23-F: remembering the 1981 Spanish coup attempt

On the anniversary of the 1981, '23-F' coup attempt in Spain, we republish a 1981 article by Alan Woods, political editor of Nuevo Claridad. This article was later translated and re-released in the Militant (UK), along with an editorial comment (also republished). Alan provides a new introduction explaining the circumstances surrounding the article's publication.


Nearly four decades have passed since the dramatic events of 23 February 1981, yet they remain imprinted in my memory as if they had only happened yesterday. I had been living in Spain since January 1976, when I participated in the underground struggle against the Franco dictatorship.

Together with a group of militants of the Spanish Young Socialists we founded the Marxist Tendency that was organized around the newspaper Nuevo Claridad. I was the political editor and wrote most of the main articles and editorials.

By 1981, thanks to the heroic revolutionary struggles of the Spanish working class, the dictatorship had been brought to its knees. The road was open to further advance. But the leaders of the Socialist and Communist parties betrayed the movement and reached a rotten compromise with a faction of the old regime led by Adolfo Suarez.

But the new regime was very shaky and full of contradictions. Spain was gripped by a deep economic and social crisis and that was reflected in a political crisis that was nearing explosion point. That point was reached on the evening of 23 February.

At half past six on that day we were discussing the new issue of the paper in a meeting of the Nuevo Claridad editorial board that was held in an old converted warehouse in the working class suburb of Ciudad Lineal in the east of Madrid. I had written a long centre page article entitled The Collapse of the Centre that dealt with the political crisis.

That evening a debate was taking place in the parliament which was to end in the investiture of a new premier, Calvo Sotelo. While we were discussing the political situation and the contents of the article, the comrades responsible for the printing and layout of the paper were busy with their tasks in another room just across the corridor. As usual, they had the radio on to listen to music.

Shortly after half past six our deliberations were suddenly cut short when the door of our office swung open and in walked the comrades from the layout room: “Shots have been fired in the parliament,” they said. We immediately arose and walked into the other room, where we gathered around the radio, which was now completely silent.

We immediately concluded that there were only two possibilities: either a terrorist attack on the parliament or a coup. We decided to wait for five minutes and if the radio remained silent, the second option was the most likely one.

Although the openly fascist forces were small in number, they still had a base in sections of the army and especially the Civil Guard. They were of course bitterly opposed to the reforms. On the other hand, the position of the King, Juan Carlos, despite all the attempts to boost his 'democratic' credentials, was suspiciously ambiguous.

We had to take immediate measures. If the coup staged by the hard-liners had succeeded, it would inevitably been followed by an intensification of repression against the left.

After years of underground work our comrades were experienced to know what had to be done. All sensitive material, especially names and addresses, was immediately gathered up and removed to safe locations. The comrades then dispersed to different parts of the city to reduce the risk of arrest.

However, the small leading group made arrangements to meet at a safe house some hours later when the situation was clearer. We also decided to get out a special four page edition of the paper that should be ready first thing the following morning.

I worked hard to produce the editorial in the space of a few hours. My work was greatly facilitated by the fact that the general lines of the centre page article were one hundred percent correct. All that was necessary was to add the words: “and then there was a coup” and everything fell nicely into place.

The leading comrades met as arranged in the early hours of the morning to take stock of the situation. By degrees it became clear that the coup had collapsed. The media immediately began to spin the legend that it was all thanks to Juan Carlos, who in the middle of the affair, made a broadcast ordering all units of the armed forces to remain at their stations.

However, it was quite clear to us that the King himself had been at the very centre of the plans for a coup. Evidently he had his arm twisted by the CIA who were worried about the consequences of his actions. The coup had a very weak base in society and would have provoked an angry response from the working class that had lived through four decades of dictatorship and would not take this lying down.

That fact was shown by the spontaneous mass demonstrations that flared up on the streets of Madrid and other Spanish towns and cities the next day. Nuevo Claridad was the first left paper to appear. It was sold at Metro stations in working-class districts first thing in the morning. Large numbers were seized and eagerly read by the workers and young people that day.

Many people – members of the Socialist and Communist parties – expressed their amazement that we, with our small forces and limited resources, were able to produce a paper that was on sale that morning before any other.

It is a matter of great pride and satisfaction to me that the Spanish Marxist Tendency in the moment of truth responded to what was a difficult and potentially dangerous situation with courage and determination. It was a courage and determination that flowed from an absolute conviction in the ideas of Marxism.

Alan Woods, 2018

Editorial comment

It is now clear that more than just Tejero was involved in the plot. The army deputy Chief of Staff, General Armada, Military adviser and confidante of the King, Juan Carlos, and most of the regional commanders, apart from those in the Basque Country and Catalonia were involved in the coup.

Sections of the officers of the key armoured division in Brunete on the outskirts of Madrid have also been implicated.

Obviously army intervention was widely accepted amongst the officer caste. The Times commented, "Colonel Tejero's putsch was not perhaps as isolated as it seemed and it would have enjoyed wider support if it had been better organised" [February 26th].

No wonder Armada, in negotiations with Tejero to end the coup, offered to spirit his fellow conspirator out of the country. Tejero was given the opportunity of an aeroplane and safe passage abroad.

Contrast this to the treatment which would have been meted out to soldiers who had engaged in a rebellion. They would either have been shot or given long jail sentences. Tejero himself speculates that he will receive "30 or 40 years jail." In reality the plotters if not Tejero himself will be treated as leniently as he was for his involvement in the earlier 'Galaxy plot'.

And while praise has been heaped on Juan Carlos for his "staunch defence of democracy" evidence has emerged indicating that there were discussions of the need for army intervention in Royal circles.

The 'Financial Times', for instance, commenting on the involvement of Armada, speculates "Either [Armada] totally misinterpreted the King's wishes or had actively conspired to bring down the government" [26 February]. It is noticeable that the King waited three hours before deciding to make his broadcast denouncing the coup.

From the viewpoint of capitalism and its defender, Juan Carlos, the coup was premature. It is comparable to the attempt of the Monarchist General Sanjurjo to seize power in August 1932. That attempt was met with an immediate general strike of the workers' organisations.

Rely on workers' strength

However, the Communist and Socialist Party leaders, this time acted in a similar fashion to the leaders of the workers' organisations when Franco attempted to seize power on July 17th 1936.

In 1936, the right-wing liberal ministers and workers' leaders, like last week, called on the workers and peasants to go home and to observe "peace and calm".

Where the workers and peasants took this advice they were taken from their beds on the 17th and 18th of July 1936 and murdered. It was only the heroic uprising of the immortal Barcelona working class which transformed the situation.

They took power in Barcelona and Catalonia and the revolution spread to the rest of Spain. Four fifths of the country was in the hands of the workers.

It was not the Popular Front, a pact between the workers leaders and the liberal capitalists, which saved the Spanish working class in 1936. Only by the use of their own independent class methods and organisation did the Spanish workers, at least temporarily, defeat Franco's initial uprising.

During the siege of parliament some MPs waved the Spanish constitution at the Civil Guards. As if the Spanish capitalists would be deterred from crushing the labour movement by a "scrap of paper" which is how they view constitutions!

They are not afflicted with the 'parliamentary cretinism' of the PSOE and CP leaders. Neither should the workers show any signs of this malady.

Only by consciousness of their own power, and by relying on their own strength and their own organisations will they defeat reaction.

The situation in Spain today is entirely different to the 1930s. The working class is much more powerful and an overwhelming majority of the population. Even if a coup would have succeeded it would have been very temporary and based on much more shaky foundations than the colonels' regime in Greece of 1967-74. In the present situation in Spain it would have lasted no more than a year or two.

It was this and not any 'love of democracy' which decided Juan Carlos to oppose the coup at this stage. He also probably understood that while the officers would go along with the coup, the largely conscript ranks would oppose it once the threat to the working class became clear.

He understood that any support for the plotters would mean that the inevitable overthrow of any military dictatorship established would also mean the end of the monarchy itself.

It is therefore fatal for the leaders of the workers' organisations to look towards the King as 'guardian of democracy'.

With thinly veiled astonishment, the Financial Times commented the day before the coup: "Senor Santiago Carrillo [Communist Party Leader] has spoken of King Juan Carlos as guarantor of civil peace in the country. From a Communist Party leader that is a remarkable statement."

In so doing, Carrillo and Felipe Gonzalez, the Socialist Party leader, are preparing a noose for the labour movement in the future.

Spanish capitalism is utterly incapable of solving the problems of the working class and poor peasants. Unemployment is at present more than one and a half million, over 12 percent of the labour force. Inflation is over 20 percent.

Such is the drop in living standards for the mass of working people that during the coup, in some of the factories in Madrid and elsewhere, backward workers even gave lukewarm support for the coup.

They compared the situation today unfavourably with what existed five years ago before 'democracy' was established.

The working class demands democratic rights—right to strike, freedom of assembly, right to vote—as a means of defending and improving living standards against the onslaught of capitalism.

When capitalist democracy is incapable of giving these minimum standards, then it is inevitable that certain small backward sections of the working class, the middle class, and the peasantry in particular, would look towards reaction as an alternative.

Only by offering a socialist alternative can these sections be won to the banner of the labour movement.

The King opposed this coup as premature, but he is himself the "fountain-head" of reaction and will become the organiser of a coup if the system which he defends is endangered.

It is noticeable that in a special appeal to "political leaders" he stated that "the situation was so delicate that more drastic action against the armed forces could not be expected immediately."

In other words, scapegoats will be made of a few plotters who will be given kid glove treatment, but the officer-caste and police riddled with fascists will remain untouched. They are the ultimate guardians of Spanish capitalism against the working class.

It is scandalous that the workers' leaders have sanctioned joint demonstrations including not just the UCD, but Fraga's extreme right wing party, "in defence of democracy, liberty, etc". These parties, particularly Fraga's "Popular Alliance" could become at a later stage the civilian wing of a royalist military police dictatorship.

Following the collapse of the coup, one and a half million, mainly workers demonstrated in Madrid and an equal number elsewhere. This was the biggest demonstration in Spanish history and shows the narrow base of reaction at this stage.

But the worst feature of the demonstration was what the Morning Star, paper of the British 'Communist' Party, said was "the unusual sight of Conservative leader Manuel Fraga arm in arm with Marcelino Camacho, Communist leader."

Felipe Gonzalez, Socialist Party leader, has also called for a coalition government to solve Spain's present crisis. The Socialist and Communist Party leaders are terrified of taking power by themselves.

However, Spanish capitalism for the moment, has no need of the workers' leaders in the government. hi the aftermath of the coup, the UCD nominee, Sotelo, has been elected prime minister with the support of the Catalan regional capitalist parties and the right wing Christian Democrats.

But given the explosive economic and social situation in Spain, this government will be no more successful than the last UCD government in solving the country's problems. Therefore, at a certain stage, probably in the next year, the Socialist Party leaders and possibly the Communist Party will be gratefully taken into a coalition government.

As in the past, the capitalists in Spain will use this coalition as a screen behind which to prepare harsher methods against the Spanish workers. It is therefore necessary that the Spanish workers absorb the lessons of the recent coup and go forward on the programme outlined by Nuevo Claridad.

Alan Woods, 1981

The attempted coup d'etat of the Civil Guard in Spain has been a serious warning for the working class.

After five years of 'democratic transition' the fascists and torturers, the worst enemies of the working class remained in their posts.

The same police, judges, gaolers, generals and bureaucrats have remained in their jobs, transforming the state apparatus as a whole into one enormous and permanent conspiracy against the democratic and social rights conquered by the workers.

We are told that the assault on the Chamber of Deputies, was a mere 'incident', an accidental event which interrupted 'normality'.

Nobody will believe this! We remember that not so long ago this same Lieutenant Colonel Tejero was implicated in the similar Operation Galaxy. We also remember how he was 'punished'. He was let free and re-incorporated in his position.

We remember the photographs of these fascist conspirators in the newspapers, drinking champagne and laughing at the stupidity of those commentators, who, at that moment as well expressed the opinion that it was a question of a mere 'incident'.

In all his actions, words, and ideas, openly expressed throughout the recent period, Tejero has shown himself up as a fascist and a dyed in the wool enemy of democracy.

Nevertheless, he was permitted to occupy a key position in the Civil Guard. This is also the case with General Milans del Bosch. What were the intentions of the conspirators?

We need look no further than the actions of Milans del Bosch in Valencia where he immediately announced the prohibition of working class parties and trade unions.

These elements, if they would have succeeded, would have wiped out the last vestiges of democracy, pushing the whole of society back towards barbarism and the nightmare through which we have lived in the last 40 years.

Behind Tejero and Bosch stood all the sadistic torturers of the secret police, the rabid dogs of Fuerza Nueva and the other enemies of democracy and the working class.

But the whole cloudy affair has other dimensions.

If Tejero and Bosch were able to hang onto their positions in spite of all the warnings someone must have covered up for them. Who was that person?

A coup of this magnitude—clearly a serious attempt, carefully planned and not at all a theatrical coup—necessarily has very wide ramifications.

Evidently these people have been involved in conspiracy for months on end. It is impossible to organise the seizure of the Palace of Deputies and the occupation of television studios and radio stations in Madrid at the same time as a military uprising in Valencia without both long term planning and a very wide discussion within military circles.

Were there no rumours throughout all this time? Did nobody know anything about it? Was there not one single officer whose loyalty towards democracy obliged him to denounce these events to his superiors?

This is difficult to believe. Unless the support which the conspirators enjoyed was considerably wider than the narrow circle of those who participated in the actual assault.

The silence of the secret services so efficient at persecuting and intimidating the left is more eloquent than any speech. No! This is no accident.

It was not an improvised act by a small minority or a comic-opera coup, it was the expression of a generalised mood of conspiracy and reaction among wide circles of the state apparatus which have been maintained perfectly intact from the dictatorship.

They have changed the labels, but they are the same old fascists hiding behind the protective shield of 'democracy' and the UCD Government.

Who protected those responsible for the massacre on 3 March 1976 in Vitoria, who have never appeared before the court in order to explain that bloody massacre? Who defended those guilty of the murder of Gladys Del Estal or Germán Rodriguez and of the police riot in Renteria?

Only days before the seizure of the palace of parliament, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo the representative of the big banks and the most right-wing section of UCD refused to set in motion the reorganisation of the police.

The Minister of the Interior, Roson, refused up to the last minute to admit that Jose Arregui had been tortured to death in the cellars of the security police.

Frankenstein created a monster who subsequently escaped from his control. The UCD did not create the police force and the Civil Guard. For that 40 years of dictatorship were necessary. But they did deliberately cover up for the fascist elements at all levels of the state apparatus.

There is little gratitude in this life. The first victims of the monster have been its very protectors! Thus it has been thus it will always be.

Not all the police and military men are fascists. But precisely those who are not fascists, those who wish to defend democratic rights have been systematically subjected to repression and acts of vengeance and silence by the fascists with the tacit support of the 'democratic' politicians of the UCD.

There is the case of the officers of the UMD (Democratic Military Union), there is the case of the members of the SUP (left wing police union) who have been subjected to disciplinary action. The threads by which the conspiracy hangs are lengthy and reach up to the highest summit of the state.

All the organisations of the working class must demand the dissolution of the repressive organisations of the state, once and for all, a purge of the state apparatus of all those elements compromised with links with fascism and repression and a popular trial of the torturers and the conspirators.

But it is not just a question of making demands. The Spanish oligarchy which moves all the strings is not affected by polite requests but only by deeds.

It is no use appealing for serenity when the fascists are already knocking at the door. There is no use appealing to 'continuity' and 'legality' when all continuity and all legality has been brutally broken by the actions of armed gangs moved by invisible strings.

The working class cannot remain with its arms folded when the existence or our organisations, our rights, our lives are at stake.

If the majority organisations of the working class, the UGT, the workers commissions, the PSOE and the Communist Party do not give a decisive answer to the fascist aggression then this attempt will be repeated again and again until finally they arrive at their objective —the total destruction of our democratic and social rights and a return to barbarism and slavery for the working class.

We must call a general strike throughout the country, form action committees and generalise the struggle to the mass of the people with the participation of housewives, small business men, etc.

They tell us we must maintain calm and tranquillity, we should not be surprised at that. They said exactly the same in July of 1936! If the workers had listened to these voices at the moment in time fascism would have triumphed not in 1939 but in 1936.

With their treacherous appeals to serenity the capitalist politicians of UCD, PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and the CIU (Catalan Nationalist Party) are continuing the same policies of the last five years, the policy of rotten compromises with reaction, whose poisonous fruit has been the coup d'etat of the 23rd February.

If the PSOE and Communist party leaders accept these arguments from the capitalists they will fall into a terrible trap.

Once 'normality has been re-established' the reactionaries—with other names—will once more begin their conspiracies against the democratic rights of the working class.

But the next time there will be a difference. They will do it in a more careful and a more cautious manner.

As day follows night there will be a new coup d'etat, possibly with greater success than this one.

The only force which can avoid the danger of a new coup d'etat, defend democratic rights and smash the reaction is the force of the working class. We cannot trust the 'democratic' capitalist politicians whose mission is to cover up and defend the forces of reaction against the indignation and anger of the working class.

The coup d'etat has failed. But other conspirators remain in their posts in the highest organs of power. They are backed and financed by influential sections of the banks and big business.

A capitalist government has never been capable of putting an end to these conspiracies, which in the last analysis are the product of the incompatibility of the interests of big business with the existence of the workers' organisations and democratic rights.

While a handful of wealthy people, the hundred families, continue to control the power and wealth of this country, we will never be safe from the terrible menace of fascist coups.

Only a government composed of the representatives of the majority parties of the. working class will be capable of carrying out a strong purge of the organs of the state by means of the dissolution of the repressive organs of Francoism and a peoples' trial of the conspirators and their protectors.

If the capitalists attempt to boycott the democratic programme of a socialist government the reply must be the nationalisation with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need and under democratic workers' control and management of the banks and the key industries.

As an immediate, urgent task the leaders of the PSOE, Communist party, UGT and workers' commissions must call a general strike to protest against the coup d'etat.

This should be combined with campaigns of demonstrations, mass meetings and factory meetings calling for severe punishment for the conspirators and a total purge of the state apparatus.

The leaders of the workers' organisations will thereby be in a position to force a general election allowing the working class to decide upon the future government.

The election of a socialist government with a socialist programme is the only way to put in motion a real break with the past and to commence the socialist transformation of society.

Alan Woods, 1981