Politics in the Writings of Miguel de Unamuno

Enrique Gallud Jardiel
Hispnic Horizon, núm. 10, 1993 

“Man is good since his birth; he is good by Nature. Society spoils and perverts him...”
“Shut up, man!,”, said Doña Ermelinda. “Your talk does not let me hear the canary singing.”

         This paragraph from the novel Niebla (Fog) shows clearly the end of the political concern of Unamuno and the result of his experiences in this field of human activity described by him as “fatidical labyrinth without a way out”. This author was a clear case of erroneous classification in politics. For the Socialists, Unamuno was a hard-core Socialist throughout his life; for the Republicans, he was a true Republican and the Anar­chists present him as one of their most daring theorists. So, the question arises: to which faction of the Left did he belong?

         Unamuno was, essentially a man of ideas, and to be a man of ideas means not to be a man of only one idea. The cumulus of his political thought cannot adjust itself to a previously fixed pattern. He is not so near Bakunin’s anarchism as to Spencer’s or Max Stirner’s individualism. I will try to give a brief summary of the political elements dealt with in Unamuno’s writings, but one should not forget that in the magnificent historical biography of Unamuno, written by the philosopher Julián Marías –and considered to be one of the best, if not the very best– politics is not mentioned.

         Defining politics, in his drama entitled Soledad (Solitude), the writer mentions “those stinking politics, that gloomy world of miseries, cowardices, humiliation and abjection”. In an article entitled Sobre el marasmo actual de España (On Spain’s Stagnation of Today) he affirms that the pettiness of politics has expanded its viruses into all other aspects of the national ethos. Politics is nefarious for culture and the arts, as he states in his article Los antipolicistas (The Anti-Politicists). Here we read that during periods of intense political fever, art, science and culture suffer either an eclipse or a retard­ment. In his play Soledad, previously mentioned, Angel, the protagonist, makes political ideals responsible for destruction. Politics spoils the people, thus creating a highly alienating vacuity for the human being:

ÁNGEL.- Conservative, liberal, socialist, communist, democrat... Every one takes his label, registers himself and be comes a card-holder. And if you don’t do it, then they ask: “What do you think? What do you want?” Or they say: “He is not one of us... he is not in the list... he is not a coreligionist.” Coreligionist. But, is that a religion, by any means? A morass of mediocrity, of vacuity. I was getting besotted... I was not knowing myself...I was not myself.

         When the protagonist of another play, La esfinge (Sphynx), decides to leave politics and go in search of higher truths, he meets death at the hands of his old comrades. This tragic end is but a symbol of Unamuno’s valorisation of politics which leads to the denigration and degeneration of the human being. So, the writer, after his political activities, becomes closed in himself and his writings and frees himself from that “marsh of nauseating passions”, in his own words. One of his theatrical characters asks himself: “Isn’t a dramatical play worth more than many political meetings?”

         The enigma is what was the reason which impelled Unamuno to the exercise of such an activity. In Política y cultura (Politics and Culture), published in 1908, he says that one of the most pernicious trends of the moment was to force any distinguished person of any field to enter politics. The youth was absorbed by it and this politicisation of life became a hindrance for the development of sciences and arts. Since then, Unamuno despised the intellectuality of his times.

         In spite of the typical concept of Unamuno as a rebel, we find a curious fact in his first novel, Paz en la guerra (Peace in War), which deals with the last civil war of the 19th century. He shows very respectfully and even with tenderness those characters which appear in the Carlist or conservative side. Eugenio de Nora, a famous critic, says: “Inside the intellectual, sceptical, rebel and anarquist Unamuno there was always a good Basque peasant, full of a poetic and pathetic nostalgia for the old and forgotten forms of life.” We cannot consider this conservative trend as something due to regionalist reasons, since he always reacted against all kinds of regional separatism.

         During the last decade of the century Unamuno sympathised with socialism. He became an idol for those who would attack him fiercely afterwards. He wrote for two socialist papers of Bilbao (La lucha de clases and El socialista) for three years. He wrote about the dehumanisation of culture in a bourgeois or capitalistic society and about the need of a socialist culture. He became a member of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español. Nevertheless, he studied the German philosophers of the 19th century and his ideas assimilated idealistic elements which would, at the end, cool his enthusiasm for the cause of the labour movement. We should add to this factor that, in 1897 he went through a religious crisis which made him develop an interest in more transcendental questions. He became an apostle of individualism, as it can he seen in his book Contra esto y aquello (Against This and That). He feels that, apart from social and political problems, man has to face a more essential one, that must, at any cost, he solved: the existential problem of the Being, its causes, manifesta­tions and the form or method of understanding them. Involving himself in the sphere of spiritualism, Unamuno became disillusioned with collectivism, materialism and utilitarianism, that is, every aspect of the Marxist doctrine.

         The Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, during the twenties, exiled him to the island of Fuerteventura (June of 1927) so that he could not “contaminate” his countrymen with his paradoxical pessimism. From 1927 to 1930, the writer helped the republicans against the monarchy, even to the extent of attacking the King. During the Second Republic he was awarded the title of “Citizen of Honour”. But let us analyse the attitude of the writer regarding collectivism as against the individual, the concept of élite as against the popular arts, and individualism against socialism.

         Unamuno begins by rejecting the main postulate of socialism in those times: according to him, the people are unable to govern themselves. In his article Los escritores y el pueblo (The Writers and the People) he says: “The crowd does not know their anguishes nor their wishes.” In the literary gatherings of the great philoso­pher Ortega y Gasset he once said that, since the age of the Greeks, the public opinion has maintained no opin­ion whatsoever. Ángel, the aforesaid character says:

ÁNGEL.- Poor people! They do not know what they want, but surely they want something.

         The lack of concrete aspirations makes the work of the politician difficult. Unamuno affirms that even the most popular of politicians literally sweat to adapt to their parties their souls devoid of ideals. This fact leads to a wrong interpretation of the political manifestos, because the public, in the political meetings, hears something and understands another thing. These kind of misunderstandings are there from the beginning. The writer says: “I am also a proletarian. Because, etymologically, a proletarian is a person who has many sons, a large prole (descendants).”

         If the masses are as Unamuno thinks, then democracy has a basic defect. How can we ask the opinion of a person who has no opinions? In Glosas de la vida (Glosses of Life) he says that the honest masses are very honest but they lack opinion and social conscience. We should not count on what they believe or think because they do not believe or think anything. The common people, however, are not at fault for this ignorance:

One of the big lies of Spain is the lie about democracy, understood as the sovereignty of the masses, of the illiterate masses. In the most advanced province, Álava, one fifth of the adults do not know how to read or write. In the less advanced, Jaén, the illiteracy reaches a 65 per cent and in the whole of Spain the illiterate adults are half of the population. This should be called “illiteratocracy”.

         Unamuno does not advocate for a reaction against democracy. He only states that this system does not fill him with enthusiasm, although he considers it to be a necessary evil. He criticises the corruption and the electoral frauds of the system in his writing La civilización es civismo (Civilisation Is Civism):

The government has won by an overwhelming majority. This goes unsaid: it is the ABC of our politics. In Spain a government has never lost any election.

         So, he suggest to deprive all illiterate people of the right to vote, to obtain, at the same time, votes of quality and a conscience of the need of culture for the low classes really concerned with their national responsibility. His proposal was never seriously considered by the demagogues, who did not really want the enlightenment of the people.

         Under the scheme of democracy Unamuno does not feel at ease with the republicans, since his affirmation that Spanish republicans were only anti-monarchists brought him the resentment of the pure republicans. He said:

In Spain there are always at least two parties: the anti-X, who follow Mr. Z against Mr. X; and the anti-Z, who follow Mr. X against Mr. Z. Please note that I do not call them “Zedists” nor “Xists”, since they are essentially negative in their approaches.

         The republicans felt despised and resented this attitude of superiority by Unamuno. They believed themselves to be a special group which had left behind centuries of political obscurantism and they were happy when Unamuno departed for Salamanca, thus abandoning public life.

         Socialists and communists had a bigger conflict with Unamuno, whom they had considered before as one of them. For the first few years of the Century Unamuno criticised their ideologies, defining them as “pernicious doctrines of impossible economic redemp­tions”. For the poor, they are the illusory hope which substituted the Kingdom of Heaven promised to them by Christianism. For the rich, they are merely a snobbism. In the play El pasado que vuelve (The Past Coming Back), a character says to his son:

DON MATÍAS.- You become a socialist or whatever it is because it sounds well, being the son of a richman. To be poor and socialist produces no dramatical effect. But to say: the son of Matías Rodero, socialist! That has a great effect.

         Such doctrines of social redemption are excellent for idle people. In the same play we find:

DON JOSÉ.- When young, all of us were radicals and even communists...
VÍCTOR.- All of you?
DON JOSÉ.- Almost all of us.
VÍCTOR.- And you?
DON JOSÉ.- Well, I...what can 1 say? When I was young I didn't have the time for those things. I had to work to earn my bread.

         Unamuno also attacks the proselytism of these doctrines and their methods: propaganda and agitation. The spread of these ideas is not natural; it is done through some clichés, automatically learned and repeated ad nauseam. In La esfinge

NICOLÁS.- We want you to have the will and not to abandon the cause of the people. To have talent is not enough. One has to know how to use it.
ÁNGEL.- You also, Nicolás? Have you also learnt the lesson? Good boy!

         As a means of propaganda the “proletarian art” appears, but Unamuno does not believe in it. In his essay Hablemos de teatro (Let Us Speak About Theatre) he reiterates that people are not interested by originality; they are interested in real life and thus the irremediable meanness of proletarian art. The true proletarians, not the political ones, (please note the difference underlined by Unamuno) are more easily moved by a man of bones and flesh –even if he is a tyrant– than by a ridiculous preacher of sociological doctrines which only stir up the people uselessly. Our author says that it is cruelty to perturb the peace of the simple people for an idea. There is no big an ideal as the interior peace of a country.

         The social revolution, an awaited result of that propaganda, does not produce the promised results. Firstly Unamuno thinks that many of the involved do not know what is the awaited result.

FELIPE.- Outside they are fighting, I do not know exactly why. How is the revolution going?

         The revolution is carried out by simple people who have been fooled with false promises. Unamuno feels pity for them, because he knows that they will suffer in vain at the hands of demagogy and that any new order would not solve their problems; the root of their prob­lems is not mere economic injustice.

         After Unamuno’s vision of collectivism, let us study the other political level of his thought: anarchism and its diverse approaches. This is, in my opinion, the most accurate definition of the writer, not only politically, but also on a social and philosophical level. Much has been said about anarchist elements in his writings. He defines himself through the character of Don Fermín, of the novel Niebla:

Yes, my dear. I am an anarchist. A mystical anarchist. So, don’t be afraid. My anarchism is purely spiritual. Because I have my very own ideas about everything.

         Unamuno’s anarchism is loaded with this mentioned mysticism. In the same novel he affirms that God Himself is an anarchist. He turns away from the collectivist anarchism of Bakunin and comes nearer to the religious anarchism of Tolstoy. Here we find a contradiction, because total anarchism means the suppression of the State and we already have mentioned Unamuno’s views about the people who tried to govern themselves. Another hindrance in the implantation of anarchism as a political system, according to him, is that the ideal of order exists in the minds of the people since time immemorial:

– And you are also an anarchist, aren’t you?
– Myself? It is nonsense, that no one should command. If nobody commands, who is going to obey?

         So Unamuno considers anarchism not as a viable political system but as an adequate attitude towards other aspects of human life, the most appropriate for Spaniards, who are rebellious by nature. In the same novel:

– So you are also a phoneticist?
– Also? Why do you say also?
– Because you are also anarchist and Esperantist.
– It is the same thing, Sir, the same thing. Anarchism, Esperantism, Spiritualism, vegetarianism, phoneticism. It is all the same thing. Down with authority! Down with the division of languages! Down with matter and death! Down with meat! Down with the letter “H”!

         Here we find Unamuno in his real attitude, the so-called individualist anarchism, represented by the German thinker Max Stirner (1806-1856). This theory has its philosophical origin in the Hegelianist left, as a bridge between Feuerbach and Nietzsche. Whatever Unamuno says about his individualism is devoid of any kind of contradictions and full of enthusiasm and belief.

         Miguel de Unamuno starts from the presumption that the supreme historical product is man, not society (La crisis del patriotismo). Individualism was a question dealt with in the ancient times of philosophical activity, because it was an interesting part of the general question of the Being. Aristotle was the first in giving the individual an authentic reality and thus, for the individualistic school of thought, the social interests are but the total of the individual interests. The individual is, for Unamuno, the base and the end of all laws and moral and political relations. The individual should not be mixed with the nation nor be identified with it. Max Stirner says that the individual will and the State are enemies by definition and no peace can exist between them. Unamuno adopts this attitude and attacks any totalitarian system –nazism or communism– which gives more importance to the needs of the State than to those of the individuals. In La crisis del patriotismo (The Crisis of Patriotism) he shows this anti-nationalistic trend of his, relating a story told by Herodotus:

Some Egyptian soldiers were abused because they served another nation. The word “country” was mentioned to them. They answered by pointing to their own genitals, saying: “Wherever this goes, there is my country”.

         If man, as an individual, should not be a mere reflection of the State, it would be worse for him to be a reflection of a region, a social class, a group or a party. The anti-collectivism of Unamuno grows. The individual fate of man is the most important thing on earth, even if some doctrines deny it. The frustrated political leader of Soledad makes the following reflection about public life:

AGUSTÍN.- You wanted me to make the masses become people. You did not understand that I had to work inside a party and with a party. And a party can create nothing, it does not create anything. Only a man can create, a man, whole and alone.

         This individualism of Unamuno always disenchanted those who believed themselves to be his allies or those who thought that Unamuno had become their ally. Julián Marías says that Unamuno’s political incoherence was a result of his own personal consequence.

         He repeatedly criticised the lack of individual initiative of the Spaniard and his gregarious leanings:

In this society, formed by different groups which hate themselves without knowing who they are, I feel saddened by this savage atomism from which man cannot come out. And if he does so, it is only to form committees, sub-committees, commissions, and other trifles.

         Society and its committees represent the de-personalised or impersonal life; Unamuno’s dislike of sociol­ogy was due to this extreme “personalism” of his. In the same spirit in which he said that there are no illnesses, but ill people, he believed that there were no opinions, but people who had an opinion. Even his political fights were personalised.

         The disease of Spain was, for him, this lack of individual thinking. The worst dictator is he who dictates nothing. In Glosas de la vida he affirms that opinions are framed by a minority and that this minority is constituted by the only people in the nation capable of setting a precise direction to it. This political elitism –the logical product of his conceptual individualism– did not become popular. The political activity of Unamuno was personal and sporadic, its nucleus consisting of a thematical appeal to freedom. But his mention of political freedom was only the result of his attitude regarding personal freedom. According to him, man should act by his free-will and not as per the dictates of collectivity, because the path of civilisation has been traced by the isolated individual and not by any group. He says that we should be constant in the development of this “individualisation”. We should not be afraid of criticism, because no one should be worried about the opinion of fools, (progressive, conservative, liberal or reactionary fools, as they may be). And man should also avoid the alienating classification, as he states in his essay La religión (Religion):

They want to classify me by saying: “He is a Lutheran, a Calvinist, a rationalist, a mystic or any other nickname whose meaning they do not understand, but which allows them not to think a second about the matter. And I do not want to be classified, because I, Miguel de Unamuno, as any other man who wants to have full conscience of himself, am an unique species.