Santiago Carrillo: party autocrat

Spanish steps to oblivion

Paul Preston The last Stalinist: the life of Santiago Carrillo William Collins, 2014, pp448, £12.99

This review will focus on a succession of interlinked themes from the life of Spanish communist leader Santiago Carrillo’s post-World War II career (author Paul Preston, of course, also covers his subject’s earlier activities, including in the Spanish Civil War). In order for these themes to make sense it is necessary to provide an outline narrative of the ground that Preston covers. This work is useful, in that, while its author cannot conceive any real alternative to the path that Carrillo was on (ie, subordinating his organisation to bourgeois forces and the monarchy in Spain after the death of dictator Franco in 1975), Preston does attempt to view his career in the context of the deep demoralisation that was inflicted on party militants and the Spanish working class as a result of Carrillo’s actions.

Carrillo, born in 1915, was the son of socialist leader Wenceslao Carrillo. Santiago worked for a newspaper of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) from the age of 13 and became a leading figure in the Socialist Youth. His rise in Comintern circles was assured by his work in the unification of the socialist and communist youth leagues. He joined the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) in 1936 after the opening of the Spanish Civil War. After the collapse of the Republican government in 1939 as a result of its defeat by Franco, Carrillo was exiled - mostly in France, but he also spent some time in the Soviet Union. He became general secretary of the PCE in 1960, replacing Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’), who became the party’s president.

Carrillo returned to Spain after the death of Franco in 1976 and by this time he was an important player in the Eurocommunist movement. He became something of a darling in the bourgeois media through his actions during Spain’s ‘democratic’ transition after Franco, where his extreme moderation and willingness to blur all traces of the PCE’s militant identity was seen to have been a key factor in securing a peaceful evolution of Spain away from the path of communist revolution (although it was pretty unlikely that the PCE of that time was in any state to lead such an assault). What was personally good for Carrillo proved to be an absolute disaster for the PCE, as it disintegrated as a social force under the moderate hand of its general secretary. This, combined with Carrillo’s extreme dictatorial style and tendency to make outrageous concessions on the hoof (which even began to exasperate the PCE’s Eurocommunist wing), led to his expulsion from the party in 1985.

In 1935, analysing the Comintern’s 7th Congress, Leon Trotsky surveyed the rubble in the following manner:

We have a curious specimen of bureaucratic thinking, in that, while granting, on paper at any rate, a liberal autonomy to all sections, and while even issuing instructions to them to do independent thinking and adapt themselves to their own national conditions, the congress, immediately thereupon, proclaimed that all countries in the world - fascist Germany as well as democratic Norway, Great Britain … India, Greece [and] China - are equally in need of the ‘people’s front’, and, wherever possible, of a government of the people’s front.1

Trotsky thus brought out the seeming contradiction of a situation whereby a national path was being prescribed for various national communist parties at the very moment of their complete subordination to a Comintern by then firmly under the wing of the CPSU and the Soviet Union’s leadership (ie, the very obverse of independent national paths).

National roads

It was after World War II that such contradictions became more apparent, particularly after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the fall-out of 1956. The ‘official communist’ movement became a much looser arrangement and the Comintern had been liquidated in 1943. There had been a major split between China and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. By the time of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, large numbers of parties generally sympathetic toward the Soviet Union voiced their opposition to the action.

However, the national communist parties, despite their rhetoric, did not have truly ‘national’ roads to socialism; what they had were variants of a strategy that, in rough shorthand, could be summed up as a cross-class unity of ‘democratic forces’ and definite avoidance of any moves toward proletarian revolution. Thus the CPGB’s general secretary, John Gollan, could claim in 1970 that: “The Chilean comrades have stolen The British road to socialism!”2 (As events unfolded in Chile in 1973, when Salvador Allende was removed by a military coup as a result of this disastrous programmatic inheritance, this became something Gollan presumably would not have bragged about.)

Even organisations involved in wars of liberation, such as the Vietnamese, formally dissolved their communist organisations and fought under the rhetoric of national and patriotic ideas. Thus, despite undoubted tensions, the ‘official communist’ movement still worked under the rubric of the Soviet Union’s distrust of other revolutions and revolutionaries that had been fostered under Stalin. Also intact, even by the 1980s, were a succession of bureaucratic-centralist regimes that splintered as dissent spread through the movement (in pro-Chinese and, sometimes pro-Soviet directions, depending on which ‘vanguard of the world revolution’ the national party leadership had offended).

Despite organising a guerrilla force in the era immediately after the Spanish Civil War (Carrillo himself was effectively in charge of this force from 1945 from his Paris base), the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was not an exception to this general process. Thus, after the entry of the Soviet Union into World War II, Stalin and the CPSU were particularly anxious that Franco did not enter the war on the side of the Axis powers. Therefore, by September 1942 the party’s then general secretary, Dolores Ibárruri, was advocating an alliance with those monarchists and Falangists who were disenchanted with Franco’s regime: a move that disgusted other Republican forces still existing in Spain and some of the party’s own militants. Preston, though, approves of this, stating that it was “basically a sound policy and was to remain at the centre of party strategy until the transition to democracy” (p119).

That this strategy was of Soviet provenance was made clear when Stalin had what Preston calls an unprecedented meeting with the PCE leadership in late 1948. Some of the rationale for this cosy ‘catch-up’ appears to have been Carrillo’s meeting with Tito, the leader of the Yugoslavian communist regime, earlier that year, asking for support for the PCE’s guerrilla struggle. This was a rare tactical inner-party blunder by Carrillo - the split between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was in the offing for later in 1948, to be followed by the murderous campaign against ‘Titoism’ in the ‘official communist’ movement.

In terms of the meeting itself: “According to [Ibárruri]’s eyewitness account, over tea, cakes and chocolates Stalin did not insist on the abandonment of the guerrilla struggle. Instead, quoting Lenin, he advocated the need for the PCE to place greater emphasis on other forms of struggle, particularly the infiltration of the regime’s own mass organisations, and to be patient” (p150). This was further sweetened by the subsequent delivery of $500,000 to the PCE by one of Stalin’s lieutenants. Preston argues: “The deterioration of the USSR’s relations with the United States was sufficient to incline Stalin to remove a gratuitous irritant in the form of the ever more unsustainable conflict in Spain” (p151). Predictably, this led Carrillo to begin the task of running down the PCE’s guerrilla forces with a standard auto-critique of the party’s failure to properly embrace legal forms of struggle (although it seems that this line was extremely slow to percolate the Spanish interior).

This strategy of forming broad national ‘democratic’ blocs, with the PCE at the centre, persisted until the death of Franco in 1975 and Spain’s subsequent transition to a monarchical ‘democracy’. Thus, the PCE was a pure version of the scenario sketched out by Trotsky above: in the very act of embracing a form of ‘democratic’ nationalism, the Spanish organisation consistently showed fealty to a strategy originally laid down by the CPSU in the era of Stalin. This only remained at the level of a formal contradiction. We will discuss the phenomenon of Eurocommunism (which the PCE effectively became part of) in more detail below, but this was an overriding feature of this trend. The more stridently it pronounced its independence of pro-Soviet proclivities in the historical trajectory of various national communist parties, the more obvious it became that Eurocommunism’s own heritage was in the fetishised totems of Stalinism in the form of popular frontism, ‘national’ roads to socialism and so on.

Break with Moscow

Despite this, the PCE’s formal relationship with the Soviet Union was a source of tension under Carrillo’s leadership of the party. In the second half of the 1960s, he had to consider whether a pro-Soviet line was an obstacle in the forging of alliances with bourgeois forces in Spain (p261). Having backed Khrushchev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, Carrillo was uneasy with the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev from 1964.

This led to some less sycophantic signals: for example, in criticism of the trial in Moscow of satirists Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. There was also some disagreement at a meeting with Brezhnev and others in November 1967, when Carrillo was “seriously nonplussed” when it was argued by the ardent ‘Leninists’ of the CPSU that the PCE should advocate a monarchist succession to Franco (p262)!

With the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Carrillo was faced with a tricky dilemma: “With the PCE’s exiled leadership dependent on Soviet funding, Carrillo was hardly in a position to condemn the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia. Yet to maintain the PCE’s credibility as a moderate, democratic segment of the anti-Franco opposition, he had to condemn the Soviet intervention and risk open conflict with the CPSU and accusations of anti-Sovietism, nationalism and revisionism” (p263).

Under pressure from the Russians, Carrillo nevertheless proceeded to denounce the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia before going on to effectively embrace the doctrine of ‘polycentrism’ advocated by Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. Carrillo spelt this out in 1968 in the following fashion: “In the international communist movement there is no longer a party that is the single guide or leader! All parties are equally responsible for the orientation of their own movement …” (p265). Ultimately, the Spanish general secretary began to realise the utility of these spats with the Soviet leadership in his attempts to woo anti-communist forces in Spain - Soviet funding of the PCE had ceased by 1976 - with Carrillo apparently showing a penchant for anti-Soviet jokes in private (p311). The PCE suffered a pro-Soviet split in 1970 under the leadership of Enrique Líster, although this quickly broke into a number of fragments and had little impact on events.

While these developments represent quite a somersault for a figure that had relied so heavily on Soviet patronage, ultimately they were not critical to the political trajectory of Carrillo and the PCE, given that it was still enmeshed in the strategy that had started to be enunciated in Stalin’s time. Even the Soviet ‘innovation’ of a monarchist succession became acceptable to Carrillo (in the face of considerable opposition from many PCE militants). In December 1976 he said: “... everyone knows we disapproved of the way the king came to the throne … [but] the king is there: that is a fact … If a majority of the Spanish people vote for a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy, we communists will respect as always the decision of the Spanish people” (p303).

In return for the PCE’s legalisation, Carrillo undertook to recognise the monarchy and adopt the monarchist flag (p307). Of course, the Soviet leadership could not but be annoyed by the moves toward independence being asserted by parties such as the PCE (given that this was a sign of the intense crisis in the ‘official communist’ movement). However, this was nothing compared to the problems that would have been posed if the PCE had adopted a revolutionary position on Franco’s fall (the Soviet Union’s relations with Franco had become warm at points in the 1960s). Revolution in Spain would undoubtedly have been viewed in Moscow as a provocation to the US and Nato.


While Carrillo ultimately proved amenable to ditching the PCE’s pro-Soviet heritage, like other so-called ‘reformers’ in the Eurocommunist camp he never renounced the traditional bureaucratic-centralist methods that had facilitated his own rise in the party. Carrillo was a brutal practitioner in this regard (although not perhaps especially brutal by the standards of the ‘official communist’ movement as a whole).

A typical example was the excommunication of Jesús Monzón Repáraz, who had organised PCE participation in the French resistance during World War II and was behind a failed invasion of guerrilla forces of the Val d’Aran in 1944. Carrillo then launched a witch-hunt against Monzón, which seemed less concerned with examination of failed strategy than with merely removing a potential rival in the leadership by blaming him for a litany of errors (p127).

Franco’s police arrested Monzón in June 1945, with Carrillo claiming that his former comrade had engineered his own arrest to avoid having to explain his errors over the invasion and implications that he had been a Francoist agent. There were also suggestions that Carrillo had ordered Monzón’s execution (pp130-31). This became a familiar tale in Carrillo’s career as he hauled himself up over the broken bones of former comrades. He subsequently associated Monzón with ‘Titoism’, partly as a cover for his own error in approaching the Yugoslav leader for aid, before launching his own grotesque series of interrogations of Monzón’s associates in the invented fantasy of a plot to destroy the PCE (pp160-61).

A flavour of the odious inner-party atmosphere of the time can be gleaned from Ibárruri’s charming report to the 5th congress of the PCE in 1954. Continuing the never-ending ‘official communist’ fascination with deformed animal life, she talked of “the betrayal of the people who accidentally came into our ranks in the hope of making their career and who after seeing their hopes evaporate, impotent and crippled, became rabid dogs that spat their contagious saliva over the party” (p185).

There was another level to this vileness in the PCE, given that parts of its membership were exiled in the Soviet Union. Some groups became unhappy and in the late 1940s there were purges conducted against these so-called anti-Soviet elements. Carrillo himself as a senior party member was called to Moscow to deal with this issue in 1947. After creating a committee to interrogate the dissidents, they were subjected to a campaign of browbeating demanding that they stay in the Soviet Union. The majority capitulated after being told that “the ‘true communist’ would always prefer to stay” in the Soviet Union (p143). The apparatus left behind by Carrillo in the ‘workers’ paradise’ sent the would-be exiles to camps in Siberia, while senior comrades deemed to have been soft on those wanting to leave were sent to work in Soviet factories (as punishment, not reward).

Carrillo was never able to give up this anti-democratic and grotesque behaviour, once he had become general secretary of the PCE. Despite his own apparent conversion to a managed form of ‘democracy’ for Spain on the fall of Franco, Carrillo carried on simply trampling on the democratic rights of his comrades in the party, proving, in fact, that he was no democrat at all. This had become apparent in 1974, when the general secretary, despite showing a liberal face to the bourgeois press in order to illustrate his worthiness as a moderate partner in any future coalition, continued to rule his own party in the traditional fashion (p289). In that year, many older Stalinists and younger leftists in the PCE begin to show approval for the Portuguese revolution, the actions of the Portuguese Communist Party and its leader, Álvaro Cunhal. Carrillo had already clashed with Cunhal over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but now felt obliged to distance himself from Cunhal’s supposed advocacy of an eastern European style of ‘socialism’, against the wishes of many of the PCE’s rank and file, and despite Carrillo’s earlier enthusiasm for Portuguese events.

This manoeuvring continued in full flow after the fall of Franco. Many of the party’s rank and file were dismayed at Carrillo’s propensity to sell principles, such as a commitment to a republic, so cheaply to the Spanish establishment and without any reference to the membership.

The inner-party situation was rather neatly summarised in a letter of protest from the PCE’s lawyers’ group in 1978:

We have read many times that clandestinity imposed a certain predominance of centralism over democracy and that this situation would come to an end with legalisation. Now we are virtually legal and yet we must lament that, far from seeing a move to democratic criteria, we are facing exactly the opposite (p310).

Members of the Communist Youth were heard to complain that their only activity was sweeping out the PCE’s headquarters or sticking up posters (p316). Understandably, party membership started to decline rapidly, falling from 201,757 in 1977 (no doubt an exaggerated figure) to 84,652 in 1983. Even Carrillo’s Eurocommunist supporters had tired of his leadership at this point and, after a round of expulsions and internal bloodletting, the PCE’s central committee eventually dropped him in 1985. Carrillo formed his own impotent split, while yet another pro-Soviet party was formed under Ignacio Gallego - neither had any impact and the Spanish communist movement was effectively sidelined and in pieces.

In 1981, Carrillo was heard to deny suggestions that the PCE “was Eurocommunist on the outside but Stalinist on the inside” (p328). The point to grasp here is that the contradiction between the internal and outer faces of the PCE was more apparent than real. The strategy of masking your traditions, excessive compromise with bourgeois forces and taking on their ideological coloration was, at its heart, a manipulative (inherently Stalinist) view of the world, where a small, grey-hued cog was meant to turn bigger wheels.

It would have been very surprising if such machinations had led to anything other than a manipulative set of inner-party relations, whereby Carrillo and a small group of informants conspired against the membership (another small cog turning a bigger wheel). This development - where Eurocommunist forces talked sweetness and light about democracy in public, while utilising highly bureaucratised party machines to suppress internal dissent - will be familiar to anyone who experienced the CPGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Under Euro inspiration, the British organisation saw fit to tramp on the democratic rights of whole swathes of the membership.

Euro crisis

Carrillo became a big cheese in the so-called Eurocommunist movement among the ‘official communist’ parties in western Europe, where such ideas became a force in the mass Italian, French and Spanish organisations (the Parti Communiste Français retained some intellectual distance; much less in practice). He also produced a work entitled ‘Eurocommunism’ and the state (1977). (Note the speech marks - the bureaucratic-centralist leaderships of the western European parties seemed to dislike the term, particularly after Moscow’s disapproval had helped stir up pro-Soviet inner-party dissidents. The leadership in organisations such as the CPGB tended to stress the heritage of their broadly Eurocommunist politics in the past actions and strategy of the party, which was a bigger truth than their pro-Soviet dissidents were prepared to admit.3)

Eurocommunism was made up of a number of interconnecting ideas. First, there was a rejection of the notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as being suitable for the conditions of western Europe (although by the 1970s this idea had been thoroughly debased in the ‘official communist’ movement - by leaderships, ‘reformers’ and pro-Soviet or pro-Chinese oppositionists). Rather, communist parties were expected to utilise their own ‘democratic’ institutions, which, in a wilfully perverse misreading of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, were deemed to be favourable grounds for the execution of the long-term interests of the proletariat. Compromise with bourgeois forces and an acceptance of the limitations of capitalism was a prerequisite for the construction of ‘historic blocs’ (another perversion of Gramsci) to undermine the ruling class.

There was also the idea that individual national parties were inviolate and should not be controlled and dictated to by the Soviet Union, although in practice the western European parties retained links with the bureaucratic dictatorships in the east. ‘Euros’, as members of this trend came to be called, also had a nostalgic reverence for the popular fronts (some of which were not particularly popular) sponsored by Stalin’s Comintern. These were only innovations in the sphere of rhetoric, given that, as discussed above, all these ideas were embedded in the Stalinised notion of ‘national’ roads to socialism.

In theoretical terms, the idea of compromise with bourgeois forces to construct hegemonic ‘historic blocs’ to work in the communist interest could only have worked if all the forces involved apart from the communists had remained static and been struck dumb. In practice, the bourgeois ideas and forces with which the communists were meant to compromise remained fully mobile and, in fact, were the ones colonising the communists. Having leftwing forces talk the language of the bourgeoisie merely demoralised militants and broader supporters, and destroyed any momentum the communists might have built up. Ultimately, it was the ‘official communists’ that ended up being struck dumb.

In Italy, for example, the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) became a semi-detached part of the governing bloc led by the Christian Democrats after winning 35% of the vote in the 1976 parliamentary elections. Needless to say, the communist voters reaped nothing concrete from the compromise and by 1977 the PCI was talking the language of ‘austerity’, thus effectively shifting the economic burden onto its core voters. By 1979, the PCI’s vote had receded and many of its militants were disenchanted. In France, numerous episodes where the PCF had provided a left crutch for François Mitterrand and the French socialists in the 1970s and 1980s had merely ended up with it losing support. Compromising with French social democracy had only strengthened and emboldened it.

The PCI and the PCF were, to some extent, dug in to their respective societies. When this type of politics was imposed on the PCE, as it emerged from illegality and a harsh existence under Franco, the results were calamitous, to put it mildly. We have seen above how Carrillo was prepared to throw away long-held principles, such as republicanism, and capitalism was accepted as the practical frame for Spain’s new democracy. Worse still, in October 1977, Carrillo in full-on ‘historic compromise’ mode, signed a ‘social contract’, which saw an acceptance of a wage ceiling far below the rate of inflation, and curbs on credit and public spending in return for some vague promises of long-term reform. In Preston’s words: “In fact, the government fulfilled few of its promises and, in consequence, the Spanish working class bore the brunt of the economic crisis” (p315).

In the first elections of June 1977, the PCE received 9.2% of the votes (Carrillo became a member of the congress of deputies), a vote that was deemed to be highly disappointing and proof to the party’s left that Carrillo had simply emasculated the PCE in a floodtide of moderation. Worse was to come. In the elections of March 1979, the PCE vote had risen slightly to 10.9%; but by October 1982 this was reduced to a mere 3.6%.

In the context of the falling membership that we discussed earlier, the PCE was now in the middle of a full-blown crisis and was fully on the road to oblivion. Thus, the Spanish example offers us nothing to reverse the overall judgement of Eurocommunism and Santiago Carrillo as unmitigated disasters.

Howard Phillips


1. L Trotsky On the seventh congress of the Comintern September 1935: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1935/09/comintern.htm.

2. W Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London 1992, p169.

3. See J Klugmann, ‘A brief history since 1945’ Comment February 5 1977.