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No, Left-Wing Activists Aren’t the Same As Fascist Thugs

Spain’s far-right Vox party began its Madrid election campaign with a rally in the multiracial working-class suburb of Vallecas, prompting clashes with locals. Media responded with a condemnation of the “twin extremisms” — showing how those who defend the poor and marginalized are falsely equated with those who abuse them.

Far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal speaks during a rally in the working-class area of Vallecas, Spain on April 7, 2021. (Jon Imanol Reino / AFP via Getty Images)

With Madrid heading to regional elections on May 4, the far-right Vox party is again forcing itself onto the agenda — and not just at the ballot box. The snap poll was called by Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), who had until last month governed the region in a coalition with the liberal-nationalist Ciudadanos, also reliant on Vox support. Yet even before the race officially began this past Sunday, Vox sought to get a head start. Its improbable choice of venue to kick off its campaign on April 7 was the Plaza del Nica in Vallecas, known locally as Red Square. Indeed, this suburb in the southeast of Madrid is solidly working-class and left-voting — the heart of the traditional red belt around the Spanish capital.

In the early evening, surrounded by heavy security and police lines, Vox leader Santiago Abascal announced the candidacy of his anti-feminist, homophobic, racist, and neoliberal formation. His address was attended not only by the party faithful but also by anti-fascist demonstrators, who saw Vox’s presence in the neighborhood as an insult. Shortly after starting to speak, Abascal reacted to the noise of the protests by breaking the police cordon, directing the Vox contingent to confront them.

According to Público journalists Pilar Araque and Amanda García, at this point the police charged the anti-fascist demonstrators and journalists. Vox’s own security detail did not hold back either: one of their targets being the photographer and Podemos executive member Dani Gago. Despite a plea issued earlier in the day from the Socialist Party, Unidas Podemos, and Más Madrid (a splinter group from Podemos) for the anti-Vox demonstrators not to fall into the trap of a provocation, bottles and stones were thrown between the two sides. The day ended with thirty-five injured and four arrests. Among the images that emerged was a chummy selfie of a policeman embracing a far-right activist recently issued with a restraining order for harassing the family of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

For far-right parties across Europe, forcing their way into working-class and immigrant districts is a standard maneuver. The calculation is that their presence will cause incidents, relayed as a media spectacle that gives them visibility and permits them to play the victim. Precedents include Marine Le Pen’s numerous rallies in the working-class northern suburbs of Paris, or Matteo Salvini’s foray into the Bologna suburb of Pilastro, followed by a throng of cameras, to ask immigrants if they were drug dealers.

As a party nostalgic for Francisco Franco’s bloody dictatorship, which itself spouts QAnon-style conspiracy theories, Vox might have expected to find little succor in mainstream Spanish opinion. All the more so since its relations with the conservative PP soured last year. While Vox props up its governments in three regions, the PP reacted with hostility to Vox’s attempt last October to pass a vote of no confidence in the national PSOE–Unidas Podemos government. This bid to present Abascal as an alternative candidate for prime minister was seen as a clumsy and counterproductive miscalculation.

Nonetheless, Díaz Ayuso — whose own campaign mantra, “communism or freedom,” specifically targets Podemos — conveyed “all my support to Vox in the face of the intolerable attacks suffered in Vallecas.” PP leader Pablo Casado likewise expressed “all my support to the police, journalists, Vox, Santiago Abascal, and Rocío Monasterio in view of what happened this evening.” He further claimed that the fundamental cause of the disturbances was Podemos’s own presence in national government. Madrid PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo intimated the same sentiment, insisting that “extremism feeds off extremism.”

False Equivalence

The equivalence between Podemos and Vox is a mainstay of centrist Spanish commentary. Castigating and conflating the two parties as co-responsible for the ills of contemporary Spanish society, the Spanish-language version of the New York Times averred that “moderation is not a sign of weakness but quite the opposite.” But moderation as dogmatic insistence on neoliberal orthodoxy is not moderation at all. Nor is the logical implication of the equal derision for any kind of political contestation exceeding narrow limits: that defending the poor and marginalized amounts to the same thing as abusing and threatening them. Yet if conflating Podemos and Vox damages the former at the price of aiding the latter, so be it. Such is the emotional investment in defending the fundamental post-Franco settlement instituted by and surviving the PSOE governments of Felipe González from 1982 to 1996, described by historian Geoff Eley as “a gutting of popular democracy” and “a spectacular version of socialist betrayal.”

Accordingly, the editorial on the events in the unofficial house organ of the PSOE and tribune of respectable liberal opinion, El País, had little more to say on the events than condemning the violence (by implication, attributed to the anti-fascists) and insisting on Vox’s right to campaign wherever it sees fit. What is more, it took remarkably seriously Vox’s claim to be trying to stake out an electoral presence where it has little; in the equivalent elections in 2019, Vox finished last among the big parties in the area. Certainly, the El País intervention did not entertain the more plausible notion that Vox in fact intended to demonstrate its credentials to voters in Madrid’s more opulent neighborhoods: above all, those attracted by the media spectacle of the Vox strongman putting in their place the residents of these areas that the party deputy Rocío de Meer last year branded “multicultural shitholes.”

Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who himself grew up in the district, recently resigned his position as deputy prime minister to contest these Madrid elections. In the wake of the disturbances, Iglesias insisted that it is not, as Díaz Ayuso recently stated, fascism that “was on the right side of history” but rather the historic democratic struggles of the residents of Vallecas. And indeed, if one can get so little clarity from the Spanish establishment on these matters, it is all the more worthwhile revisiting the inspiring history of activism and mutual solidarity in Vallecas to understand why Vox’s launch was so offensive and provocative. Furthermore, this history offers more serious ideas about politics than those mooted in well-heeled newspaper offices and TV studies a few metro stops away in central Madrid.

Vallecas has changed beyond recognition over the course of the twentieth century, both in terms of the urban landscape and its inhabitants, but it has always transmitted something of its radical energies from one generation to the next. In fact, Vallecas is really two areas in one: Puente de Vallecas, closer to the city center, and Villa de Vallecas. As historian Matilde Fernández Montes documents, Puente de Vallecas took on a reputation for radicalism in tragic circumstances during the Spanish Civil War. A working-class outpost in the “red zone” close to the Jarama front, it was devastated by Franco’s advancing fascist forces.

Red Area, Red Priests

Yet Vallecas’s proud identity really only came to be forged during the long Franco dictatorship. The 1950s and 1960s saw an exodus from rural Spain to the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, particularly from southern areas like Andalucia, La Mancha, Murcia, or Extremadura. This emptying of rural Spain disproportionately impacted Madrid, however, with seven hundred thousand immigrants settling in the city in the 1960s. Still semirural despite its official incorporation into Madrid in 1950, Vallecas soon became synonymous with shantytowns, as families etched out livelihoods in the all too often muddy fields in a fragmented and alienated social world of precarious existence. Sociologist Manuel Castells points out that on the eve of the democratic Transition in 1974, 54 percent of the 4.3 million inhabitants of metropolitan Madrid lived in inadequate housing, while 8.1 percent of the housing stock remained empty for the purpose of speculation. The shacks and shantytowns with which the residents of Vallecas made do were a stigma — a prejudice that was often held against their inhabitants when it came to securing employment.

While Vox leaders claim to uphold traditional, Spanish, and Catholic values, they have no sympathy for the Catholicism of Vallecas’ “red priests.” While only a minority among its ranks, from the 1960s parts of the Spanish clergy emerged as a key oppositional force to the Franco regime, for which the church had previously been an unshakable ideological pillar. These priests resolved instead that their Christian duty required serious solidarity with the poor and marginalized. Vox takes a hard line on law and order and unquestioningly backs violence on the part of the Spanish security services. So its religious and authoritarian sensibilities would no doubt be doubly offended by Vallecas bishop Alberto Iniesta’s recollection that he had to reserve Thursday mornings to visit his priests in the Madrid Carabanchel jail, who were continuously in and out “for defending the most needy” against Francoist repression.

In Vallecas these red priests were a central component of neighborhood organization and activism during and after the Franco dictatorship. In partnership with labor lawyers, trade unionists, Communist and other left-wing activists, worker priests generated “immense strength of internal solidarity,” as Fernández describes it. This fusion of dissident currents launched cultural initiatives, overcoming social isolation and the alienation of urban marginality through celebrations and popular festivals. It organized the community in pursuit of social demands and became a leading force for participatory democracy and socialism, as well as offering support against systemic police violence against activists and protesters. Throwing off their feelings of shame, residents came to feel tremendous pride in their home and community, as encapsulated in the common slogan “Vallecas nuestra.”

In fact, only the second neighborhood association in Spain was established in Vallecas, and it remained one of the most organized and militant. Castells writes that “The social mobilization around urban issues that occurred in the neighborhoods of most Spanish cities throughout the 1970s was, to our knowledge, the largest and most significant urban movement in Europe since 1945. For several years (approximately 1970-79), it actively involved hundreds of thousands of residents in Madrid, Barcelona, and almost every major city in the country.” The core demand of the Vallecas neighborhood association was encapsulated in a placard in one of its many mobilizations of the time: “Our parents emigrated — we won’t. Housing here and now.”

As Castells recounts, Vallecas was a key area for shantytown mobilizations, starting in the mid-1960s. Formed by construction workers and supported by the district’s organizers, they first campaigned to obtain basic sanitation and urban services, as well as the right to improve their shacks. Second, when the improvements in the shantytown area made it desirable for profitable private redevelopment, they opposed renewal plans that would have displaced all shantytown dwellers. Third, turning the official argument for shantytown clearance on its head, they mobilized to obtain public urban redevelopment programs for their own benefit in the same area. In September 1978, some seventy thousand people demonstrated in Vallecas for effective measures to solve the housing crisis.

Such formidable mobilization around the home as a right would hardly endear Vallecas to Vox’s Madrid candidate Rocío Monasterio, whose background is in the development of high-end properties. Her husband Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, also a prominent Vox leader, is likewise a real estate developer, and calls for the criminalization of those who do not renege on Marxism. No doubt it would indeed suit his interests to silence criticism of land speculation and rent extraction.

Mutual Aid

Vallecas was not spared the fallout of the post-transition deindustrialization through the late 1970s and 1980s, which saw skyrocketing unemployment and the blight of drug addiction. However, the suburb’s strong identity continued to thrive, not least through its rock music scene, harnessing the energy of the broader Movida cultural movement in the capital. Similarly, organizations such as Mothers Against Drugs were set up by local women who expressed their initial disorientation and lack of confidence, but who were able to draw upon the rich organizational culture and resources of the area to become inspiring organizers in their own right.

Vallecas today is home to a sizable community of Latin Americans who have in large part settled in the area in the last couple of decades, alongside migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Vox, in contrast to other far-right Spanish trends, paints itself as a friend of Latin Americans. This has two advantages: it leverages the Cuban and Venezuelan communities in Spain as part of the generalized refrain, extending far across the Spanish political spectrum beyond Vox, that Podemos will turn Madrid into Caracas or Havana. Second, the concession of full humanity to Latin Americans concentrates Vox’s animus on other immigrants. Vox proudly vaunts the fifteenth-century Reconquista of Spain and expulsion of Muslims. But its hatred is more ecumenical. At the end of March, Vox advocated the deportation of Serigne Mbayé, a Podemos candidate, originally from Senegal, who has lived in Spain for fifteen years and has Spanish nationality. Mbayé is an organizer for migrants without papers and head of the trade union for manteros — mainly immigrant workers who sell wallets, sunglasses, and trinkets in Spanish cities.

Vallecas has recently seen a proliferation of mutual aid groups amid the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has hit the area particularly hard, with one of the very worst infection rates in the city. The slashing of public services is, then, all the more pressing an issue here. Vallecas has thus been doubly hit by Díaz Ayuso’s dogmatic neoliberalism — and her laissez-faire disdain for restrictions has raised eyebrows even within the PP.

Nonetheless, challenges for the Left in the May 4 poll remain significant. Political disengagement is a problem here just as elsewhere; and the Right has held the Madrid regional presidency since 1995, governing in the interests of construction speculation while reducing taxes and spending on public services, notably health. The Left’s hopes depend to a significant degree on turnout. The coronavirus situation only complicates this further, as does intra-left mutual distrust and the attrition of unrelenting media hostility over the last few years toward Unidas Podemos. The hope is that the Left can beat back the far right in the future with the democratic spirit and class consciousness integral to Vallecas’s history. As one large banner bearing Abascal’s face put it, “greeting” Vox’s entrance to the area: “Just in painting this banner, we’ve already done more work than you.”