Spain’s First Communist Minister Since 1939 Was Just Sworn In Today

Alberto Garzón

Today Alberto Garzón was sworn in as a minister in Spain’s new government — the first communist to take up such a role since the Civil War. He spoke to Jacobin about what it means to be a communist today and how Spain’s social movements can shape the next government’s agenda.

Izquierda Unida (United Left) party leader Alberto Garzon speaks during the investiture debate at the Spanish parliament on January 4, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin
Tommy Greene

As Spain’s new government was sworn into office on Monday, January 12, national media spoke of a major political realignment. The country’s most-read daily, El País, called the coalition between the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and Pablo Iglesias’s Unidas Podemos “the first progressive coalition” in “the current democratic period.” More than that, it is the first such government of the Left since the Popular Front was overthrown by Francisco Franco in the Civil War of 1936–39.

The new cabinet includes several figures who seek to reclaim that government’s anti-fascist legacy, from Iglesias to sociologist Manuel Castells. But perhaps most striking is the case of Alberto Garzón, today sworn in by King Felipe VI as Spain’s first communist minister in eighty years. Leader of the United Left — an umbrella group which includes the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), of which he is a member — Garzón has been a key player in Unidas Podemos’ drive to enter government over the last three years. He is joined in government by Yolanda Diaz, a labor-rights lawyer and veteran activist of the Galician Communist Party who is now Labor Minister.

In April 2019, Garzón sat down for an in-depth interview with Jacobin contributors Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene, published in Tribune. In this previously unpublished extract, Garzón talked about what communism can mean in the twenty-first century — and what the Left can hope to achieve by wielding governmental power.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene

You recently published a book entitled Por que soy comunista [Why I’m a Communist]. What exactly does it mean to be a Communist today?

Alberto Garzón

The problems that afflict working-class families in Spain are to a large extent connected to the profit motive being set above any sense of social gain or benefit. There are families who suffer the cold all winter because they can’t afford to pay their electricity bills, since energy companies have decided to raise prices during these months in order to maximize profits. Other such examples can be found in rent payments and the privatization of public health care, as outsourced emergency care is increasingly being prioritized at the expense of primary care.

This worsens people’s quality of life even in one of the countries with the highest life expectancy, just behind Japan. And all this is because market criteria are being put ahead of anything else. When the market’s priorities have to be the foremost governance criteria, we clearly have a problem — as well as a tension between the profit-seeking logic of capitalism and the needs of ordinary families.

Grasping this is at the core of what I understand communism to be. My communism isn’t a folkloric, symbolic, or aesthetic communism that simply lives through nostalgia. It’s a way of confronting the social and environmental problems we have, in the face of an economic system which is leading us to disaster. It works off the etymology of what “radical” means — that is, to get to the roots of problems.

So, my idea of communism is very open. Perhaps in other countries it is understood in another way, but in Spain the communists are those who helped bring about democracy in the 1970s and who defended the Second Republic in the 1930s. Communism doesn’t have the same connotations that it may have in Eastern Europe, or in places where anticommunist propaganda has been extremely effective.

And this vision of communism needs to understand the need to reckon with the problems that face us today. Historically socialism hasn’t taken on board questions like feminism and environmentalism, but these need to be incorporated. This isn’t new — it has been the case since as far back as the 1980s. But Spain is one of the countries in the world where feminism is currently strongest, and we’re one of the European countries that is going to be most heavily impacted by climate change and ecological collapse.

We need to build a space that I would call “eco-socialist” or “eco-communist” — although at the end of the day, labels don’t interest me that much. I’m a lot more concerned with people understanding what it is we want to do — to construct an alternative to a society dominated by the accumulation of private profit.

This country no longer has a large industrial working class in the traditional sense. Many of its social classes are disperse and heterogeneous, and many of them are radical as well as left-wing. In a recent BBVA survey, 90 percent of respondents favored higher taxes on banks and clamping down on high salaries. In this sense, it’s a very progressive society — but one which finds itself in a very different context to that of Fordist capitalism. There aren’t thousands-strong firms in the classic Fordist sense where everyone finds themselves performing their labor together in the same physical space. The workplace nowadays is not the place where people construct their life and forms of community — life takes place to a much greater extent in neighborhoods and even online.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene

When it comes to furthering such an eco-socialist project, the weakness of organized labor in Spain represents a massive challenge. There has been a lot of focus on social movements, given their prominent roles in mass demonstrations in recent years in this country. But what role do you see trade unions as having in any left-wing breakthrough in Spain?

Alberto Garzón

Spain’s largest trade union [CCOO] has been forced to engage in some reflection recently. Historically, unions have sought a corporatist pact with capital. They have never really had a wider alternative proposal for the country. This left trade unions trapped in the postwar era where the conflict between capital and labor was institutionalized.

Today, there is nobody on the other side interested in dialogue. Corporations don’t want to speak with unions. Trade unions have to reflect on how best to set out new formulas. Many precarious workers are not currently affiliated to unions, in part because of the legal barriers to organizing. Getting beyond this means overcoming the traditional boundaries that circumscribe the movement.

Spain’s trade union movement has fought public service and pension cuts in recent years but been less of a decisive force than social movements.

That’s where left-wing political parties come in. We are of two different cultures, which sometimes can make this kind of connection difficult. You collide with one another at first and then you have to begin to come closer and work together. And we need to be quick about doing it. In my opinion, there won’t be any kind of left-wing transformation in this country if it doesn’t have trade unions and political parties backing it.

But we also need to be able to effectively link organized actors across the board. In recent years, the major mobilizations — such as the Indignados in 2011 and 2014 — have been social movements. Trade unions were at the margins. There were many trade unionists within these social mobilizations, of course, but they weren’t there under instruction or as part of a strategic move.

Strikes are powerful to the extent that the conflict becomes institutionalized and recognized as up for negotiation. The problem is that big companies don’t recognize strikes today in the same way that strikes might have been considered, say, thirty years ago. Then, you could put a temporary stop to an industrial sector and the country would be paralyzed for as long as the strike went on. Today, the power of the industrial sector has been so heavily weakened that similar strikes wouldn’t have the same effect.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene

Though David Harvey would argue there are other sectors in the new “urban” working class that could paralyze the country in a similar way.

Alberto Garzón

Yes. In fact, the feminist movement is experimenting in this currently. The feminist movement has called for a “care strike,” meaning that the care and domestic spheres — as well as traditional sectors of work — are also affected. Such a strike goes beyond a classic strike that would impact certain sectors with high numbers of female employees (such as services or banks). It involves a number of sectors that don’t fall within the traditional remit of what is formally considered to be “work,” instead placing an emphasis on unrecognized forms of labor such as care within a family context.

It’s interesting because the strike will probably be a success. But it will be in sectors where such a [women’s] strike wouldn’t previously have been successful. And in sectors where it previously would’ve been successful, the effects won’t be felt to the same degree as they are in many male-dominated sectors. It’s a novel and experimental form of strike, which we saw in last year’s International Women’s Day mobilizations too, working to develop new mechanisms to point to the material realities we just mentioned. Last year the [conservative] Popular Party government had to reform state pensions because pensioners had mobilized every day in front of the national parliament as well as in other regions and provinces across Spain.

This pressure mechanism continues to work. And many small-scale strikes in industries or companies like Vodafone have made advances and have won. But we’re not talking about general strikes here — we’re talking about other, more limited and specific experiences. The Left is having to innovate because Spain has its own specific industrial composition and weight — Spain doesn’t have the same industrial clout, for instance, as some central European countries do.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene

How would you evaluate the left-populist movements that emerged in Europe in recent years? Political forces like your allies Podemos or La France Insoumise have been able to advance on the electoral field, but within societies that lack strong forms of collective organization and identification. It is quite possible that Unidas Podemos could reach government, as part of a coalition, but with a very weak extra-parliamentary left. What margin do you see yourselves as having in this scenario?

Alberto Garzón

The experiences that could be considered “left populist” have won by being anti-establishment at heart. I think this is very important, because it means breaking with the traditions of a Third Way left that had assumed the limits of the political system — and here comes to mind Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement about Tony Blair being her “greatest achievement.” Breaking with this is one of the virtues of these heterogeneous movements, from the Latin American versions to Corbynism, Melenchon’s platform in France, or Podemos and its various confluences here.

In Spain, a kind of populism has been upheld that is at some remove from the traditions and culture of the Left. I don’t think it has to be like this. Corbyn clearly represents a link to the historic British traditions of socialism and the labor movement. There has been a certain sector of Podemos — represented most clearly by [co-founder and former Campaign Director] Íñigo Errejón — that opts for a type of populism which distances itself from such traditions.

In any case, I think the main virtue of these different movements has been the kind of rupture they have represented. As Karl Polanyi indicated, there are moments when the free market generates a great number of “losers,” particularly when it makes considerable advances in its overall management of our lives (in the same way that globalization generates winners and losers). It is not certain or preordained which political option these “losers” will side with, in search of protection. In theory it could be anything — even fascism.

This is where the political battle lies. So, left-wing organizations that have achieved the best [electoral] results are the ones that have managed to connect with this sense of a rupture with the established way of doing things and offer protection. This is especially true if they have successfully managed to locate and articulate who exactly the enemy is: for instance, the enemy isn’t the immigrant, it’s the bank; the poor are not the enemy, it’s the financial system. This kind of discourse, often labelled “populist” by mainstream commentators, is in fact backed up by a great deal of existing data and information.

The recognition that political limits are defined by objective conditions is nothing new. Lenin knew that although the revolution had taken place in Russia, it needed to happen in Europe as well. Similarly, when Alexis Tsipras won in Greece, he couldn’t be expected to take on European or global capital and bring about socialism single-handedly. Then, Greece made up 2 percent of the eurozone. Spain makes up 12 percent now. You clearly have some margin of maneuver — in some cases more and in others less — depending on the instrument you wield. In economics, you have limits. For example, you can’t stop relying on energy all of a sudden — you have to undergo a transition process, which takes time and obvious costs. Sheer voluntarism or idealism doesn’t get you anywhere.

But the margins are very wide — at least in countries like Spain, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But the battle is at its core a cultural one [as well as obviously an economic one]. It’s a battle of ideas over convincing people that we do, indeed, “know what we’re doing,” or answering other such arguments deployed against us.

Essentially, it’s a question of distribution, distribution of money, of power and of riches [in its broader sense]. This is the real battle. This is the real class struggle. The power of understanding how we distribute everything, from time to resources. That’s where our greatest sense of possibility is and it’s where we best connect with people. Throughout this [economic] crisis, people in Spain, at least, have understood that it’s not right to viciously cut health, education, and pensions while banks and private motorway companies are bailed out. I believe this is the heart of the question.