Catalonia: Two years on from the independence referendum

Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and 700 mayors of Catalonia on the meeting at preparation of referendum, 16 September 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1st of October marks the second anniversary of the independence referendum called by the Catalan government. This followed an upsurge in the demand for independence fuelled by the repressive, neo-liberal Partido Popular (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy. The PP government adopted brutal repression, reminiscent of the Franco-era dictatorship, blocked constitutional reforms and refused to recognise the calling of the referendum to try and intimidate and crush this movement.

The struggle saw a mass movement of millions with powerful revolutionary elements. Mass protests of workers and the middle class, strikes, the building of local community committees of struggle (Committees for the Defence of the Republic) and splits within the state apparatus all took place. On the Catalan national day – Diada – on 10th of September 2017, an estimated 1.8 million took to the streets in Barcelona in support of independence. Thousands were injured as the Spanish state machine deployed brutally repressive forces, shut down the internet and seized ballot boxes when the referendum was going ahead.

However, despite the determination and willingness to struggle of the Catalan masses, the movement suffered a defeat with the arrest of some of the Catalan nationalist political leaders. The former Catalan President, Puigdemont, fled the country and remains in self-imposed exile.

Capitalist nationalist leaders like Puigdemont are incapable of leading the struggle for independence to a successful conclusion. To secure a victory it would have been necessary for the struggle for an independent Catalonia to have been linked together with a programme for a socialist Republic. This could have appealed to those sections of workers and immigrants in Catalonia who opposed the independence movement, but had also suffered the austerity and cuts which the capitalist Catalan nationalist leaders like Puigdemont and his party, PDeCAT, have carried out. These capitalist leaders could not conduct a struggle against the capitalist class in the rest of the Spanish state which will never accept an independent Catalonia.

United struggle

An independent socialist Catalonia would need to guarantee the language and cultural rights for those from other parts of the Spanish state and other countries who live in Catalonia. A struggle for a socialist Catalonia could have united the working class of Catalonia and appealed to the working class throughout the rest of the Spanish state to join together in a fight against the reactionary PP government. It could also appeal to all workers of the Spanish state, of Portugal and throughout Europe to join together to form a voluntary, democratic socialist confederation.

At the same time, the movement was betrayed by PSOE, the pro-capitalist Spanish Socialist Party. This betrayal was echoed by the left populist party, PODEMOS, which had emerged from the ‘Indignados’ movement. It opposed the struggle for independence. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, would not support the right of self- determination for the people of Catalonia.

Since the defeat of this movement, the determination of the Spanish ruling class to refuse to accept an independent Catalonia has been demonstrated by continued repression. Eleven nationalist leaders are still awaiting sentencing, charged with sedition and misuse of public funds. Nine of them have been charged with rebellion which can carry a 25 year prison sentence. These charges are designed to warn and intimidate the Catalan masses. Three of the nationalist leaders, elected to the European parliament, have not been allowed to take their seats.

New accusations

Now, in the run up to the sentences being announced on 10th October, the police have “discovered” a “terrorist group” which was allegedly planning attacks in Barcelona. All those arrested are members of the Committee for the Defence of the Republic which has previously defended and organised peaceful civil protest actions. Very conveniently this terrorist plot has been discovered as sentencing is about to be passed. For the charge of “rebellion” to be proven, links to violent or terrorist activity are necessary.

The continued repression is despite a change of Spanish government since the revolutionary events of two years ago. Now, Pedro Sanchez of the PSOE, heads an interim minority government that replaced PP rule. Although prepared to speak and negotiate with the nationalist leadership in Catalonia he has made it clear he will not tolerate or support an independence referendum and definitely will not accept an independent Catalonia.

The defeat of the movement in Catalonia has opened up new divisions within the nationalist movement. There is widespread criticism of PdeCat, the capitalist grouping of Puigdemont, and of his successor as President, Joaquim Torra. The leaders of the ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) and JxCat (Together for Catalonia) pour cold water on the movement, arguing that the independence struggle cannot be won yet and have the illusion it is possible to negotiate an agreement with PSOE.

Sanchez’s minority government emerged as the largest party in the general election in April but without an overall majority. The right-wing reactionary block, made up of the PP, Cuidadanos and the fascistic VOX, failed to win a majority.

Pro-capitalist policies

Since then, Sanchez and his ministers have made clear their pro-capitalist policies, despite some cosmetic window-dressing. They will accept the demands of the EU for further cuts of 15 billion euros in the next two years and a reform of the public pensions system. Sanchez has not made clear he will repeal the attacks made by the PP on labour rights or education. The cosmetic presentation of a “new” “modern” government with a majority of women and, for the first time in Spain, a gay government minister does not mean policies and a programme that will challenge capitalism and defend the interests of the working class.

In the April election the right-wing were massively defeated in Catalonia. The main beneficiaries were the ERC – Catalan Republican Left – a party of the urban middle class, which has now won some support amongst the working class. Yet this party has propped up previous pro-capitalist Catalan governments which have carried through cuts and attacks on the working class. The ERC offers no alternative for the working class.

Illustrating how far PODEMOS and Pablo Iglesias have moved to the right, they proposed a coalition with PSOE and demanded to enter the government with ministerial positions. Sanchez rejected this proposal. Not because he or Spanish capitalism fear Iglesias, but they fear that this may arouse expectations amongst the working class who will and lead to demands for  reforms and concessions from the government. Fresh elections now seem likely to be called for November. The horse-trading between the various parties in Spain and their inability to form a government reflect, as in other European countries, a polarisation and the need for a bold socialist alternative which PODEMOS has failed to offer.


Today there is an ebb in the demand for Catalan independence, following the defeat of the movement. This was reflected in the attendance at the Diada this year when only about half a million people participated. However, this can change rapidly, especially if harsh sentences are dished out to the nationalist leaders.

It is necessary to draw the lessons of the movement in Catalonia and the struggles of the working class and youth throughout the Spanish State. It is necessary to build a party of the working class in Catalonia and the Spanish state that will fight to break with capitalism. Its programme would need to include demands for the release of all political prisoners and the dropping of all charges against them; for the right of self- determination for the Catalan, Basque and all peoples; for an independent socialist Catalonia; an end to austerity and cuts programmes; repeal of all anti-labour laws and a united struggle of the working class against capitalism for a socialist alternative.

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October 2019