Spain’s “Semi-Fascism”

On the brink of civil war, Spain produced a ragtag brand of fascism that was still insidiously authoritarian.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera, 1934.

Fondo Marín, Pascual Marín/Wikimedia Commons

Excerpted from A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 by Stanley G. Payne. Published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Fascist politics were introduced in Spain in several stages, all unsuccessful, before the outbreak of the civil war in 1936. The initial champion of the fascist idea was the avant-garde aesthete Ernesto Giménez Caballero (“the Spanish D’Annunzio”), who publicly announced his fascism in 1929, and was soon almost completely ostracized by the predominantly liberal Spanish cultural establishment, becoming what he himself called “a literary Robinson Crusoe.” Giménez Caballero’s fascism was derived directly from Rome. (His wife was Italian.)

Giménez Caballero was not a political organizer, however, and the first fascist political grouping in Spain was created by Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, an underemployed university graduate who had specialized in mathematics and philosophy. Here again the inspiration was primarily Italian, his little band being named Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (rather equivalent to Fasci Italiani di Combattimento) and its weekly publication La Conquista del Estado (“The Conquest of the State”). Yet though Ledesma drew his inspiration from Italy (and also partly from Germany: He temporarily affected a Hitlerian hairstyle), and the official program of the JONS, aiming at a “national syndicalist state,” might be read as a carbon copy of the ideas and goals of Italian Fascism, Ledesma preferred not to use the label, realizing that it was counterproductive in the generally left-liberal Spanish atmosphere.1

The JONS remained totally isolated at the small-sect level, relying mainly on university and secondary students. During its two and a half years of independent existence (1931–34), the JONS failed to have the slightest impact on Spanish affairs.

A more vigorous, better-financed attempt at a Spanish fascism was essayed by sectors of the right in 1933.2 The triumph of Hitler stimulated interest in Spain, not so much among potential fascists—of whom there seemed to be few in the peninsula—but among right radicals or potential right radicals, who were distinctly more numerous. Basque financiers went shopping during the summer of 1933 for the leader of a potential counterrevolutionary, demagogic Spanish fascism. Though they provided a trickle of support to Ledesma and the JONS, the latter were deemed to be both too radical and too unimportant to merit major support.

The main leader of a would-be Spanish fascism who came to the fore in the summer and autumn of 1933 was José Antonio Primo de Rivera, eldest son of the late dictator, Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, who ruled from 1923 to 1930. He first evolved from conservative authoritarian monarchism to a more radical brand of nationalist authoritarianism. By 1933, the younger Primo de Rivera—soon to be known generally as José Antonio—had become interested in something rather like fascism (Italian-style) as the vehicle for giving form and ideological content to the national authoritarian regime attempted so uncertainly and unsuccessfully by his father. Unlike Ledesma, José Antonio was not averse to using the label fascist, though the new movement that he founded with a group of colleagues in October 1933 was eventually called by the more original title of Falange Española (“Spanish Phalanx”).

The Falange began with much more financial support from big business prone to the radical right than had the JONS, prompting the JONS to merge with it in early 1934. (The resulting organization was called Falange Española de las JONS.) During the next two years, and indeed all the way down to the beginning of the civil war, the Falange was distinguished primarily by its insignificance. Like the Romanian Iron Guard, it relied at first on its student clientele, but unlike the Romanian movement, it completely failed to generate any broader lower- or middle-class support.

This period in the wilderness did, however, give the movement’s leaders some time to reflect on what they were about. After a year or so, José Antonio Primo de Rivera began to move “left,” as the national syndicalism of the Falangists took on more socially radical overtones. There was a somewhat belated reaction to the danger of mimesis, and before the close of 1934, most Falangists were denying that they were fascists. By 1935, the criticism of Italian corporatism as too conservative and capitalistic—a criticism fairly common among the more radical types of fascists and Nazis abroad—was being echoed by some Falangist leaders, including Primo de Rivera.

It was all somewhat bewildering to Italian Fascists. During the “universal fascism” phase of the mid-1930s, the Italian taxonomists somewhat inconclusively decided that Falangists were indeed fascists because of their belief in “authority, hierarchy, order” and their anti-materialist Falangist “mysticism.”3 José Antonio, for his part, recognized that all the “nationalist renewal” movements opposing Marxism, liberalism, and the old conservatism had some things in common but also exhibited pronounced national differences. The Spanish right having ceased to support a more radical fascism, the Falange figured on the foreign payroll of the Italian regime for approximately nine months in 1935–36.4

That Falangism exhibited certain distinct characteristics of its own is undeniable, but these did not prevent it from sharing nearly all the general qualities and characteristics that would compose an inventory of generic fascism. As hypernationalists, all fascist groups by definition revealed certain distinct national traits. In the Spanish case, Falangism differed somewhat from Italian Fascism in its basic Catholic religious (if politically anticlerical) identity, for this was central to Falangism and only marginal to Fascism. The Falangists’ concept of the “new man” thus incorporated nearly all the qualities of the traditional Catholic hero, while fusing them with 20th-century components.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera remained a highly ambivalent figure, perhaps the most ambiguous of all European national fascist leaders. Major personal characteristics—such as a fastidious aestheticism combined with a genuine if sometimes contradictory sense of moral scruple, a cultivated intellectual sense of distance and irony, and, for a Spanish politician, a remarkably limited spirit of sectarianism and group rivalry—may have disqualified him for successful leadership. There is abundant testimony that he considered abandoning the project at several points but could not escape the commitment imposed by the deaths and sacrifices of other members of the movement.

Of all national fascist leaders, he was probably the most repelled by the brutality and violence associated with the fascist enterprise. He stopped using the term fascist before the end of 1934 and the term totalitarian before the end of 1935. He would occasionally refer to rightist conspirators as “fascist wind­bags.” Yet however diffident and differential his approach may have been, he never renounced the fascist goals in politics. In the post-fascist era his admirers have made much of José Antonio’s “humanism,” his opposition to total dictatorship, his stress on the individual personality and “man as the bearer of eternal values,” and his Catholicism.5 Yet in the José Antonian formulation these do not necessarily contradict fascism; fairly similar formulations might be found by some nominally leading members of Italy’s PNF.

Large sectors of the Spanish right were becoming “fascistized,” as Ledesma aptly put it, in one or more superficial senses, but the erstwhile fascist movement itself was worse than anemic. Anti-fascism had been strong among the left from 1932 on, but it was precisely the leftists who registered, as Ledesma commented ironically, the only truly “fascist” activity in Spain in violence and direct action. In its first phases, Falangism seemed so fastidious, rhetorical, and averse to direct action that rightist critics labeled it “franciscanism“ rather than fascism. After Ledesma broke with Primo de Rivera and the Falange, the question mark that he placed in the title of his memoir Fascismo en España? seemed fully appropriate. In the final elections of 1936 the Falange registered only forty-four thousand votes in all Spain, about 0.7 percent of all ballots cast, revealing fascism as weaker in Spain than in any other large continental European country.

The profound debility of fascism, so long as the regular Spanish political system existed had several causes. The absence of any strong sense of Spanish nationalism deprived fascism of that key rallying point. In Spain mobilized nationalism was inverted: It was expressed through the intense “peripheral nationalism” of Catalans and Basques, directed against the unified Spanish nation-state. Another key factor was the limited secularization of rural and provincial society in much of Spain, particularly in the north. There, the most obvious and attractive cross-class alternative to liberal or leftist politics was political Catholicism. Moreover, the nominal electoral success of the conservative Catholic political party CEDA (the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Groups) from 1933 down to early 1936 gave this tactic the appearance of victory. Fascism enjoyed much less cultural reinforcement in Spain than in central Europe, for the cultural and intellectual revolution of the 1890s had achieved less resonance in the peninsula. There was a rightist Catholic culture of considerable force, but not a secular-vitalist-Darwinist cultural environment of any vigor. As far as political revolutionism was concerned, the left seemed able to enforce a monopoly of its several brands; it enjoyed greater political success and support in Spain than in any other country in the world during the 1930s. There remained less of an outlet for fascism as the consummation of a frustrated, deviant revolution there than in central Europe.

Civil war produced a polarized revolutionary-counterrevolutionary conflict in which leadership passed completely into the hands of the insurgent Nationalist military who created the Francisco Franco regime in 1939. Growth of Falangist membership to several hundred thousand during the first year of the civil war was not in itself decisive, for death in battle and execution had decapitated the movement, while military dictatorship in the Nationalist zone totally subordinated it.

Core Falangists, the camisas viejas (literally “old shirts”), played only a small role in the new state and held only a small minority of positions in the new system. They did not even control all of the administration of the new state party, the Falange Española Tradicionalista. Addition of the last adjective, reflecting the nominal fusion with the Carlists (traditionalists who wanted to install a monarchy), underscored the major right-wing limitations to the fascism of the new regime. That early Franquism contained a major component of fascism is undeniable, but it was so restricted within a right-wing, praetorian, Catholic, and semipluralist structure that the category of “semifascist” would probably be more accurate.6

And yet, the same adjective might be applied not inaccurately to Mussolini’s Italy, and the similarities between that regime and early Franquism are greater than is sometimes thought. Foreign policy and international context marked the sharpest points of divergence, for the ultimate structure of the Franco regime was largely dependent on world affairs. Whereas Mussolini tried to play a major independent role from 1933 on, Franco had no illusions that he need not wait on events. Had Hitler won the war, there seems little doubt that Franquism would have become less conservative and rightist and more radical and overtly fascist in form. But both regimes used subordinated state fascist parties that were merged with and subsequently incorporated unindoctrinated nonfascist elements. Both permitted limited pluralism in national society and institutions under executive dictatorship. In neither case was the institutionalization of the regime developed primarily by revolutionary fascist ideologues, but more commonly by monarchist theoreticians of the radical right, together with fascistic moderates. In both cases the challenge of militant fascist national syndicalism was soon faced and thoroughly subordinated.

From A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 by Stanley G. Payne. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. Copyright 1996 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

1. As the organizational—and to a large degree ideological—founder of Spanish fascism, Ledesma has been the subject of two full-length biographies, both entitled Ramiro Ledesma Ramos. The first, by Tomás Borrás (Madrid, 1972), is descriptive, superficial, and hagiographic. The second, by José M. Sánchez Diana (Madrid, 1975), has somewhat greater analytic depth.

2. For taxonomic purposes, it might be pointed out that a tiny right radical Spanish Nationalist Party had been organized by a physician named Albiñana in 1930. Albiñana early adopted more than a few of the trappings of fascism, stressing imperial expansion on the one hand and a broad, economically reformist state syndicalism on the other. He organized his own minuscule “Legion” for street battle and at one point apparently hoped to develop a mass movement. After 1933, he dropped his most fascistic overtones in favor of a more orthodox and conservative right radicalism. The only pertinent study is in M. Pastor, Los orígenes del fascismo en España (Madrid, 1975), 38–61.

3. M.A. Ledeen, Universal Fascism (New York, 1972), 100, 110–11.

4. J. F. Coverdale, Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War (Princeton, 1975), 50–64.

5. The most systematic study of the Falangist leader’s political thought is N. Meuser, “Nation, Staat und Politik bei José Antonio Primo de Rivera,” Ph.D. diss., University of Mainz, 1993. In Spanish, see A. Muñoz Alonso, Un pensador para un pueblo (Madrid, 1969). Cf. C. de Miguel Medina, La personalidad religiosa de José Antonio (Madrid, 1975).

6. Mihaly Vajda concluded that the Franco regime could not be considered fascist “since it did not come to power as a mass movement applying pseudo-revolutionary tactics but as an open adversary of revolutionary power, a counter-revolution.” Vajda, Fascism as a Mass Movement (London, 1976), 14.