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THE SPANISH NEW LEFT

The Spanish case is an important manifestation of the Christian spirit behind 1968, but perhaps the most important immediate and tangible contribution to the Spanish ‘spirit of 1968’ by Catholic students was actually made as early as the 1950s. Spanish Left Catholicism, emerging in the dire conditions of underground activism under the yoke of Francisco Franco’s unbending dictatorial rule, has intellectual roots and antecedents going back at least to 1956, a cornerstone year which also happened to be the year of conception, literally and figuratively, of the transnationally operating New Left. And it was precisely in the context of the birth of the New Left that Spanish Catholic students played a singularly important role. The story of the Spanish New Left— operating in the anti-Franco underground, Franco’s prisons, and in exile—is one of very many tales of great importance in this era, which is virtually unknown outside the Spanish state. In Northern European academic milieux, the gaze is almost entirely fixed on New Left activism in the United States, West Germany, and, for obvious reasons, France. But the story of underground resistance to the Francoist state from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s is virtually impossible to comprehend without close attention to the Spanish New Left, which became a key player in opposition to Franco before largely disappearing in the course of 1969.

The Spanish New Left found its organizational expression within ‘Felipe’, the Frente de Liberacion Popular (FLP), and its affiliated but autonomous sections in Catalonia and the Basque Country. In both Madrid and Barcelona, the two hot spots of New Left activism early on, the original nucleus was called University New Left (Nueva Izquierda Universitaria in Madrid and Nova Esquerra Universitaria in Barcelona), and both groups were almost exclusively composed of devout and practising Catholic students, searching for an alternative to both Francoist repression and the strictures of the traditional Old Left. ‘Catholicism was so very much present that very often the same meeting places [used by New Left circles] were also utilized to hold theology seminars’,[1] and the name quickly chosen by the Spanish New Left, FLP, was a conscious combination of the acronym of two organizations that served as inspiration for the Spanish New Left in the 1950s: the Algerian FLN, the Front de Liberation National, and the French MLP, the Mouvement de Liberation Populaire. Almost everyone will be familiar with the Algerian FLN, which, after a decade of bloody struggles against French colonial power, managed to force out their Gallic superiors in the early 1960s. But who was the French MLP? The Mouvement de Liberation Populaire by the mid-1950s had become a rather marginal force on the fringes of the French Left. In the mid-to-late- 1940s, under a different label, the Mouvement Populaire des Familles (MPF), it had been the quintessential social action organization of the activist French Catholic Left. With a membership which at times exceeded 100,000 adherents, the MPF (later on changing its name to MLP) led direct action campaigns, including housing squats, protest rallies, and other militant pressure tactics to draw attention to the miserable housing, working, and general living conditions of urban working-class residents in the industrial strongholds of postliberation France, such as the Nord, Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Marseilles, and, of course, Paris.[2] For the Spanish New Left to have adopted a composite acronym locating its intellectual and activist traditions within Third World liberation movements and European Left Catholicism needs few additional comments.

Nonetheless, to underscore my point, I would like to draw attention to two more texts that showcase the exceptional centrality of the Catholic Left in underground Spain. The first is a citation from the first serious attempt to trace the organizational and spiritual heritage of the Spanish Felipe, a monograph by Julio Antonio Garcia Alcala. The brief citation highlights the unorthodox nature of the international current of the New Left in general, and the heavily Catholic influence of the Spanish New Left in particular: ‘In contradistinction to the monolithic nature of other [underground] parties, it [the FLP] preferred the free association and interpretation of the most varied authors, usually explicitly of a heterodox nature. The [FLP] activists would thus simultaneously read Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, Marx, Andre Gorz, Teilhard de Chardin or [Emmanuel] Mounier, exemplifying a pluralism that connected the various traditions which served as source and inspiration for the felipes, such as Marxism, Christian humanism and libertarian thought.’47

The second quotation is from a text by Alfonso Carlos Comin, a well- known journalist and social scientist, who had this to say about the early New Left milieu which developed into a central powerhouse of anti-Francoist determination and resolve: ‘[T]he young Spanish university students, preoccupied and unsettled, studied the official syllabi in order to obtain the necessary qualifications and their academic titles, but they regarded those books as ever- so-many lifeless pages. Simultaneously, they avidly devoured books at the margins of the official reading lists, which they discussed in their get-togethers and their seminars, such as the works by Mounier, Teilhard, Congar, Rahner, Lukacs, Sartre, Camus.’48 Once again, the ideological heterodoxy and pluralism of New Left beliefs emerge crystal clear, but here the centrality of Left Catholicism emerges if anything even more centrally than in the above citation by Garcia Alcala.

The Spanish New Left, as elsewhere in Europe and the First World, is a product of the complications of the international conjuncture of 1956. Whereas elsewhere in Europe the combined impact of Algeria and Suez, coupled with Stalinist interventions in Hungary and Poland, led to the birth and development of a ‘New Left’ to the left of social democracy and Communism,

I devote a central chapter to the MPF in my Western European Liberation Theology. The First Wave, 1924-1959 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 175-224.

  • 47 Garcia Alcala, Historia del Felipe, pp. 21-2.
  • 48 Alfonso Carlos Comin, cited in Daniel Francisco Alvarez Espinosa, Cristianos y marxistas contra Franco (Cadiz: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Cadiz, 2003), p. 187. On Comin, there now exist two stimulating monographs: Francisco Martinez Hoyos, La cruz y el martillo. Alfonso Carlos Comin y los cristianos comunistas (Barcelona: Rubeo 2009), and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Casanova, Comin, mi amigo (Barcelona: Lector, 2010).

Spain experienced its own Golgotha. In February 1956, heated confrontations erupted in the Law Faculty of the University of Madrid, leading to the detention of activists and the temporary closure of the university. It was the first serious challenge to unmitigated Francoist rule since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Spanish opposition politics dates its revitalization precisely to these events in early 1956.

The historian of this student uprising, which opened a new era in Spanish politics, Pablo Lizcano, points out the decisive contributions of Catholic circles to the events which gave rise to what has since become regarded as ‘the Generation of 56’. Already in the course of 1955, the Madrid University branch of Catholic Action had organized a cycle of presentations and collo- quia on various topics, including the relevance of Marxism and the overall contributions of the labour movement, sometimes chaired by students belonging to the secular underground Left, occasionally by activists in the Spanish detachments of Catholic Action oriented towards working-class milieux, the JOC and the HOAC (more on both in Chapter 5). The seminar series in the Economics Faculty of San Bernardo provided a first free space for dissident tendencies within Catholicism and other free thinkers under the Francoist yoke.[3] Pablo Lizcano also furnishes detailed information on the subsequent contributions of Spanish dissident Catholics to the genesis of the Spanish New Left.

  • [1] Julio Antonio Garcia Alcala, Historia del Felipe (FLP, FOCy ESBA). De Julio Ceron a laLigaComunista Revolucionaria (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Politicos y Constitucionales, 2001),p. 42.
  • [2] For an English-language summary of the contributions of the MPF/MLP to French socialmovement culture between 1945 and 1968, see Bruno Duriez, ‘Left Wing Catholicism in France.From Catholic Action to the Political Left: The Mouvement Populaire des Familles’, in Gerd-Rainer Horn and Emmanuel Gerard (eds), Left Catholicism, 1943-1955. Catholics and Society inWestern Europe at the Point of Liberation (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001), pp. 64-90.
  • [3] Pablo Lizcano, La generacion del 56. La Universidad contra Franco (Madrid: Saber yComunicacion, 2006), pp. 177-9 (seminar series in San Bernardo) and pp. 215-25 (Catholicorigins of Felipe).
 
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