The Legalisation of the PCE: Two chessplayers play for spain’s Future

After Franco’s death, the post-francoist government slowly paved the way to legalise political parties and trade unions. There was one party they couldn’t get around: The Partido Comunista de España (PCE). Having been illegal for 38 years, the general secretary of the party, Santiago Carrillo, did everything he could, to make sure that the PCE would participate in the first democratic elections since the Spanish Civil War.

Soul and head of the PCE:Dolores Ibárruri (sitting) and Santiago Carrillo in the year 1978 (centre, standing)
Nemo/CC BY-SA 3.0

“You and I played a game of chess in which I had to move my pieces according to your moves,” head of government Adolfo Suárez (UCD) flattered the secretary general of the still illegal Partido Comunista de España (PCE), Santiago Carrillo.1 Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 326 It was the evening of 27 February 1977, a rainy Sunday. Only insiders knew about the secret meeting of the two, who at first glance could not be more different: Suárez, an eager worker, made a career in the Franco dictatorship, while Carrillo spent the same time in French exile. Only a few months ago, he had returned to Spain. Now Carrillo is fighting for the legalisation of his communist party.

Ripe for a change

It was only in the summer of 1976 that King Juan Carlos I. appointed Adolfo Suárez as head of government. He was faced with a difficult task: to get a reformist program past the army and through the still Franciscan Congress. Both Suárez and the king were aware that sooner or later there would be no way around legalizing the PCE. At the same time, the PCE was back in the news: the media reported with great interest on an open meeting of the Spanish communists in Rome. In autumn, party books were finally distributed to members in Spain.2Preston, Paul: The Triumph of Democracy in Spain. London & New York 1986, p. 70

Even before Franco’s death, Santiago Carrillo rumbled “Juan Carlos is Franco’s creature and must disappear as soon as Franco is no more.”3Der Spiegel, Nr. 41/1975, p. 117 At the same time, he was aware that sooner or later cooperation with the moderate right would be inevitable. This will also involve compromises that a traditional communist party could not sustain. But Carrillo had fundamentally reformed the PCE. “We are firmly convinced that in Western countries socialism can only be achieved within a democracy and together with all other socialist forces,”4Der Spiegel, Nr. 41/1975, p. 117 said the Eurocommunist, who had distanced himself from Soviet communism since the 1960s.

After Suárez had presented his reform programme in September 1976, the communists feared that next year’s elections would only serve to give a good impression. Although parties and trade unions would be legalized as a first step, Suárez did not think about resigning as head of government after the elections, provided his party could form the government.

Given the PCE’s historic role in the Spanish Civil War, it even felt entitled to be legalized before all other parties. But Suárez was extremely cautious on this issue: it was simply too dangerous.5Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 320f

The return of Carrillo to Spain

The name “Santiago Carrillo” was still well known in Spain. Since the civil war he embodied, together with Dolores Ibárruri, the PCE like no other. This was one of the reasons why he was a hate figure of the extreme right, which saw itself as right by winning the war. A legalization of the party would have meant a defeat not only for the political right, but especially for the military. On 20 November 1976, the extreme right chanted “If Carrillo comes back, let’s make mincemeat out of him”. What they did not know was that Carrillo was already back in Spain at that time, albeit illegally. At the latest on December 10, his stay became known throughout Spain when the PCE invited to a secret press conference.

“Everyone knows that we do not approve of the way in which the king ascended the throne. But the King is here. It’s a reality. If the majority of the people vote for a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy, we Communists will abide by the decision of the Spanish people, as always.”6Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 323
Santiago Carrillo
on December 10, 1976

A few days later, the reform proposals of Adolfo Suárez were approved by the Spanish people with 94% of the vote, although the opposition groups had called for a boycott of the referendum. In contrast to the PCE, the PSOE was at least able to hold its congress in Spain again next year for the first time, even if Suárez postponed it briefly for tactical reasons.7 Der Spiegel, Nr. 03/1977, p. 81 It was the great paradox of the time: despite their illegality, the parties, organisations and trade unions were able to act almost without restriction. Only the Communists were excluded, which in Carrillo gave rise to fears that the PCE could be politically isolated.8Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 323

Since it was now known that Carrillo was back in Spain, he and seven other Communists were arrested on 22 December without resistance. Graffiti, which could be seen everywhere in Madrid, demanded the release of the Communists. After a week and some humiliation by the police, they were released.9Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 323f While Carrillo was still in prison, Cabinet Chief Carmen Diáz of the Rivera received relatives and comrades of the arrested in the prison. Since Carrillo was threatened with a trial that was to take place sometime in the future, he could legally stay in Spain.10Der Spiegel, Nr. 03/1977, p. 81

Matanza atocha

The first years after Franco’s death were marked by terrorist attacks. Both the Basque ETA and extreme right-wing terrorist organisations caused a stir with attacks. In the evening of January 24, 1977, right-wing extremists of the Fuerza Nueva (FN) party shot several communist lawyers and trade unionists near the Madrid train station Atocha.

The attack on the still illegal communists was a provocation that cried out for a counter-action. But the PCE leadership around Santiago Carrillo kept a cool head, knowing full well that this could make a legalization of the party impossible. During a funeral march, party members and sympathisers walked down the street of the attack in complete silence. From a helicopter, King Juan Carlos I and Adolfo Suárez watched the march and were impressed by the communist discipline.11Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 325f

Two chess players and the future of Spain

From 11 February 1977, parties and trade unions could be legalised in accordance with the reform plans that had been adopted. Two and a half weeks later the secret meeting between Carrillo and Suárez took place. The discussion was about the conditions under which the PCE could be legalized. But before that Suárez tried one last trick: the communists could run as independents in the elections in June 1977.

Carrillo did not think much of the idea. “If I go to the stands during the election campaign, of course I declare myself a communist. It would certainly be a silly comedy”12Der Spiegel, Nr. 5/1977, p. 83f Moreover, the General Secretary believed that many would not go to the polls unless the PCE was legalized. This would give the impression that the first democratic elections since the civil war lacked democratic legitimacy, Carrillo argued.13Der Spiegel, Nr. 5/1977, p. 83f

However, Suárez could only accept the legalization of the PCE under certain conditions. The party would have to accept parliamentary monarchy as a form of state, along with the monarchical red-yellow-red state flag. In addition, the party must be open to a future social contract. Carrillo accepted the conditions.14Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 328

The red holy Saturday

Suárez kept his word: he initiated the necessary procedures so that the courts could consider legalizing the party. This happened in Holy Week of all days. On Good Friday, 8 April 1977, the courts said: “There is nothing that would prevent a legalization of the PCE”.15Preston, Paul: El zorro rojo. Barcelona 2015, p. 328 The following Holy Saturday was thus the day of the legalization of the PCE.

“The Spanish Communist Party has regained its right to exist legally. We welcome this fact as a triumph of democracy for which we have not stopped fighting, not even for one day in the 38 years of our hard clandestine existence, a triumph of the reconciliation policy that the Spanish Communist Party has been advocating since 1956 and which today represents the heritage of the vast majority of Spaniards. At a time when justice prevails, we remember with emotion the thousands of Communists who, with the sacrifice of their lives, years in prison and exile, have marked out the difficult path of the Party.”16La Vanguardia, 10.04.1977, p. 01
Partido Comunista de España (PCE)
first press release on April 09, 1977

Legalisation was received very differently. “I consider it a serious political error and a legal farce. … The only country in Europe where communism was defeated is Spain; it is now legalised, without any compensation”, said Manuel Fraga, the former Franciscan minister and founder of the Alianza Popular (AP).

El País spoke of “good news” to normalize the political siutation. The newspaper Arriba took a similar view: “The legalization of the Communist Party was a realistic decision. Criticism came from the right-wing newspapers ABC and El Alcazar. They hoped that the government had been mistaken with its decision, which was generally a serious mistake.17La Vanguardia, 12.04.1977, p. 8

From illegality to Congress

The legalization in April 1977, meant that the PCE could participate in the elections on June 15 with its own lists. The elections were a comeback for the communists: with 9.3% of the votes, they won 20 seats in the Spanish Congress. Both Suárez and Carrillo won the chess game, because they achieved what they wanted from the beginning. However, the case of the two politicians came at the beginning of the 80s: they lost the support in their party.