Dismantling the narrative that Spain is a fascist state
"Spanish parliament - from dictatorship to democracy" by TeaMeister is licensed under CC BY 2.0
This week’s entry is a little longer than usual, so please make yourself comfortable first!
The hashtag #SpainIsAFascistState appears on Twitter with surprising regularity. The idea that Spanish democracy is in some way a continuation of fascism is very common among many of the country’s populists, whether they are on the left or supporters of regional secessionist movements. This week’s column will examine the claim critically.
The narrative rests on simplified history, with lots of cherry-picked examples. Francisco Franco, the country’s dictator from the 1930s to his death in 1975, is portrayed as a straight-forward fascist. He named Juan Carlos I as his heir, allegedly paving the way for the monarchy to continue his fascist regime under another guise. By allowing elderly war criminals to die in their beds, the transition to democracy after Franco’s death is said to be based on an illegitimate foundation. The links between the founders of the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the previous regime are also said to invalidate its role in society.
Article 2 of the 1978 Constitution says the country’s fundamental law “is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” - a key point to gain the backing of supporters of Franco’s regime. This is meant to taint the whole constitution by association. Meanwhile, Spain’s police are allegedly more violent than their counterparts elsewhere; and a couple of rappers who have run into legal difficulties shout loudly that it is because Spanish law is too authoritarian.
Claims that Spain isn’t a real democracy can be easily debunked by looking at international democracy rankings. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index says that Spain is one of only 23 full democracies in the whole world; and Freedom House ranks the country as Free in its annual study of political rights and civil liberties. So, what exactly does the “Spain is a fascist state” narrative get wrong?
One of the main lessons I learnt as a student of philosophy is that it is always a good idea to define key terms at the beginning of a discussion. What does democracy mean? We have already discussed the definition of liberal democracy here. We have seen that it based on a combination of universal human rights, the rule of law and regular rule-based elections. It is often misunderstood by populists, who see themselves as representatives of “the will of the people.” The claim is an odd one. How can a collective have a will? Populists usually also say that their adversaries are enemies of the people, particularly when they are perceived as belonging to an illegitimate elite.
What is fascism? The question has generated a surprising amount of disagreement among scholars, who have come up with more than a dozen definitions. Although Franco’s regime obviously had fascistic elements, some scholars think that it is better classified as an authoritarian nationalist movement rather than a pure fascist regime. Franco’s regime also evolved over the decades. It was more fascistic during the Civil War and its aftermath; but he declined to support Germany and Italy during World War II. By 1953, when Franco signed the Pact of Madrid with the US, he had positioned himself as an anti-Communist dictator. Within a few years, he had appointed technocrats to liberalize the economy, leading to the Spanish miracle. Painting a brutal civil war in the 1930s with the same brush as reforms to encourage tourism in the 1960s is much too simple-minded.
To be clear, we shouldn’t take this argument too far by becoming revisionists (the historical version of denialists). Franco led a coup d’etat against an imperfect democracy; he was a brutal warlord during the Civil War; and he murdered many thousands of people during a reign of terror during the war and in the aftermath. His dictatorship also dragged on for decades. This column is seeking a more nuanced view; it isn’t trying to whitewash his rule. Democracy is clearly and obviously better than living under a murderous dictator!
Let us return to the other points of the narrative. It is true that Franco made Juan Carlos his heir; and it is also true that that the 1977 Amnesty Law allowed elderly war criminals who had committed awful acts some 40 years before to die in their beds. It is true that the PP was founded by Manuel Fraga, a former minister in Franco’s regime. The inclusion of Article 2 in the Constitution also helped members of the armed forces and other traditionalists swing behind democracy in the 1970s.
However, attempts to twist these facts into a narrative about Spain still being a fascist state miss a great deal of historical context. The whole point of the transition to democracy was to get everyone from former supporters of Franco to members of the Communist Party of Spain to buy into the basic ground-rules of liberal democracy. Yes, compromises were made. However, a broad consensus across society is one of the best ways of launching a robust legal regime. In this case, the Spanish Constitution received 92% of the votes on a turnout of 67% in a referendum in 1978.
It is interesting to note that Franco himself never had a proper constitution because he didn’t like the idea of politicians having to obey universal laws. The Phalanx (Falange) - the main fascist party under Franco - campaigned against the Constitution in the 1978 referendum. Meanwhile Antonio Tejero - a senior member of the Civil Guard who supported a continuation of Franco’s regime after the dictator’s death - tried to overthrow the Constitution in a failed coup attempt in 1981. These three facts taken together should be a clue that smearing the Constitution as a remnant of Franco’s regime misses the point by a country mile. Franco would have hated the 1978 Constitution!
The issues surrounding Article 2 are also more complex than the hedgehogs would have you believe. Other European countries have similar clauses in their constitutions. For example, Article 1 of the French Constitution of 1958 says that the country “shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” Article 3.1 of the Portuguese Constitution of 1976 says that the country’s sovereignty is “single and indivisible.” Regionalists in Spain might dislike the clause, but saying it is intrinsically undemocratic appears far-fetched. The Constitution also has mechanisms to change unpopular sections, although Article 92 makes it clear that it needs a broad consensus across the whole country.
What about police violence? It is true that the Spanish police were heavy-handed when they broke up an attempt by a populist Catalan government to use a pseudo-referendum as cover for a self-coup attempt in 2017. However, were they more violent than the police in other countries? Nobody died, unlike in France, where around ten people lost their lives during the populist yellow vest revolt.
The cases of the two rappers, Valtònyc and Pablo Hasél, are also much less solid when you look at the details of the cases. Both see themselves as revolutionaries. Valtònyc was condemned to prison for lyrics which included glorification of terrorism and death threats against establishment figures, including women and at least one girl. He fled to Brussels instead of reporting to jail. Meanwhile, Hasél received a suspended sentence for lyrics that glorified terrorism and made death threats. He later smashed up a far-right stall and assaulted a journalist. He then made more recordings which glorified terrorism and was sentenced to prison. His punishment was harsher because of the suspended sentence.
The rappers themselves frame the issue as a straightforward fight between freedom of speech and a fascistic establishment. Their supporters normally gloss over the death threats, which should clearly be problematic to most thoughtful people. Is the right to threaten your political opponents more important than their right to live in peace? Does it matter if death threats rhyme or not? Are we all comfortable with men threatening women?
John Stuart Mill, one of the most passionate defenders of freedom of opinion in the history of philosophy, makes an interesting point in Chapter Three of his classic work On Liberty, which was first published in 1859. He says that “opinions lose their immunity” when they are expressed in a way that could encourage illegal acts. He says that it is perfectly valid to believe that corn-dealers starve the poor; but handing out placards saying so to a mob gathered outside the house of a particular corn-dealer should remain illegal.
Meanwhile, Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance - the idea that being too tolerant of intolerant speech could lead to the end of tolerance itself - is also pertinent. Valtònyc and Hasél want to decriminalize threats of revolutionary violence. They also want their opponents to cower in fear. Would this improve society? I have my doubts!
We can gain a little more insight by comparing Valtònyc and Hasél’s cases with those of people in other countries. France has dissolved a pro-terrorism organization run by a rapper; and the UK police regularly censor drill rappers who talk about gang violence. On the other hand, a US court has freed a rapper who made death threats against a sexual assault victim. Arguing whether the US approach is better or worse than the one in the UK and France would probably make this essay much too long. Needless to say, framing the debate in terms of the alleged fascism of Spanish law is a poor way of understanding a complex issue.
Comparing Spain with other countries helps undermine the “fascist state” narrative further. Let’s look at other European countries that suffered under fascist and right-wing dictatorships. An Italian judge and minister, Palmiro Togliatti, pardoned fascists and partisans in 1946. He was a member of the Italian Communist Party at the time. Meanwhile, denazification was quietly dropped in West Germany by 1951 after only being half-heartedly implemented. In Spain’s smaller neighbour Portugal, many former politicians were able to continue their careers after the transition to democracy in the 1970s. Germany joins Spain as one of the EIU’s full democracies; while France, Germany and Portugal are all ranked as Free by Freedom House, as of course is Spain.
One interesting element of the narrative is the double standards of the populists who try to use it to delegitimize the constitution, the monarchy and the PP. Take Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The populist party, which rules Catalonia currently, enthusiastically spreads these narratives. It never mentions the fact that Franco’s brother Ramón was a deputy for ERC and that he later joined the National side. It will never tell you about its own fascist wing in the 1930s, las JEREC. You can live in Catalonia for many years and never hear about how Estat Català split from ERC shortly before launching a coup attempt with the aim of delivering a semi-independent Catalonia to Franco’s side in the Civil War.
Although ERC’s leaders began to proclaim themselves as anti-fascists in exile after the Civil War, it is worth mentioning that the party campaigned against the Constitution of 1978, just like the Phalanx. It voted to make Quim Torra regional president despite his openly far-right views. Its candidate to be mayor of Barcelona in 2019 worked for one of Franco’s mayors and its leader Pere Aragonès is the grandson of a man who served as a mayor during the dictatorship. Normally we shouldn’t judge people for their family relationships, but people who believe Spain is a fascist state do so all the time, so we can make an exception just this once.
People who have bought into the narrative might be surprised to hear that Barcelona gave up without a fight after the Spanish Republic lost the Battle of the Ebro, while Republican Madrid held on grimly. Many rich Catalans danced in the streets of Barcelona after Franco’s victory. Many in the region grew immensely wealthy under Franco’s regime, including the patriarchs of many families that would turn to Catalan nationalism as soon as it was safe to do so. This began in earnest in the 1960s, particularly after Catalan nationalist organization Òmnium Cultural was decriminalized in 1967, and picked up speed after Franco’s death in 1975. Many of Franco’s former mayors in Catalonia joined Convergence & Union (CiU), which became the establishment nationalist party after backing the Constitution of 1978. It later split after its leaders turned to populism during a long recession.
We can see something similar with Pablo Iglesias, the founder of populist left party Unidas Podemos (UP), former deputy prime minister and now an anti-establishment media commentator. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of the narrative. However, he has been known to quote Carl Schmitt, a populist critic of liberal democracy who happened to be a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. One of the people who helped Iglesias set up UP was a neofascist in his youth. Also, Phalanx leaders have been known to complain that UP stole much of its manifesto. Wasn’t any contact with fascism or fascist ideas supposed to be contaminate political projects?
If the #SpainIsAFascistState narrative is based on such weak evidence, why do people continue to spread it? The best way of understanding it is as an example of a big lie, a term coined by Adolf Hitler to refer to a lie so outrageous that many people will find it hard to believe that anyone would be so audacious. The big lie demands action. Hitler claimed incorrectly that Jews had stabbed Germany in the back during World War I. If you believed the lie, attacking Jewish power would be the logical next step. Former US President Donald Trump (another populist) has his own version, with the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
We have already seen how letting incorrect information into your brain can have bad consequences. The big lie that Spanish democracy is illegitimate is a case in point. Populists are notorious for trying to over-turn valid constitutions so they can bring in their own set of rules. These are invariably a step backwards because populists don’t believe in universal rights - they want to fortify their own position while suppressing their adversaries, who they see as enemies of the people.
Keeping an eye on populist opposition to liberal democracy provides us with a very clear way of understanding what exactly happened in Catalonia between 2012 and 2017. CiU began flirting with populism and independence; and the regional government used public media and subsidies to Catalan-speaking media to create a propaganda machine. The echo chamber tended to repeat shrill and unreflective narratives with little attention to detail. People who consumed this content were encouraged to engage in groupthink.
During these years, the leaders of the secessionist movement decided that Catalan-speaking supporters of independence represented the authentic voice of Catalonia, while Spanish-speaking opponents of independence (largely the descendants of working-class Republicans from other regions of Spain) were said to be colonists, traitors and fascists. This mental model meant that the fact that independence didn’t have a real majority could be dismissed as an after-thought - the real Catalans backed it, by definition.
The leaders of the movement claimed that the Spanish Constitution was no longer valid, largely because of its alleged links to fascism. Pro-independence members of the Catalan parliament then passed an outrageous self-coup law despite lacking the super-majority needed to change the region’s basic laws. The leaders of the movement designed a sloppy referendum as the centrepiece of the show, hoping that their opponents would stay at home. Police action against the self-coup was hyped up for the international media, which frankly did a poor job of understanding the big picture.
The paradox was that the Catalan nationalists posed as anti-fascists while fighting against a genuine democracy. Like Franco, they hated the idea of a constitution constraining the actions of politicians. Like Franco, who held two referendums during his dictatorship, they felt that a direct vote was more valid than normal rule-based elections. Like Franco, political opponents were framed as enemies of the people. Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism is worth some reflection, although the fact that most (but not all) Catalan nationalists have remained peaceful is also important to mention.
Finally, some of the most vigorous opposition to Catalan nationalism and Spain’s populist left has come from a hard-right populist party called Vox, which enthusiastically supports Spanish nationalism. Those of us who are concerned about populism must be careful not to fall behind populists who fight other populists. We should instead double down on liberal democracy. We should celebrate the messiness that comes from living in a free and rule-based society, even if it means that deep disagreements can never be fully resolved.
Catalan nationalists predictably react to any criticism with intense cognitive dissonance. They often say that those of us who think independence is a con based on dubious narratives are really Spanish nationalists. Some are, of course, including many Vox supporters.
However, the truth should be scarier for convinced nationalists: Some of us think that it is a bad idea to try and divide land-masses into different nations; that nation-states are a failed project; that large and pluralistic countries with many ethnicities work better than ethnically pure mini-states; that it is positive that European countries share their sovereignty with their neighbours while integrating their economies; that immigration tends to make societies more interesting; that it is better to raise up borders than to draw new ones; that basing a political project on untrue narratives is a terrible idea; that judging people based on the language they happen to speak at home is snobbish and awful; and that referendums on divisive issues have a poor track record of improving society. See you next week!
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[Updated on 10 March 2022] Opinions expressed on Substack and Twitter are those of Rupert Cocke as an individual and do not reflect the opinions or views of the organization where he works or its subsidiaries.