The third of Marx’s New York Tribune fascinating series contextualizing the revolutionary period Spain experienced beginning in 1854 by looking back at its history, with much for us to ponder in today’s world. In this article, Marx discusses the ‘juntas’ that arose in Spain during the Peninsular War, their composition and their limits. The first article here, the second here.
‘Revolutionary Spain: ’ by Karl Marx from the New York Daily Tribune. Vol. 14 No. 4214. October 20, 1854.
The division of power among the provincial juntas had saved Spain from the first shock of the French invasion under Napoleon, not only by multiplying the resources of the country, but also by putting the invader at a loss for a mark whereat to strike; the French being quite amazed at the discovery that the center of Spanish resistance was nowhere and everywhere. Nevertheless, shortly after the capitulation of Bailén and the evacuation of Madrid by Joseph, the necessity of establishing some kind of central government became generally felt. After the first successes, the dissensions between the provincial juntas had grown so violent that Seville, for instance, was barely prevented by General Castaños from marching against Granada. The French army which, with the exception of the forces under Marshal Bessières, had withdrawn to the line of the Ebro in the greatest confusion, so that, if vigorously harassed, it would then have easily been dispersed, or at least compelled to repass the frontier, was thus allowed to recover and to take up a strong position. But it was, above all, the bloody suppression of the Bilbao insurrection by General Merlin, which evoked a national cry against the jealousies of the juntas and the easy laissez-faire of the commanders. The urgency of combining military movements; the certainty that Napoleon would soon reappear at the head of a victorious army, collected from the banks of the Niemen, the Oder, and the shores of the Baltic; the want of a general authority for concluding treaties of alliance with Great Britain or other foreign powers, and for keeping up the connection with, and receiving tribute from Spanish America; the existence at Burgos of a French central power, and the necessity of setting up altar against altar — all these circumstances conspired to force the Seville junta to resign, however reluctantly, its ill-defined and rather nominal supremacy, and to propose to the several provincial juntas to select each from its own body two deputies, the assembling of whom was to constitute a Central Junta, while the provincial juntas were to remain invested with the internal management of their respective districts, “but under due subordination to the General Government.” Thus the Central Junta, composed of 35 deputies from provincial juntas (34 for the Spanish juntas, and one for the Canary Islands), met at Aranjuez on September 26, 1808, just one day before the potentates of Russia and Germany prostrated themselves before Napoleon at Erfurt.
Under revolutionary, still more than under ordinary circumstances, the destinies of armies reflect the true nature of the civil government. The Central Junta, charged with the expulsion of the invaders from the Spanish soil, was driven by the success of the hostile arms from Madrid to Seville, and from Seville to Cadiz, there to expire ignominiously. Its reign was marked by a disgraceful succession of defeats, by the annihilation of the Spanish armies, and lastly by the dissolution of regular warfare into guerrilla exploits. As said Urquijo, a Spanish nobleman, to Cuesta, the Captain-General of Castile, on April 3, 1808:
“Our Spain is a Gothic edifice, composed of heterogeneous morsels, with as many forces, privileges, legislations, and customs, as there are provinces. There exists in her nothing of what they call public spirit in Europe. These reasons will prevent the establishment of any central power of so solid a structure as to be able to unite our national forces.”
If then, the actual state of Spain at the epoch of the French invasion threw the greatest possible difficulties in the way of creating a revolutionary center, the very composition of the Central Junta incapacitated it from proving a match for the terrible crisis in which the country found itself placed. Being too numerous and too fortuitously mixed for an executive government, they were too few to pretend to the authority of National Convention. The mere fact of their power having been delegated from the provincial juntas rendered them unfit for overcoming the ambitious propensities, the ill will, and the capricious egotism of those bodies. These juntas — the members of which, as we have shown in a former article, were elected on the whole in consideration of the situation they occupied in the old society, rather than of their capacity to inaugurate a new one — sent in their turn to the “Central” Spanish grandees, prelates, titularies of Castile, ancient ministers, high civil and military officials, instead of revolutionary upstarts. At the outset the Spanish revolution failed by its endeavor to remain legitimate and respectable.
The two most marked members of the Central Junta, under whose banners its two great parties ranged themselves, were Floridablanca and Jovellanos, both of them martyrs of Godoy’s persecution, former ministers, valetudinarians, and grown old in the regular and pedantic habits of the procrastinating Spanish regime, the solemn and circumstantial slowness of which had become proverbial even at the time of Bacon, who once exclaimed, “May death reach me from Spain: it will then arrive at a late hour!”
Floridablanca and Jovellanos represented an antagonism, but an antagonism belonging to that part of the eighteenth century which preceded the era of the French Revolution; the former a plebeian bureaucrat, the latter an aristocratic philanthropist; Floridablanca, a partisan and a practicer of the enlightened despotism represented by Pombal, Frederick II and Joseph II; Jovellanos, a “friend of the people”, hoping to raise them to liberty by an anxiously wise succession of economic laws, and by the literary propaganda of generous doctrines; both opposed to the traditions of feudalism, the one by trying to disentangle the monarchical power, the other by seeking to rid civil society of its shackles. The part acted by either in the history of their country corresponded with the diversity of their opinions. Floridablanca ruled supreme as the Prime Minister of Charles III, and his rule grew despotic according to the measure in which he met with resistance. Jovellanos, whose ministerial career under Charles IV was but short-lived, gained his influence over the Spanish people, not as a minister, but as a scholar; not by decrees, but by essays. Floridablanca, when the storm of the times carried him to the head of a revolutionary Government, was an octogenarian, unshaken only in his belief in despotism, and his distrust of popular spontaneity. When delegated to Madrid he left with the Municipality of Murcia a secret protest, declaring that he had only ceded to force and to the fear of popular assassinations, and that he signed this protocol with the express view to prevent King Joseph from ever finding fault with his acceptance of the people’s mandate. Not satisfied with returning to the traditions of his manhood, he retraced such steps of his ministerial past as he now judged to have been too rash. Thus, he who had expelled the Jesuits from Spain was hardly installed in the Central Junta, when he caused it to grant leave for their return “in a private capacity.” If he acknowledged any change to have occurred since his time, it was simply this: that Godoy, who had banished him, and had dispossessed the great Count of Floridablanca of his governmental omnipotence, was now again replaced by that same Count of Floridablanca, and driven out in his turn. This was the man whom the Central Junta chose as its President, and whom its majority recognized as an infallible leader.
Jovellanos, who commanded the influential minority of the Central Junta, had also grown old, and lost much of his energy in a long and painful imprisonment inflicted upon him by Godoy. But even in his best times he was not a man of revolutionary action, but rather a well-intentioned reformer, who, from over-niceness as to the means, would never have dared to accomplish an end. In France, he would perhaps have gone the length of Mounier or Lally-Tollendal, but not a step further. In England, he would have figured as a popular member of the House of Lords. In insurrectionized Spain, he was fit to supply the aspiring youth with ideas, but practically no match even for the servile tenacity of a Floridablanca. Not altogether free from aristocratic prejudices, and therefore with a strong leaning toward the Anglomania of Montesquieu, this fair character seemed to prove that if Spain had exceptionally begot a generalizing mind, she was unable to do it except at the cost of individual energy, which she could only possess for local affairs.
It is true that the Central Junta included a few men — headed by Don Lorenzo Calvo de Rosas, the delegate of Saragossa — who, while adopting the reform views of Jovellanos, spurred on at the same time to revolutionary action. But their numbers were too few and their names too unknown to allow them to push the slow State-coach of the Junta out of the beaten track of Spanish ceremonial.
This power, so clumsily composed, so nervelessly constituted, with such outlived reminiscences at its head, was called upon to accomplish a revolution and to beat Napoleon. If its proclamations were as vigorous as its deeds were weak, it was due to Don Manuel Quintana, a Spanish poet, whom the Junta had the taste to appoint as their secretary and to intrust with the writing of their manifestoes.
Like Calderón’s pompous heroes who, confounding conventional distinction with genuine greatness, used to announce themselves by a tedious enumeration of all their titles, the Junta occupied itself in the first place with decreeing the honors and decorations due to its exalted position. Their President received the predicate of “Highness,” the other members that of “Excellency,” while to the Junta in corpore was reserved the tide of “Majesty.” They adopted a species of fancy uniform resembling that of a general, adorned their breasts with badges representing the two worlds, and voted themselves a yearly salary of 120,000 reals. It was a true idea of the old Spanish school, that, in order to make a great and dignified entrance upon the historical stage of Europe, the chiefs of insurgent Spain ought to wrap themselves in theatrical costumes.
We should transgress the limits of these sketches by entering into the internal history of the Junta and the details of its administration. For our end it will suffice to answer two questions. What was its influence on the development of the Spanish revolutionary movement? What on the defense of the country? These two questions answered, much that until now has appeared mysterious and unaccountable in the Spanish revolutions of the nineteenth century will have found its explanation.
At the outset, the majority of the Central Junta thought it their main duty to suppress the first revolutionary transports. Accordingly they tightened anew the old trammels of the press and appointed a new Grand Inquisitor, who was happily prevented by the French from resuming his functions. Although the greater part of the real property of Spain was then locked up in mortmain — in the entailed estates of the nobility, and the unalienable estates of the Church — the Junta ordered the selling of the mortmains, which had already begun, to be suspended, threatening even to amend the private contracts affecting the ecclesiastical estates that had already been sold. They acknowledged the national debt, but took no financial measure to free the civil list from a world of burdens, with which a secular succession of corrupt governments had encumbered it, to reform their proverbially unjust, absurd and vexatious fiscal system, or to open to the nation new productive resources, by breaking through the shackles of feudalism.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (for Marx) wrote hundreds of articles in English for the New York Daily Tribune which ran from 1841 and was closely associated with Horace Greeley and, until the founding of the Republican Party, progressive Whigs. Marx contributed from August 1851 to March 1862 as the Tribune’s London correspondent. One of the largest papers in the U.S., Marx’s work was read widely, including by Lincoln who was a subscriber. The Tribune was an important outlet for Marx’s political ideas in the years of European reaction between the failure of ’48 and the International. Marx would break with the paper in 1862 over its increasing conservatism and compromising attitude towards the abolition of slavery during the Civil War. The ten years of political writings for the Tribune in the 1850s, often covering European wars, empires and politics, show Marx’s evolving understanding of imperialism, particularly his work on India and China. We need a Marx-Engels series entirely devoted to collecting and annotating their entire Daily Tribune articles. Until then, we will post compelling ones here.
Access to PDF of original issue: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030213/1854-10-20/ed-1/seq-1/