The 23F coup attempt and the Spanish monarchy: a communist critique

23 February, 2021

23F spanish monarchy coup attempt

40th anniversary of the February 23rd coup attempt (23F): the Spanish monarchy and the Congress celebrates its commemoration as if it were a national holiday and the TV news start again with the images of Tejero and a young King Juan Carlos. The state wants to revitalize the myth that legitimized the 1978 regime and the monarchy. The media strive to find new scoops and the radio and public television stations focus on producing new content. But what was 23F really about? What were its historical consequences? What did it mean for the workers?

Table of Contents

The official 23F history

23F spanish monarchy coup attempt

The official 23F history is that the coup was the product of a conspiracy between Francoist military officers confronted with the course taken by the Transition (autonomous governments, legalization of the PCE, the possibility of a left-wing government, the rise of terrorism, etc.), who sought to suspend the 1978 Constitution, massively crack down on the opposition at the time and impose a military junta.

According to this version, Spanish monarchy in the person of King Juan Carlos stopped the coup by calling one by one the heads of the military regions, disassociating himself from the moves of two of his most trusted men in the Land Army – General Armada and General Milans del Bosch, who had seized Valencia – and demanding their personal loyalty towards the throne.

The unofficial 23F histories

There are many unofficial histories. Most of them coincide in denouncing the participation of the Spanish monarchy in one way or another in the military-political plot that organized the coup.

The best documented -and subversive to the official history- is the one appearing in a book by Pilar Urbano, paradoxically a journalist close for a long time to the Royal House and a member of Opus Dei, who thoroughly interviewed all the protagonists of the moment and especially the then president of the government, Adolfo Suárez.

According to Urbano’s version, the coup was born from Operation Armada, an attempt by King Juan Carlos to remove Suárez and form a government of national concentration with all the major pro-NATO parties -PSOE included- around his friend and tutor the monarchist General Alfonso Armada, who also thought of including in his government even a minister from the PCE, Tamames. The king would have encouraged sabre-rattling to push Suárez to hand over power to a new government instead of calling elections as he wanted. Suárez finally resigned and his party, the UCD, against his better judgment, tried to form a new government in Parliament by presenting Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo.

But the military plot continued partly by inertia and partly by Armada’s personal ambition. By the time it erupted, it was already useless to the aims of the Spanish monarchy, and – although royal hesitation was apparent in the early hours – the king eventually opposed the coup he himself had incited, playing an important role in thwarting it.

According to the journalist, the trigger for 23F was the US pressure to remove Suárez from the Spanish government. For Washington, incorporating Spain into NATO was a priority and Suárez was opposed to it. Discontented, nostalgic and careerists with their own agendas clustered around this axis.

Urbano’s interpretation is also supported by the fact that Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo’s government which emerged after the coup would sign the Spanish incorporation to NATO and the PSOE changed its position on the participation in the military alliance.

The week after and the 27F demonstration

23F spain monarchy

But 23F as a political myth was in no way a deliberate attempt to ideologically justify a shift of the state nor a greater alignment with the U.S. bloc. It was rather a happy accident born of the need to create an exculpatory narrative for the king and the parties that had been in conversation with Armada in the previous weeks.

This story, the true founding myth of the 1978 regime, is originally a way to get out of the rumors of the moment. But it soon became a lasting myth, rather accidentally. From the very night of 23F, the press focused on the fear of a massive military crackdown and built a prudish contrast between democracy and military dictatorship which had not quite taken hold until then.

When the parties realized the effect, they called a demonstration of national unity on the 27th in Madrid. The story in El País is very significant of the success of the ideological operation promoted by the radio stations and newspapers and how the parties hopped into the bandwagon of the Spanish monarchy:

Freedom, democracy and the Constitution brought together yesterday, in Madrid, the largest demonstration ever held in the history of Spain. Approximately one and a half million people filled the entire route of the march -between the Embajadores roundabout and the Plaza de las Cortes-, along with all the adjacent streets, buildings under construction, trees and any place where a person could stand.

The immense crowd transformed the front of the demonstration into the “center” of the enormous human concentration, with masses in front and behind shouting “Long live freedom”, “Long live democracy” and “Long live the King”, since it was impossible to keep the silence that the organizers had initially requested. […]

“The people united will never be defeated”, “Democracy and freedom”, “Democracy yes, dictatorship no”, were slogans that were repeated throughout the route. […] An old man, with his left fist clenched and raised, held a banner that read “Long live the King.”

The political leaders leading the demonstration encouraged the citizens who crowded along the route to chant the cries of “Freedom,” “Democracy” and “Constitution.” But the response elicited each time referred to the popular desire for “democracy, yes; dictatorship, no.”

At a certain point, the secretary general of the PSOE, Felipe González, took a megaphone, and trying to overcome the voices of the demonstrators, shouted incessantly: “Freedom, freedom, freedom”. Santiago Carrillo [PCE secretary general], at his side, followed him in the shouts, while waving around him.[…]

Felipe González, crushed against the barriers of the National Police, blew to Rosa María Mateo [public TV journalist], at the end of the demonstration, the shouts of “Long live freedom!” and “Long live the Constitution! “, which were not foreseen at the end of the text of the unitary speech of the parties and which were repeated by the announcer of Televisión Española.

Rosa Mateo, having completed the reading of the message, was about to come down from the small tribune when the first secretary of the Socialist party shouted at her, stimulating her to return and give the vivas, to which she added a final “Long live Spain! “[…]

At the beginning of the demonstration, Felipe González said, “We hope this serves to make the military realize once and for all that the people want democracy.” One of the leaders of AP, Jorge Verstrynge, said that this demonstration means “the containment of the military coup and the unanimous cry of they will not pass.” On the Paseo del Prado, Santiago Carrillo, absolutely thrilled, told EL PAIS that it was “the biggest demonstration I have seen in my life, and that I have seen many.”

The largest demonstration in the history of Spain paraded through the streets of Madrid yesterday. El País, February 28, 1981

The effect was so overwhelming that the extra-parliamentary left – and the PCE as a big party – were no longer necessary to legitimize the system and the political apparatus. Spanish democracy will not need for many years anyone claiming that another democracy is possible in order to draw the discontented onto its wheel.

A note accompanying the news of the demonstration in El País, that same day, is very significant. It is entitled Police broke up a small far-left group and recounts the Waterloo moment of the LCR (now Anticapitalistas), then the largest political group lacking representation in Parliament, during that demonstration. The police charged them when they tried to organize a march of their own before joining the general demonstration, despite having agreed to do so with the organizers. Nobody defended them.

When they finally managed to merge into the general crowd and try to chant their slogans against the Spanish monarchy and for the purge of the military commanders, the other demonstrators ordered them to shut up or even kicked them out.

The political apparatus characteristic of the so-called 1978 regime emerged at that time: all the forces opposed to the Constitution would be left out of the parliamentary picture in the 1982 elections. To my left stands the abyss, sentenced the soon-to-be vice-president of the Socialist government, Alfonso Guerra. On the right, the same thing happened. Manuel Fraga’s AP (later PP) absorbs a nostalgic vote which feels ashamed. The Francoist and national Catholic far right of Fuerza Nueva will also lose its only representative in 1982.

The historical significance of the 23F myth for the workers

Number of strikes in Spain since 1975

The massive extension of the 23F myth is the second act of a full-fledged ideological defeat. The first was the campaign for the 1978 Constitution. Between the two, as we see in the graph above, a long wave of struggles beginning in the 1960s was broken.

Wage share in Spanish GDP since 1978. The labor share only grows when capital crashes and has not yet had time to attack wages, spending on labor power maintenance and working conditions even more.

If the struggles recover, at least numerically after the 1978 constitutional referendum, after 23F they plummet. When there are upturns they will actually be closing strikes, well organized by the unions, hand in hand with the socialist government, to force reconversions and deindustrialization down the workers’ throats by limiting any resistance to the negotiation of dismissal conditions.

The myth of 23F marked two generations of workers. Not because the left of the PCE disappeared – a left which did no good to the struggles and the development of class consciousness – but because it tied workers to the defense of democracy.

The mass assumption that defending democracy was the first goal and necessity of the workers aborted any development of struggles against industrial reconversions. The transfer of rents from labor to capital and the onset of precarization, then almost exclusively restricted to young workers, were imposed without the workers being able to assert their own forms of organization and a class alternative to the modernization of capital.

Contrary to what podemitsts, stalinists and others tell us, the ideological defeat is what made the left unnecessary, defeats are not due to the lack of influence of the parties on PSOE’s left.

Why is the 23F always coming back?

monarchy spain

The 2008 crisis was the trigger for a series of movements of the petty bourgeoisie, which from 15M and Podemos’ boom to the fake independence of Catalonia and the reappearance of Vox have put the political apparatus of the Spanish bourgeoisie in crisis. A crisis that, as the recent Catalan elections have shown, is still far from being closed.

This divorce and radicalization of the petty bourgeoisie has gone hand in hand with a proliferation of internal battles within the ruling class, reflecting and feeding fractures at different levels. All kinds of scandals have been made public and the ideological consensuses of the 1978 Regime have been seriously eroded. Among them the consensus on the Spanish monarchy. The true king’s gambit of King Juan Carlos’s exile is far from having been enough to calm the waters.

But one would be wrong to interpret the current attempt to rescue and update the myth of 23F exclusively in terms of the recovery of King Juan Carlos or even of rescuing the Spanish monarchy. The petty bourgeoisie does not have the strength to impose by itself the change of the form of government. In fact, it is not even unanimously republican: Vox, representative of a certain Aznarite, nationalist and neoliberal petty bourgeoisie, has become a noisy vindicator of Juancarlismo, proving itself once again at the antipodes of European far-right populism.

The bottom line is that in one way or another – peripheral independentism, podemist republicanism and voxite juancarlismo – they erode not only the political apparatus and its legitimacy, but also the idea of the need to sacrifice oneself in order to defend democracy which workers have been internalizing for forty years.

What the Spanish bourgeoisie wants now is to polish the democratic myth. That is why it is trying to recover its original narrative. Not to save Juan Carlos, but despite not having any inclination to do so.

We are only at the beginning of the biggest economic crisis for a century. And they plan to revive national capital as usual: by attacking the living conditions and the most basic needs of the workers. Only now that attack would be probably bigger than ever before. They know that workers’ struggles and resistance are inevitable. So the objective is not so much to shore up the Spanish monarchy as it is to reaffirm a democratic consensus capable of keeping any workers’ struggle in impotence.