Socialist Party in Spain

The Socialist Party (PSOE) was founded in Spain in 1879. Initially a Marxist organization, it remained a small political party before the First World War. Its main support came from Madrid, the mining districts of Asturias and the industrial areas of Bilbao.

In the summer of 1917 members of the Socialist Party became involved in the organization of a political strike in Spain. The strikers demanded the establishment of a provisional republican government, elections to a constituent Cortes and action to deal with inflation.

In Madrid members of the strike committee, including Julián Besteiro and Francisco Largo Caballero, were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Miguel Primo de Rivera became military dictator of Spain in September 1923. He promised to eliminate corruption and to regenerate Spain. In order to do this he suspended the constitution, established martial law and imposed a strict system of censorship. Some members of the Socialist Party, including Francisco Largo Caballero, initially favoured working with the new regime. Indalecio Prieto disagreed and called for the left-wing groups to form an alliance against the regime.

Largo Caballero joined the dictatorship's Council of State. He also accepted Primo de Rivera's invitation for the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) to become the regime's trade union at the expense of the banned anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). This brought Indalecio Prieto into direct conflict with Francisco Largo Caballero. Prieto wrote that "Largo Caballero is a fool who wants to appear clever. He is a frigid bureaucrat who plays the role of a mad fanatic". Largo Caballero replied that Prieto was "envious, arrogant, and distainful" and was not a socialist "either in his ideas or in his action."

In 1925 Francisco Largo Caballero became leader of the party. He called for "the conquest of political power by the working class by whatever means possible" and the "dictatorship of the proletariat organized as a working-class democracy".

The two men continued to argue throughout the 1920s. Largo Caballero had the support of union members whereas Prieto gained most of his following from the middle class and the intellectuals in the party. By 1930 the PSOE had 20,000 members.

In August 1930 Indalecio Prieto was a central figure in the formation of the Republican coalition known as the Pact of San Sebastián. Julián Besteiro was opposed to the idea but Prieto's old enemy, Francisco Largo Caballero, gave it his support as he felt it was the only way the Socialist Party would gain power. At a conference held in July 1930, delegates voted by 10,607 to 8,326 to approve the PSOE taking part in a future coalition government.

After Alfonso XIII abdicated in April 1931 both Francisco Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto joined the new coalition government led by Niceto Alcala Zamora. Prieto was immediately plunged into a financial crisis as wealthy people in Spain took their money out of the country and he was forced to spend large sums to maintain the value of the currency.

In the Republican government established in April 1931 Francisco Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto both served in the new administration. Prieto was appointed Minister of Public Works. Over the next two years Prieto completed many of the hydro-electrical projects initiated by Miguel Primo de Rivera. He also introduced large-scale irrigation schemes, a major road building programme and a railway network in Madrid.

Largo Caballero served as minister of labour and formulated agrarian policies which called for the distribution of land to landless labourers. This increased the support for the PSOE in rural communities. By 1935 the PSOE had increased its membership to 75,000.

Attacked by the extreme left for not being radical enough, the government faced an anarcho-syndicalist uprising at Casas Viejas in January 1933. The government was severely criticized in the Cortes for its approval of the way the Civil Guard and Assault Guard put down the uprising. This included the execution without trial of fourteen prisoners.

In September 1933 the government of Manuel Azaña collapsed and Prieto and other Socialist Party members of the cabinet left office. The following month Prieto announced the end of the Republican-Socialist coalition. In the elections that followed in November 1933 the conservative CEDA became the largest party in the Cortes.

On 15th January 1936, Manuel Azaña helped to establish a coalition of parties on the political left to fight the national elections due to take place the following month. This included the Socialist Party, Communist Party (PCE) and the Republican Union Party.

The Popular Front, as the coalition became known, advocated the restoration of Catalan autonomy, amnesty for political prisoners, agrarian reform, an end to political blacklists and the payment of damages for property owners who suffered during the revolt of 1934. The Anarchists refused to support the coalition and instead urged people not to vote.

Right-wing groups in Spain formed the National Front. This included the CEDA and the Carlists. The Falange Española did not officially join but most of its members supported the aims of the National Front.

The Spanish people voted on Sunday, 16th February, 1936. Out of a possible 13.5 million voters, over 9,870,000 participated in the 1936 General Election. 4,654,116 people (34.3) voted for the Popular Front, whereas the National Front obtained 4,503,505 (33.2) and the centre parties got 526,615 (5.4). The Popular Front, with 263 seats out of the 473 in the Cortes formed the new government.

The Popular Front government immediately upset the conservatives by releasing all left-wing political prisoners. The government also introduced agrarian reforms that penalized the landed aristocracy. Other measures included transferring right-wing military leaders such as Francisco Franco to posts outside Spain, outlawing the Falange Española and granting Catalonia political and administrative autonomy.

As a result of these measures the wealthy took vast sums of capital out of the country. This created an economic crisis and the value of the peseta declined which damaged trade and tourism. With prices rising workers demanded higher wages. This led to a series of strikes in Spain.

On the 10th May 1936 the conservative Niceto Alcala Zamora was ousted as president and replaced by the left-wing Manuel Azaña. Soon afterwards Spanish Army officers, including Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano and José Sanjurjo, began plotting to overthrow the Popular Front government. This resulted in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on 17th July, 1936.

President Manuel Azaña appointed Diego Martinez Barrio as prime minister on 18th July 1936 and asked him to negotiate with the rebels. He contacted Emilio Mola and offered him the post of Minister of War in his government. He refused and when Azaña realized that the Nationalists were unwilling to compromise, he sacked Martinez Barrio and replaced him with José Giral. To protect the Popular Front government, Giral gave orders for arms to be distributed to left-wing organizations that opposed the military uprising.

In September 1936, President Azaña appointed the left-wing socialist, Francisco Largo Caballero as prime minister. Largo Caballero also took over the important role of war minister. Largo Caballero brought into his government other members of the Socialist Party including Angel Galarza (minister of the interior), Alvarez del Vayo (minister of foreign affairs), Juan Negrin (Finance) and Indalecio Prieto (Navy and Air) in his government.

After taking power Francisco Largo Caballero concentrated on winning the war and did not pursue his policy of social revolution. In an effort to gain the support of foreign governments, he announced that his administration was "not fighting for socialism but for democracy and constitutional rule."

Largo Caballero introduced changes that upset the left in Spain. This included conscription, the reintroduction of ranks and insignia into the militia, and the abolition of workers' and soldiers' councils. He also established a new police force, the National Republican Guard. He also agreed for Juan Negrin to be given control of the Carabineros.

The May Riots in 1937 severely damaged the Popular Front government. Communist members of the Cabinet were highly critical of the way Francisco Largo Caballero handled the disturbances. President Manuel Azaña agreed and on 17th May he asked Juan Negrin to form a new government. Negrin was a communist sympathizer and from this date Joseph Stalin obtained more control over the policies of the Republican government

Negrin's government now attempted to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Republican Army. At first the Anarcho-Syndicalists resisted and attempted to retain hegemony over their units. This proved impossible when the government made the decision to only pay and supply militias that subjected themselves to unified command and structure.

Negrin also began appointing members of the Communist Party (PCE) to important military and civilian posts. This included Marcelino Fernandez, a communist, to head the Carabineros. Communists were also given control of propaganda, finance and foreign affairs. The socialist, Luis Araquistain, described Negrin's government as the "most cynical and despotic in Spanish history."

By June 1937, the Socialist Party had 160,000 members. The growth in the Communist Party was even more dramatic which now had nearly 400,000 members. The communists also controlled the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the PSOE youth movement, Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (JSU).

Indalecio Prieto was now leader of the Socialist Party but in April 1938 Juan Negrin felt strong enough to remove him from the government.

On 27th February, 1939, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain recognized the Nationalist government headed by General Francisco Franco. Later that day Manuel Azaña resigned from office, declaring that the war was lost and that he did not want Spaniards to make anymore useless sacrifices.

Juan Negrin now promoted communist leaders such as Antonio Cordon, Juan Modesto and Enrique Lister to senior posts in the army. Segismundo Casado, commander of the Republican Army of the Centre, now became convinced that Negrin was planning a communist coup. On 4th March, Casedo, with the support of the socialist leader, Julián Besteiro and disillusioned anarchist leaders, established an anti-Negrin National Defence Junta.

On 6th March José Miaja in Madrid joined the rebellion by ordering the arrests of Communists in the city. Negrin, about to leave for France, ordered Luis Barceló, commander of the First Corps of the Army of the Centre, to try and regain control of the capital. His troops entered Madrid and there was fierce fighting for several days in the city. Anarchists troops led by Cipriano Mera, managed to defeat the First Corps and Barceló was captured and executed.

Segismundo Casado now tried to negotiate a peace settlement with General Francisco Franco. However, he refused demanding an unconditional surrender.

The leaders of the Socialist Party were forced to flee from Spain when General Francisco Franco and the Nationalist Army took control of the country in March 1939. Julián Besteiro remained behind and despite his attempts to negotiate an end to the war was arrested and sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment.

Primary Sources

(1) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (30th September, 1936)

The question of possibly merging the Socialists and the Communists into one party (as in Catalonia) does not have, according to my preliminary impression, any immediate, current significance since the Socialist party, as such, at least in the central region, does not make itself much felt and since the Socialists and Communists act in concert within the framework of a union organization - the General Workers' Union - headed by Caballero (abbreviated UGT), the activity and influence of which far exceed the limits of a union.

Except for La Pasionaria, the leadership of the Communist party consists of people who do not yet have authority on the national level. The party's real general secretary was an individual about whom I wrote you. Because he occupied just such a position not only within the Central Committee but also outside it, he besmirched the reputations of two institutions with all the people in the Popular Front. However we evaluate his role, in any case, the fact that he himself took the place of the leadership hindered the formation, from the leadership cadres, of independent political leaders.

The Communist party, which has attracted some of the more politically conscious elements of the working class, is, all the same, insufficiently organized and politically strong to take on even to the slightest degree the political work for the armed forces of the revolution. In Catalonia, about which I can judge only through partial evidence, the party is significantly weaker and undoubtedly suffers from the provocative activities of Trotskyists, who have won over several active leaders, like, for example, Maurin. Undoubtedly the party is still incapable of independently rousing the masses to some kind of large-scale action, or of concentrating all the strength of the leadership on such an action. What is more the example of Alcazar has been in this connection a notoriously negative test for the party. However, I will not give a more definite evaluation of the cadres and strength of the party, since this is the only organization with which I have had insufficient contact.

What are our channels for action in this situation? We support close contact with the majority of the members of the government, chiefly with Caballero and Prieto. Both of them, through their personal and public authority, stand incomparably higher than the other members of the government and play a leading role for them. Both of them very attentively listen to everything that we say. Prieto at this particular time is trying at all costs to avoid conflict with Caballero and therefore is trying not to focus on the issues.

I think it unnecessary to dwell at this time on the problem of how an aggravation in class contradictions might take shape during a protracted civil war and the difficulties with the economy that might result (supplying the army, the workers, and so on), especially as I think it futile to explore a more distant prospect while the situation at the front still places all the issues of the revolution under a question mark.

(2) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

The Government was headed by Caballero, a Left-wing Socialist, and contained ministers representing the U.G.T. (Socialist trade unions) and the C.N.T. (Syndicalist unions controlled by the Anarchists). The Catalan Generalite was for a while virtually superseded by an anti-Fascist Defence Committee' consisting mainly of delegates from the trade unions. Later the Defence Committee was dissolved and the Generalite was reconstituted so as to represent the unions and the various Left-wing parties. But every subsequent reshuffling of the Government was a move towards the Right. First the P.O.U.M. was expelled from the Generalite; six months later Caballero was replaced by the Right-wing Socialist Negrin; shortly afterwards the C.N.T. Was eliminated from the Government; then the U.G.T.; then the C.N.T. Was turned out of the Generalite; finally, a year after the outbreak of war and revolution, there remained a Government composed entirely of Right-wing Socialists, Liberals, and Communists.