An interview with Hector Maravall
Hector Maravall is a long time member of the PCE, a labor lawyer, and a leader of the Comisiones Obreras, the largest trade union in Spain.
Maya Adereth: Tell us about your political experiences at university. Who were your ideological influences at the time?
Hector Maravall: When I started university in 1966 at the Universidad de Madrid, it was the most politicized school in Spain. And yet, those who participated in anti-Franco activities were a minority. At the Faculty of Law we had fifty or sixty members of anti-Franco organizations out of 5,000 students. Many students had a desire for freedom and democracy, but few were willing to endanger themselves to get it.
The most important political organization at the height of the resistance to the Francoist Union was Partido Comunista de España (PCE). Although it had been powerfully repressed, it had rebuilt a cultural and intellectual presence. After the PCE was the Frente de Liberación Popular, which started as a Marxist-Christian organization similar to liberation theology, but ultimately developed currents influenced by Che Guevara and heterodox communism like that of Yugoslavia. Outside of the PCE and FLP were small anarchist groups, Maoists, and others. The socialists barely had a presence among the students.
Javier Padilla: Tell us about the Francoist student union.
HM: The union, named SEU (Sindicato Español Universitario), was created during the war by the falangists. During the 1960s, there was a movement to reform the fascist union through elections. The left ran for elections and won, forming a new union named Sindicato Democrático de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Madrid (SDEU). In 1967–68, the union was given some paralegal structures; they were tolerated but not legally recognized. This is the context in which May 1968 took place.
MA: On a personal level, why did you become interested in the PCE?
HM: I came from a right-wing bourgeois family. My father had been a member of the falange movement during the war; he had been imprisoned by communists, but he had a social position of concern for workers. In the falange, as in Italian fascism and German Nazism, there was a labor component that appealed to many. The founder of the Spanish falange himself, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who came from aristocracy, had a workerist discourse. My father was one of those convinced by that discourse.
Once Franco was in power, my father distanced himself and came closer to what was called “social doctrine of the Church”, a progressive reading of the Catholic Church associated with Cuadernos Para el Diálogo, a legal publication that brought together some progressive Christians, socialists, progressive monarchists, and also some communists. My father became a founding partner of the magazine and I started reading it when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. When I got to university I already had social concerns about justice and freedom. There was so much left wing propaganda circulating, about Marxism, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro.There were plays by Bertolt Brecht being performed, and concerts of American protest songs (Bob Dylan was a favorite). This culture, which also overlapped with progressive cinema in Italy, English, and France, really appealed to me.
My first year of university was spent absorbing all of these new things. By the second year, I began looking for political commitment and I joined the Frente de Liberación Popular (FLP), a clandestine anti-Francoist opposition group. I chose the FLP over the PCE because in those days Cuba and Algeria attracted me far more than Czechoslovakia or Russia.
MA: The FLP was pro-democracy but against electoral politics. What was your understanding of democracy?
HM: Neither Cuba nor Algeria had what we called “bourgeois democracy.” We were far more interested in the economic and social system than we were in the political or electoral one. We were most excited about bank nationalizations, firm nationalizations, and agrarian reform. There were moments in which things developed very quickly—at a certain point, the FLP attempted guerilla warfare with the aid of Yugoslavia. When that failed, we developed a more moderate position. But all of these changes meant that the long term objective was not clearly defined. In the short run, we wanted an end to the Franco regime. In the long run, we wanted revolution. But this was all very vague.
JP: How did May 1968 impact your political views?
HM: It exerted three important influences. First, it demonstrated that students could play a revolutionary role, alongside or even before the working class. Second, it abolished the idea that revolutionary politics were reserved for the Third World, that Western Europe was entrenched under the influence of the US. Third, it convinced us that the PCE was reformist, and thus that it was not reliable.
The frustration of May 1968 radicalized the FLP and the left more broadly. The FLP called for a debate on transitioning into a revolutionary communist party, without clearly defining what that is. In its propaganda, the FLP starts using the hammer and sickle. Due to the Trotskyist influence, there was an emphasis on drawing out the contradictions from inside the regime.
MA: Can you tell us about some of the actions?
HM: During the months leading up to and after May, there were many mobilizations at the university. When Che Guevara was killed there were massive demonstrations, about 40,000 people came. The district where I lived was constantly surveilled by a police helicopter because we had ongoing smaller demonstrations called comandos: groups of fifteen or twenty people who attacked banks or well-known multinational firms. We shut traffic down, broke glasses, threw propaganda, painted everything red—and we had to do it in less than three minutes before the police arrived. But the regime’s reaction was harsh,.Throwing Molotov cocktails was different from handing out pamphlets. And eventually the comandos stopped taking place.
MA: I wonder if you could tell us about the disintegration of the FLP and the formation of the Communist League.
HM: The transformation within the FLP was not very clear. The organization dissolved very suddenly and dramatically, and gave way to three new tendencies: the Communist League, which included the leaders of the FLP (one of them was Jaime Pastor, who today is in the anti-capitalist wing of Podemos); the Partido Comunista de España Internacional (PCEI), which I joined and which was a pro-Chinese split; and the PCE, which became the largest one. The League never grew that much but for a moment it was linked to the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist group, and afterwards Izquierda Unida (IU), a leftist political coalition.
By the 1970s, I was in the PCEI which was also undergoing a process of radicalization. We held rallies in solidarity with the struggle in Yemen and the massacre of Indonesian Communists. We were directly financed by the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the Rénmín Rìbào. To avoid recognition we worked undercover in different departments: people switched from the department of Law to that of Philosophy and vice versa. But the repression was still very intense, and ultimately our influence diminished entirely.
MA: When did you enter the PCE?
HM: In 1969, I spent three months in prison during a state of emergency. I realized that all of the workers held in prison were either members or supporters of the PCE. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia the PCE distanced itself from the Soviet Union and identified itself with the government of Popular Unity in Chile as well as the Eurocommunist Italian Communist party. All of this made them far more appealing.
JP: What was the relationship between people like Santiago Carrillo who were exiled and those who were in Spain?
HM: Like every communist party, the PCE’s history is riddled with contradictions and tensions. When I joined, tensions weren’t so high because the split between Fernando Claudín and Jorge Semprún had already taken place. In the eighth congress of 1972 the party adopted a revised manifesto and this generated some tensions. The process of selecting people to attend the congress, as well as the resolutions that were passed, was all very secret. And the people who were chosen, Margarita Suárez and Manuel López, did not represent the new generation of communists. So the expanded role of the party came into conflict with the very extreme internal hierarchy.
One moment which was of great importance was the 1973 Chilean coup. One faction suggested that the coup demonstrated that it was best to shift to the center. The other faction, of which I was a part, insisted that the coup demonstrated the failures of engaging with bourgeois democracy. This generated a lot of confusion: on the one hand, we saw mass mobilizations, on the other hand, we were increasingly suspicious of forming electoral coalitions in government.
MA: What was the relationship like between the party and the CCOO?
HM: The CCOO was founded in a very decentralized way, through one factory in Asturias, another one in Seville, and another in Madrid. It was born primarily through the initiative of communist cadres. Neither the PCE nor the CCOO thought of the relationship as one of control. But inevitably, the composition of leaders and militants were tied to each other. But both the PCE and the CCOO actively wanted to generate space for smaller leftist groups to participate in the union, partially as a way of confronting them.
JP: And the monarchy? How did the relationship there develop?
HM: Until 1976, the PCE was clearly anti-monarchist. PCE publications would mock Juan Carlos and caricaturize him; it was only afterwards that we found out that there were contacts between the leaders of the PCE and a circle of people close to the king Juan Carlos—intellectuals who influenced the king.
JP: Was that strategy widely accepted?
HM: Small groups of people were against it. I was in favor because I had the feeling that it was a tactical decision, so long as Juan Carlos wasn’t an obstacle to democracy we would accept, and the moment he stopped cooperating we would fight against the monarchy. There were tensions around the transition to Eurocommunism, which was viewed as a moderation. But Eurocommunism was largely a response to the elections of June 15, in which we expected to sweep and we ended up with ten percent.
JP: How did you see the socialist party before the elections?
HM: The Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) entered the scene in 1974. In the congress of Suresnes, Felipe González captured the attention of national media. The Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), the socialist party union, barely existed in the 1960s and early 1970s. At the time we were convinced that the media attention the PSOE was receiving was superficial. Its slogan was “A hundred years of history,” and we would joke, “A hundred years of history and forty of holidays.” They had disappeared from the beginning of the war until democracy. When the elections took place, the PCE had massive rallies and the PSOE had much smaller ones. We were convinced that we were going to win. When the PSOE got thirty-something percent and we got ten, it was truly devastating. When the recount was over people started declaring that the election was rigged, because we got fewer votes in the working class districts of Madrid.
Ultimately we began to reflect. One interpretation of the result was that we could simply no longer connect with the country. The PSOE presented a young Felipe González of thirty-two years, and we presented Carrillo who was sixty-something years old. There were some young congressmen, but most of them were linked to the civil war. We came to understand that people did not want to see civil war heroes. There were also those who had attributed the electoral failure to the fact that we had diluted, blurred, the communist essence; that we no longer differentiated ourselves considerably from the socialist party. The reflection many reached later on is that deep Spain—Castilles, Extremadura, Aragón—still had a profound anti-communist sentiment. Civil war divisions reemerged; those regions which had been on the republican side—Catalonia, Valencia, Asturias, Madrid—were influenced by the left, and those who had been with Franco from the start still were very anticommunist. These reflections produced a split between the “renovators” and the “carrillistas.” The PCE became increasingly divided after that point.
MA: What did you think of Felipe González’s modernization program?
HM: I thought it was terrible. After the failed coup in 1981, Felipe had the support of the Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD), who actively pressured for more moderate economic reforms. I was a representative in the commission of CCOO, so I went to many public events with businesses and economists. Felipe’s emphasis on modernization was reassuring for them. He had to undertake an industrial conversion that the UCD didn’t have the guts to undertake, and he took us out of the discussion of NATO which the UCD had gotten us into. He had to build a democratic infrastructure which didn’t exist under very difficult circumstances. Despite the things I disagreed with, he industrialized the country, there is no doubt about that.
JP: Why did the unions weaken under PSOE?
HM: Firstly, because we were competitive with one another. And secondly, due to the industrial conversion. I wouldn’t say that the unions lost the fight over the conversion, but they certainly didn’t win. The unions defended the old pensions system and lost the battle, were unable to organize against layoffs that came with industrialization. That generated a lot of disappointment among workers, and the offensive by those in the media and on the right didn’t help.
JP: What is your assessment of the transition González undertook looking back?
HM: Ultimately, I believe the transition went quite well. Franco became a general through a coup, but behind him was the support of much of the population. He represented half of the population who voted for the right in the elections of 1933 and 1936. The left has never had a majority in Spain. At our peak, we had slightly more support than the right, but we’ve never had a sweeping success outside of the 1982 election. Undertaking a transition when half of the public wasn’t in favor of democracy was very difficult. When Franco died, hundreds of thousands went weeping to see him. So the transition had to be a compromise between elements of the left and right who didn’t want another civil war. Ultimately, I think the left gained more than the right: expanded welfare measures, administrative reforms, an advanced constitution. For me the balance of the transition is positive, even though the gains were modest. Did Felipe go far enough? No. Should he have gotten us into NATO? No. Should he have given more boundaries to the Church? Yes. Should he have strengthened workers more? Yes. This is all true. But Spain in 1977 was behind economically, socially and politically. And when the PSOE left in 1994, Spain had changed.
JP: In a recent conversation, someone described you as “a communist, in spite of it all.” The last question is: why?
HM: It means several things. On the one hand, the identification with a tradition that in spite of its error, in spite of its mistakes, of its confrontations, has been fighting for democracy and social progress throughout Spanish history. I identify far more strongly with Che Guevara than with Willy Brandt. I know what we did, the good and the bad. But damn, I’ve spent my whole life there, I’m not going to leave now.