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ArribaAbajoReactionaries, clandestines and social change in nineteenth century Spain: a review

Temma Kaplan

Spain's isolation from Europe has, heretofore, been almost as evident in historical writing as in other cultural and intellectual matters. Narrow studies of Spanish thought and events have made it seem as if what was happening there was somehow peculiar -a matter of national characteristics. Up until about ten years ago, most studies neglected theoretical questions about social, economic, and ideological changes in Spain and their relation to similar events and trends elsewhere in Europe.

Three recent books are excellent examples of the new movement among contemporary Spanish historians toward the europeanization of themes and sources. They are Javier Herrero's Los Orígenes del Pensamiento Reaccionario Español (Madrid, Cuadernos Para el Diálogo, 1971); Iris Zavala's Masones, comuneros, y carbonarios (Madrid, Siglo XXI, 1971); and Josep Fontana's La Quiebra de la Monarquía Absoluta (Barcelona, Ediciones Ariel, 1971). Widely traveled and well-read, these three historians bring a sophisticated acquaintance with recent European social and political studies to their own investigations of Spain. They also make an important contribution to general European history by introducing new hypotheses about late eighteenth and early nineteenth century intellectual and social change.

If asked what was the key period in the origins of modern Spain, all three scholars would answer that it lay between 1789 and 1820. Although the historians focus on different matters, taken together, their studies describe the weakness of the state, the slowness and unevenness of industrial development, the emergence of right and left wing dissidence and its organization into permanent political association, and the creation of political ideology.

Javier Herrero's book has three central arguments: first, that reactionary ideologues have perpetrated a series of misconceptions about the history of Spain, of which the most distorted is that Spanish thought has traditionally been anti-liberal and authoritarian. He argues, quite pursuasively, that so-called traditionalist or reactionary theories grew up at the same time as the reformist ideas of the Enlightenment and in opposition to them; and that the work of men like Hervás, Forner, Campany, Zebellos, Rodríguez, and Fray Diego de Cádiz constitutes an ideology which took shape in the eighteenth century and was elaborated upon in recent times.

The gist of the ideology, according to Herrero, was that rationalism, deism, pacifism, republicanism, and free masonry constituted a conspiracy to undermine the hegemony of the Catholic Church, the absolute monarchy, and the aristocracy. Since the reactionaries' works took the form of theological writings, Herrero deals primarily with the religious content of the arguments, but he stresses that, by the eighteenth century, political and social concerns underlay even theological questions.

Pursuing that thesis, the study goes beyond an examination of the content of conservative ideology to clarify its social origin and function. Behind the rubric of secular traditionalism, Herrero argues, stood the class interests of the privileged   —138→   groups of the Old Regime: the clergy and the aristocracy. These classes needed messianic absolutism to justify their opposition to democratic liberalism because they feared that reform would rob them of their privileges.

The book's hypotheses are exciting, and many of its arguments are convincing, but it does not go far enough. In attempting to prove that reactionary eighteenth century thought represents a break with the past, it does not deal sufficiently with that past. The discussion of the struggle between the eighteenth century Spanish Jansenists and Jesuits provides some background to the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment, but it overlooks the reactionary elements in Counter-Reformation thought, especially the notion that the Spanish monarchy was the defender of both Catholicism and Christendom. Even older, the Reconquest idea of holy war or crusade, which persisted into the nineteenth century among Carlists and other reactionaries, is not mentioned. Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish more carefully between traditionalist and reactionary thought, and, if possible, link one or the other to counterrevolutionary action in the early nineteenth century.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is also the period in which secret societies emerged. Many of the clandestine movements were concerned with promoting constitutional government and civil rights. In Spain, before and after the 1812 Cortes of Cadiz and the Liberal Trienium of 1820 to 1823, progressive men and women were faced with the revival of authoritarianism, political repression, and rightwing terror. To formulate plans for more democratic future governments, and to fight against political oppression, they turned to underground activities and secret societies. Many historians have been intrigued by these organizations, but Iris Zavala is the first to make them the central focus of an historical monograph and the first to fit them into their international setting.

Along with Javier Herrero, Professor Zavala is concerned with showing how masonry established itself in Spain. Herrero's book focusses on the theological aspects of masonry as disseminated in Spain by the British; Zavala's book traces two separate sources of Spanish masonry: the British rite, which was introduced to citizens of the port cities and won the support of elements among the commercial bourgeoisie; and the French rite, which entered Spain with Joseph Boneparte's army, permeated the hinterlands, and spread French revolutionary ideas to francophile intellectuals and even to some soldiers, peasants and rural craftsmen.

Within the masons, Zavala argues, people of opposing views were united around the issues of achieving liberty, equality, and fraternity. Politically, most free masons were moderates who favored constitutional monarchy. Many demonstrated an increasing concern with social issues and may have discovered that reform was possible only through a reorganization of social relations and institutions. As part of their program of equality and fraternity, progressive physicians and educators, who had joined the masons, wanted to bring Spanish educational and medical facilities up to European standards. Physicians who wanted to perform autopsies and educators who wished to break away from teaching by rote were often reprimanded or punished by members of the clergy. The liberal professionals moved toward secularizing institutions which performed social services, clashed with the Catholic Church, and became actively anti-clerical. By placing their opposition to the church in a social rather than a theological context, Zavala's study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the masons.


It also describes the goals, activities, and social origins of the free masons' two most important splinter groups, the comuneros and the carbonarios. In 1820, the comuneros split from the free masons. While the masons were composed of francophile aristocrats, army officers, and liberal intellectuals, the comuneros drew upon artisans, small proprietors, provincial journalists, small merchants, and substantial peasants -members of the petty bourgeoisie. Zavala compares them to the Parisian sans-culottes, and credits them with becoming the core of the exaltado or left liberal party and the nucleus of later constitutionalist and republican parties in Spain. She shows that the comuneros were active in the popular rebellions in Andalusia and Catalonia, and that they may have aroused peasants to demand land and incited artisans to Luddism. The gradual but steady growth of permanent populist organizations in Spain, Zavala argues, was related to the activities of the comuneros.

With her treatment of the carbonarios, another masonic splinter, she outlines the inter-relationship among many European and Spanish proto-Republican groups. Introduced to Spain by Italians fleeing repression in Piedmont and Naples, the carbonarios spread internationalist ideas of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. It is hard to pin down the class base of the Spanish carbonarios who seemed to attract military men and jacobin elements, the same groups which often joined the masons. We are told that differences lay in the masons' constitutional monarchism and in the carbonarios' republican ideas, as demonstrated in their attempts in 1821 to establish republican city states in Andalusia. The carbonario appear to be the first explicitly republican political organization in Spain.

The majority of Zavala's book is occupied with the groups named in the title. However, since her thesis is that secret societies formed the basis of modern democratic and republican political parties, she deals with mid-nineteenth century developments: with the period of liberal exile after 1823, with mid-century popular uprisings such as the 1842 Barcelona revolt, and with the later formation of workers' syndicates. Zavala shows that many early trade unions and republican sects grew out of secret societies, through the intermediary of utopian socialism. Spanish utopian socialists, followers of Fourier, Cabet, and Proudhon, often belonged to a succession of organizations: clandestine societies, a branch of utopian socialism, and later, a trade union, a democratic or republican party, or even an anarchist association.

Even without her excellent analysis, Iris Zavala's book would make an important contribution to our knowledge of the nineteenth century because she has compiled documents which have never before been available in print. Fully half the volume consists of documents gleaned from the Archivo General del Palacio, the Archivo Histórico Nacional, and from contemporary regional newspapers. Zavala has unearthed and reprinted memoranda, inquisition records, and police reports. The issues raised by her text and documents are taken up from a different point by another historian.

With La Quiebra de la Monarquía Absoluta, Josep Fontana has published a definitive work on early nineteenth century Spanish history. Like many other contemporary European social scientists, Fontana studies the transformation from feudalism to capitalism, the process of industrialization in the modern world. But unlike many of his colleagues, Fontana does not regard political events as exogenous to the dynamic process of economic and social change. He does not see people merely as objects of economic events, but as actors. The title of his book, the Bankruptcy of the Absolute Monarchy, refers eqully to social, political, and economic disintegration.   —140→   Fontana is concerned with the personal cost of these social changes to the working classes and peasants.

His emphasis on the interconnections, his astute treatment of the whole body of contemporary European economic literature, his familiarity with all recent work done on or in Spain, and his forthright criticism make his book a landmark of modern Spanish historiography. By taking a dialectical approach to historical change, Professor Fontana has provided us with an extremely sophisticated paradigm for political, social and economic history in general.

Like other European powers, the Spanish monarchy needed to maintain a large standing army and a domestic police force to insure national peace after 1814. Fontana explains how Spain's loss of its major source of raw materials and markets, the American colonies, and the consequent decline of tariff revenues in the period between 1810 and 1825, bankrupted Spain. The cost of building up its navy for the much desired reconquest of America, to regain markets and raw materials, was added to the enormous national debt Spain had accumulated between 1808 and the Wars of Independence.

The transformation of the financial base of the government entailed reorganizing economic and social relations in the countryside. In order to extract more state revenue from the rural sector, the state had to reduce the clergy's hold on land and their seigneurial claims to the agricultural production of the peasantry. With ingenius argument and meticulous use of economic evidence, Fontana shows that, through its tax program, the authoritarian monarchy of Ferdinand VII attempted to impose an agricultural revolution from above in the period between 1814 and 1820. But that necessitated a comparable revolution from below, which the government also attempted to bring about through taxation.

Ferdinand VII's financial advisors hoped that by making landowners pay direct taxes, peasants could be forced to produce goods in excess of what they and their landlords could consume and sell to local markets. Specialization in certain products was the only way peasants could produce a surplus for the government. But concentration in one or two crops would mean that the peasants could no longer be selfsufficient. Therefore, they would have to go to market to buy what they could not produce themselves, and they would constitute a new, internal market for goods produced and manufactured elsewhere in Spain. Through taxes, the government would skim off dividends from the expanded production and trade.

Fontana argues that, in effect, Ferdinand VII's regime tried to destroy seigneurial society and introduce economic liberalism in the form of a free national market in the Spanish countryside. This attempt alienated the clergy and certain peasant groups. Although the king and his advisors stopped short of a direct attack on the clergy, the state's financial needs and its desire to extract regular taxes from the peasants brought it into conflict with the church which supported itself through peasant tithes. Reform in the tax structure challenged the earlier economic relations in the countryside. The peasants were caught between the church and the state. To the extent that the government's policy succeeded, it exacerbated the misery of the peasants who were squeezed for tax payments. Where it applied, the iron law of the free market was as oppressive to the Spanish farmers as it was to French and English agricultural workers and peasants.

Not content merely to explain economic developments, Fontana relates financial policies to individual experience and examines the political activities of social groups   —141→   such as the peasants and the bourgeoisie by giving detailed arguments about how tax reforms affected them and how they reacted politically. He argues that peasants and the bourgeoisie failed to defend the Old Regime against its enemies and therefore left it without any social base. But the Liberal regime of 1820 to 1823 fared no better with the masses. The financial problem of servicing the national debt and paying the administrative costs of government remained, and the liberals invoked the same kinds of tax measures which had doomed the Old Regime; hence the return to monarchy in 1823 came as the result of economic and political bankruptcy rather than as a revolution of the right.

Between 1814 and 1820, according to Fontana, the government had tried to reform the state without changing the traditional social structure of the nation and without disturbing the privileges of the dominant groups in the government. That was impossible. The only opportunity to change Spain was a revolution modeled after the French Revolution, which might have destroyed seigneurial exploitation and the obstacles to commercialization of agriculture caused by latifundism. Neither the Old Regime nor the liberals were strong enough to impose a real revolution from above, and the structural impediments to economic changes inevitably prevented any shortrange reforms being effective.

These three important new works demonstrate that a new generation of Spanish scholars is interested in linking Spain's past to general European trends. To sum up the books in terms of content, Javier Herrero's work lays the basis for the study of reactionary ideology; Iris Zavala's book shows the goals and activities of incipient political parties and labor unions; and Josep Fontana's investigations establish the relationship of government reforms to larger problems of social change and agricultural development. Taken together, the books have many suggestions about how and why a popular movement emerged, what accomodations were made to it by more traditional political groups, and how secret societies generated a new political consciousness in early nineteenth century Spain. They explain the social and economic sources of discontent, the ideological formulation of that disenchantment, and its transformation into permanent political organizations.

Department of History

University of California, Los Angeles

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