Centrist

Julio Anguita (1941–2020)

On May 16, Julio Anguita passed away at the Reina Sofia hospital in his native Córdoba, Andalusia, after a third and final heart failure. This was the passing of a giant of Spanish politics, a figure who played a crucial role in the post-Franco “Transition” as well as in the development of the Left. From 1988 general-secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), Anguita was the founding leader of Izquierda Unida (IU; United Left), today part of Unidas Podemos. 

Anguita had withdrawn from active parliamentary life in the early 2000s — a previous health scare, and the tragic death of his war-correspondent son in Iraq, turned him away from front-line politics. Yet in his work as a commentator and author, as in his past efforts as an MP, Anguita was both revered and reviled as the scourge of Felipe González’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and of political backsliders across the spectrum. Detested by the establishment and its press, Anguita remained widely cherished by the Spanish public. This was palpable even after his death, in the three days of mourning in Córdoba, the city of which he was mayor for seven years. The town hall received over 16,000 online condolences and crowds broke quarantine rules to sing the Internationale as his coffin, draped in the red flag, entered the mortuary chapel, amid standing ovations that lasted for almost twenty minutes. 

Anguita was particularly hailed as an example of integrity. In later years, rather than accept the MP’s pension to which he was entitled, Anguita generous-mindedly returned to teach history at a secondary school. Yet while the public regarded Anguita as a man of principle, his didactic and sincere approach came into conflict with political culture of a young democracy desperately looking to be accepted into the European fold. Many of the policies today synonymous with Podemos and the indignados movement — uniting left-wing forces under a common program, rejecting the two-party system and corruption, opposing neoliberal reforms, and designing a municipal politics based on popular assemblies and grassroots movements — were in fact first spearheaded by Anguita in Andalusia in the mid-1980s. His passing invites reflection on the advance of those politics — and the transformations in the Spanish left since the return to democracy. 

Anguita’s role in the Spanish left reflected the political background from which he emerged, in the latter phases of the Franco regime. He thought himself the product of an “internal” or grassroots Spanish communism. Operating clandestinely under the shadow of the dictatorship, this “internal” communism was built by the allegiances between associations of workers, feminist groups and socially minded Catholic organizations. To this he opposed the image of an “external” current, in the form of the Moscow-influenced PCE led in exile by Santiago Carrillo and Dolores Ibárruri during Franco’s regime. 

Anguita joined the underground PCE in the late 1970s, shortly after qualifying as a secondary school teacher. After the death of the dictator and King Juan Carlos’s recognition of the PCE, in 1979 Anguita made his political debut. After heading the PCE list in Córdoba’s first municipal elections since before the Spanish Civil War — winning eight of twenty-seven council seats — Anguita formed a coalition with the Socialists in the historic city. 

This was a period of transformation in the PCE, as it struggled to establish itself as a mass force in the new parliamentary order. Indeed, already by 1982, the PCE was faring poorly at the national level, and won just four seats in that year’s general elections. Long-time leader Carrillo was replaced by Gerardo Iglesias as general secretary, confirming the PCE’s move away from Eurocommunism and back towards the USSR. 

At the local level, however, Anguita’s popularity continued to rise — and in 1983 the Communists obtained an outright majority in Córdoba’s municipal elections, on 58 percent of the vote. With Anguita as mayor, Córdoba became a beacon of modernity: the local bus company and Grand Theater were taken under municipal control, Franco-era street names were changed, and a culture of public service as opposed to private cronyism was encouraged. 

This also meant a shift within the Andalusian Communists. Recognizing the disintegration of what he called the “external” PCE — incapable of challenging the PSOE’s hegemony over the Left — Anguita decided to open up his own party to grassroots influences. He played a key role in founding a broader federation known as the Assembly for Andalusia.

For most of its history, the PCE’s main aim had been to overthrow Franco’s regime by way of popular uprisings, clandestine activity, and armed struggle. Its leaders, living in exile in Paris and Moscow, passed on directives to younger militants inside Spain, tasking them with fomenting a culture opposed to the regime. Anguita saw himself as a descendent of those who had been forced to flee the country after defeat in the civil war. 

However, for many young Communists born in Spain during the dictatorship, the leaders of the “external” PCE were hopelessly out of touch. This was most apparent when Carrillo’s leadership gave the order for a general strike in 1958. Such a call  disregarded on-the-ground reports from Jorge Semprún and Fernando Claudín that a combination of rising living standards, foreign recognition of the regime, and aggressive state-backed anticommunism in fact made such uprisings unlikely.

The “internal” PCE current of modernizers or renovadores — associated with the likes of Anguita, Semprún, and Claudín — felt that Carrillo’s image of Spain remained stuck in 1936, when the population had no choice but to call for international aid in its fight against the forces of reaction. Only after expelling Semprún and Claudín did Carrillo accept that Franco would be removed by democratic means rather than by a popular uprising led by the PCE in exile.

Championing Eurocommunism, Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti’s polycentrism, and the idea of collaborating with a given institutional framework, Carrillo gave the PCE a more moderate image in Spain. He was later to be hailed a hero of the Transition, as someone who had managed to work with the monarchy and existing institutions to legalize the Party. Yet not only had his condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 offended many pro-Soviet figures, but Eurocommunism was insufficient for many modernizers.

This particularly owed to the PCE’s relations with Felipe González’s PSOE.  The Carrillo wing had always encouraged cooperation with the PSOE, because it recognized it as a democratic “institution” that could be worked through on the road to socialism. The Left, however, was infuriated by Felipe González’s labor, pension, and industrial reforms, as well as his pro-NATO stance. Anguita’s own project of “Left Unity,” ultimately leading to the formation of Izquierda Unida, rejected such close cooperation with the more liberal PSOE.

After the disaster of the 1982 election, Carrillo resigned as secretary general, singling out Gerardo Iglesias as his successor. Knowing that Iglesias had never wanted the job, Carrillo hoped to persuade his successor into sharing power. So, when Iglesias, a former miner, stepped up to the role and refused the secret offer, Carrillo was incensed, and worked to actively undermine the “internal” leadership sympathetic to the renovadores. Iglesias worked together with Anguita, liberals, and renovadores to expel Carrillo and his followers in 1985, accusing these of disobeying party directives. With Carrillo gone, Iglesias initiated a process of “Communist Unity,” absorbing Enrique Lister’s pro-Soviet PCPOE and Ignacio Gallego’s PCPE. 

This all prepared the ground for Anguita’s own unity project. Charismatic, authoritative, experienced at the municipal level, and committed to tackling the “pseudo-left,” he drove the formation of Izquierda Unida (IU) in 1986 from a broad coalition of groups to the left of the PSOE. On the back of consistently strong performances in Andalusia, Anguita took over from Iglesias as secretary general of the PCE in 1988 and of the IU in 1989. 

Despite such advances, the broader historical conditions threatened disaster for the PCE. This was, after all the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, deep crisis in the Italian Communist Party, and the rise of third-way social democracy. Yet in the October 29, 1989 general election IU took seventeen seats — up from just four in 1982 — even as Felipe González’s PSOE achieved a third consecutive majority. Anguita had managed to reproduce his local electoral success at the national level.

The young IU remained riven by internal tensions — accentuated by the debate over the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the European Union and in particular the single currency. IU was, in part, the product of the increasing number of Marxist-Leninist, anti-Carrillo, and pro-Soviet splinter groups emerging from the rubble of the PCE. But it also had to appease its more centrist pro-European wing, including by showing itself to be a credible electoral force. In 1992, the IU leadership abstained on Maastricht to appease its small but influential and pro-Europe “New Left” current — in spite of the majority’s opposition to the Treaty.  

The early 1990s were a challenging time for the Spanish left. A young constitutional and social welfare state is attempting to take shape amid rampant corruption, a construction boom, a commitment to economic laissez faire by both the PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular (PP), a wave of crime and heroin addiction, and unprecedented levels of social and economic inequality. 

But cracks were also opening up in the PSOE’s hegemony over the Left. It gradually emerged that during Felipe González’s first two terms in office, government officials had enlisted and financed illegal death squads (GAL) to kill members of the Basque terrorist group ETA. With the government embroiled in scandal, Anguita saw an opportunity to break open the PSOE-PP bipartisan straitjacket. After IU won eighteen seats in the 1993 general elections, Anguita’s leadership was validated and González lost his majority for the first time since 1983. 

Yet this did not mean that the PSOE welcomed IU into a left-wing coalition. Rather, González chose to govern with the pro-independence Catalan party Convergencia y Unión (CiU) and the Basque PNV. The CiU at the time is led by none other than Jordi Pujol, one of the most corrupt politicians in Spain’s recent history. Yet the damage that such coalitions are now seen to have wrought — involving quid pro quo allegiances in which minority governments in Madrid are propped up by manifestly crooked regional forces behind the backs of the majority of Spanish voters — are, in the fantasy world of many journalists, somehow the result of Anguita’s intransigence towards González’s “neoliberal” PSOE. Privately, Anguita told party members that the PSOE did not stem from the same political “family” as IU. Publicly, he stated that if the PSOE wanted to govern in coalition with IU, it would have to collaborate on developing a left-wing “program.” Many felt that Anguita was intentionally demanding the impossible from the PSOE — that he was more concerned with overtaking González on the left, as he’d done in Córdoba, than in keeping the Right or regional nationalists out of government,

Anguita is detested by establishment figures across the spectrum, not least because of the evocative language with which he described the similarities between the center-left PSOE and the conservative PP. According to Anguita, Spain was a country with “two shores;” these two main parties both occupy the same shore, with only Izquierda Unida on the opposite shore. This was, however, willfully misinterpreted by the press as a claim that the two main parties were identical — and combined with the accusation that he and the PP formed a “pincer movement” attacking the PSOE from both Left and Right. Such accusations were widely orchestrated in order to discredit IU and Anguita personally. 

Thanks to the respect he commanded during his time as mayor of Córdoba, Anguita came to be known as “The Red Caliph” (a moniker he detested). To his detractors, Anguita was a dogmatic figure; according to a recent op-ed in center-left daily El País, he preferred to repudiate what exists rather than deal with the messy realities of politics. For such commentators, his commitment to abstract principles stank of a moral and ideological superiority that was out of place in post-Franco Madrid. Yet as Anguita made clear, the “two shores” theory did not imply that the two parties are the same, but that they both produced the same outcome, namely, neoliberal destruction and more corruption in public life. 

There is reason to take Anguita’s account seriously. The vast majority of legislation during the decades of PP-PSOE domination owed to both parties voting the same way. Often, the two parties collaborated to rescind or water down social rights set out by the ambitious post-Franco Constitution, as was the case with the reform of article 135 in 2011, which prioritized paying off public debt over social spending. In many ways, we might see Anguita’s opposition of establishment and anticapitalist “shores” as anticipating Podemos’s own opposition of the ruling caste (casta) and people (pueblo), or perhaps even anticipating the idea of an “extreme center” or “neoliberal consensus” in the English-speaking world. 

The campaign against IU gathered momentum after the PSOE lost its majority and Anguita had his first heart scare in 1993 (he allegedly smoked more than two packs a day). As well as facing legal backlash over the GAL, in 1994 the PSOE had to contend with the humiliation over the escape of PSOE politician and police chief Luis Roldán, who fled the country to avoid facing trial over corruption charges. 

With the government at its knees, pro-PSOE commentators at El País, Cadena SER, and Canal Plus fed that idea the Anguita had decided to engineer a pincer movement with PP leader Aznar in order to achieve the much desired sorpasso over the PSOE — that is, to remove it from its role as hegemon on the Left. 

In fact, Anguita did meet with Aznar to discuss the possibility of supporting the latter’s bid for a vote of no-confidence in 1995; though in any case this would have needed support beyond IU ranks to succeed in ousting González. In Andalusia, IU and the PP did, indeed, try to block all of the governing PSOE’s proposals with a view to forcing new elections. 

Yet while Anguita had called for González’s resignation in the past, Izquierda Unida rejected Aznar’s proposed motion of no-confidence in the PSOE government at the national level. Yet elections came anyhow in 1996, after González’s Catalan partners reneged on a key legislative agreement. The result was a bitter pill to swallow for many social democrats. Not only did IU reach an historic high of twenty-one seats with over two million votes, but Aznar formed a minority PP government with the support of the very same nationalist CiU and PNV that González had preferred to IU and the Left three long years earlier. 

This was the spur for the PSOE and its ideological and media apparatus to increase its attacks on Anguita’s party. IU was living proof that there was life on the Left beyond the neoliberalized and corrupt Socialists — and for many, this competition was intolerable. Conspiracy theories abound as to how it was ultimately achieved, but, in 1994, the IU suffered an historic split. Three IU diputados from the so-called New Left current went against the party line by refusing to vote against the PP government’s labor reforms. Anguita expelled them from the party; however, instead of giving up their seats in Congress, the three diputados instead held onto their places by cooking up a new “Democratic Party of the New Left” (PDNI). Not long after, the PDNI was incorporated into the PSOE. 

Today, IU is part of Unidas Podemos — a force that is in government coalition with the PSOE. From the Right’s point of view, the government is  a “zombie” coalition of PSOE, Podemos, and anti-Spanish regional nationalists. These forces have themselves had often stormy relations. Yet the rise of the far-right party Vox brought the Left together for a vote of no-confidence in Mariano Rajoy’s PP government in 2018, and at the end of 2019 an anemic PSOE accepted Unidas Podemos as its coalition partner. Today, the coalition’s main aims are defensive: to tone down the conflict in Catalonia, keep out the Right, and curb the social impact of the economic crisis and coronavirus outbreak, Unidas Podemos would still do well to heed Anguita’s warnings over the threat posed by the PSOE’s liberal wing. 

After a second heart scare in 1999, Anguita stepped down as coordinator-general of IU. Things would never be the same either for the IU federation or the PCE. Nevertheless, in spite of ailing health and the loss of his son, Anguita continued to haunt the neoliberal establishment from Córdoba. A frequent television guest, Anguita wrote hundreds of articles and several well-received books, while also teaching history at a local secondary school. In 2012 he founded the influential cross-party social movement known as the Civic Front or Frente Cívico. The movement’s goal was to reproduce the achievements of the Assembly for Andalusia, namely the unification of the left along the lines of a common political project. “Program, program, program” went Anguita’s favorite dictum. 

As opposed to the exiled PCE’s popular front politics — postulating a broad pact among all democratic forces, often with little positive definition — Anguita regarded the idea of the program as a practical means of achieving effective alliances among socialists and communists from the ground up. 

The Civic Front aimed to establish cross-party agreement on a ten-point list of political reforms that articulated the demands of the indignados’ anti-austerity movement. For this reason, Anguita chose not to endorse what is now Pablo Iglesias’ and Irene Montero’s Podemos, until it incorporated his old IU party. 

After Anguita’s withdrawal from parliamentary life, it almost became a rite of passage for young left-wing intellectuals and political figures to visit him for advice over an aperitif at his favourite café in Córdoba. Rather than a caliph or oracular figure, Juan Manuel Aragüés recalls him, above all, as a secular thinker who liked to end IU meetings proclaiming “the gods are dead! Long live humanity!” 

Anguita will be remembered, as he liked to say, as a “communist with an anarchist’s heart,” for his lapidary formulations (“why should we be forced to choose between fascism and the dictatorship of the market?”). But, above all, he will be known as a man of immense integrity and generosity who spent much of his life trying to fight for a fairer and more equal Spain. 

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