The Catalan question: new leadership is needed

In Spain, achieving the right to self determination is a revolutionary task. Any attempt to exercise it will meet the frontal opposition of a powerful imperialist state, inherited wholesale from the Francoist dictatorship. This regime will not tolerate any attempt to put into question the sacrosanct unity of Spain. Only mass, militant struggle against the state and the capitalist system on which it rests will conquer the right of national minorities (Catalans, Basques, and Galicians) to decide their future.

And a revolutionary task requires a revolutionary leadership. In Catalonia, the movement for self-determination has shown tremendous courage and determination. But it has been held back by its current nationalist leadership, which at all steps has dragged its feet; it has wavered at all critical junctures, fearful both of Madrid and of the masses, desperately trying to find an honourable way to capitulate. Its limitations are no accident, its cowardice does not flow from personal traits, but from its petty-bourgeois class character. These leaders are not up to the task. Time and events will necessarily reveal this and bring clarification. Important developments in recent weeks have thrown the nationalist movement into crisis. It is beginning to split along class and political lines. Masks are now coming off. It has become clear to a growing number of people that a new leadership – bolder and more farsighted – is needed to advance.

Catalan November 1 Image RevolucióIn Catalonia, the movement for self-determination has shown tremendous courage and determination. But it has been held back by its current nationalist leadership / Image: Revolució

Year one of the Catalan October

The nature of the Catalan movement for independence that began to crystallise after 2010 is complex. It responds to longstanding historical grievances, closely connected to the experience of national oppression under the Franco dictatorship; to the refusal by the state to decentralise any further, as evinced by the ban by the Spanish judiciary on a new Catalan autonomy charter in 2010; and to the general discredit of the entire regime set up with the 1978 Constitution in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Many sought an alternative to the status quo in independence. Despite its confusions, of which there were (and are) many, this is a progressive movement founded on a basic democratic demand, whose only weapon is mass mobilisation, which, by dint of its mass character, is forced to incorporate social demands, and which stands up against reaction and places in question the reactionary 1978 regime.

Yet the call for self-determination was at first exploited by the right-wing, bourgeois nationalist politicians of CDC, who sought to overcome their growing unpopularity by putting themselves at the forefront of this movement. To do this, they dragged along the centre-left, pro-independence party, ERC, into a popular front of sorts, and even managed to secure the external support of the anti-capitalist CUP. But, while demagogically raising the demand for independence, CDC never had any real plans to secede (at least unilaterally), or the intention to do so.

The pro-independence popular front of CDC and ERC, which won the Catalan elections in 2015, promised immediate secession if elected. But instead this new government, headed by Carles Puigdemont, bid for time, continued to implement austerity policies, and, in vain, asked Madrid for negotiations, all while shrouding itself in nationalist rhetoric. Two years elapsed and nothing much changed. It was only the pressure from below, and the insistence of the CUP (which threatened to bring down the government), that forced Puigdemont to call a referendum on independence for 1 October 2017, in defiance of Spanish law. But, as one of Puigdemont’s ministers recognised, this referendum was intended as a “ruse” to bring Madrid to the negotiating table – and, one may add, to appease the masses. The repressive measures launched by Rajoy’s government in September 2017 to stop the referendum from going ahead (by confiscating ballot boxes, closing websites, intervening Catalonia’s finances, deploying thousands of police, and even arresting Catalan civil servants) galvanised a mass movement that transformed the situation. The Catalan government did not take the referendum seriously, but the people did. They had opened Pandora’s box.

3 Catalan mass protest Image fair useThe Republican October of 2017 was an explosive development that placed in question the whole reactionary 1978 regime / Image: fair use

The intervention of the masses and their self-organisation ensured the referendum went ahead, while the Catalan government was paralysed by fear and the repressive blows of the state. The Committees for the Defence of the Referendum, later rebranded Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), played a key role in ensuring polling stations remained open. Despite brutal police violence on 1 October, millions of people came out to vote and to defend polling stations. On 3 October, a general strike, called by all major unions to protest against repression and for self-determination, paralysed Catalonia, and millions of people came out to demonstrate. As new layers were drawn into the fray, the movement’s progressive character was enhanced and it lurched leftwards, incorporating new social and democratic demands. The CDRs grew in size and authority and tens of thousands became organised for the struggle.

But the petty-bourgeois Catalan government wavered. Catalan capitalists, with close connections to the CDC and ERC politicians, ordered them to put on the brakes. Rather than declare the republic, they called for negotiations and appealed to the EU, but were met with hostility in Madrid and Brussels. Pressure from below mounted as mass demonstrations shook Catalonia. The state showed that, far from seeking compromise, it was determined to crush the movement. The King spoke on TV, vowing to re-establish law and order in Catalonia. On 16 October, two popular Catalan civil society leaders were imprisoned: a taste of what was yet to come. On 27 October, after desperate calls for dialogue, Puigdemont finally declared the republic – but did nothing to defend it. He and a group of Catalan ministers fled into exile, while those who chose to remain were imprisoned. Rajoy suspended Catalan autonomy and decreed direct rule from Madrid until a new constitutional government was formed in Barcelona. New elections were called for 21 December 2017. Perplexed and disconcerted, the masses engaged in defensive action with no real leadership and no orientation.

It is the law of all revolutions that, after initial victories, the movement must not stop, but advance further and set itself more ambitious objectives, or else reaction will regroup, muster its forces, and go on the offensive. This is what happened in Spain. After 1 October, the regime was in disarray. In classical Bonapartist fashion, the King stepped in to breathe confidence into reaction and put himself at the head of the counterrevolution. Indeed, it was not by accident that the figure of the King was imposed by Franco, he is designed to act as a Bonaparte in times of crisis. The Rajoy government, the judiciary, the media, big business, the entire establishment threw itself against Catalonia. The aim was to break the back of the pro-independence movement, but also to set up a cordon sanitaire between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, lest the workers and the youth in other parts of the country draw inspiration from the Catalans.

The state intensified repression and intimidation. On the economic front, Catalan and Spanish corporations turned on the heat by removing assets from Catalonia as a warning to voters to choose wisely. The aim was to cow Catalans into voting for a unionist government. However, against all odds, in yet another exhibition of courage, pro-independence forces won the elections of 21 December. Yet all the frontrunners were either in jail, in exile or indicted, which complicated the formation of the new government. Three candidates were sworn in. They were all turned down by the Spanish state in a display of sheer despotism. Eventually, a candidate more-or-less palatable to Madrid was found: Quim Torra, who had not been directly involved in the organisation of the 1 October referendum. Drawn from the fringes of the nationalist movement, and close to the more radical, petty-bourgeois wing of CDC (now rebranded JxCat), Torra was selected above all for his loyalty to Puigdemont, who wanted to continue pulling the strings from Belgium. A new coalition was formed between JxCat and ERC with outside support from the CUP

In May, Torra was sworn in, and found himself in a cul-de-sac from the outset. Scared to death of the central government, lacking any real programme or strategy, demoralised and confused, he has attempted to live off republican demagogy while de facto returning to the old constitutional state of affairs, using state repression to justify his capitulations. The verbosity and tastelessness of these republican pipe dreams are commensurate to his self-debasement. Torra’s catchword is unity before repression, as he desperately tries to keep together the mass movement for self-determination under its current, petty-bourgeois leadership and kick the can down the road. The new government has, in the main, continued with the old austerity policies. The fall of Rajoy in June ushered in a Social Democratic government with a somewhat less acerbic line towards Catalonia and ready to make minor concessions. This has made it a bit easier for Torra and his government to retreat. However, the masses are becoming impatient. This is not what they voted for! The movement is splitting.

The working class enters the scene

The first decisive test for Torra came the last week of November this year, where a wave of strikes shook the Catalan public sector. Strike activity is beginning to recover across Spain after a prolonged lull during the worst years of the crisis, when the blight of unemployment, the spinelessness of the unions, and the belief that radical political change was looming deterred strikes. In Catalonia, the nationalist government called for workers to withhold their demands until independence was achieved. But this is beginning to change as important struggles break out across the country, and Catalonia is no exception.

Catalan November 5 Image RevolucióDoctors, firefighters, teachers, students, and postal workers went on strike simultaneously and marched together on November 29 to demand an end to austerity / Image: Revolució

General practitioners and clinic staff in the health service, firefighters, teachers, students, and postal workers went on strike simultaneously and marched together on November 29 to demand an end to austerity. The doctors were at the forefront of these struggles. A five-day strike had been called by the biggest doctors’ union of Catalonia. Traditionally, this has been a corporatist union with little inclination to fight. That it called for a five-day stoppage shows that pressure from the rank-and-file was colossal. Torra was put in a difficult situation, for these are all public sector workers employed by the Catalan government. And not only that, these sectors of the working class: doctors, firefighters, teachers, as well as the students, are notoriously pro-independence, and many of those who went on strike had voted for his party.

Torra tried to put the ball in Madrid’s court and to call on workers to tighten their belts in the name of the republic – all while sending Catalan police to beat up doctors! This tactic, which in the past used to work to some extent, now cuts no ice among workers who are sick and tired of empty promises.

“For a long time you told us to put up with austerity in the name of self-determination. But you have not achieved independence and you have continued with austerity. We won’t fall for this again, it’s time to settle scores!”, thus reasons the average striker. These strikes herald a split along class lines in the movement for self-determination. It is no coincidence that at the acme of the wave of stoppages, four imprisoned Catalan ministers belonging to JxCat began a hunger strike. We empathise with their plight and mobilise for their freedom, but this does not preclude political criticism of the calculation behind their decision. It was intended to rally and regroup the movement for self-determination behind JxCat at a time when cracks are opening between the government and the ranks of its supporters.

21 December: the masks come off

A more decisive test came on 21 December. The Spanish government of Social Democrat Pedro Sánchez announced it would hold a cabinet meeting in Barcelona on 21 December, on the first anniversary of the elections imposed after the suspension of Catalan autonomy. Sánchez intended this to be a gesture of good faith towards the Catalan government. He hoped to meet Torra during his visit and begin a dialogue “within the framework of the constitution” (that is, excluding the right to self-determination). And indeed, it appears Torra had agreed to this initially. But the rank-and-file of the pro-independence movement rightly saw this as a provocation.

The suppressed anger after months of humiliations and capitulations burst forth over this visit. Many began to turn their ear to the CUP, which, having broken with the Torra government, stands out as the only consequent pro-independence party in Catalonia. Its membership has increased significantly and it has doubled its share of the vote in the opinion polls (although it remains in the minority). The CDRs, which had been losing strength, were revived. During periods of ebb, the CDRs may empty out, but their authority is such that, at a time of upswing, the masses will rapidly turn to them as the most effective weapon of struggle. The influence of the CUP in these bodies has increased apace. They put forward the slogan “Down with the 1978 regime! For social and political rights! Against repression!” This struck a chord with many.

Catalan November 3 Image Revolució21 December was a day of mass mobilisations in protest at a meeting between Sanchez and the leaders of the Catalan government, which deployed 8,000 Catalan police on the streets to ensure the meeting went ahead / Image: Revolució

Feeling the groundswell, Torra decided to backtrack, and turned his back on Sánchez. But the Catalan capitalists stepped in, and managed to organise a dinner between the Spanish and the Catalan ministers, along with 500 prominent businessmen. This is the living image of capitalism! Big business is the ultimate arbiter, imposing its will over public opinion and democratic mandates. The Catalan brand of Podemos, Els Comuns, also threw in its weight behind this meeting, and the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who belongs to Els Comuns, attended. Podemos, insofar as it broaches the Catalan question (which it fears and tries to avoid), has taken a position of “equidistance”, blaming both sides equally for their “intransigence”, and calls for dialogue, while postponing the right of self-determination to a hazy future. A cowardly position before a burning national crisis that plays into the hand of the oppressor, the Spanish state.

Torra and Sánchez sat together and agreed to extend feelers for dialogue. The central government made some minor concessions, such as renaming Barcelona’s airport the Josep Tarradellas airport (after the first post-Franco Catalan president) and increasing public investments in Catalan roads. In exchange, the parties that form the Catalan government, JxCat and ERC, will vote for Sánchez’s budget in the central parliament in Madrid. Understandably, this enraged many who rightly see it as the final capitulation of Torra. Illusions in the current Catalan government are rapidly dissipating, along class lines, as many start to see through the cynical demagoguery that conceals austerity behind the Catalan flag; and also along political lines, as it is clear that Torra has no strategy or desire to fight for self-determination.

21 December was a day of mass mobilisations. In the morning, the CDRs blocked dozens of roads across Catalonia. In Barcelona, they surrounded the building where the cabinet meeting was taking place. To ensure the meeting went ahead, the Catalan government deployed 8,000 Catalan police, to which Sánchez added 1,000 Spanish police and Civil Guards. The city of Barcelona has to be militarised for Spanish ministers to be able to visit it, such is the lack of authority of the 1978 regime in Catalonia. There were numerous instances of police brutality, as youths organised in the CDRs attempted to build barricades. In the evening, some 80,000 marched in the centre of Barcelona under the slogans of the CDRs and the CUP. At the last minute, the big civil society organisations aligned with JxCat and ERC, ANC and Òmnium, jumped on the bandwagon. For good reason, as they fear their milquetoast tactics and their proximity to the Catalan government is making them lose ground to the CDRs.

Towards a new leadership

It is clear to growing numbers of people that the pro-independence movement needs a new leadership that is up to the revolutionary tasks that lie ahead. The axis of the movement needs to move to the left politically and towards the working class socially. Only a leadership that is willing to stand up to the Spanish state and the capitalist and imperialist system on which it is based can accomplish the republic. Only a leadership with a bold socialist programme will be able to enthuse and mobilise the majority of the Catalan people, that is, the bulk of the working class and the impoverished petty bourgeoisie. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, because the majority of the Spanish-speaking sector of the working class of Catalonia is lukewarm or outright hostile towards the republican movement, which, under the leadership of JxCat, has only been able to appeal to it on a nationalist basis that cuts no ice among them. The Spanish right wing has been able to exploit this to divide the Catalan working class and spread their chauvinistic poison. The majority Spanish-speaking workers, who suffer under the whip of the crisis and of austerity, can only be won over on a socialist, internationalist basis. And, importantly too, this is the only basis to win the sympathy of the working class of the rest of Spain, which so far has been indifferent or inimical to the Catalan question.

Only by standing out as a beacon of social progress, by speaking the language of class and internationalism, can the movement for the Catalan Republic recruit allies in the rest of Spain and break through the cordon sanitaire the regime has set up around Catalonia. That this is possible is shown by the growing opposition to the monarchy, particularly amongst the youth, as shown in recent opinion polls. In the last few weeks, we have also seen tens of thousands participate in symbolic referenda in working-class towns and neighbourhoods in Madrid as well as in over half of the state universities of Spain.

Catalan November 2 Image RevolucióOnly a genuinely revolutionary leadership will be able to win the Catalan Republic, and turn it into the spark for the Iberian Revolution / Image: Revolució

The ball is now in the court of the CUP, the only party that has not betrayed the movement, and which has connected national liberation to social liberation. Correctly, it has refused to enter into any dealings with the Torra government, and has offered self-criticism for its support for Puigdemont in 2015-17, and its past policies of class collaboration. It is seen as a bold anti-capitalist force, which, despite the limitations and imprecision of its programme, can enthuse the working class and the youth. Its membership has grown and it counts among its ranks some of the best class fighters of Catalonia. Arran, a revolutionary youth organisation connected to the CUP, has also seen its membership swell with the best of the country’s youth.

However, it is not enough to reject class collaboration and have an ambitious programme. One must wage a political struggle to conquer the masses and to recruit their vanguard, to put oneself at their forefront through adequate slogans and perspectives, to patiently explain. So far, the CUP’s intervention in the movement has lacked personality, has failed to offer a clear alternative and a clear orientation to the masses in struggle. The CUP has tended to pander to the mass, spontaneous movement rather than strive to lead it. In particular, it has failed to grasp the importance of the CDRs. In most places, CUP activists have organised and directed the CDRs through painstaking efforts, and by virtue of this have garnered much authority. However, the potential of the CDRs remains untapped. Today, they are no more than an instrument for mobilisation, rather than embryos for future organs of revolutionary power. For this, they must centralise, arm themselves with a programme, and engage in political work to reach broader layers of the population. Similarly, while formally committed to internationalism, the CUP has failed to speak sufficiently to the workers of the rest of Spain and to Spanish-speaking workers in Catalonia. Only systematic work to appeal to them will undercut the national divisions that rent the working class. It is necessary to strengthen the ideas of revolutionary Marxism in the CUP to help it become the leadership the movement needs to triumph. This is what the Revolució tendency aspires to do. Only a genuinely revolutionary leadership will be able to win the Catalan Republic, and turn it into the spark for the Iberian Revolution.