to mediate the interests of the bourgeoisie and the working class. But the fact remains that the pce’s own opportunist support for the ucd government disqualified it from engaging in a principled drive to forge left unity with the psoe and to expose the contradictions in its ideology and political practice. The González leadership was able to sail on to victory in the 1982 elections without facing the sharp edge of socialist criticism from any but the decimated forces of the revolutionary left.