Primo de Rivera
Primo de Rivera; drawing by David Levine

After the intellectual drought of Francoism has come the literary deluge of democracy. The caudillo did not favor an atmosphere conductive to the critical study of contemporary history. His preferred period was the sixteenth century, his hero the monk–monarch Philip II; he built his Pharaonic mausoleum near the monastery–palace of the Escorial. Now the floodgates are open. First, as Francoism fell apart, from the late 1960s onward, many of the books on the recent history of Spain tended to reflect the Marxist subculture of the opposition. Then, as the Marxist enthusiasm of the 1960s withered away and the Spanish Communist party became wrecked by dogmatism and factionalism, what might be called the revisionist school emerged. It includes some impressive scholars. One of the best known is Angel Viñas, who has written important books on German intervention in the civil war, on the “Moscow Gold” sent by the Republic to the USSR in payment for arms during the civil war, and on Franco’s foreign policy.1 Another major work is Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Fascism from Above, a detailed study of the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, who seized power in 1923, and who was forced to resign in 1930, making way for the Spanish Republic.

Ben-Ami uses scrupulous scholarship (including 2066 footnotes) to support a strong thesis. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, he maintains, should not be treated as the passage through history of a bungling, well-intentioned bon vivant, a sentimental patriot who inundated Spain with his inmost thoughts. It should be seen as the serious attempt to create a “new state.” True, the new state was a failure, but, according to Ben-Ami, it inaugurated policies that were to become “corner-stones of the Spanish right and eventually of the Francoist state.” Moreover, Ben-Ami argues, it must be seen in comparison with contemporary authoritarian experiments in the Balkans and elsewhere in peripheral Europe. Spanish history had been bedeviled for a hundred years by short-lived takeovers of power through blustering pronunciamentos, the Spanish way of announcing that democratic government has been annulled. To dismiss Primo de Rivera’s seizure of power in September of 1923 as one of these, in Ben-Ami’s view, would be to mistake the means of achieving power for the ends.

For Ben-Ami, Rivera’s military coup had a social backing denied to previous practitioners of praetorian politics. There was, first, a genuine revolution from below in Catalonia, which Ben-Ami sees as the consequence of modernization and the accompanying growth of a militant proletariat. The bourgeoisie, no longer protected by the rickety institutions of a parliamentary monarchy, and obsessed by the Red scare, rallied enthusiastically to the dictator when he “rose” in Barcelona to install the revolution from above. Once he attempted to tax the well to-do and favored workers’ wage claims, the bourgeoisie deserted him and he fell.

Ben-Ami’s theses are stimulating and have much else to commend them. But comparative history has its limitations as an aid to the understanding of individual cases. The Balkan and Baltic dictatorships of the Thirties for the most part toppled newly installed democratic regimes. Spain was different. Its liberal constitutionalism was indeed often punctuated by pronunciamentos and vitiated by elections rigged in the interests of a dominant oligarchy. But it had lasted in various forms for almost a century. Without Primo’s coup there is, in my view, no reason to suppose that Spain might not have undergone the gradual development toward the democratic constitutional monarchy it now enjoys. The historical crime of Primo de Rivera is to have postponed this desirable outcome for more than half a century.

Of course the two kings involved behaved very differently. King Alfonso XIII legitimized Primo’s pronunciamento by accepting him as prime minister—an act that sealed the fate of the old constitutional monarchy and ushered in the Second Republic of 1930–1936. His grandson Juan Carlos has moved in the opposite direction. He not only legitimized parlimentary democracy but defended that democracy on the night of February 23, 1981, when Colonel Tejero appeared in the Cortes waving his pistol, intending, with his fellow officers, to destroy it.

Professor Javier Tusell, it must be added, has rejected my optimism about the possibilities of development still latent in the old political system by 1923.2 That system, whose corruptions he analyzed exhaustively in his La crisis del caciquismo andaluz (1923–1931) (1977), was a derelict structure beyond repair. The liberals in power in 1923, notwithstanding a program of reforms intended to democratize the system, were riddled with factions and abdicated without a struggle. The liberal president is said to have offered a prayer of thanksgiving to Primo for relieving him of the impossible task of governing Spain.

What is true is that the repeated interventions of the military in Spanish politics have always been mounted against weak governments and by no stretch of the imagination can the liberal coalition of 1923 be called a strong government. To Colonel Tejero, on February 23, 1981, the government of President Calvo Sotelo seemed such a weak government. Spanish soldiers revolt in the name of a national will they see as betrayed by selfish and dithering politicians. Imprisoned in their own political philosophy, they cannot seek to topple a strong government decisively supported by the national will. The socialist government of Felipe González elected in November 1982, with ten million votes behind it, clearly represents that national will. It is a strong government; not the least of the achievements of the present minister of defense, Narcis Serra, the bearded former mayor of Barcelona, is to have removed the immediate threat of military intervention in civilian politics.


But was Primo de Rivera a fascist? “There is no denying,” Ben-Ami writes, “that Primo de Rivera was no Mussolini, and his regime no Fascism.” Why, then, does he call his book Fascism from Above? Ben-Ami’s description of the dictator’s attempt to create a single party that would say “yes” to his rule is splendid in its details. He shows for instance how the party invented mobile polling stations to bring out the vote. Still, like Primo’s attempt to create a civilian militia, the party was a miserable failure. Ben-Ami would argue that this does not matter: the rhetoric, the intention was there, ready to be inherited by the Falange and Franco.

“Fascism” is too emotive a term to be a useful label when playing the political scientist’s favorite game of classifying regimes as “Bonapartist,” “prefascist,” and so on. It might be simpler to classify them as more or less nice or nasty. Francoism, especially in its early years, was nasty. Primo’s regime was something else. V.S. Pritchett, who walked throughout Spain during the 1920s, remembered him as an amiable dictator; he recalls in his The Spanish Temper “the happy period of Primo de Rivera.” But in the end Ben-Ami and I agree. Primo de Rivera was, as he puts it, “a political architect by default.” Primo taught Franco how to be a real dictator. From his failure Franco concluded you must smash the workers’ movement rather than seek to incorporate independent trade unions into a corporate state. You must execute dissidents, not fine or exile them.

Yet Franco, too, failed to create a successor state. “After Franco, the institutions” was the slogan of the Francoists in extremis. Franco, unlike Primo, died in his bed as ruler of Spain, yet, like Primo, he failed to create “the institutions” that would keep the system alive after his protracted departure. Refrigerated, plugged into every electrical device, the dictator died with the Virgin of Pilar’s mantle on his bed and the mummified arm of St. Teresa of Avila beside him. This was a macabre symbol of the Spain he had created: a consumer society managed by technocrats and imprisoned in an archaic political system whose chief ideological support was preconciliar Catholicism.

Revolution and War in Spain, 1931–1939, a collection of revisionist studies edited by the University of London scholar Paul Preston, vehemently rejects the Francoist interpretations of the origins and nature of the civil war.3 By the 1970s the apologists of Francoism had ceased to present the war simplistically as a crusade of the godly against the godless; rather they claimed it was a struggle forced on men of good will by the excesses of the left. The current revisionism reflected in Preston’s collection flatly denies this, taking us back to an interpretation that was a commonplace of the left during the 1930s. Most of Preston’s contributors would hold that the Second Republic was destroyed not by its own shortcomings but by the intransigence of the right. Pushed to the margins of power by the advent of mass politics, conservative Spain was determined to destroy a democratic regime that threatened its traditional social, economic, and intellectual hegemony, a hegemony sustained in concert with the Church.

From this perspective, it is all too easy to conclude that the intransigence of the far right justified the rejection of democratic procedures by the far left. After the victory of right-wing politicians in the elections of 1933, for example, the newspaper of the Asturian miners, who lurched into a heroic rebellion in October 1934, declared that workers “have nothing to do with democracy.”

Dr. Frances Lannon rejects, with the meticulous scholarship that is characteristic of most of Preston’s contributors, the conventional wisdom that the Church was driven into an alliance with the right wing by the sectarian persecution of the republican Jacobins. Defense of the institutional Church, Dr. Lannon argues, was combined by the far right with the preservation of the established order, particularly the privileges of great landowners. She concludes that the “interpretation of the democratic and socially reforming Republic of 1931–33 as a gratuitous aggressor in relation to the Church rings false.” The Church’s rejection of democracy, Lannon writes, its opposition even to modest social reform and the improvement of working-class conditions, makes understandable the popular hatred that culminated with the murder of thirteen bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 monks, and 283 nuns in the republican zone during the first weeks of the war. But to understand, I hope, is not to forgive. These murders were not the work of an enraged proletariat but, as Franz Borkenau argued at the time, “administrative acts” of fanatics—acts that were observed, it is true, by an indifferent proletariat. After these atrocities it was, Lannon argues, “extremely difficult for Catholic leaders to do other than throw in their lot with the Republic’s enemies.”


I myself continue to believe that the Republic’s anticlerical legislation between 1931 and 1933 was a political blunder of the first order. It handed over to the right its rallying cry of the Church in danger. The errors of the Republic have cautioned the present Socialist government to avoid the excesses of dogmatic secularism even if its educational reform has provoked mass demonstrations and press attacks on Dr. Maravall, the architect of the new educational settlement, as a godless Marxist. If government ministers have learned from history so has the Church. The national Catholicism of the 1940s and the sanctification of Francoism threatened to tie Spanish Catholicism to a corpse. For the Church, as for the army, institutional survival is all. By the mid-Sixties, with Vatican support, many priests were opposed to Francoism and were sheltering the opposition; their commitment to democratic pluralism was genuine. 4 Now only a handful of aging bishops and the readers of the right-wing newspaper El Alcázar see any future in a frontal attack on democracy.

Juan Pablo Fusi and Norman Jones’s contributions to Preston’s collection deal with the bitter problems of incorporating the micronationalism of Catalonia and of the Basque provinces into the Spanish republican state. The central government in Madrid is loath to abandon power to the relatively moderate regional politicians who say they want no more than workable autonomy. The local politicians in turn appeal to radical nationalists in order to force concessions from Madrid and end up becoming the prisoners of the passions of separatists. In the past the mutual suspicion between Madrid and Catalonia, Jones warns, meant that Catalan politics became “introspective to a degree that largely precluded constructive participation on the wider Spanish scene.” The mutual suspicion persists. Jones’s essay tells us that the Madrid government of the Second Republic punished Catalonia during the 1930s by bankrupting the Catalan bank. Now the Socialist government is being accused by Catalans of involving Jordi Pujol, president of the autonomous Catalan government, in a bank scandal, as revenge for its own electoral defeat in the recent regional elections.

Juan Pablo Fusi’s masterly essay on the Basque problem under the Second Republic again shows how little political patterns change. Between 1931 and 1936 the Basque Nationalist Party, the PNV, was divided between backward- and inward-looking racists and Christian Democrats—between, that is, crypto-separatists and moderate autonomists. Hence the ambiguities, the flirtations with the antidemocratic right, made the PNV suspect to the left governments in Madrid. Today, exacerbated by the terrorism of ETA (Basque Nation and Liberty), the Basque problem remains the most serious and intractable issue confronting the new Spain. The ambiguities and the suspicions persist. The supporters of the PNV, irremovably rooted in the political culture of the Basque provinces, are periodically viewed as crypto-separatists by Madrid politicians, who attempt to cut back the powers of self-government the Basques enjoy under their statute of autonomy. The conditioned reflex in the Basque country is to beat the anti-Spanish drum, accusing Madrid of crypto-centralism.

The PNV has been subjected to a violent and bitter attack in the recent book by García Damborenea, La Encrucijada Vasca, an attack that is particularly significant in Spain because it comes from a Socialist deputy. He argues that even the moderates of the PNV cannot accept Spain as the state of all Spaniards. Just to mention Spain by name is a political heresy among Basque nationalists, one of the symbolic semantic gestures characteristic of small nationalist movements. Those who live in the Basque country find themselves excluded from politics, or threatened with worse than exclusion, if they don’t accept the linguistic and cultural domination of the obsessive nationalists.

Genuinely horrified by terrorism of ETA, the moderates of the PNV nevertheless claim that it is, in their words, the “violence” of Madrid that sets off the “violence” of the ETA. The PNV alleges that the government’s attempts to clip the powers of the autonomous Basque government, combined with police action against terrorists, are the work of a hostile “Spanish” occupying army. By a semantic trick, terrorism, in a democracy where persuasion is the only legitimate weapon, is given a justification of sorts. The violent men of ETA, like virtually all terrorists at work in a democracy, are exponents of a politique du pire; their aim is to shake up and demoralize the democratic system and force a military intervention that will in turn justify a Marxist nationalist revolution against “fascism.”

For the PNV militants the ETA terrorists are misguided members of the “Basque national family”—misguided in their methods but not in their aims. They are mistaken mainly in their timing since there is no present possibility of an independent Basque state embracing the Spanish Basque provinces (including Navarre where only a minority vote for Basque Nationalist parties and which will have to be forced to be free) and the “lost” Basque provinces of France. But few members of the PNV would hand over a terrorist to the “occupying forces” of Spanish police.

This sympathy gives the terrorists the water, in Mao’s phrase, in which to swim. There are signs that the water level is falling, that terrorism is on the retreat as individual terrorists, no longer protected by the authorities in their asylum in southern France, are wearying of the twenty-year “armed struggle,” and that the barrier of incomprehension between the present Socialist government in Madrid and the PNV government in Vitoria is lowering—one of the more promising features of the Spanish political landscape today.

This Issue

January 17, 1985