Spain 1967: A Catholic Commentary – Elizabeth Power (1969)

[Can be found in Chapter 4 of The Christian Marxist dialogue: an international symposium edited by Paul Oestreicher]

[From the book: “Elizabeth Power is a young Roman Catholic housewife who has made a study of non-violent methods of revolution in Spain, in various parts of Africa, and, together with her husband, as a member of Martin Luther King’s staff in 1966. This chapter has not previously been published.”]

[The banner of this article is an image of the first assembly of the SDEUB (Sindicat Democràtic d’Estudiants de la Universitat de Barcelona) held at the Capuchin convent of Sarrià on the 11th of March, 1966. Later on that year, the demonstration of priests against the Franco regime and its repressive activity occurred in Barcelona. (Pictured in this article.)]

In the past year or two, the liberalization of conditions and attitudes in Spain, especially among certain sections of the Spanish Church, has been frequently noted in the press. There has also been much speculation about the succession to the reins of power held by the aging General.

But increasingly we have heard of workers’ protests, strikes, street battles with police, widespread arrests of priests involved in the workers’ struggle, and also repressive action against the right of assembly, with increased control of the press and all other mass media.

Thus it appears that all is not well in Spain, that there is growing social unrest and political opposition. There are also signs that the Church is divided against itself, the establishment against the people.

It is on these aspects of the Spanish scene that I shall concentrate in this paper. For the Christian-Marxist collaboration that exists today in Spain can only be understood in the framework of a truly popular resistance movement, most of whose actions and alliances arise not from theoretical or ideological considerations but from the practical needs of the Spanish poor.

This is the nature of a revolutionary situation. People with a common goal of freedom and dignity, people united by oppression and hardship will by-pass the luxury of “Christian-Marxist dialogue,” but will work side by side, militant atheistic Communist and committed revolutionary Christian, for the freeing of their people.

This is the situation in Spain.

In order to understand the united workers’ movement, we must trace some of the background of the Spanish economy, of the conditions of the working class, and of the Catholic Church.

There are three industrial pockets in Spain: Barcelona (and surrounding region); Bilbao (and surrounding region) and Asturias. The latter is the mining region, supplying the fuel for the other two regions which are areas of heavy industry, and the only areas producing industrial exports at all. The rest of Spain by and large is agricultural, although Madrid is a fast-growing industrial area, assembling foreign cars, foreign televisions, foreign sewing machines, etc. If it were not for the American military bases, the booming tourist industry, and the presence of two million emigrant Spanish workers in Western Europe, the Spanish economy would collapse.

Spain is suffering from a recession after the rapid development of the last five years. This is producing increased unemployment and underemployment at home. At the same time a recession in Germany and Switzerland land is causing Spanish workers (as well as other foreign workers, of course) to be sent home, swelling the economic problems in Spain. Several foreign factories in Madrid have closed in the past year, and Marconi, one of the largest industrial employers, is cutting back drastically on its working force. This means that while the supply of labor is increasing, job prospects are shrinking. The tourist industry (which has brought such economic advantages to Spain) adds to the problem, i.e., it is sending prices constantly higher for the home consumer, and the tourist wealth is not redistributed among the masses.

Thus the situation seems to be getting worse for the worker. Because of the resulting unrest, state control appears to be tighter now than ever before—house searches are made in the night without warning; batons and hoses are readily used on crowds, even crowds gathered for religious celebrations ( so traditional and so common in Spain); and any worker who adopts a position of leadership in the factory is watched, put to work where he cannot communicate with other workers, sometimes dismissed and even arrested.

A recent case will illustrate the situation. A Catholic leader in the movement was involved early this summer in an illegal assembly. With others, both Communists and Christians, he was arrested shortly afterwards. On his release he found that his factory had dismissed him, after twenty-five years of service with an outstanding record of reliability, skill and competence. (He was a skilled, technical worker.) He has five children. Inevitably he will receive no unemployment benefit, nor any other form of pension. Nor is he likely to be employed elsewhere. His fellow workers began a fund which by August had raised over 60,000 pesetas for his family (roughly equivalent to six months’ wages).

This case is important, not only in showing the individual plight of leaders, but also in showing the new mood of the ordinary workers, their readiness to sacrifice, and their feeling of identity with the leaders in the movement, whether they are Christians or Communists, or “non-aligned.”

It seems that as the struggle intensifies the determination and solidarity of the workers also grows and so repressive actions by the regime are having the reverse effect and creating more opposition, rather than reducing it.

Now to trace the engagement of the Church in this struggle. One must not minimize the strength of traditional Catholic policies and attitudes and interests today. The Church as a whole implicitly supports the regime, is vigorously anti-Communist, and has large vested interests in the status quo. One should add that since the civil war in Spain the word socialism is equated with Communism. It is also important to note that Catholic schools and universities educate the middle and upper classes (with a few notable exceptions), that the fascist party, the “Falange,” is fanatically pro-Catholic, and that Franco, himself a devout churchgoer, is given widespread credit for “having brought twenty-five years of peace to Spain.” Rarely if ever is mention made of his twenty-five years of harsh dictatorship by the Church leaders.

The Church is in a difficult position. It is a huge and wealthy institution, part of the Spanish Establishment, and it cannot disengage itself overnight. But there are signs that it wishes it could. Several bishops have made statements, couched in delicately chosen words, which lend some support to social liberalization. But it is fair to say that at no point does the institutional Church identify itself with the workers’ movement. Its approaches, if any, are cautious, defensive and self-protective. In other words it risks little or nothing. Therefore it has no relation to the movement.

But fortunately the Church is not only an institution. The Church in the primitive Christian sense of the word is a movement as well. Thus among the young clergy, particularly in the industrial provinces of Bilbao, Barcelona and Asturias, they are looking for a new relevance in the Christian message. They have tried to translate brotherhood and love—the essence of Christianity—into real terms among their people. Inevitably they have identified with the poor and the suffering, and inevitably they have been infected by the militancy, bitterness and rebellion of the poor. So they have joined the Movement. They see no difference between their commitment to justice and equality through Christian love and the workers’ commitment to justice and equality through the need to survive. In some cases the young priests have left their parish jobs, replaced their cassocks with overalls, and become workers. So there is complete identity of interest.

The young priests are the cause of many headaches to their bishops, who, as I have already explained, do not want to fall out with the regime. Some have been silenced; many are transferred to hillside peasant parishes where they can do less harm; one young priest I knew was removed from a fishing-port parish outside Bilbao to a retired Monsignor’s residence, where he became private chaplain to the eighty-four-year-old invalid.

But just as repression by the army and police helps to unite the workers, so authoritarianism and caution by the Church help to forge the links between the young clergy and the workers. The Catalonian priests, demonstrating on the streets their solidarity with the workers, were clubbed and beaten and arrested by the police, and many of the workers have a picture in their homes of this event. (It was later admitted by certain officials that the police had allowed themselves to be provoked and had behaved with insufficient restraint in public.)

The other sector of the Church where the interests of the workers’ movement have been adopted is among certain lay Catholic organizations. Because of the rigid class divisions in Spain, with enormous disparities of wealth and opportunity, the Church has sponsored groups which are specifically working-class whose members and leaders are all workers, and whose major task has inevitably become the solution of working-class problems. These groups some years ago had as their objective “the Christianizing of the working-class environment”—winning workers to the Church. However, as Catholic workers became increasingly disillusioned with the institutional Church, and aware of their own plight, they realized two things: first, that their true identity and commitment lay not with the hierarchical Church but with their fellow workers; and second, that their Christian commitment involved not so much their working for the return of lapsed Catholic workers to the sacraments, but the presence of committed Christians in the struggle for a just and brotherly society. Their task became the building of a Christian society—not a society in which all members were Christians, but a society based on the concepts of love, justice, equality and freedom. This ambition the Christian workers held in common with other workers’ organizations, including the Communist Party.

Image of the historical assembly of  Sant Medir (1976)

This fusion of interests has, in the last year or so, led to the emergence of a workers’ front called the “Comisiones Obreras.”

During Spain’s long history of inner turmoil, there have been many occasions when Catholics and Communists have found themselves side by side. The Basque provinces (in which Bilbao is situated) are traditionally the most Catholic provinces in Spain; they also have a long history of separatism and of industrial militancy. In the civil war many Basque Catholics and Communists fought together against the Franquist armies and the Nazi-German air-raids.

And in the recurring mining disputes in Asturias, the Catholic and Communist workers share the same grievances and take joint action. There are many other such examples.

But until recently there was no organizational collaboration. Contact was haphazard and common action sporadic. There was no common front.

It is the gathering strength of the workers’ movement that has brought Communists and Christians together in a new form. And it is the increasing urgency of the situation and a growing desire for revolutionary change in the economic and political structures that has led to the forging of a common structure, under the name of “Workers’ Commissions.”

The “Workers’ Commissions” were first formed about eighteen months ago, and they represent the major forces in the workers’ movement, i.e., Catholics and Communists. Below is a passage translated from the closing statement of the National Assembly of the “Workers’ Commissions” held in June 1967. The meeting was illegal, the document was duplicated and circulated secretly. Many arrests were made as a result, but the crucial fact is that the meeting took place. The meeting was only known previously to the highly trusted representatives of the ‘Workers’ Commissions” in different regions of Spain. Eight provinces were represented. Since the meeting was arranged and held in the highest secrecy, I can only give the following quotation as an indication of what the present alliance of different religious and political groups means to the workers involved:

The Workers’ Commissions do not comprise an organization, but a coordinated force, a movement which attempts to involve all workers who hold in common the rejection of the present Trade Union structure, and who are prepared to fight for their rights and for class justice, and in particular at this moment for the right to free Trade Unions. . . .

The Workers’ Commissions have a unifying character. They are not a federation of groups of elements in the struggle. They are united in a common participation in the movement of working-class people, without making distinctions of political ideology, philosophical notions, or religious beliefs. . . .

The Workers’ Commissions are independent in their actions of all political, religious or trade union groups. The action of the Workers’ Commissions will be guided exclusively by the will of the workers who participate in their movement and in general by the feelings and aspirations of all the Spanish workers. . . .

The Workers’ Commissions will be guided in all action by a democratic spirit. This democracy will be based in the workers themselves, especially by means of workers’ assemblies. . . .

There are two points which are extremely important in relation to the above statements. One is that today in Spain there is a genuine popular revolt. The workers feel a stronger class identity than they feel a political or religious identity (which does not mean that they have lost either political or religious affiliation). It is his that has enabled them to forge a militant union which presents a real threat to the present regime.

The second important point is that the workers have found ways of organizing themselves, of holding illegal assemblies, of distributing anti-government literature, and of keeping enough leaders out of jail to prevent the Movement from coming to a halt.

The Communist Party, which is banned, operates effectively and consistently, with ever-increasing membership (more and more of whom are returned young workers from France and Germany). The Catholic Groups have now made their position clear vis-à-vis the established Church. Their prime concern is the revolution in conditions for the ordinary Spaniard. They too are rapidly gaining support among the workers, and many of their leaders are in the most trusted positions in the “Workers’ Commissions” and in clandestine trade union groups.

In spite of the dangers, the arrests, the worsening economic situation, there was in the summer of 1967 an air of confidence and optimism among the workers in the movement. The major cause is undoubtedly the success of the “Workers’ Commissions,” the unity they have fostered among workers and the strength and resilience they have shown in a common front, which they have previously failed to summon through their separate organizations.

The implications for the Church, for the Communist Party and for a possible socialist society in Spain are extremely encouraging.