Eighty years ago this April, Spain fell under a thirty-year dictatorship after Right beat Left in a brutal civil war. That history feels acutely alive to me today, and not just because, for the first time in my life, I’m in Spain.
General Franco’s rebels, backed by Mussolini and Hitler and the religious extremists of the day, defeated the Republic and its cobbled-together army of anarchists, communists and internationalists over three years (1936-39). My grandfather, Claud Cockburn, was there with the fighting in Spain’s central plains and in the city of Barcelona as it was hanging on, watching bombs hit the northern mountains that I’ve been looking at for days.
Today, Spain is holding steady. Prime minister Pedro Sanchez and his socialist party expanded power in regional and national elections and became the biggest social democrat block in the EU. The nationalist populists did less well than they bragged they’d do in most of Europe, but the Left’s parties generally did the same, and progressives are relying on the Spanish and Portuguese to hold the bigots at bay in Brussels while, from Brazil to Bethlehem and Bombay to DC’s Beltway, the stink of fascism is in the air.
It was windy yesterday, and between rain showers, we talked about being buffeted by old tensions: nationalism vs internationalism, authoritarianism vs democracy, elitism vs cooperation, patriarchy and racism vs intersectionality and the common good.
“The story of resilience resonates,” said Loren Harris, Chief Program and Strategy Officer with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in Oakland, which supports organizations working in the arts, education, and health. History is part of what draws internationalists like Harris back to this region. Another is its experiment in solidarity.
“In the twentieth century, it was monarchy that was crashing. Today, it’s the rule of capital,” said the Democracy Collaborative’s Marjorie Kelly,* who, with Harris, was part of a delegation to study the area’s co-operatives.
Claud described the co-ops and free clinics that helped Barcelonans survive under siege. For the past four years, Barcelona en Comu has been continuing that tradition, expanding public assets and public decision-making under the city’s first female mayor, activist Ada Colau. Here in Basque country, which was occupied and punished by Franco, a liberation theologian preached job creation through cooperation and birthed the Mondragon Federation, now the biggest network of worker-owned cooperatives in the world. Recently, the OECD reported that this co-op rich community has one of the narrowest wealth gaps on the continent, which is to say, the rich extract less relative to the poor—or put another way, the place is more fair.
In Barcelona, Claud read from the wall posters: “We want prosperity for the whole people and we know this is possible within our democratic republic; that is why we defend the Republic, just as we defend the rightful liberties of Catalonia, the Basque country, Galicia and Morocco.”
As ever, Spain’s Left has fissures. This Sunday, a Catalan separatist edged out Ada Colau in the race for Mayor. Left voters are a majority, but their parties are divided here, and globally, as they’ve been before.
There’s no war in these mountains—no Guernica being bombed tonight. Still, I recall Claud describing how stakes pile high slowly as the barometer moves to storm.
As one onlooker told Claud almost 80 years ago, "I suppose you and I think the rich are going to sit quiet and—what’s the phrase—accept the verdict of the people? Like hell they are."
Which way is the barometer moving? Next stop for me is Barcelona.
*Marjorie Kelly’s forthcoming book with Ted Howard, The Making of a Democratic Economy: Building Prosperity for the Many, Not Just the Few will be out inJuly from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.