Analysis 1 What Did The Dictatorship Of Primo De Rivera Achieve

When, in September 1923, as Captain-General of Barcelona, General Miguel Primo de Rivera issued a pronunciamiento overturning the Liberal government of García Prieto, he was seen by many as an almost messianic figure, leading a crusade against political corruption, social chaos and imperial humiliation. He was backed by the King, the army, the Church and a wide popular consensus. Yfet, although his period of rule to January 1930 is called the Dictadura, his was not a dictatorship that followed rigid lines of policy. In Spanish Morocco, he moved from a policy of withdrawal to a strategy of war and consolidation. Initially he seemed keen to maintain an army promotions system based strictly on seniority, but he came to favour advancement through merit. He appeared to be sympathetic to the ambitions of moderate Catalan regionalism, but soon moved to a distinctly unsympathetic centralism. He planned for a constituent Cortes but then abandoned the idea.

Although, as Hugh Thomas has noted, Rivera's regime lacked the organized mass base and fanatical imperialism that might have labelled it fascist,1 the 'Dictator' nevertheless dismissed the pre-existing Cortes, suspended elections and trial by jury, presided over a highly regulated education system, censored the press and forced many people, including some conservatives, into exile. On the other hand, Rivera was also in many ways a humane figure, concerned to alleviate the grinding poverty in which much of Spain's population lived. He posted military delegates to each region as 'pocket iron surgeons', to excise corruption. Sadly, their attempt to free the electorate from the hold of the caciques was no more than a qualified success.

The same could be said of Rivera's attempt to build a wide body of political support. Even after the end of the war in Morocco in 1926, when he felt able to 'liberalize' his regime, he never managed to persuade even the moderate Socialists to join his National Assembly. Rivera's Unión Patriótica (UP), which he hoped would give his regime a façade of public zeal, was a failure. His dynamic economic programme was open to political sabotage and susceptible to fluctuations in the world economy. Although Rivera banned the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT, and secured the cooperation of the moderate Socialist trade union, the UGT, he was never able to ensure united and consistent left-wing support. Three years later, in 1927, banned anarchists secretly reestablished themselves as the small underground attack group, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI).

In Catalonia and the Basque Country Rivera at first pursued a genuinely open-minded policy, in the hope that granting a regional assembly to Catalonia would uphold the authority of his Catalan conservative allies in the Lliga (Catalan Regionalist League). It did not, and Rivera saw no alternative but to abolish the assembly, much to the delight of his centralist supporters. As a result, the political tide in Catalonia, further strengthened by Rivera's banning of the Catalan flag, flowed instead towards the more radical anti-clerical Catalan separatism and republicanism as embodied in the Esquerra (Catalan Left Coalition). In the Basque Country, too, Rivera abandoned his original plans for a measure of regional autonomy under pressure from his military associates. However, he retained conservative Basque officials in their posts, while, as S. Payne has shown, the tariff on imported goods and state subsidies to local industry greatly assisted the economy of the Basque Country and, by extension, that of Spain.2

Rivera's social policies show similar contrasts. The government's policy on the publication of books in Catalan and Basque was tolerant. Basque culture flourished. The regime built 2,000 new schools and refurbished 2,000 others, and prioritized technical training. At the same time, Rivera disciplined university professors who criticized his government and, in a highly controversial move, delighted the Church by recognizing degrees awarded by Catholic universities. This infuriated the liberal intelligentsia. Less controversial were cheap housing for workers and higher maternity benefits for women. On the other hand, women were still barred from voting.

Social and economic progress was essential to national regeneration, but Rivera was limited in his options and dependent both on a healthy international economy and on internal cooperation. A worthy scheme was stillborn in 1928 when the latifundistas (large landowners) resisted the introduction into the countryside of compulsory wages and conditions arbitration committees (comités paritarios) which were already operating successfully in urban areas. Similarly, José Calvo Sotelo, Rivera's finance minister, was blocked in his attempts to use tax increases to pay for public works, and had to resort to heavy borrowing and an 'extraordinary budget' which led, in 1928, to the collapse of the peseta. Raymond Carr has criticized Rivera's Council for National Economy for being too bureaucratic,3 but at the time it seemed a sensible means of pursuing autarky, as did high tariffs and state subsidies to industry. The policy of granting monopolies led to Spanish dependence on the USSR for oil. Nor was there any let-up in industrial unrest. In 1924 the Asturian Mineworkers' Union called a general strike; it failed, and the employers imposed even longer working hours.

However, there were several areas of success. Apart from the successful urban arbitration committees, bold, imaginative public works schemes led for a time to near-full employment: new roads were built and old ones tarmacked; an extended railway network included the first trans-Pyrenees rail link between Spain and France; and 60-80 million pesetas per annum were allocated to hydro-electric schemes. Two international exhibitions in 1929 promoted tourism and Spain's image of national regeneration, celebrating Spanish achievement past and present: the I bero-American Exposition in Seville and the Barcelona International Exhibition. The Catalan historian Albert Balcells has suggested that Rivera hoped, rather optimistically, that the Barcelona Exhibition would build a political bridge to regional sentiment in Catalonia.4

Gerald Brenan, in his pioneering work The Spanish Labyrinth, first published in 1943, pointed out that the upswing in the world economy assisted Spain's own development.5 However, could Spain's prosperity last without a sustained rise in agricultural exports? Whatever happened internationally, domestic political consequences arising from Spain's economic performance were bound to follow. Historians have offered contrasting perspectives on this. Hugh Thomas, in his highly readable The Spanish Civil War, first published in 1961, juxtaposes people's high expectations, thanks to a new consumer culture, with the arrival of the economic slump in the late 1920s.6 The resultant disillusionment was made even more painful given the Dictatorship's earlier impressive record of a 300 per cent increase in production and commerce. And even had there been no economic slump, Primo de Rivera had still failed to capitalize on the 'feel-good' factor to wed the people to a more lasting and up-to-date replacement for the monarchy.

Writing in the mid-1980s, an expert on the Rivera dictatorship, Shlomo BenAmi, drew attention to the political consequences of economic migration to towns and cities. This had been generated by the opportunities to work in public works schemes and expanding industry: in these more 'open' environments, relatively free of caciquismo, the migrant electorate became less deferential and more prone to support radical politics.7 The American historian Gabriel Jackson, writing in 1959, stressed the positive legacy of the public works programme: it was a base for further modernization during the Republic (1931 -6). Paul Preston, on the other hand, has drawn attention to the heavy burden bequeathed to the Republic by the Rivera dictatorship's excessive spending.8

Clearly, then, the economic history of 1920s Spain cannot be seen in isolation. Rivera's successes and failures need to be put into a wider historical and international perspective. His public works schemes built on the progress of previous governments, and were in turn expanded and coordinated by the Republic. The arbitration committees were anticipated in post-1918 legislation and were successfully introduced into rural areas in 1931.

On the negative side, the war against the Riff and Jabala rebels in Spanish Morocco was a severe drain on the economy and Spain's military manpower. However, Rivera's initial plan - withdrawal - was rejected scornfully by the army, so he went instead for the military option. With French help, the Spanish defeated the rebels and forced their leader, Abd-el-Krim, to surrender in 1926. Victory in Morocco was immensely popular at home, but it did not guarantee loyal or sustained support from the army. The policy of promotion through merit, which Rivera was determined to pursue, won him support from the officers in Spain's elite Army of Africa (Africanistas), but earned him the bitter enmity of the ultra-traditionalist artillery corps, who went on strike in 1926 and were involved in a coup attempt in 1928. For a time they were even disbanded. Rivera also undermined his own chances of gaining support from the army by failing to address grievances over low wages and obsolete weapons. His inability to get the army as a whole firmly on side proved fatal. The captains-general responded unenthusiastically to his 'back me or sack me' telegram of January 1930, and the King was able to use this 'unconstitutional' manoeuvre as a pretext for forcing Rivera to resign. Even so, some key elements within the army, notably the Africanistas, were still loyal to Rivera and appalled at King Alfonso's cynical 'dropping of the pilot'. Perhaps ironically, Rivera's very achievements in modernizing the country seemed to have made the monarchy an anachronism. But it was Rivera who fell first. 'Spain, One and Great!' had been the rallying cry of Rivera's UP, but if his rule showed anything, it was that Spain could not unite around a slogan, however inspiring.

Was this article helpful?

+1 -1

Post a comment