Spain’s First Communist Minister Since the 1930s: “The Right Can’t Accept a Party Like Ours in Government”

Alberto Garzón

This January, a pact between the Socialists and Unidas Podemos gave Spain its first ruling left-wing coalition since the Civil War. One of two communist ministers, Alberto Garzón, spoke to Jacobin about the government’s survival in these times of crisis — and why the militant right still refuses to accept its legitimacy.

Spain's minister of Consumer Affairs, Alberto Garzón, before the first council meeting at Moncloa Palace on January 14, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Interview by
Tommy Greene
Eoghan Gilmartin

In January, Izquierda Unida (IU) leader Alberto Garzón and his comrade Yolanda Díaz became Spain’s first communist ministers since the Second Republic of the 1930s. Garzón took on the newly created Consumer Affairs ministerial role, while Díaz headed the Labor Ministry. They were joined in cabinet by multiple colleagues from the wider Unidas Podemos grouping, of which IU is part — most notably deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias – as the radical left alliance reached a coalition agreement with Pedro Sánchez’s center-left Socialist Party (PSOE).

None of these newly sworn-in ministers could anticipate what was to follow. Only two months after entering office, the coalition was faced with the full force of the coronavirus pandemic’s initial outbreak, as Madrid became one of the epicenters for the virus in Europe. The crisis this spring demanded emergency measures — and negotiations over a response at the European level. But the government now enters a new phase of the effort to contain COVID-19, as a renewed surge in Spain’s infection rates threatens to collapse the primary care system in the capital and brings forward the prospect of fresh restrictions — and even a possible second lockdown.

But the coronavirus crisis isn’t the only problem hanging over Garzón and his colleagues. Aside from the relative conservatism of its larger coalition partner in the PSOE, further limits to Unidas Podemos’s agenda owe to the unreliable support coming from the government’s fragmented parliamentary majority, which currently depends on various smaller regional parties to make up the numbers.

Today, the government is fighting for its immediate survival, faced with the radicalization of the Spanish right. This latter hopes that the government will eventually be toppled under the weight of its own contradictions — and the multiple crises enveloping it. Next month, far-right party Vox is set to table a no-confidence motion in a bid to capitalize on the fallout from the pandemic, while a series of pending court cases look to eat away at the coalition’s legitimacy as part of a sustained “lawfare” campaign. Amid all this, a fresh crisis within Spain’s scandal-ridden monarchy has exposed tensions between the coalition partners.

Garzón spoke with Jacobin contributors Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene about the achievements and limitations of the radical left’s extraordinary first half year in office, as well as the storm to come.

Governing in an Age of COVID

TG

As Spain’s first left-wing coalition since the Second Republic of the 1930s, this administration is historic simply on account of its very existence. Yet just two months after taking office, it was faced with Europe’s worst public health crisis in a century — with Spain experiencing one of the highest rates of excess deaths on the continent. How has the pandemic shaped the early experiences of the radical left in government?

AG

Yes, the formation of this coalition in January represented a historic milestone in recent Spanish history. Not only was it the first coalition since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, but it was also the first to include ministers from parties to the left of PSOE. We came to office already facing a series of major crises — such as the territorial crisis [around Catalan independence], the rise of the extreme right, and the economic fallout from the austerity years.

Yet — and this is how things go — we were then confronted very quickly with having to deal with a global pandemic, which has hit our country particularly hard. The government’s response has centered on what we have called “the social shield” — a package of measures aimed at protecting the working class and the social majority from the economic fallout of the pandemic. We have prohibited evictions and the cutting off of basic services like water and electricity, implemented a major furlough scheme [the ERTE scheme] that has basically involved nationalizing the payment of wages as well as introduced a guaranteed basic income to protect the most vulnerable sectors of society.

This response, with its clear focus on social protection, was facilitated by our presence in government and represents a clear contrast to how the previous crisis in 2010 was managed. Then, we saw further neoliberal reforms and austerity, but the coalition is now reinforcing public services and protecting working families. With a strict lockdown like the one we implemented in the spring, the consequences are very unequal. It’s not the same being locked down in a 200-square-meter house and in a 70-square-meter apartment. Similarly, being able to continue with online classes if you are from a middle-class family is very different from a home with one computer between four children. So our initial response has centered on dealing with these differential impacts.

EG

The coalition is now faced with charting a path forward for the country amid an unprecedented economic crisis — which has seen GDP falling by 18.5 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and has been followed by a “phantom” tourist season. What are your priorities in this respect?

AG

Obviously, right now, we are in a very volatile moment with many unknowns — both in terms of the evolution of the pandemic and with regard to the other structural difficulties facing the country. We need to continue protecting workers and businesses alike, and it looks likely that the ERTE furlough scheme will be extended beyond September. This is not simply an ethical necessity, but also a question of stimulating aggregate demand.

Yet we are also faced with the challenge of how to reactivate our economy, which has major weaknesses that need addressing. One thing that has been made evident in this crisis is that countries with a greater industrial base have endured better than those more dependent on services and tourism. Annually, Spain receives 18 million tourists from the UK alone, and the sector accounts for 12 percent of GDP. In normal times, this represents an opportunity, but it has left us very exposed during the pandemic. While protecting our tourist industry, we need to advance a comprehensive program for the reindustrialization of Spain and for a just ecological transition.

At the heart of the problem is the way in which the European Union is structured economically, and the imbalances and divisions this creates. Europe is currently developing along a two-speed track. On one side, you have Germany and other northern states — with a strong industrial base, oriented to exports, with manufacturing that requires high technological intensity. Then, on the other end, there are southern peripheral states with little industrial diversification and dependent on low-value-added sectors. In Spain, as elsewhere in the South, we have to be able to come out of this crisis with a more diversified productive structure so as to secure higher wages and better living conditions.

EG

In this respect, how do you view the agreement reached in July around the EU’s €750 billion recovery fund? Many on the Spanish left have hailed it as historic, but in a recent article, Unidas Podemos MP Gerardo Pisarello warned that if economic growth continues to fall, the funds currently allocated to Spain “will be inadequate.” He also notes that while the EU is not currently “insisting on the forms of austerity imposed after the 2008 crisis, it is not closing the door to them either.” Is this crisis not, in fact, more likely to see a deepening of the current imbalances between the North and South of Europe?

AG

In the current context, Europe’s very future is at stake — not just the EU as an institutional arrangement but, more or less, Europe as a civilizational project. The pandemic has hit us at a moment when we are witnessing the advance of a global wave of reaction — from Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán in Hungary as well as Vox here in Spain. This extreme right has been very successful at channeling the frustration of the popular and middle classes through a discourse of aggressive nationalism and racism — which I see as posing an existential risk to our democracies.

Either the EU is able to give a meaningful response to the problems facing working people — many of which are material in nature — or it is just going to create greater disaffection for this extreme right to target. I think the EU institutions better understand this now, and that is why we have this historic agreement, which for the first time will see the mutualization of member states’ debt. We have also never seen the EU mobilize funds on this scale before.

EG

But are the current funds on the table adequate for dealing with such a profound economic collapse?

AG

I would say that the deal is a historic step forward, but that it does not represent a definitive solution. This is firstly because the agreement lacks a clear focus. The recovery fund cannot only be about compensating for GDP losses caused by the pandemic and avoiding a collapse in demand. Instead, it also has to be structured around a European-wide plan for correcting the existing imbalances that are driving the continent apart. This is not politically sustainable. No political project can survive such inequalities. In this respect, the European left must insist not only on a clean break with austerity but also that any Keynesian alternative has the clear objective of restructuring Europe’s current two-track model.

The problem is that it is not clear which actors in the EU are committed to moving in this direction. There is a geopolitical dimension here — with the opposition of various countries, such as the Netherlands, needing to be dealt with. Also, a more definitive solution will require a significant level of public investment and common tax policies, and we have only seen small step in this direction so far. It is, however, a debate that is underway, and we have this initial positive agreement. It is probably still not clear whether it is of sufficient scale — largely because we still do not know to what degree the virus is going to come back in the coming months.

EG

It is no secret that a coalition with Unidas Podemos was not prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s first choice. In terms of the immediate response to the pandemic, the two parties have shown a united front, but faced with charting a path forward for the country, Sánchez now seems to want to move back to the center. In particular, he is distancing himself from the parliamentary pact with the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana [Catalan Republican Left] and is instead reaching out to the right-wing Ciudadanos over a possible budget agreement. Is there not a risk that Unidas Podemos’s weight in government could be reduced, as we enter a crucial twelve months for determining how Spain deals with this unprecedented economic crisis?

AG

As I have said, we are in a very volatile situation, with Spain basically facing a perfect storm of various intersecting crises. Everything from the corruption scandals in the monarchy — we recently saw ex-king Juan Carlos flee the country — to territorial tensions and the increasing aggressiveness of the far right coming together with the fallout from the pandemic. With all this, one of the few solid elements has been the current left-wing coalition. This does not mean it is perfect, and there are clearly certain tensions, but it is here to stay.

I believe a left-wing budget will be passed that builds on the road map laid out in January’s program for government. We might be able to talk with Ciudadanos about certain things, but there are limits. Its model for exiting the crisis is based on attacking unions and increased precariousness — the same old neoliberal recipe of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In Unidas Podemos, our preference is, instead, to reinforce the parliamentary bloc that voted in the coalition — which unites various progressive tendencies, ranging from regional Catalan and Basque nationalists to the social democrats of the PSOE to our own political space. In such a fragmented political field, this is not easy. But it is the means by which we can continue to put forward left-wing Keynesian policies — employing European funds to seek a just ecological transition, investing in research and development, and strengthening public health and education.

The Perfect Storm

TG

In terms of this perfect storm hitting Spain, another element here is the ongoing campaign of lawfare against Unidas Podemos, with a number of obviously bogus legal proceedings being brought against this formation and its leaders. Is it fair to say that there are also powerful forces intent on seeing Unidas Podemos being pushed out of government?

AG

Yes, definitely. You have to remember that the right wing in our country does not have democratic origins. It is not like the mainstream right in France or Germany, where there is, at least in part, an anti-fascist tradition. The Spanish right hasn’t looked to isolate the extreme right, as German chancellor Angela Merkel has done. In Spain, the right-wing parties broker power-sharing agreements and govern with the extreme right [at the regional level].

They conceive of Spain as their own patrimony, in which they are the arbiters of who is truly Spanish and who is a patriot or not. Their vision of the country doesn’t allow for a party like ours to be in government — it’s a kind of coup d’état, in their eyes, that we are governing Spain at present. They’ve called us traitors, criminals, terrorists, assassins — they have raised the level of discursive belligerence in public life to the point whereby its polarizing consequences have seeped into and are felt in almost all sectors of Spanish society. You can see this in the ongoing campaign of harassment against deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias and equality minister Irene Montero [with members of the far-right camped outside their family home for the last three months].

And despite all this, the parliamentary arithmetic — after two general elections last year — is such that it would be very difficult for the PSOE to form an alternative parliamentary majority that does not include Unidas Podemos. Given the degree of polarization, a working agreement with the Right seems unlikely. There are a few figures within the PSOE like [former prime minister] Felipe González and his closest supporters who would like to push the Socialists in the direction of a grand coalition. But, as [prime minister] Pedro Sánchez has clearly said, such a formula might work in Germany, but in other countries more similar to ours (like Greece, for example), it can lead to ruin. So I don’t think the PSOE can realistically move in this direction. The numbers just aren’t there.

TG

What is the significance of being one of the first two communist ministers in Spain in over eighty years? How do you square the circle of your conception of twenty-first-century communism with the institutional role you now find yourself in?

AG

We are living through a historic moment, it’s true. The Spanish Communist Party was key to the recovery of democracy in this country. Democracy here did not come about through a process of rupture — as with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal — but instead through a pact, the 1978 Constitution. Of course, both the Left and the fascist regime were forced to cede ground and accept concessions in order to see through this agreement. And the Communist Party was a key actor behind this agreement in terms of the correlation of forces informing the pact — sometimes it has been ironically termed a “correlation of weaknesses,” because none of the relevant parties were in a strong enough position to impose their objectives.

So there is obviously this democratic legacy where the Communist Party is concerned, and a certain recognition among many Spaniards of the role it played in facilitating the return to democracy.

But the current conjuncture is very distinct to that of the late 1970s. The coalition government was made possible because it is, in part, a response to the renewed rise of the far right that we have witnessed here and in other parts of Europe. A coalition agreement could have been signed and sealed last summer, but at that moment, it did not happen. But it then became possible after fresh elections in November, precisely because the extreme right had gained more than fifty MPs nationally and was threatening to make further gains still.

In this sense, there is a certain parallel with what occurred in the 1930s with the popular fronts in Spain, France, and other neighboring countries. There is a growing belief across the broad spectrum of the Left in this country — from social democrats to anarchists — that the prospect of the extreme right governing again at the national level, as they are currently in certain regions, simply cannot happen. This grave danger has forced us to be more tolerant toward other left-wing traditions — with the government demonstrating real solidity precisely because we are confronted with this terrible enemy.

And so, we who identify as communists have to orient ourselves in terms of this logic of resistance and of broad anti-fascist fronts. It is the means to exit the crisis with a just and democratic outcome. Regardless of which left tradition we come from — whether it’s from the Eurocommunist tradition or from the left-populist line, as theorized by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe — the extreme right has united us all in a defensive formation. Unfortunately, in contrast with the window of opportunity we saw ten years ago [around the wave of anti-austerity mobilizations and the Indignados movement], the Left now finds itself in a defensive moment.

TG

The losses Unidas Podemos suffered in the regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country this summer also point to this sense of the radical left being on the defensive. How would you explain these losses, which are, of course, part of a wider electoral retreat internationally for the Left? Do you think your presence in government played a role?

AG

These results cannot be explained in terms of just one factor. Clearly, our organizational weakness was one major element, and maybe our presence in government could also have played a role. But I think it was one of the least important. Much more central was the national question. We are talking about two regions [on the periphery of the state] in which the pro-independence left has gained a lot of weight in recent years, and their new voters account for most of our losses.

If we cannot find a solution to the ongoing territorial conflicts, we are going to continue seeing politics polarized around the confrontation between the aggressive nationalism of the Spanish right and various pro-independence forces. The alternative to this, which gained electoral mandates in the two general elections last year, is a bet on federalism and a new republican settlement that recognizes the plurinational nature of the state.

At the same time, our principal challenge in Unidas Podemos is organizational. As for the European and international left more broadly, we need to reconnect with our traditions and social base, which primarily means rebuilding trade unions and other collective structures. A political strategy centered on discursive battles in the media — as proposed by left populism — might be able to reap enormous profits during favorable moments. But it is also very vulnerable when the tides shift and the winds turn against you. An initial electoral advance can be difficult to sustain if below, at a grassroots level, you have not constructed a series of trenches and dikes able to withstand the inevitable countermovement. That demands building such structures in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country.