Catalonia: Volatile mix of oppression and anti-austerity anger

Review of ‘The Struggle for Catalonia – Rebel politics in Spain’ by Raphael Minder, Hurst & co publishers, 2017


The revolutionary crisis in Catalonia was the defining political development of the latter half of 2017. It put Catalonia, and its burning national question – tied up with the crisis of Spanish capitalism – on the map and in the minds of millions of Left and radical activists, workers and young people around the world.

For this reason, Raphael Minder’s timely book, ‘The Struggle for Catalonia’, published just weeks before the dramatic events of last autumn, has provoked significant interest throughout the English-speaking world. As the New York Times’ correspondent in Spain and Portugal, Minder draws on interviews conducted with a very impressive list of protagonists: from Carles Puigdemont to Mariano Rajoy, Ada Colau to Felipe Gonzalez, and Aznar to Artur Mas.

For this reason alone, as well as for its comprehensiveness, Minder’s book is worthy of reading for English-speaking readers looking to begin to develop an understanding of the complex Catalan, and overall Spanish national question. Of course for socialists and Marxists, whose desire to understand this question is connected to a desire to replace capitalism and end all oppression, further readings, written from a Marxist standpoint, are essential.

Published in September 2017, the author, while recognising that the conflict between the Catalan administration and Spanish PP government had become an escalating “war of attrition”, did not foresee the situation only 3 months later. Several of Minder’s interviewees currently languish in prison (Oriol Junqueras and Jordi Cuixart among others), or in exile. Catalonia’s government remains shut down by the Madrid administration, which has effectively refused to recognise the results of December’s snap Catalan elections. The 20 December elections were imposed by Rajoy himself to try and defuse the mass movement, but ended up as another defeat inflicted upon him by the Catalan masses.

A movement born from the crisis of capitalism

While no Marxist, Minder echoes the conclusions of Marxists, correctly identifying the basis for today’s mass national movement in Catalonia in the capitalist economic crisis, as one of its expressions of protest and radicalisation in the search by millions for an alternative. He identifies roots for the mass pro-independence demonstrations of the last years in the momentous marches, strikes and occupations with which the working class and youth of Catalonia – at the forefront of a Spanish state-wide wave of struggle – met the application of austerity, from the general strikes of 2010-2014 to the ‘indignados’ movement of 2011.

These roots go beyond the fact that the most active and determined layers in the mass movement of 2017 were drawn from the ranks of these previous episodes of class struggle. The CWI has analysed, in relation to Catalonia and elsewhere (such as Scotland), the role that the “national question” (struggles of national peoples for their rights) can play in the class struggle.

In the context of social misery being spread by the crisis, the glue of capitalist stability becomes unstuck, undermining the pillars of the established order. In those countries with historically unresolved national questions, this leads to old contradictions exploding onto the surface. At the same time, in the consciousness of in small and historically oppressed nationalities, national ambitions and the idea of breaking with the status quo to form independent states can become intertwined with the desire for a break with austerity, impoverishment and precariousness.

Minder begins his book in 2012 with the million-strong ‘Diada’ (Catalan national holiday) demonstration in Barcelona, which represented a turning point. He writes of the protest: “… citizens took to the streets because they were upset by rising unemployment and budgetary squeezing, but mostly because they were galvanised by the belief that independence could somehow brighten Catalonia’s economic future”.

One need only look at the evolution of opinion polls on Catalan independence over the years to confirm the fact that this is a movement born from the crisis of capitalism. Minder explains how 50% of those who voted for pro-independence parties in 2015 (before the movement reached its high point) had not been supporters of independence 10 years previously. He speaks with other “converts” to independence who tell of how their participation in the anti-Iraq war movement in 2003 – especially massive in Catalonia – and subsequent feeling of “impotence before the Spanish state” being key to their “conversion”.

National struggle and class struggle

For socialists, this factor – the connection of the mass movement for national rights and independence with the economic aspirations of the majority and class struggle – is decisive. While unconditional defenders of the right to self-determination of all national peoples, Marxists are not evangels of independence, or of the creation of new borders. We view each demand for national independence in the context of the class struggle, and of the overall interests of the working class movement in the struggle for socialism.

Hence our support for the mass movement in Catalonia, in which our comrades in Esquerra Revolucionaria and the Students’ Union became a real factor (organising 3 powerful student general strikes) and programme for a Socialist Catalan Republic, linked to the fight for socialist change internationally and a Socialist, voluntary federation of free peoples throughout the Spanish state.

Also crucially for socialists, it is in this class and socio-economic basis to the mass movement wherein lies the potential for it to win and grow, decisively winning over the Catalan working class of all origins to its cause, and extending itself throughout the Spanish state.

The main factor standing in the way of this potential being realised is that despite the progressive, anti-austerity basis to the mass movement, its formal leadership fails to reflect this.

Minder explains how Artur Mas, then-President of Catalonia and leader of the nationalist Convergencia party currently led by Puigdemont, was not even present on the mass Diada demonstration in 2012. Under fire from the working class for his brutal austerity packages, Mas and his party then demagogically manoeuvred themselves into the official leadership of the movement, via a pro-independence turn following 2012.

This contradiction, between the class aspirations and potential of the movement, and the nature of its leadership, is the key to understanding the limitations it seems to have run into. We come back to this later.

Catalonia – a history of oppression

The likes of Rajoy, who sing straight from Franco’s songbook, are fond of repeating that Spain is the “oldest nation in Europe”. Spain’s constitution proclaims one great Spanish nation and enshrines its sacrosanct territorial unity. However, the real history of the Spanish state is one of a “prison house of nations”, paraphrasing Lenin. The Spanish state is based on the forced incorporation of the Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalities.

Minder reminds us how on the contrary to national holidays in many countries, the ‘Diada’ itself is a celebration not of victory but of defeat. It commemorates the fall of Barcelona to the forces of the Bourbon monarchy (the descendants of which, restored by Franco before his death, still occupy the Spanish throne today) in 1714.

In popular Catalan history, this date has come to represent the beginning of the Catalan people’s subjugation to the “Castillian” elite. Following the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of the 1930s, in which the struggle of Spain’s oppressed nationalities was intertwined with the struggle against capitalism and landlordism, another dark night of national oppression began for Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia following Franco’s victory. It was in the midst of this revolutionary period that Catalan independence was last declared in 1934, under the leadership of the petit-bourgeois nationalist, Companys – though its proclamation was largely symbolic and summarily crushed.

Companys was to be executed by Franco’s dictatorship a few years later. While the working class movement, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists bore the brunt of Franco’s murderous repression, those Catalan nationalists who remained in opposition to Franco also faced execution, imprisonment, and torture.

Franco represented the needs of the Spanish ruling class to crush the threat of revolution against capitalism and landlordism which was consistently raising its head. At the same time, in its brutal national oppression against Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, his regime represented the weak Spanish bourgeoisie’s inability to solve the national question (or from their point of view, “keep Spain united”), with repression the only way to keep a lid on the situation. This remains the dilemma of Franco’s political ancestors (the PP, and Ciudadanos) today, as the Spanish ruling class again turns to the methods of “the stick” in a futile attempt to keep the national question at bay.

“Transition” maintains national oppression

Minder interviews several of the architects – both Catalan and Spanish – of the 1970s “Transition” to democracy following the death of Franco. This process saw the leaders of the Francoist regime agree a historic pact with the leaders of the mass working class organisations, as well as the right-wing nationalist opposition in Catalonia and the Basque country, which was enshrined in the 1978 constitution.

As we have explained in previous material, it was a pact designed to abort a revolutionary process of struggle, in which again, as in the 1930s, the demands of oppressed nationalities were coalescing with the socialist demands of the workers’ movement. It agreed a Transition to capitalist parliamentary “democracy”, maintaining Franco’s successor Juan Carlos de Borbon as Monarch, on the basis of limited concessions in rights and conditions to the working class and poor, without putting into question the pillars of Franco’s regime – capitalism and national oppression.

The 1978 constitution institutionalised national oppression, enshrining the unquestionable territorial unity of the Spanish state. This is the legal, constitutional basis for the Spanish government’s repression in Catalonia today, the ban on the Catalan people deciding their own future and the state violence unleashed on 1 October 2017. Interestingly, Minder correctly contrasts this with the only state constitution ever to have recognised the democratic right of self-determination for national peoples held within it – the Soviet Union, born from the great 1917 Russian Revolution! Of course, he does so without explaining, as we do, that this approach remains the essence of any genuine solution today.

The 1978 constitution’s solution to the national question was to grant Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia status as “autonomous” regions with limited spending and political powers. They hold this status however, not as recognised national regions, but as merely one of 17 regional “autonomous” regions throughout the Spanish state, on a par with Madrid, or Murcia! Minder quotes Herrero de Minon, one of the Constitution’s authors as explaining the intention of the ruling class behind this: “to submerge the Basque and Catalan bids for autonomy in a broader territorial expanse”.

Each autonomous region then drew up its own “statute of autonomy” regulating its relationship with Madrid. This was where insult was added to injury in the case of Catalonia, in another moment seen as a key turning point. In 2010, under a PP government in Madrid, Catalonia’s “estatut” which was approved in a referendum by over 70% of the population was quashed. Among the reasons cited was its preamble’s reference to Catalonia as a nation – in Franco and Rajoy’s songbook, there is only one nation: Spain! 1 million people took to the streets in response to this decision, which was a turning point in the minds of hundreds of thousands, a stark expression of the real and continued limits to Catalonia’s nationhood within Spanish “democracy”.

Catalan – a history of persecution

Minder also deals extensively with the Catalan national question’s linguistic dimension, especially with the plight of the Catalan language itself. The persecution of Catalan is a thread running through Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish state. In 1714, straight away, it was banned by the victorious Bourbons and driven underground (due to ongoing repression, the language was not even standardised until the 20th century).

National oppression under Franco saw Catalan banned again, with clandestine workers’ organisations such as PSUC (The Catalan Communist Party) forced to hide Catalan texts between the glued-together pages of Don Quixote and other Spanish classics.

While the “Transition” ended the legal persecution of Catalan, it stopped short of giving the language full and equal recognition. For example, the use of Catalan (or Basque or Galician) is still banned in the Spanish parliament, unlike in other multi-lingual states, and the Spanish government blocked Catalan being given status as an EU language (which much less widely-spoken languages, like Irish, have been granted).

The mainstay of the ruling class, the PP party (and now Ciudadanos), as well as their media outlets, have not abandoned a deeply-engrained disdain for Catalan. Minder refers to various episodes, many very recent, of attacks, provocations and cheap shots aimed at Catalan by various national, local and regional PP administrations. Only 18 months ago, Spanish Education Minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, provoked widespread outrage speaking of the need to “hispanify” Catalan children. Catalan language TV broadcasts (by the Catalan TV3 station) were banned in the Catalan-speaking region of Valencia by the PP regional government in 2011. In the Catalan-speaking region of the Balearic Islands in 2013, education workers were forced to engage in a 3-week long indefinite general strike in order to, among other demands, prevent a new education law which downgraded the teaching of Catalan in schools.

Despite this reality of the continued persecution of Catalan, the Spanish establishment has developed a deafening narrative of the persecution of the Spanish language in Catalonia! Minder points to facts which disprove this narrative. He presents an accurate picture of Catalonia as a thoroughly bi-lingual nation in which conversations within workplaces, families and social groups interchange fluidly from one language to another.

Despite the fact that Catalonia’s population is extremely diverse and includes millions of working class people descending from migrants from Southern Spain, surveys show that 84% of Catalans can speak Catalan, with 91% able to understand it. The Spanish language remains dominant in Catalonia in most fields of life such as literature (only one quarter of books sold in Catalonia are in Catalan), TV, internet and music. Despite Catalonia’s education system of “immersion” (whereby Catalan is the vehicular language), Catalan pupils have a superior knowledge of Spanish than the Spanish average!

Of course, while being clear on the facts of the situation as outlined above to combat the manipulation of Spanish nationalism, Marxists are also keenly aware and sensitive of the language question. We defend the language rights of all, including migrants from outside of the Spanish state and EU. A Socialist Catalan Republic worthy of the name could only be based on such an approach

The Catalan capitalist class – a history of betrayal

It is also essential to start from recognising that the Francoist Spanish ruling elite is not the only “villain” in the story of the Catalan national question. Minder’s book gives examples throughout of the treachery of the Catalan elite, who have a long history as “false friends” of the struggle for national rights. Time after time, they have prioritised the “patriotism of money” over the aspirations of Catalan people for freedom. The author catalogues the at best inconsistent, at worst openly treacherous relationship between the big Catalan bourgeoisie and the Franco regime.

He gives the chilling example of Francesc Cambo, leader of the Lliga Regionalista, a bourgeois nationalist Catalan party, and so-called champion of Catalan interests. Once the Civil War began however, Cambo fled Barcelona together with the rest of the Franco-supporting capitalists who found their companies expropriated by the revolutionary wave through which the working class in Catalonia defeated Franco’s coup. Minder explains: “Cambo mostly feared anarchism and the radical Left, and so he gave orders to put his money and influence at the service of Franco”. The vast majority of the Catalan bourgeoisie followed a similar pattern, going over to Franco, as Minder puts it, paying “the price of renouncing their identity”.

In the 1970s, sections of the Catalan ruling class began to emerge in opposition to Franco, best represented by Jordi Pujol who went on to found the ‘Convergencia’ party (of Artur Mas and Puigdemont today, despite its renaming as PDECat). Pujol, who went on to lead Catalonia’s regional government for decades, and his ilk were key architects of the Transition and of the sell-out pact with the forces of Francoism which led to the current arrangement – which Pujol’s political descendants are now pretending to lead a battle against! Minder even suggests that representatives of Pujol’s party turned down offers of greater autonomy from Madrid in the discussions during the Transition!

Convergencia went on to act as a vital prop of capitalist stability, propping up reactionary Spanish nationalist governments, including that of Aznar, in the Spanish parliament and (to this very day) faithfully implementing cuts and misery at the behest of Spanish, Catalan and EU capitalism.

Conscious of this long historical experience, to expect the Catalan bourgeoisie to now act as faithful friends in the battle for national rights would be criminal.

Role of Catalan bourgeoisie today

This factor – the treacherous, reactionary nature of the Catalan bourgeoisie and the reality and inevitability of its betrayal of the movement – has been emphasised by Esquerra Revolucionaria (CWI) throughout the current Catalan crisis.

Minder’s book was published before this factor was revealed in the most graphic way imaginable. As the tide of mass mobilisation pushed and radicalised the mass movement further and further, up to the point of Puigdemont and the Catalan government being forced to proclaim a Catalan Republic, the Catalan bourgeoisie again put its cards on the table. 2,000 of Catalonia’s biggest banks and companies announced the withdrawal of their HQs from Catalonia, linked to a monumental project of fear-mongering, threatening the movement with an economic apocalypse should independence happen.

This was of no surprise to Marxists. A pillar of a Marxist approach to the national question, grounded in the history of national liberation movements around the world, is understanding the inability of the capitalist class (of oppressor and oppressed nations alike) to solve the national question. Likewise with the struggle against all forms of oppression. Organising the working class movement and youth to challenge for the political leadership of national liberation movements is therefore a strategic task. The failure of Podemos and CUP leaders to embrace this conclusion is decisive to the limits of the process so far.

This means basing the movement on the struggle and organisations of the working class and putting socialist policies at the forefront. It means responding to the fear campaign of Catalan and Spanish big business by expropriating and nationalising, under democratic control the commanding heights of the economy and using them to plan for people’s needs. Socialism, fought for and won only on an international level, will undermine the basis for antagonism between nations by respecting the rights of all and planning resources collectively in the interests of all nations.

Earlier we mentioned Minder’s account of the mass pro-independence demonstration in 2012, which highlighted Artur Mas’ (then-Convergencia leader) absence. His and Convergencia’s pivot towards the pro-independence movement had nothing to do with the Catalan ruling class “changing its ways” and everything to do with a political calculation in order to maintain control of the situation in the context of rising opposition and struggle to their implementation of austerity in Catalonia itself, which in many ways was even more audacious and far-reaching than the PP’s austerity in Madrid. Minder echoes, though not explicitly, this conclusion.

Lessons for the future

Millions in Catalonia and beyond will be absorbing the lessons of the tumultuous last few months – in which the Francoist Spanish ruling class showed its teeth in the clearest way since the dictatorship. The rise of Ciudadanos, a right-wing, populist, Spanish nationalist formation which is ahead of the PP in recent polls, and the renewed majority for pro-independence parties in the December Catalan elections, point away from any idea of a “resolution”. In Catalonia itself, recent memory will render the “regime of 1978” illegitimate in the eyes of hundreds of thousands.

Only by filling the idea of a Catalan Republic with a real social content, linked to a better life for all its citizens, can the movement decisively move beyond the limits imposed on it by its current official leadership. Arming the mass movement with a programme for a socialist society free from monarchies, misery and all forms of oppression and discrimination can cut across the poisonous propaganda of the Spanish nationalist elite and convert the cause of a Socialist Catalonia into the trigger for a struggle for socialism throughout the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

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March 2018