Events in Catalonia in the last two months represent the biggest challenge ever faced by the Spanish regime since its establishment in 1978. The explosion of the masses on to the scene has acquired at points insurrectionary features. Where does this movement come from? What is its character and how can it move forward in the face of Spanish state repression?
On October 27, 2017, the Catalan Parliament, following the mandate of the October 1 independence referendum, proclaimed the Catalan Republic. The reaction of the Spanish state, which had declared the referendum unconstitutional and had used brutal police repression to prevent it from taking place, was swift and decisive. The Spanish Senate authorized the Rajoy government to use Article 155 of the Constitution to sack the Catalan government and disband the democratically elected Catalan Parliament. Eight members of the Catalan government have been remanded into the custody of Spanish prisons and European arrest orders have been issued against the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four other members of his cabinet who are currently in Belgium.
These leaders together with members of the Presidency of the Catalan Parliament have been indicted on charges of rebellion, sedition, and the misuse of public funds for their part in organizing the referendum and the proclamation of the Republic. These crimes have been inherited without almost any amendment from the Franco era and could result in jail sentences of up to fifty years. The National Court—which is trying members of the Catalan government—is the lineal descendant of the Franco-era Public Order Tribunal, itself the continuation of an earlier Special Tribunal for the Repression of Communism and Masonry. The Spanish state has taken over the day-to-day running of Catalan institutions.
The Catalan independence referendum saw unprecedented scenes of mass civil disobedience. Hundreds of thousands organized to occupy school buildings to guarantee that they could be used as polling stations in the face of police threats to seal them off. Thousands of polling stations were defended against brutal police repression on election day. In some instances, the people managed to push the police forces back. In some towns they were expelled by angry crowds. Firefighters played a key role in the defense of polling stations and in some cases clashed with the police. Dockers in Barcelona refused to handle a cruiseliner used by the authorities to host thousands of police officers sent to Catalonia to crush the referendum.
In the run-up to the referendum, 40,000 people surrounded the building of the Catalan government's Finance Department in Barcelona to protest a search of the premises by Guardia Civil, the Spanish military police. The crowd prevented officers from leaving for over 12 hours. For their part in this mass mobilization Jordi Sánchez (secretary of the Catalan National Assembly) and Jordi Cuixart (secretary of the Catalan cultural institution Òmnium Cultural) were arrested on charges of sedition and denied bail.
Despite the Spanish state’s attempt to seize ballot papers and ballot boxes prior to October 1, the arrest of 14 high-ranking officials of the Catalan government, the threat of sealing off polling stations, harassment of activists flyposting for the referendum, the closing down of referendum information websites, threatening the media against running publicity about it, and the brutal repression on October 1 itself—despite all this, over two million Catalan people exercised their democratic right.
A general strike combined with a civic stoppage brought Catalonia to a standstill on October 3, with 750,000 people marching in Barcelona and tens of thousands in smaller towns and cities across the country. On November 8, a second general strike saw the irruption of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), which organized over fifty mass pickets to blockade Catalonia’s main highways, border crossings, and major railway stations. There are now over 280 such committees coordinating nationally.
“The 1978 regime”
These events represent the biggest challenge yet faced by the regime established at the end of the Franco dictatorship, a regime forged in a pact between the dictatorship’s state apparatus and the leaders of the main workers’ parties (Santiago Carrillo for the Communist Party [PCE] and Felipe González for the Socialist Party [PSOE]).
The Spanish ruling class feared that the growing movement of workers and youth in Spain would lead to a revolutionary overthrow as had happened in Portugal in 1974. They realized they needed to make serious concessions yet managed to extract a number of their own demands in exchange. The leaders of the PCE and PSOE were happy to oblige. They accepted the impunity for the crimes of the Franco regime, the monarchy (which had been restored by Franco), the Spanish flag as opposed to the Republican tricolor of the workers’ and democratic movement, as well as articles in the Constitution providing for the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible fatherland of all Spaniards” to be guaranteed by the Armed Forces.
This so-called “model transition to democracy” constituted in reality a major betrayal of the Spanish workers’ democratic and revolutionary aspirations. The result was limited bourgeois democracy in the form of a parliamentary monarchy. The Popular Party (PP), having been set up by seven of the dictator’s ministers, is a direct continuation of the Franco regime. Reactionary Spanish nationalism is a key pillar of the 1978 regime, which includes the denial of the right of self-determination. From this point of view, the struggle for a Catalan Republic is a progressive democratic struggle, challenging the 1978 regime. For this reason, it must be supported.
The backward character of the Spanish ruling class and the origins of Catalan nationalism
Historically, the backward and reactionary character of the Spanish ruling class meant that the bourgeois democratic task of unifying the Spanish nation was never fully carried out. The unity of the country was guaranteed not by the progressive pull of the development of the productive forces, but rather by the general’s sword, the policeman’s truncheon, and the petty impositions of the state bureaucracy. By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century this led to the development of national movements in Catalonia (the most industrialized part of Spain) and, to a lesser extent, in the Basque Country and Galicia.
The Catalan bourgeois always aspired to have a say in the running of Spain as a whole and used nationalist agitation as leverage. In 1917, the leader of the Regionalist League, Francesc Cambó launched a campaign against the monarchy by convening an “Assembly of Parliamentarians” in Barcelona. To give his campaign more clout he approached the main workers’ organizations, the socialist Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), which agreed to call a general strike.
Afraid of the dangerous turn events were taking, Cambó and the Catalan bourgeois quickly backtracked, eventually reaching a deal with the monarchy. During the Civil War of 1936-39, Cambó and his League sided with the fascists, funding Franco’s armies and organising for them a spy network in Catalonia. For the Catalan bourgeoisie class interests have always trumped national interests.
Thus, the leadership of the Catalan national movement passed from the bourgeoisie to the petty bourgeoisie of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). It was the ERC who became the government party in Catalonia during the Second Republic of 1931-39 when they proved indecisive in their struggle for Catalan national rights and against the threat of fascism in Spain. On October 6 1934, during the entry of a pro-fascist party into the Spanish government, Catalan president Lluís Companys declared “the Catalan State of the Spanish Federal Republic”. Without the support of the main workers’ organization (the CNT, which the ERC whilst in power had repressed) and refusing to arm the Workers’ Alliance, the uprising folded in less than ten hours with the Catalan government surrendering to the Spanish army.
The 40-year-long Franco dictatorship was a black period for Catalan national rights. The Catalan Generalitat government was suppressed, Catalan language and culture subject to repression and banished from schools and the state administration.
In the 1960s, a combination of factors (the opening up of the economy to foreign investment, massive migration of Spanish workers abroad, and so forth), led to a sustained growth of the Spanish economy. Catalonia, especially, experienced explosive industrial growth. A massive exodus from the countryside to the cities took place and millions of people from the poorer regions of Spain moved to Barcelona, creating a young and dynamic working-class.
The 1970s upsurge of the workers’ movement had epicenters in the red belt of working-class towns and neighbourhoods around Barcelona. The county of Baix Llobregat had the highest trade union density of any place in Spain. The struggle for social and democratic rights was closely interlinked with the demand for national rights for Catalonia and the other oppressed nationalities. The workers’ movement played a crucial role in the mass demonstrations on Catalan National Day (September 11) of 1976 and 1977.
The growth of the Catalan independence movement
However, the workers’ parties’ betrayal of the democratic aspirations of the nationalities cleared the way for a revival of the bourgeois nationalists. For forty years (with the exception of a disappointing left coalition government between 2003-10), Catalonia was ruled by Convergència i Unió (CiU), a bourgeois nationalist coalition. In the best traditions of the Catalan bourgeoisie, the CiU made deals with the ruling parties in Madrid (including both the right wing PP and the “left-wing” Socialist Party (PSOE)). Pro-independence sentiment remained low in Catalonia throughout this period, hovering around 14 percent. It was the combination of the deep economic crisis of 2008 and the destruction of the Catalan Estatut (Constitution) of 2006 by the Spanish regime in 2010 that led to an explosion of support for Catalan independence and massive demonstrations for self-determination and independence.
At the beginning of the resurgence of the Catalan independence movement, the CiU Catalan government was against the ropes. There were massive demonstrations against austerity cuts in healthcare and education, as part of a budget which the Catalan government passed with the support of Rajoy’s PP. The Generalitat had used brutal repression against the indignados (enraged) movement and others. But this time, CiU was already mired in dozens of damaging corruption scandals. It was at that point that the leadership of CDC (CiU’s main coalition party) decided to adopt independence as a goal.
This was clearly a cynical move designed to reinvent itself in order to stay in power, but it set off a chain of events that escaped from their control. The Catalan bourgeoisie—the capitalists, businessmen and bankers—are firmly against independence. In the last few months they have used their economic muscle in a bullying campaign of threats against a Catalan Republic. For instance, they have changed the legal residence and in some cases the fiscal residence of their companies outside of Catalonia. Those who are their political representatives however, for their own selfish reasons of political survival, are riding the tiger of the independence movement.
The indignados and the anti-austerity movements found a political expression in the rise of Podemos in the 2014 European elections and then the victory of broad anti-austerity lists in the 2015 council elections, including in Barcelona, Sabadell and Badalona. In the case of Sabadell and Badalona, broad coalitions were formed which included anti-austerity parties and organizations working together with the anti-capitalist pro-independence Candidatures d’Unitat Popular (CUP). En Comú Podem (a coalition including United Left and Podemos) came first in Catalonia in the 2015 and 2016 Spanish elections. However, when it became apparent that Podemos was not going to come to power in Spain in the short term, many saw Catalan's independence as the shortest route to get rid of austerity policies.
In 2014 the Spanish state banned a planned self-determination referendum called by the Catalan government, which then retreated converting it into a non-binding consultation. The turnout was one point nine million people. The Spanish state indicted the Catalan president and other high profile political figures for having promoted the consultation. CDC then upped the ante and declared the 2015 early Catalan elections were going to be a plebiscite on independence and cajoled ERC into a joint slate called Junts pel Sí (United for Yes).
In the 2015 elections, the pro-independence parties (JxSí and the anti-capitalist, pro-independence CUP) got an overall majority of seats and forty seven point five percent of the votes, a decidedly larger vote share than that of the parties that opposed independence (which got thirty-nine percent). This, after months of negotiations, led to the formation of the JxSí government of Puigdemont with outside support from the CUP (which was sharply divided on the issue). This new government committed itself to calling an independence referendum and abiding by its results. This is what led to the October 1 referendum.
Three players in the conflict
The current conflict has three main players. On the one hand, there is the Spanish state, which is determined to prevent Catalonia exercising its right of self-determination at all costs. It views any attempt in that direction as a challenge to the whole of the 1978 regime. This has meant that the main Spanish parties (the ruling PP, its Ciudadanos allies, and the opposition PSOE) have fallen into line in support of brutal police repression as well as Article 155 suppression of Catalan institutions.
On the other hand, there is the Catalan government, made up of bourgeois nationalists (PDeCAT, the new brand name for the CDC) and petty-bourgeois nationalists (the social-democratic ERC). In their struggle for a Catalan Republic they have gone further than they ever intended. They probably calculated that a serious challenge to Spanish legality combined with peaceful mass mobilization in the streets would force the “international community,” i.e. the European Union (EU), to intervene and bring Spain to a negotiation.
This was wrong on two counts: The EU, which is based neither on principles of democracy nor on solidarity amongst European peoples (as some in the Catalan government fondly imaged) backed Spain completely. The Spanish state was unprepared to make any concessions. The Catalan government nevertheless stuck to this strategy by, for instance, declaring the Republic on October 10 but immediately suspending it to allow time for negotiations with Spain to take place.
A third actor, however, has emerged on the scene in a powerful way: the mass mobilization and self-organization of the people against repression and for democratic rights. The Committees for the Defence of the Referendum and other ad-hoc groupings made sure the referendum went ahead by physically defending the polling stations, thereby thwarting the Catalan government’s attempt to call it off at noon on October 1. The masses came out on the streets and paralyzed Catalonia on October 3 to protest repression, leaving the Catalan government with no room to retreat. On October 26, when Puigdemont was ready to call early Catalan elections instead of proclaiming the Republic, it was thousands of students in the streets (representing pro-independence public opinion) who prevented him from going along that path.
In the end, the Catalan bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians in the Generalitat decided to proclaim the republic on October 27. But this was a mere political act, lacking in practical consequences. There was no plan to defend the Catalan Republic; there was no appeal to mass action in its defense. Their justification for this course of action is twofold: they were not ready and the structures for a Republic were not in place. Had they gone ahead, they claim, the Spanish state would have unleashed an even greater wave of repression.
They are right on both counts. First of all, despite having talked for years of preparing “state structures,” little was actually done. Some Catalan ministers did nothing in this respect simply because they did not believe in independence, as, for instance business minister Santi Vila has admitted. Others probably thought the Spanish state would intervene decisively and stop the process in its tracks, so there was no need to prepare for something which was not going to happen. The mass mobilization of the people from below upset their calculations.
Secondly, with regard to Spanish state repression, they were also correct. The general secretary of ERC, Marta Rovira, revealed they were given trustworthy information that, if they went ahead with establishing a Catalan Republic, “[the state would have] used firearms, not just rubber bullets as on October 1.” Adding, “we were told there would be blood.” A report has also been published detailing the Spanish state’s plan to use special operations groups to storm the Catalan Parliament by land, air, and through the sewers if the Catalan president had barricaded himself in.
The Catalan government however, did not explain this to the people on the day when they proclaimed the Republic and then folded. It is clear that they were unprepared to lead an insurrectionary movement in the streets, which could have escaped their control. Having declined the option of mass resistance, civil disobedience, the occupation of official buildings, a general strike, etc., there was only one possible course of action: surrender in the face of the threat of force.
Struggle for self-determination as a revolutionary task
In a nut-shell, this summarises the position in Catalonia. Against the Spanish 1978 regime, the exercise of the right of self-determination is a task which can only be accomplished by revolutionary means. The Catalan bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians are not prepared to use revolutionary means. Some of them are not even committed to a Catalan Republic, other than as a threat with which to extract concessions from Madrid. The only way forward in the struggle for a Catalan Republic is a battle to remove the current leadership of the movement and replace it with one firmly based on the workers at the head of the petty-bourgeois masses: a leadership prepared to use revolutionary means to face and bring down the 1978 regime.
This brings us to another key question. The Catalan working class is divided on the question of an independent Catalan Republic. There is a layer of Spanish-speaking Catalan workers who are either against or mistrust the independence movement for reasons of identity, but also out of a healthy class distrust of the bourgeois politicians of PDeCAT.
This explains the geographic differences in the results of the October 1 referendum. Overall turnout was around forty-three percent, a very good result considering the referendum had been declared illegal and there was brutal police repression. And, of those who voted, ninety percent voted for independence. This means that those opposed to independence overwhelmingly stayed away. Turnout was very high in the counties of the interior: in Girona (fifty-three point three percent) and Lleida (fifty-two point eight percent), but it was well below the average in the highly populated areas where the Spanish speaking working-class is concentrated, such as Barcelona county (thirty-five point nine percent), Baix Llobregat (thirty-two point nine percent), and Tarragonès (twenty-eight point six percent).
The Spanish ruling class is attempting to mobilize these layers behind reactionary Spanish nationalism and flag-waving. The danger of a division and confrontation within the Catalan working-class along national and language lines is genuine and must be avoided at all costs, as it would have seriously reactionary consequences. This can only be averted by giving the movement for a Catalan Republic a clear anti-austerity and anti-capitalist character. The CUP has correctly linked the slogan of a Republic with a slogan of “bread, housing and jobs.” That line must be strengthened and developed further. On the other hand, it is necessary to link the struggle for a Catalan Republic more clearly to the idea of a struggle against the 1978 regime as a whole and to make a clear appeal to workers in the rest of Spain to join in a common struggle with their Catalan class brothers and sisters.
The slogan of a Catalan Socialist Republic as a spark for the Iberian revolution sums up these two ideas.
Article originally published in Platypus Review 102.