National liberation and class struggle in Catalonia: interview with Vidal Aragonés

We publish here an interview by the Catalan paper of the IMT, Revolució. Vidal Aragonés is a town councilor in Cornellà, for Cornellà en Comú-Crida per Cornellà; a labour lawyer linked to different militant class struggle unions (especially to the dockers); professor of labour law at the UAB and one of the most eloquent advocates of independence from a Marxist point of view.

We have read and studied with interest your article about Nin, [1] and the Catalan national question, where you explain the development of Nin's flexible and sophisticated thinking on this subject. We have also been reading the writings of Trotsky about Catalonia in 1931 and 1934. He was very critical of the BOC's [2] concessions to nationalism. What were the discrepancies between Nin and Trotsky on this particular issue?

Revolucio own workREVOLUCIÓ: Catalan paper of the IMT / Photo: own work

Trotsky in a very clear way, addressing Nin, especially in 1931, told him that the unity, which at that time was beginning to be discussed with the BOC, could not be done on the basis of renouncing class independence, and that BOC was presenting itself as a Marxist-inspired separatist organization, and that this is not the tradition of Marxism. Trotsky stresses that Marxists obviously are the great advocates of the democratic-national question and the national liberation of the oppressed peoples. He also stressed that on the one hand one cannot subordinate oneself to any nationalist organization, but must have a position of class independence. But at the same time, too, that we must be the main defenders of the right to self-determination in its utmost expression.

This, initially, in 1931, appears as a criticism of the position taken by the BOC, rather than that of Nin. In fact, in 1934, what Trotsky posed to both Nin and the BOC, and especially to the Workers' Alliance, [3] which was an organism where BOC had a great deal of influence, was above all that they should not have a subordinate position of "let's see what the petty-bourgeoisie of Esquerra [4] raises". Rather, in front of the Catalan masses, they had to appear as the great defenders, in a very clear way, of the independence of Catalonia. It was not possible to go forward either nationally or democratically if independence was not defended. Of course, defending independence did not mean renouncing in any way international unity and even a Spanish-state wide Party. But, he said in a very clear way, it would be impossible to win the battle in Catalonia unless they appeared in front of the masses as the great defenders of the right to self-determination and even independence. Trotsky also said, and insisted particularly with Nin, that if they did not have political hegemony in Catalonia, the Spanish Revolution could not come into being either.

It is important to see that later on, the POUM, [5] right from its founding in 1935, did not play this role of going to defend in practice the independence of Catalonia, and did not put itself at the head the movement. Obviously this also came into conflict with other dynamics throughout Spain as of the year 1934. But it is true that the BOC, with the merger that will give rise to the POUM, rid itself of its feature of Marxist-inspired separatism, and adopted a more classical Marxist position [defending self-determination but not independence]. In the case of Nin it was the other way around. Nin, who probably had an unfinished position of self-determination, moved towards clearer positions to say that the potential independence of Catalonia must be defended, as this could be positive for the movement in the whole of Spain, and obviously that one had to appear before the masses as the main defenders of this right. More or less, the harsh criticisms of ‘31 and ‘34, from ‘35 practically, from the theoretical point of view, became part of the program of the POUM.

Coming to today: you conduct your militant activity in Cornellà, one of the nuclei of the Barcelona red belt, and you define yourself as a person from Cornellà with a Spanish-language background. There is much talk (although often with simplifications) of the division of the working-class of Catalonia along language and national lines. It seems clear enough that the fight for self-determination has had a more limited echo in the Spanish-speaking neighbourhoods of Barcelona and Tarragona, as is also seen in the figures for participation in the 1 October referendum. In addition, the PP, Ciudadanos and the King are making great efforts to mobilize a pro-Spanish movement in Catalonia, aiming at these layers. How do you see it from Cornellà? How to combat the tendencies towards division that may exist within the working-class, and to widen the social base of the republic?

It is important for us to make clear that the movement of national emancipation, now, in Catalonia, does not have an ethnic character. It has a purely progressive character and has practically no chauvinistic element. A different question is that the political leadership is still passing over from Convergència and the ANC [Catalan National Assembly] to Esquerra and Òmnium,[6] and therefore it is shifting permanently to the left, and that this shift to the left can increase in the coming months.

In relation to the working-class, in the first place we have to put an end to the idea that the working-class has not participated in this movement. It's false. This [argument] cannot be maintained if we take into account that this movement has had two million people participating on 11 September [Catalan national day] and more than two million people voting YES to independence a week ago. This is only possible if we accept that it is born from the popular classes, that is to say, that the petty-bourgeoisie and the working-class participate in the movement. Another thing, as I said before, is question of political leadership, something which, additionally, is already changing.

On the other hand, it is true to say that the working-class participating in this national movement does not mean that the majority of the working-class is participating. Of course, for reasons of historical, family, cultural, language (but no ethnic) links, there are workers who have a point of view against separation from Spain. It is also true that there is a majority of the working-class that is neither pro-independence nor anti-independence, but unfortunately they do not join in the movement because they do not see either of the two political positions being an alternative for their day-to-day problems. And probably this is the majority position amongst the working-class, the one of not taking a position for nor against.

Very surprisingly, we have even seen that sectors of the working-class from Spanish-speaking backgrounds have begun to support, not only the referendum, but a YES vote as the most democratic and progressive option. But that does not mean that we are unaware that there is an even broader section that does not participate in the national emancipation movement and a section that is against it. This also applies to the neighbourhoods. In certain areas of Catalonia, the majority of the working-class is in favor of the process of national emancipation. In several medium-sized cities, where the working-class of immigrant origin has undergone a process of intermingling with the working-class of the whole of Catalonia, the situation is different and there is much more support.

However, the big problem is that, insofar as the political leadership is still in the hands of the right-wing, this prevents us from adding more sectors of the working-class to the movement.

If we now place a "constituent process" as a central slogan, and in the constituent process a very clear commitment to break with the 1978 regime, and also a commitment to recover or win new social rights, that would surely be the best way to increase working-class participation.

And that will be the only way that these goals can come into being. Unless we increase the numbers of the working-class participating, it is hardly possible to have a real break and independence for Catalonia.

We heard you speak at the CUP [7] campaign meeting in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, where Marta Sibina also took part representing the Comuns. [8] On the same day, Albano Dante, from Podem, [9] took part in an meeting of the CUP campaign in Vic. These weeks have seen a rather positive trend towards unity between the CUP and the world of Podem and the Commons, based on the struggle for self-determination, the end of the so-called ‘process,’ and the fight against repression. How can this unity be strengthened?

For comrades who are not from the spaces of the Commons nor from Podem, obviously it has been a real joy to see Podem Catalonia defending a clear self-determination position, though this is not really the case with the Commons nor PODEMOS at the Spanish state level. And they do it in very classic lines, to defend the right of self-determination, but also to see that this is a progressive step forward and therefore that one should not only regard the right of self-determination in abstract but in its specific expression, which can be used to advance socially as well.

How to strengthen it? Well, the way to strengthen this movement would surely be from the rank and file. If the centrality of our slogans is not a call to an abstract independence, but a call for a republic with social content, a republic that restores rights, a republic that advances socially and with a clear class and internationalist character, obviously with these slogans, with this program and especially working day-by-day and with our comrades, we can attract the most advanced layers.

We have seen the outbreak movement of the defense committees [CDR], as the most sophisticated mass struggle bodies that have emerged in recent weeks, which in many places they have attracted many people and were in charge of the logistic organisation of the referendum. What are the tasks for this movement now, especially considering the vacillations and weakness of the Generalitat [Government of Catalonia], hit by the state and cracked by the internal divisions?

The CDRs are without a doubt the most revolutionary sectors within the national emancipation movement. No two CDRs that are the same. There are CDRs where the composition is basically people from the CUP environment, but also sometimes even Omnium, and even some that I've heard of with the participation of people from the ANC, something which is very curious to analyse, but they all agree in having a clear program and clear practices of breaking with the regime. There are other CDRs where we work together with comrades coming from anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian anarchist backgrounds, and even some who defend self-determination but not independence.

The first task will surely be one of security and defense. We should not lose sight of the fact that now we have a reality in which, on the one hand, the National Police, the Civil Guard and other para-police elements are in the Catalan territory acting or with orders of action, and therefore a first element is of security for the comrades participating in the national liberation movement.

The second is to generate dynamics to make the movement grow in the neighborhoods and amongst sectors of the working-class. Undoubtedly, the movement can only become bigger by winning over sectors of the working-class and the left.

Also they need to take the pulse of the movement permanently so that cities are won over, neighborhoods are won over. This will come from two elements, to be permanently on the street with rallies, talks and responding to the repressive acts that we face and appealing to progressive sectors that are not yet defending the right to self-determination. But on the other hand, tying this with elements of coordination. Neighborhoods, cities or towns can not be left isolated, but there must be city-level coordination of neighbourhood based CDRs, county-wide coordination of city and town CDRs, we should even be already thinking of a coordination across the whole of Catalonia.

A very positive event in recent days has been the intervention of the organized working-class, with the strike of 3 October, but also with the stewarding organised by the firefighters, the participation of teachers, bus drivers, peasants, and, perhaps the most spectacular development, the refusal by dockers to the handle police ships. As an activist and labour lawyer, you have been very much involved in the struggles of the dockers, how do you see the mood of the workers' movement and, specifically, in the docks? The large UGT-CCOO trade unions hesitated a lot when faced with 3 October and took a very ambiguous position. What is behind these movements?

For 15 years, I have been a lawyer of the Col·lectiu Ronda and for about 12 years I have acted as an adviser and lawyer, both to the Barcelona dockers and the dockers across the Spanish state through the Coordinadora organization. I am also an adviser to a sector of dockers at the international level through the International Dockers' Council. Without a doubt, the actions of the dockers in the port of Barcelona was one of defending civil rights in a very quick way. In the best traditions of the dockers, they voted to participate in the general strike [on 3 October] and in the previous week they took action in relation to the ships that were in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona and that according to the information that we had received were going to be used to host national policemen or other repressive forces. In no case have the dockers come out in defense of independence, rather they took action mostly along clear democratic lines that corresponds to a class struggle union. This is significant as for many years the dockers had been accused of acting as a craft union.

The [dockers’] union at the state level made a statement condemning what had happened on 1 October and defending a dialogue, which was a different political line. But, obviously, such a statement, at the state level, also serves to establish clear – very clear – bonds.

The position of CCOO and UGT, of their leadership, was on Thursday of the week before 1 October to set up a platform called, I believe, Roundtable for Democracy, and very quickly they probably asked the ANC and Omnium to ensure the issue of the [general] strike should not be mentioned and that the government put some kind of measure so that it would not seen as a strike but as a "national stoppage." After 1 October, that evening, they had no option but to support the 3 October call of the alternative trade unions, CGT, IAC, COS and I-CSC, but obviously rejecting the class conflict that is inherent in a general strike, they supported a patriotic agreement for a "national stoppage". Not because they have become patriots, but in order to curb alternative trade unionism and also to appear to the oligarchy as 'people of order'. I want to clarify that this is mere intuition, I have no data that can confirm it.

Translated from Catalan original.


[1] Andrés Nin Pérez, leader of the Trotskyist Communist Left of Spain (ICE) who eventually broke all political ties with Trotsky in 1933.

[2] The Workers and Peasants' Bloc: a Right Opposition Communist group founded in 1931 in Catalonia, with which Nin and the ICE merged in 1935.

[3] A united front of workers’ organisations formed in 1933.

[4] Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia): petty-bourgeois Catalan nationalist party founded in 1931, which was main Catalan Republican Party during the Spanish Civil War.

[5] POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification): the party created by the merging of the ICE and BOC in 1935.

[6] Òmnium Cultural: an organisation committed to the promotion of Catalan language and culture, which has now taken up the cause of independence.

[7] Candidatures d'Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacies), anti-capitalist pro-independence party in Catalonia.

[8] Els Comuns (The Commons): the political movement around the Barcelona en Comú list which won the Barcelona municipal election in 2015 installing Ada Colau as mayor.

[9] En Comú Podem (In Common We Can), an electoral coalition led by Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and formed of Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, Initiative for Catalonia Greens and United and Alternative Left.