When Felipe González expelled Marxism from the PSOE

After the PSOE suddenly had reemerged on the Spanish political scene in the early 1970s, the Socialist Labour Party grew rapidly. But the leadership around the charismatic General Secretary Felipe González wanted to social democratise the party and draw a line under Marxism.

Felipe González
Felipe González: Getting rid off Marxism

Felipe González wasn’t satisfied: The General Secretary suffered a crushing defeat at the 28th Congress of his Socialist Party in May 1979. “I beg you, comrades! Approach Marxism with a critical spirit […] You must be a socialist before you become a Marxist “1ABC. 22.05.1979, p.5 he had still advocated, but the delegates spoke a different word. Sixty-one percent rejected the deletion of the term “Marxism” from the party program. Thus, the Partido Obrero Socialista Español (PSOE) continued to be defined as a “Marxist, democratic, federalist Class Party”.2Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 126 As a result, González did not stand for election as Secretary General.

Just a few weeks before the Congress, González sounded extremely optimistic about the party’s future line. “I believe there will be a great deal of agreement in the evaluation of the party’s basic strategy.”3Der Spiegel. Nr. 14/1979, p. 145 Apparently, the 37-year-old General Secretary had incorrectly assessed his party. González was the face of the PSOE and was seen as a young savage compared to the head of government Adolfo Suárez (UCD) and the Secretary General of the Communist Party Santiago Carrillo. For the first free election after Franco’s death, he was always seen with his shirt collar open. He had a very clear idea of what modern socialist politics should look like: social democratic with Christian humanism and a dash of progressive liberalism – but without Marx.4Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 126

Marx at the heart of the grassroots

Yet it was probably less Marxism itself that disturbed González in the intra-party debate. Rather, he found the concepts that are supposed to define a party without measuring it against its actual policies disturbing. While critics blamed him for saying that removing Marxism from the party program would drive voters towards the communists of the PCE, González etched in their direction: “The policies of the Communist Party over the last year and a half have been constantly to the right of the Socialist Party”5Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 127 Fernando Cascón countered this statement, however: “Most of us do not know what Marxism is, but we do feel Marx in our hearts.”6Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 126 The reference to Marxism was more than just an ideological issue for the oldest party in Spain. It had been, as Cascón said, the heart of the party and has kept it alive throughout its hundred-year history, in the Civil War and Francoism.

On the other hand, the PSOE had tried to purge its party of Marxist tendencies. Several members received a letter informing them that they were henceforth excluded from the party.[ Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 127] The PSOE had grown rapidly since its legalisation and was on its way to becoming a social democratic people’s party. Socialist demands such as nationalisations were removed from the party programme. González also considered it wrong to continue to use the term “Marxism” because it simply no longer accurately reflected the party’s profile.

González, the authoritarian

However, the party leadership overlooked the grassroots: they often felt that González and the “paid bureaucrats” were too dictatorially led. The renegade Marxists’ hopes of beating the party leader to the punch, however, failed because of their own incompetence. They did not draw up a list of their own for the election of the executive committee, according to a SPIEGEL article, for example.7Der Spiegel. Nr. 22/1979, p. 127 González again held the threads of power within the party in his hands, and the party could not do without him.

At a special party congress in October 1979 he was re-elected Secretary General of the PSOE. But the delegates had shrunk from 1,000 to 400, as the Congress had decided in May. With the election of González, the future direction of the PSOE was also decided: Marxism remains a purely theoretical instrument that is critically examined and must never be dogmatic. The former socialist PSOE became social democratic.

(Translation by Valentin M. Kuby)