February 20, 2021



It’s been some time since the term “transition” was fully incorporated into day-to-day usage in contemporary Spanish. It refers to the process of political change that began during the second half of the 1970s, a process which transformed Spain from the Franco dictatorship to the parliamentary monarchy that governs the country today. The term was coined in the midst of the dictatorship, as if in its invocation it could foreshadow the horizon of its disintegration. It succeeded in connoting the way in which one regime gave way to another—not a violent cut, nor a democratic breakdown in the strict sense. Instead, it was a process negotiated by the leaders who had inherited the state apparatus of the dictatorship, and the leaders of the parties of the democratic opposition. While the first aimed to assert the weight, however trivial, of an obsolete and precarious power structure, the second aimed to channel the democratic impulse of a significant section of Spanish society.

That latter section was composed of men and women who resisted through illegal parties and organized social movements (worker’s movements, neighborhood associations, student unions, and feminist groups) capable of breaking the public order and revealing, between the cracks of the regime, the new alternatives.1 In their day to day, they developed forms of political participation, experimentation, and cultural innovation which themselves detracted from Franco’s hold on the popular imagination. In many ways, these early experiences were much more profound than the institutional restructuring later termed the transition. From this angle, the transition can be understood as a sfumato, that is to say, not only the fading of dictatorship into democracy, but as a sum of experiential layers each contributing to its atmosphere and offering a depth that we’ve yet to fully grasp.The interviews with Felipe González, Begoña San Jose, and Héctor Maravall contained in this book capture the texture of this historical moment.

On the other side of this politically active reality stood another very diverse and wide sector of society, predisposed to the consensus they were socialized into under Francoism. They were motivated by a timid desire for change, as well as by a deep fear of its consequences. Under- standing the Spanish transition requires gaining an awareness of these inherited social habits which were highly structured by authoritarianism, and the survival of its repressive legal, bureaucratic, and media institutions. It also requires acknowledging an international framework in which any action on the margin of society was limited by the areas of political influence that defined the Cold War period.

But understanding the transition also requires capturing that organic crisis in existing relations of power, the intuitive and automatic social responses which enhanced the appeal of new cultural attitudes and expanded the scope for political action. The much cited phrase of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán—which explains the negotiations behind the changing regime as “an alignment of weaknesses”—is useful if we recognize that, in moments of crisis, any alignment of forces is unstable and fragile. Understood through its underlying estatism, “an alignment of weaknesses” is a declaration that the transition happened in the only way that it could have. It’s an argument in which the real is transformed into the rational, the rational into the optimal, and the optimal into the venerable. But we know that narratives of the past tend to perform this argumentative transposition in the opposite direction: it is from the veneration of the present that earlier events are arranged in a way that inevitably leads towards some determined destiny.2

The story of the Spanish transition was written in such a way during the 80s and 90s. Through an invention of tradition, the Spanish transition as we know it is actually a product of these decades. And in this process of invention, the very real and visceral criticisms which abounded during the early years of democracy were left out of the narrative.3 In these interviews we see that the more successful the interviewees were in the eighties and nineties, the more pleasant is their memory of the process that led to their ascent.

The interview subjects describe inverse trajectories during the process of transition. Begoña San José and Héctor Maravall were members of the Partido Comunista de España (PCE), the largest, best organized, and most influential party in the fight against the dictatorship, which nevertheless reached the end of the process in pieces. Felipe González was a member of the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE), a party that played a minor role in opposition to the Franco regime, but won the elections 1982 with an absolute majority, ruling the country without interruption until 1996.

Several factors account for the difference in these trajectories. Among other reasons, the crisis of the PCE at the end of the transition can be explained through the general stigma that Francoism and the culture of the Cold War had cast upon it. It can be explained by the focus on tactics rather than a vision for long term strategy, by the aging leadership, the frustration with a militancy that was not rewarded electorally, or the conflicts that emerged within that militant base once unity in the fight against dictatorship gave way to ideological divisions fueled by the desire for party control.

By contrast, the success of the PSOE can be explained by the external support of social democratic parties all over Europe, by the historical weight of the party, memories of which survived latently throughout the dictatorship and resurfaced during the transition, or by its calculated oscillation which enabled it to compete both on the left and the right. The success of the PSOE against the PCE can also be explained by the proliferation of popular media and its crucial role in mediating public debate. The image of González then was that of a young married man, with whom both younger and older generations could identify. It was the image of a labor lawyer, simultaneously appealing to the professional class of lawyers and accountants, as well as the interests of workers. It was the image of a socialist, with Christian beliefs, temperate manners, charismatic speech and little ideology. This image fit the ideals that many had adopted or constructed during the transition.4

The term “transition” has undergone such semantic expansion that it came to describe every aspect of Spain at the time—from the economy, to culture, and the society. The most interesting accounts manage to articulate the different spheres of activity which did not always align, and occasionally came into explicit conflict. In an attempt to characterize this complex reality, one might be tempted to speak instead of “transitions.” We are concerned with two different transitions which the interviews clearly bring to light. Internationally, the degradation of Keynesian growth models which seized much of the West during the 1980s. And domestically, the personal development of protagonists of the Spanish transition in response to this shift. The international shift can be conceptualized in Polanyian terms as another “great transformation.”5 The evolution of agents of the Spanish transition can be understood through Gramsci’s notion of transformismo.

Spain built its new political architecture on ground already shaken by the global crisis. In its most popular form, the transition was primarily aimed at integrating Spain into European and North Atlantic institutions. Effectively, it was a transition into a world in transition. This particularly constrained the PSOE’s “historical mission:” to build the welfare state that Francoism had denied the Spanish public even during years of growth and development. The great postwar social pact, which European workers had begun to question because of its benefits to employers, and employers began to dissemble because of declining profits, had never been sealed in Spain. Rather, this fight to change the rules of the social game was fought just as the rules were being redefined.

The PSOE came to the government in 1982 in the midst of this battle. It did so on the back of a social impulse for change, including very broad moderate sectors, and with the approval of an important part of the country’s economic elite. It did so in an economic context of stagnation, inflation and unemployment very different from that of the “golden years” of the welfare state. In this context of crisis, the development of a strong redistributive policy required not only fiscal progressivity, but also a fundamental restructuring of the relations of power and property. But the PSOE arrived in government after having accelerated an ideological transition from rhetorical radicalism to a social liberalism, con- strained within pragmatic and technocratic borders. This project was generically named modernization. It symbolically combined all those illusions, doubts, debts, limitations and interests which the Party had to confront. In practice, the economic policy of the González government complied with the orthodoxy that was beginning to prevail on the international stage. It opted for anti-inflationary measures which focused on a reduction in aggregate demand, wage cuts, increased tax rates, investment stimuli and extensive deindustrialization. It managed to reduce inflation and restore economic growth, but wages lost purchasing power, unemployment erupted and the labor market grew precarious. To compensate for this very apparent decline, the PSOE combined a language of entrepreneurship with intensified disciplinary practices and a minimal net of social policies. With excessive economic adjustments and facing renewed social pressure, the government built a timid welfare state, with important achievements in health, and more ambiguous ones in education.6

The opposition to these policies came from many directions. Students mobilized for public education, for a good scholarship system and against the privileges preserved by the private system. The environmental movement matured in the struggles against the maintenance of pre-existing nuclear power plants and the creation of new ones. In a time of nuclear rearmament and an escalating Cold War, those struggles were tied to a strong antimilitarist spirit, from which arose a movement against Spain’s participation in NATO. The pacifist movement deployed in resistance to conscription. The feminist movement gained momentum around the claim to the sexual and reproductive rights of women, barely covered by the abortion law of 1985. The most concerted response to the policies of the PSOE came from male and female workers organized in large trade unions like the CCOO. Labor unrest in Spain was among the highest in Europe during the eighties. Despite these activities, PSOE managed to revalidate its victory at the polls.7

The protagonists of these three interviews—whom anti-Francoism had brought together, and whom the transition had placed in competition with one another—now engaged in open confrontation. Felipe González was the president of the government. Héctor Maravall and Begoña San José were active members of the CCOO and entered Izquierda Unida (IU) in one way or another. But the ideological worlds of the PCE and PSOE, which at times repelled one another, have also frequently coalesced around the stronger pole. Thus, Héctor Maravall participated in Nueva Izquierda, a current of IU more prone to under- standing with the socialists. Begoña San José recalls the frequent cooperation with socialist women in many organizations and institutions.8 All three make fairly generous assessments of the transition. Their autobiographical testimonies offer a foundational contribution to understanding the history of neoliberalism.

The memory of historical periods often comes from a position of power. Power constructs memory with sophisticated resources, simulating a benevolent distance with the past and reproducing anecdotal dialogues which flatter oneself. Power knows how to count and above all to be silent. The void that it leaves between the profiles it draws ends up constraining the slender silhouette of itself. But power sometimes also relaxes, it floods the story and ends up revealing something we already knew.

However, memory, of the kind collected in oral history, is also built from other places—from the desire to rescue a life experience, to the search for who one was and for a time that is extinct. The authenticity of the past is glimpsed when many of the voices of then and many of the memories of today are heard, and especially when they are multiple and replicate each other.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Spain lived through its unique transition to democracy just as the world began its transition (linearly and uniformly) into neoliberalism. The country’s recent history appears to be traversed by many contradictory moments: anachronistic, accelerated, syncopated, out of step. Without impinging on the democratic changes underway, the transition left intact the elite institutions and practices of the dictatorship. Others were cloaked in the new language of modernization, revealing with time the grotesque nature of these hybrid forms. The monarchy acts like a metaphor for the country’s peculiar trajectory. The king emeritus was hailed as the leader of the transition in the 1970s. A few months later, he fled to the Persian Gulf. In 1969, he was named successor to the King by Franco. And in the 1980s and 1990s he was hailed as “the best Spanish ambassador abroad.”

Hybridization was the peculiar form of that decade from the beginning of the eighties to the beginning of the nineties, where the opening of health centers coincided with the legalization of contratos basuras, and the festivities in the streets with the law of patada en la puerta: a mixture, in turn, of the old authoritarianism with the disciplinary measures of the new global order. The weakness of the social state that arose in Spain in that critical decade explains the speed with which it was dismantled. The neoliberal side of the two-faced Janus ultimately devoured its opponent. In the new millennium, a financialized and poorly diversified economy prevailed. Society grew more unequal, with a precarious mass and segments thrown into social exclusion.

With this baggage Spain faces today a global pandemic, which has torn it at the seams and which has thrown it into the historical gallery of mirrors. The image reaffirms itself immediately: segregated neighborhoods for the poor, consumerism for the rich. A lack of investment in medicine, and overinvestment in the police force. If we move without fear through the gallery of mirrors, the memories of all men and women, we will see the multidimensional image: wrinkles and scars, but among the atrophied sections some parts that can still be exercised. Therein lies the utility of the memories of these transitions, in which a powerful public health and social coverage system was fought for, community support networks were built, and civic virtues were deployed without coercion.

  1. On the labor movement, see Doménech, X., Political change and the labor movement under Franco, Barcelona, ​​Icaria, 2011; Babiano, J. and Tébar, J., “Class unionism in the transition to democracy”, Gaceta de Estudios syndicados , n. 30, 2018; On the student movement: Hernández , E. , Ruiz, MA and Baldó, M., Students against Franco (1939-1975), Madrid, La Esfera , 2007 and Carrillo, A., “The opposition to Francoism in the university”, CIAN , Vol. 23, n1, 2020. On neighborhood movements: Bordetas , I., We made this city: Neighborhood self-organization and mobilization during the late Francoism and the process of political change, Unpublished doctoral thesis, 2012 and Radcliff , P., The construction of democratic citizenship in Spain, Valencia, UV, 2019. On feminism: Martínez, C., Gutiérrez P ., and González, P. ( eds ), The feminist movement in Spain in the 70s, Madrid, Cátedra, 2009 or Gil, Silvia, New feminisms. A history of trajectories and ruptures in the Spanish state, Madrid, Traficantes de Sueños, 2011. On counterculture: Labrador, G., Guilty for literature. Political imagination and counterculture in the transition, Madrid, AKAL, 2017.  
  2. On these presentist narratives, Fontana, J. The History of Men, Barcelona Crítica, 2002. 
  3. On narratives of the transition, Pérez, J., “Historical experience and social construction of memory: the Spanish transition to democracy”, Past and Memory, n. 3, 2004; Godicheau , F . (coord.), Innocuous Democracy. What post-Francoism has made of us, Madrid, Post metropolis, 2015; Pasamar, G., The Spanish transition to democracy yesterday and today, Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2019. 
  4. The reasons for this trajectory is developed in Andrade, J., PCE and PSOE in ( the ) transition, Madrid, S . XXI, 2012.  
  5. Polanyi, K., The great transformation, México, FCE, 2007. Gramsci, A., Antología , Madrid, AKAL, 2013, pp. 283-284. 
  6. Different readings of this period in Soto, A. and Mateos, A. (Eds.), History of the socialist era in Spain: 1982-1996, Madrid, Silex, 2013; Petras, J. “The Petras report. Fathers and sons. Two generations of Spanish workers,” and Vega, R. “The streets are burning: Radical mobilization and struggles for employment in Naval Gijón,” Sociology of Work, n. 90, 2017. 
  7. Gálvez, S., “The Great General Strike, the Unions Against the ‘Socialist Modernization’,” Madrid, S. XXI, 2017.  
  8. San José, B. “Feminism and syndicalism during the Spanish democratic transition,” in Martínez, C., Gutierrez , P. and González, P. (eds.), Op . cit. 

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