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Actually what the hierarchy referenced fearing in a recent 95-page statement was “two Spains”, which most commentators took as being a reference to a repeat of the Anti-Fascist war of 1936-1939, with Republican Spain and Fascist Spain. The statement of the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE) spoke of the “stability” which the 1978 Constitution has given the Spanish State. So have they suddenly now become democrats? Of course, one can think of another way of imagining such a dichotomy: Rich Spain and Worker Spain. I think the Bishops fear another kind of civil war – i.e revolution.
The 95-page document entitled ‘Faithful to missionary sending’ was prepared not only by the collegiate bodies of the CEE but also by external collaborators. Less open to different interpretations are the other concerns raised by the Bishop’s Conference, regarding the increasing secularisation of society, the scandals around abuse of those in the care of Church institutions and pastors, along with the other scandal of church appropriation of public property, including even a UNESCO site1. The Bishops feel that some of these processes and issues are not merely accidental or incidental to modern times but rather are deliberately driven by people in hostility to the Church.
CHURCH AND POLITICS
It is customary and has been so throughout history for the dominant religious institution to have a close relationship with the dominant class in society and this has certainly been the case with the Catholic Church in the Spanish Kingdom. The Spanish ruling elite at the turn of the last century, in a country with underdeveloped capitalist industry was an alliance of two different social classes, the aristocracy and the capitalist-financier class. The social atmosphere was deeply conservative and dominated by the Catholic Church hierarchy which, through them and the religious male and female orders, controlled institutions of social and educational provision. Progressive artists were penalised and often enough went into exile.2
The First Spanish Republic, a brief attempt to liberalise and democratise the State after the abdication of King Amadeo in 1873, survived not even two years before being overthrown in a military coup, followed by repression causing the exile of many of republican leaders and supporters.
However, a wave of revolt against the conservatism and lack of democracy of the Spanish Kingdom came around again and in 1931 the Second Republic was created, overthrowing the dictatorship of General Primo Rivera. Initially the composition of the government was right-wing and the revolt of the Asturian miners was cruelly suppressed by the Army and the militarised police force of the Guardia Civil3. The right-wing government fell in 1936 when a democratic left-wing Popular Front government was elected, which set about legislating for greater social freedoms, equality and discussing autonomy for nations4 within the State.
DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT AND MILITARY-FASCIST UPRISING
That was the signal for the forces of reaction to strike and most of the military high command, allied with the fascist Falange5, staged a coup. In Barcelona, the coupists were quickly suppressed by a popular upsurge which took on a revolutionary character. In some other parts, particularly in Madrid, the coupists were suppressed too but without a revolution.
General Franco in partnership with another three generals and senior naval commanders led or joined the coup but Franco’s forces were isolated in part of North Africa (then a Spanish colony). While the ‘democratic’ European powers ‘blockaded the conflict’, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided the logistical support6 to get Franco’s forces to the Canary Islands, then to Spain, where they found little organised opposition but nevertheless carried out a reign of terror. The Spanish Catholic Church hierarchy and most of its priests and religious orders supported the military and fascist rebellious forces with enthusiasm.
A conflict variously called “the Spanish Civil War” or “the Spanish Antifascist War” followed, ending in 1939 with victory for the military-fascist forces, who lost an estimated 175,000 killed in action, and 110,000 died fighting for the Republic.7
Following the earlier pattern of areas the fascists had conquered, a wave of repression ensued against republicans, communists, socialists, anarchists, democrats, trade unionists, Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists, gays and lesbians, with summary executions, military tribunals and executions, mass jailing, public humiliation of women …. Estimates of executions behind the fascist-military lines during the War range from fewer than 50,000to 200,0008. Most of the victims were killed without a trial in the first months of the war and their corpses were left on the sides of roads or in clandestine and unmarked mass graves.Spain has the highest number of mass graves anywhere in the world with the exception of Cambodia9, with 740 mass graves containing the remains of some 9,000 people having been found so far. The support of the Catholic Church for the military and fascists did not waver throughout.
THREE DECADES OF FASCIST DICTATORSHIP
After that initial phase, three decades of political and social repression followed under the Franco dictatorship, again fully supported by the Spanish Catholic Church.
However, the dictatorship was always resisted to some degree or another and that resistance began to grow apace during the 1960s. The Partido Comunista de España and the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero de España, both banned, were organising underground and becoming increasingly popular. Both had affiliated trade union organisations and the Comisiones Obreras10, linked to the PCE was particularly widespread. The youth of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) broke with the conservative and inactive leadership and, joining with a revolutionary socialist movement in the southern Basque Country, formed ETA11, taking up armed struggle at the end of the 1960s.
As the Dictator aged the imperialists began to worry about the potential for a revolution in Spain and contacts in influential circles were sought to persuade the ruling class to replace the Dictatorship with a parliamentary democracy. Some elements in the Spanish Catholic Church opposed those initiatives but one which embraced it was the technocratic Opus Dei, which with some others, steered the country through the Transición.
Amidst a wave of repression including murders of activists by State and other fascist forces, with fear of an indefinite continuation of the Dictatorship, a Referendum on a monarchist and unitary state constitution was held. The PCE and the PSOE were legalised and, with their support, the 1978 Constitution received majority support. It is that Constitution which is regularly quoted when the State declines to permit the Basque and Catalan nations to even hold a referendum on independence.
In summary then, the Spanish State has evolved from a deeply conservative and repressive state, through a fascist-military uprising to a fascist and socially conservative dictatorship, all along with the support of the Spanish Catholic Church. When a revolution was feared, in consultation with imperialist advisers, the technocrat section of the Church, with the support of the social democratic and communist parties, helped prepare a transition to a parliamentary democratic form. Central to the Transition was preserving the mostly fascist ruling class and ensuring it would remain safe from any reparations, not to speak of criminal charges for murder, rape, torture, large-scale thefts …
But now, the Church hierarchy is sounding a warning. If it fears revolution, it has cause to.
VULNERABILITY OF THE SPANISH STATE
The possibility of revolution in Spain may seem far distant to most external and internal observers but two things should be taken into account:
- Revolution often grows and matures very quickly from what seemed like unready conditions and
- the Spanish State is by far the most vulnerable in the whole of the EU.
INTERNAL FORCES HOSTILE TO THE SPANISH STATE
The Spanish State consists of a number of nations, of which Catalonia, the Basque Country (Euskal Herria) and Galicia (Galiza) are the most obvious. But “Paisos Catalans” includes also Valencia and the Balearic Islands, all areas where Catalan is spoken and Asturias also consider themselves a Celtic nation (as does Galiza).
The southern Basque Country has spent decades mobilising for independence in a wide social and political opposition to the Spanish State and though the official leadership of its movement is now pacified, a strong potential remains there. As the momentum of the latter declined, the movement for independence in Catalonia increasingly matured and in 2017 an unsanctioned referendum returned a majority for independence. Spanish police raided polling booths, attacked the voters and later nine social and political leaders were jailed by the State while others were obliged to go into exile. The 2021 elections returned a majority of pro-independence candidates and the total vote for independence exceeded 50% for the first time since pro-independence candidates presented themselves in elections.
The movements for independence respectively in Galiza and Asturies are nowhere near at the same level as those of the Basque Country or of Catalonia but they are growing. This is true also of the Paisos Catalans and the Islas Canarias.
With regard to the wide workers’ organisations, while the Comisiones and UGT at present maintain overall control, the majority of organised workers in the Basque Country and Galiza belong to trade unions supporting independence. Intersindical, a class trade union12 movement, also supporting independence, is growing in Catalonia and the Canaries.
Generally the Spanish State finds itself increasingly isolated at home and abroad. Its repression measures against the Basques and Catalans have not only disaffected people in those nations but also, despite general media and fascist propaganda, sectors of the Spanish intelligentsia. Writers, actors, artists have experienced repression or have spoken out against the repression of members of their sector. Political activist and rapper Pablo Hasel is in jail while Valtonyc, another rapper, is in exile to avoid imprisonment, both because of their lyrics.
Repeated financial corruption scandals have increasingly undermined confidence in the political and business classes.
FORCES SUPPORTING THE SPANISH STATE
The image of the Spanish Monarchy has suffered probably irreparable damage. The previous King, Juan Carlos, who was a visible link between the Dictatorship and the current parliamentary system but credited by liberal commentators as managing the “transition to democracy”, has abdicated. His personal reputation was damaged by a number of public relations disasters and he is now being pursued on allegations of financial and political corruption. His son-in-law is serving a jail sentence for financial and political corruption too. The current King, Juan Carlos’ son Felipe VI, though by no means compromised to any similar degree, has not built up any significant social support either, despite a generally sycophantic Spanish media.
The Catholic Church, the great organisation of social control for centuries and throughout the Dictatorship, has lost much of its influence, a fact bewailed by the Bishops in their communique. In the Basque Country and in Catalonia, the Hierarchy had little influence anyway because of its support for Franco. But the scandals of physical and sexual abuse in church institutions and by pastors, common across much of the western world, have impacted on the Church across the Spanish state too. In addition, the increasing secularisation of modern western society has also weakened the Church’s influence, as have its opposition to contraception and abortion, divorce, homosexuality and of course same-sex marriage, all of which are now legal.
Surveys indicated that only 3% of Spaniards consider religion as one of their three most important values, lower than the 5% European average, though religious festivals remain popular on a mainly cultural level.
According to the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research, as of July 2021, while 58.6% of Spanish citizens self-identify as Catholic, only 18.6% define themselves as practicing, with 40% as not practicing. Another 37% have no religion, identifying variously as atheists (15.1%), agnostics (11.5%) or non-believers (10.4%)13. The total number of parish priests, i.e the level of Church personnel most in direct contact with the population, shrank from 24,300 in 1975 to 18,500 in 2018, with an average age of 65.5 years.14
However, the COPE radio network, owned by the Catholic Spanish Bishops’ Conference, broadcasts material ranging from the conservative to the fascist and always for Spanish unionism. COPE, an acronym for Cadena de Ondas Populares Españolas (“People’s Radiowaves of Spain Network”) formerly called Radio Popular, is the second most played among Spain’s generalist radio. COPE owns music stations Cadena 100, Rock FM and Megastar FM, in addition to the Spanish generalist TV channel Trece. The station is associated with the right-wing Spanish journal Diario ABC.
The privately-owned media in the Spanish state, whether favouring the PSOE (e.g El País) or the Partido Popular (e.g El Mundo and ABC) tends to be supportive of the union and the status quo15, with the state TV networks even more so. The bias against for example Basque or Catalan independence activists is remarkably obvious, with TV cameras accompanying police on raids to arrests of activists and publication of prejudicial statements long before the accused face trial and again during the trial itself.
Both traditional main political parties have their origins in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. In common with most European parliamentary democracies, the two-party system has lost support in the Spanish state, resulting in recent governments being coalitions of political parties. This increases the potential for political thinking along class rather than party lines while also creating internal difficulties for the coalitions.
The right-wing Partido Popular was formed in 1989 but was a reconfiguration of the Alianza Popular, formed after the State’s change to the parliamentary system to give fascists and deep conservative supporters of Franco a representation in elections. Much reduced now, the PP has given rise to a chain of splits, first to form Ciudadanos, in turn shedding some members to form the more or less openly fascist Vox party. Any return of the PP to governing the Spanish state would require it to form a coalition with one or both of Cs and Vox.
The PSOE, formerly illegal under the Dictatorship, has on the surface many of the features of a western social-democratic party. However, it has been deeply implicated in repression of struggles in the Basque Country, including wide-scale torture of prisoners. Further, under the Felipe Gonzales presidency (prime ministership), the Spanish State ran terrorist squads carrying out kidnapping, torture, murder and bombings against pro-independence Basques. The operation was exposed in a series of articles in El Mundo and, although Gonzales didn’t face even a police interview, the eventual resulting list of convictions included the Minister of the Interior, Director of State Security, Sec-General of the PSOE in the Basque province of Bizkaia, Czar of the “Antiterrorist Struggle”, Bilbao Chief of Police Intelligence Brigade, another Police Chief, regional Governor for the Spanish State in Bizkaia, and a colonel, Chief of the Guardia Civil HQ in Intxaurrondo (Basque Country).
Although successfully unseating the PP Government on a vote of “no confidence” in the Government’s 2018 budget, the PSOE’s leader, Pedro Sanchez, was only able to enter government by forming a coalition with Unidas Podemos16, itself a coalition of left social-democrats, trotskyists and communists. Since the new Government took over the repression of Catalans of its predecessor, only releasing imprisoned Catalan activists on parole recently, it does not have the support of the Catalan independentists, with the exception of one major party which voted to help the Government’s budget scrape through, as did the official leadership of the Basque independence movement17.
Fascism was never defeated in the Spanish state, it merely put on a democratic mask, albeit faded and patched. The current members of the ruling class are mostly descendants of the military-fascist alliance of 1936 and virtually all beneficiaries of the Dictatorship, often sitting on wealth, industry and media expropriated from their opponents defeated in the Antifascist War. There are sections of active and militant fascists across the Spanish state with wide police and military connections, denouncing the independence initiatives in Catalonia, criticising immigration, ridiculing equality measures and parading with fascist symbols and salutes to exalt the memory of General Franco and Primo Rivera. Although some of those activities are illegal, they act with visible impunity. The Vox political party has stated openly that it wants to amend the Constitution to remove the status of regional autonomy, which they believe encourages aspiration for independence and thereby endangers the unity of the Spanish State.
Some government antifascist measures of late, along with the rise of independence activism in Catalonia have caused apprehension among this section of fascists, which finds expression in more rallies and demonstrations and increasingly threatening language and displays. The Government measures include the removal — long-promised by the PSOE — of Franco and Rivera’s remains from the mausoleum in the fascist monumental park of the Valle de los Caidos (“Valley of the Fallen”) which was built with political prisoner labour. The State’s TV service covered the event at length and in a manner resembling a homage ceremony.
Currently historical memory legislation is being promoted to assist in the discovery, investigation and honouring of the graves of the victims of Franco, while another piece of legislation seeks to make illegal any promotion of Franco or of fascism generally. The future of these initiatives is uncertain but the fact that even the current anti-fascist legislation is not upheld does not inspire confidence.
The Bishops’ concerns about the safety of the 1978 Constitutional State seem to be twofold: on the one hand they see the demands for self-determination of nations within its territory as a threat to the State while on the other hand they fear that the fascists will push matters to an extreme, i.e that “civil war” – and this time, the fascists will lose, in the course of which the State will fall. However a close reading also looks like a threat to the national liberation and democratic forces, a warning to desist from their challenges to the status quo – or else!
As to their concerns for their Church, the Bishops are correct in believing that it is under attack but misunderstand the nature of the opposition, a large part of which is more to do with resenting the privileged position of the Church within the Spanish State than a hatred of the institution and faith as a whole. The Church received €144 million in funding from the State18 in 2019, ultimately from the taxes levied on people, no matter what their religion or state of faith, their opinion of the institutions or of their activities. And the tax-payers have no control over those institutions.
Of course, the Church does have its enemies, people who will never forgive it for the role it has played in the abuse of people and for its role in history, in particular its support for the military-fascist uprising, the horrific repression during that war and again during the subsequent dictatorship.
But the Bishops are right about one thing – the Spanish state is very vulnerable. Which is no doubt also the reason for the general contradictory stance of most other states in the EU, which on the one hand wish the Spanish State would act in a more subtle way than naked repression, while on the other fearing the spillover effect of possible revolution and the territorial breakup of “Spain”.
1This is too big an issue in itself to detail here but in essence it refers to property titles given over to the Catholic Church by Franco early in the Dictatorship and subsequently extended to cover 34,961 by Aznar’s PP government since 1998. One of those is the Cordoba Mosque, a UNESCO Heritage site. More about that controversy may be read about here: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/c%C3%B3rdoba-s-mosque-cathedral-dispute-puts-spanish-identity-at-centre-stage-1.4195391 and the general issue in further detail but in Castillian (Spanish) here: https://elpais.com/sociedad/2021-02-16/todas-las-propiedades-inmatriculadas-por-la-iglesia.html?rel=listapoyo
2Cervantes, the most famous Spanish writer and much praised by the State today, never received any support from the Spanish Kingdom. In 1569 he fled a warrant for arrest due to wounding an opponent a duel. Later, his family could not afford his ransom when captured by Corsairs but his freedom was eventually bought by an organisation working to free Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Employed later by the Spanish as a tax collector he was jailed briefly a number of times for “irregularities. He is celebrated as a writer not only in Spanish but his Don Quixote de la Mancha has been widely read in translation.
3The Guardia Civil is a Spanish state-wide police force but militarised — they have military ranks and live in barracks. The gendarme-type force is one common in states needing to control a disparate population with a history of rebellion, eg: the Carabinieri of Italy, Gendarmerie of France, Royal Irish Constabulary of Ireland under British rule (then the RUC in the colony, now the PSNI).
4Catalonia got its autonomy during its popular suppression of the coup attempt and, once the war was underway, three southern Basque provinces got theirs too, while the conservative Carlists in the fourth province, Nafarroa (Navarra) sided with the coup and massacred any supporters of the Government they could find. Galician autonomy was under discussion but after only two weeks of fighting in July 1936, the fascists took control and the project was abandoned. The fascists killed 800,000 people there, mostly civilians and after the hostilities.
5La Falangia Española, a fascist organisation founded by Primo Rivera (son of the General of the same name) in October 1933. It was later remodeled by Franco to unite all the fascist and right-wing nationalist organisations and from then was the only legal political party during the Franco Dictatorship.
6Both fascist powers also provided personnel, weapons, military transport, tanks …. the infamous urban centre bombing of Gernika was carried out by German and Italian planes. The Republican side received some assistance from the Mexican Government and in particular the Soviet Union and volunteers for the International Brigades. The balance of equipment and trained personnel was always however in favour of the fascist-military insurgents.
8Historians differ — Hugh Thomas: 75,000; Secundino Serrano: 90,000; Josep Fontana: 150,000; and Julián Casanova: 100,000
10The Comisiones today is much less under the influence of the PCE and, together with UGT, which remains under the control of the PSOE, form the two main Spanish trade unions, their leaderships institutionalised and generally collaborative with the State and for the union of Spain.
11Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country And Freedom) was much more than the depiction of “terrorist” organisation one finds in most descriptions. It was a cultural and social Basque liberation organisation, persecuted by the Spanish State, against which it took up arms after almost a decade of repression and torture. After years of decline but during which the wider movement expanded hugely, ETA disbanded around 2012. Many of its convicted fighters remain dispersed throughout the jails of the Spanish and French states while others are in exile.
12A class union does not recruit members repressive forces (e.g. police, jailers, armed forces), nor of management in work places. Also Intersindical has a very democratic structure with an elected General Secretary permitted to serve for only two years.
13See Sources and References, Religion.
15An exception is the attitude to the Catholic Church, which is generally critical in El País, in line with its more secular identity.
16Izquierda Unida (United Left), the often disunited coalition of mostly Trotskyist small groups coordinated by the CPE, formed an electoral coalition with Podemos just before the elections. Podemos arose from a small group of Trotskyists that emerged from 13M, the huge popular opposition to the Spanish State, especially in Madrid, in turn engendered by the protest movement commonly known as “Los Indignados”. Podemos rode that wave of indignation to win five seats in their first participation in elections, those to to the European Parliament in May 2014. In the 2015 General Elections on 20 December 2015, Podemos received 21% of the vote and became the third largest party in the Parliament, with 69 out of 350 seats. In subsequent elections, as part of coalitions, Podemos’ number of MPs in the Spanish Parliament has fallen consecutively to 49, 47, 32 and 26, with its 5 MEPs reduced to three. Conversely, the party’s membership is growing, according to reports.
17Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Amaiur.
18In addition to €284m through 7% voluntary deductions from people’s tax returns, a benefit which no other organisation is permitted.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES
Statement of Spanish Bishops: https://elpais.com/sociedad/2021-08-02/los-obispos-dibujan-un-panorama-catastrofico-de-la-politica-espanola.html
Executions behind fascist-military lines: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Terror_(Spain)
Mass graves etc: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-grave-ring-idUSKBN26626T
Overall number of deaths: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War
Trade unions (site very biased against Intersindical): http://progressivespain.com/labourfile-a-guide-to-spanish-trade-unions/
Religion and the Catholic Church: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Spain
Podemos political party: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podemos_(Spanish_political_party)