The decision of the Catalan Parliament to convene an independence referendum on October 1st has been received with repressive measures by the Spanish state. These measures are increasing in intensity as the days go by, and reveal the profoundly undemocratic nature of the 1978 Constitution which was imposed in an agreement between the old Franco regime and the leaders of the workers’ parties in order to bring to an end the revolutionary crisis engulfing the country.
It is clear that the Spanish state and the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy cannot allow the referendum to go ahead. They have taken the necessary repressive measures to make sure it does not take place. So far they have suspended the validity of the law calling for the referendum, started criminal proceedings against the speakers of the Catalan Parliament for allowing that law to be discussed, indicted over 700 local mayors who have said they will collaborate in the organisation of the referendum (and threatened them with arrest if they don’t turn up), banned official publicity about the referendum, banned the broadcasting of such publicity and the broadcasting of any information regarding the organisation of the referendum, used the police to seize referendum posters from print shops, seized posters and buckets of glue from activists fly-posting for the referendum, closed down the official referendum website, blocked access to mirror sites hosted abroad, intervened in the day to day running of the Catalan government finances, suspended referendum solidarity meetings outside Catalonia (in Madrid, Vitoria and Gijón), etc. They will also attempt to prevent the distribution of polling cards, call up letters for election agents, the opening of polling stations, the distribution of ballot boxes, etc.
[Read also the below eyewitness account from earlier today]
What all of this proves is the undemocratic nature of the 1978 regime, which was based on the imposition of Franco’s Monarchy, the impunity of the crimes of the Franco regime and the principle of the indivisible unity of Spain guaranteed by the Armed Forces. Even posing the question of self-determination is a major threat to the whole edifice.
These repressive measures, however, risk provoking a massive movement in Catalonia which could go beyond the original intentions of the Catalan bourgeois nationalists who decided to go down the route of a unilateral referendum for their own narrow political calculations.
Yesterday and today, however, mark a turning point in both the campaign of repression and the people's’ mobilisation in response to it. In Terrassa, yesterday morning, the Civil Guard entered the premises of private mail company UNIPOST and seized 45,000 letters which were to be sent to call up polling station officials. The search was conducted without a warrant and in the process they also violated the privacy of the post. Hundreds gathered in protest. Later on a judge produced a court order to ex post facto legalise the search and seizure of mail. The protesters prevented the court secretary from delivering the order and the Civil Guard from leaving the premises for hours. Finally, the Catalan police was used to physically remove the protesters and allow the Civil Guard out with the 45,000 seized pieces of mail. These actions have severely dented the authority and legitimacy of the Catalan police (Mossos d’Esquadra) in the eyes of the pro-referendum movement and strengthened the idea that only mass mobilisation can guarantee the outcome of this struggle.
Later on in the day, the seizure of posters in Reus, Tarragona, after days of provocations on the part of the police against activists fly-posting for the referendum, brought about 1000 people out onto the streets at 11pm, shouting slogans, demonstrating. They picketed the hotel where the riot police (drafted in to town ahead of the referendum) are staying and covered the whole town with referendum posters.
This morning, the Spanish state upped the ante, by conducting early morning arrests of 9 high ranking officials of the Catalan government and entering the premises of Catalan government ministries (Conselleries). They are looking for proof of use of public funds for the organisation of the referendum (purchasing ballot boxes, sending out election agent call up letters, etc), and information which could lead to the seizure of the ballot boxes.
The arrests this morning, however, could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. At short notice thousands have gathered outside the Conselleria d’Economia (the Catalan Finance Ministry) to protest the arrests and searches, and have blockaded the Civil Guard inside. The mood is an extremely angry one and there are shouts of “general strike”. Officials and members of the Workers’ Commissions union (CCOO) have left their headquarters and blockaded the road outside, joining in the protests.
This latest move is correctly seen as a de facto suspension of Catalan self-rule, but one which has been implemented without even going through the legal formalities of consulting the Spanish parliament (where yesterday the government lost a vote on a motion of support for its actions).
While support for outright independence was until now just below 50%, support for the holding of a referendum has been for some time around 70 to 80%. The suppression of this basic democratic right is being met with mass civil disobedience and is already turning many who would not normally support independence into YES voters.
The mood has now completely changed. The holding of the referendum against all odds and the YES vote is seen by many as a gesture of rejection of the whole regime, the rotten Rajoy government and the whole edifice of the 1978 Spanish state.
The campaign of the anti-capitalist, pro-independence party CUP in fact is centered on the slogan “let’s break the regime”, and the left-wing nationalist ERC has distributed tens of thousands of posters with the slogan “Hello Republic”. Clearly, a growing number of people identify independence as a progressive break with the reactionary status quo. CUP leaders have made direct and clear appeals to the leaders of Podemos and United Left to take up this opportunity to bring down Rajoy and the whole of the 1978 regime.
A meeting in Madrid on Sunday was organised along these lines. The meeting had originally been closed down by the judge and had to be held in a different venue. At short notice, 100 people packed the small theatre and another 500 followed the meeting from outside. There were speakers from the Catalan left nationalist ERC, the Catalan anti-capitalist pro-independence CUP, but also significantly a few leading figures of the left-wing of IU and Podemos.
The meeting expressed full support for the October 1st referendum, not only as a clear stance in defence of democratic rights, but also as a way of striking a blow against the 1978 regime. The CUP representative stated that “the working class of Madrid and the working class of Barcelona are united not because they are both Spanish, but rather, because they are both working class”.
Alberto Arregui, from the Federal Committee of United Left, said that “this is our struggle, not just yours”, and stressed that one could not be neutral using the argument that this was “a struggle between two bourgeoisies”. He used also Connolly’s quote “if you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain”, to point out the need to unite the struggle for national freedom with the struggle for socialism.
At the end of the rally, those present sang l’Estaca, the Catalan song of the resistance against Franco. It talks of “me pulling from here, and you pulling from there, so that we together bring down the stake we are all tied to”. This is the real spirit of internationalism and solidarity. The Catalan challenge has thrown the regime into crisis, and rather than watching events unfold, the Spanish left should take advantage to create a revolutionary crisis throughout the country.
Unfortunately, so far, Podemos and United Left (IU) have had an extremely timid (cowardly even) position of abstract support for self-determination for Catalonia but opposition to the October 1st referendum (as “it has no guarantees”). Catalan people can see that in practice this means NO support for self-determination, as it is clear to everyone that Rajoy (and beyond him the Spanish ruling class) is determined not to concede a referendum.
They have now taken a clear stance in defence of democratic rights and against the state’s repression (though they have not yet made any clear statement of support for the referendum itself), and called for an Assembly of Members of Parliament and Mayors which will take place on Saturday in Zaragoza. The idea is reminiscent of the Assembly of Parliamentarians convened by Catalan national bourgeois politician Cambó in 1917. Mobilising institutional support against Rajoy is not a bad idea in itself. However, in 1917 the initiative was accompanied by a call for a revolutionary general strike issued by the trade unions!
Furthermore, the political line of this appeal is self-defeating, as the idea is to issue a manifesto calling on the Rajoy government to negotiate with Catalonia and convene a legal mutually agreed referendum. Instead of using this crisis to push for the overthrow of the regime, they want to find a negotiated settlement to an issue which only has a revolutionary solution.
Elected representatives themselves cannot resolve this situation. IU and Podemos should really be calling for mass demonstrations in every town and city across Spain in defence of the referendum, for democratic rights and against the government and the regime.
Despite the opposition to the October 1st referendum on the part of Podemos and IU leaders (“if I were a Catalan I would not vote on October 1st” they said), the ranks of their organisations in Catalonia, in an internal vote, have voted clearly in favour of participation. In direct opposition to the national leadership of Podemos, the Catalan general secretary of the organisation, Albano Dante-Fachin, has come out clearly in support of the referendum, and has been backed by two thirds of the members.
There were always three different factors which were to determine the outcome of the October 1st challenge. One was how far the Spanish state was prepared to go to suppress the referendum. We now know the answer. They will stop at nothing. Two was how far the Catalan government, led by bourgeois nationalists, was prepared to go in breaking the law. In reality what they wished was to go as far as they could and then back down and say “we have tried”. We have already seen signs of their lack of resolve (they have allowed the Catalan police to be used to repress the referendum, they have complied with the summons given to local mayors and they have even appealed to the Spanish Constitutional Court whose rulings they had already declared they didn’t recognise). At the same time, they cannot back down before a certain degree of repression is exercised, as then they would be completely discredited amongst their own ranks. But there was a third unknown element, which was how much this situation would provoke a mass movement from below. We have now seen the first signs of that. The next hours and days will be crucial. It is not ruled out that the Spanish state repression will provoke a massive movement, which is already acquiring certain insurrectional features, which goes much further than what the Catalan bourgeois leaders expected nor wished for. Therein lies the only progressive solution to this crisis. Increasingly the people are coming to the realisation that the October 1st referendum will only happen if they themselves make it happen through mass mobilisation and mass civil disobedience.
Referendum Defence Committees should be set up in every town, city, neighbourhood, school, university and workplace, to take up all the concrete tasks of organising the referendum and defending it against repression. Above all, the role of the working class is crucial in this.
The duty of the leadership of United Left and Podemos across Spain is to organise practical solidarity in defence of democratic rights, through mass mobilisations in every town and city. The only way to cut across the poison of bourgeois nationalism (Spanish and Catalan) is to show to the Catalan people that the Spanish workers and their organisations are on their side and not that of the reactionary Spanish ruling class trampling on their rights.
The duty of the leadership of the CUP is to go further in the direction they have already taken, to stress that only mass mobilisation can guarantee the outcome of this struggle and to dispel any illusions people might have in the leaders of the Catalan bourgeois party PDeCAT. A common front in defence of the right of self-determination (and its exercise in the October 1st referendum) and at the same time in opposition to capitalist austerity, home evictions and cuts, would command today an overwhelming majority in Catalonia and would become a powerful point of attraction for the rest of Spain.
The struggle for a Catalan Republic is a progressive one, which in the conditions of Spain has revolutionary implications, as it can only be achieved through a mass mobilisation of the workers and youth and a clear break with the 1978 regime.
The mass movement for the Catalan referendum and against state repression
By Arturo Rodríguez
11 September, the national holiday of Catalonia in Spain, saw a round of mass protests and rallies for the right to self-determination of Catalonia and against the banning of the referendum by the central government.
In the morning, there were several gatherings by various political parties. In the afternoon, there was a huge pro-independence demonstration, which according to the police, was attended by one million people. In the evening, a mass rally was held by the radical left, pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), under the slogan of “self-determination: independence, socialism, feminism”.
The day of struggle took place only a few days after the Constitutional Court banned the coming Catalan independence referendum. Since then, the Civil Guard, a military force which carries out police duties, has carried out raids against media and businesses that are allegedly helping prepare the vote.
An atmosphere of hysteria against the Catalan government is also being whipped up by the Spanish media. All sorts of threats are being bandied around by the central government and its fellow travellers, the judiciary, and the police. They are threatening to arrest the mayors that collaborate with the referendum, to close down websites and media that promote it, or to fine and prosecute the volunteers that will organise the ballot.
Repression is not only being stepped up in Catalonia; in Madrid a meeting in favour of the right to self-determination was prohibited by a right-wing judge under the exhortations of the Madrid branch of the conservative Popular Party (PP).
It is worth noting that the central government has the seal of approval of international imperialism and of the EU. The EU has repeatedly stated that it stands by “legality”, that is, by the raids of the Civil Guard, the sanctions and arrests of volunteers and mayors, and the requisition of ballot boxes. The mood is understandably fraught.
The oppressive, anti-democratic character of the Spanish state and its Francoist marrow, and more generally the farcical character of bourgeois democracy, is being revealed before the eyes of millions. The Catalan question can clearly not be resolved within the bounds of the Spanish bourgeois state.
The movement for independence has a cross-class, heterogeneous character, but it is currently led by cynical, petty bourgeois politicians, headed by right-winger Puigdemont. The Catalan government's base of support and its activist core is to a great degree composed of middle class, small town people, who hardly make a stable basis for a durable, successful struggle against the Spanish state. Illustratively, the sea of Catalan flags in the main demonstration on 11 September was peppered with EU flags.
At the same time though, despite its illusions, prejudices, and confusions, and despite the presence of regressive, narrow-minded attitudes among some layers, it is a left-leaning mass movement that aspires towards the creation of a some sort of socially-advanced Catalan republic as a reaction against the rottenness of old Spain, under the banners of the ERC, the Catalan Republican Left, the most popular force in the movement.
At the same time, the tendency represented by the CUP, which has an important echo among many young people (whereas the average age in the Podemos and in the central march was about 50 or even 60, in the CUP rally it must have been 22 or so), is much further to the left, at least verbally, than any other political force in Spain.
On 11 September, its keynote speaker, firebrand Member of Catalan Parliament Anna Gabriel, started by quoting Marx with "the workers have no country" and spoke of the need of combining the battle for self-determination with the struggle for socialism. She also affirmed that no real self-determination is possible under capitalism, and spoke of the need to win over the working class with an anti-capitalist programme. She made honest self-criticisms about their support for the budget of the Catalan government, but also criticising Podemos for not supporting self-determination consistently. She urged Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias to seize this opportunity to deliver a blow to the PP and to the Francoist state apparatus.
The rally ended with a rendering of the Internationale by the approximately 12,000 people that attended - a very powerful experience, and a very significant gesture.
Truth be told, the Spanish left, and namely Podemos, have regrettably helped give strength to the Catalan bourgeois nationalists. They have done so by refusing to support a unilateral referendum and have thereby given a pretext to the ERC and, by extension, to the CUP, to join a cross-class front with the reactionary PDeCAT - a bloc that has understandably repelled an important sector of the working class of Catalonia.
This sector could otherwise have been won over to the conquest of Catalonia's democratic rights by giving the struggle a progressive, class character against austerity, corruption, inequality, and for social justice which sees the creation of the Catalan republic as the first step towards a Spanish republic.
This position has also produced a bitter debate inside Podemos itself, with its Catalan section, which supports the referendum, clashing with the national leadership and with Barcelona's left-wing mayor Ada Colau. In the morning of 11 September, they organised separate rallies in different parts of the city, and the secretary of Podemos in Catalonia overtly attacked the national leadership for their "embarrassing" capitulation over their initial promises to offer a bold, democratic solution to the Catalan question.
The movement for self-determination undoubtedly has a demagogic, self-interested, and cowardly leadership, which leans heavily on the petty bourgeois and small-town masses. As things stand, however, it could have revolutionary implications. Millions of people are determined to vote on their relationship with Spain, and the Catalan government has promised a vote. This puts them on a collision course with the brutal repressive apparatus of the Spanish state.
It is possible that the nationalist bloc will back off before the first serious battle has begun and that the referendum will not happen. Although it must be said that the PDeCAT, the traditional party of the Catalan capitalists, is leaning more and more on the radicalised petty bourgeoisie, and its leadership is concerned above all with its own political survival, going further than we could have imagined.
Whether the referendum will happen and in what conditions, will depend on the level of repression by the Spanish state (and by the subtler pressures of the big Catalan capitalists) on the one hand, and by the degree of mass mobilisation in favour of the referendum on the other. This in turn is conditioned both on the provocations of the Spanish state, and by the political appeal of its leadership and by the type of political rhetoric that surrounds it.
The leaders of the Catalan government have shrewdly made the battle for a republic their central slogan, giving the movement a more progressive allure. Ultimately however, in the unlikely scenario the referendum was held, and if independence won, secession means a head-on struggle for national liberation against the Spanish state. It seems impossible that a bourgeois like Puigdemont will ever embark on such an endeavour.
The way to unlock the situation, to give the referendum a mass base in Cataloniam, to raise its appeal in the rest of Spain and to ensure that it will be carried through to the end (i.e., through revolutionary means), is on the basis of the unity of the left, of Podemos and its allies, the CUP, and ERC; and on the basis of making a progressive Catalan republic a springboard for the revolution in all of Spain.
For this, it is necessary for Podemos to shake off its trust in the legality of the Spanish state and in bourgeois democracy, and to stand unconditionally for self-determination. It is also necessary for the ERC and the CUP to abandon their faith in the bourgeois PDeCAT and reject “patriotic” class-collaborationism.
The independence referendum and the Catalan national question
By Arturo Rodríguez, 28th July 2017
Spain never saw a genuine bourgeois revolution, and today important democratic tasks are still pending: the abolition of the monarchy, the separation between church and state, the cleansing of the state apparatus of Francoist residues…But undoubtedly the most pressing issue is the national question.
Under Franco, the culture and language of the national minorities of Spain, the Catalans, the Basques, and the Galicians, was oppressed and persecuted. Although the fall of the dictatorship gave them significant autonomy, they were given no fundamental say over their relationship with Spain, and all calls for self-determination have been arrogantly turned down by the central state. For the backward and boorish ruling class of Spain, the country’s unity has always been a sacrosanct principle to be defended with sword and fire. The unity of Spain was not achieved on the basis of democracy and economic development, but through coercion.
The economic crisis of 2008, and the political instability and the upswing in the class struggle that accompanied it, have complicated the national question, particularly in Catalonia, where a powerful movement for self-determination has been developing since 2013. The current Catalan government, dominated by a nationalist bloc, has announced it will hold a referendum on independence on the 1 October. This has put it on collision course with the right-wing government in Madrid. Standing up to the Spanish state is no easy task – can the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists that make up the Catalan government deliver on their threats?
The bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the Catalan national question
The bourgeoisie of Catalonia, one of the most industrialised regions in Spain, has historically been pitted against the more backward Spanish ruling class. However, although they have used nationalism to strengthen their hand vis-à-vis Madrid, the Catalan bourgeois have never seriously pursued independence, and have always avoided a frontal clash with the Spanish state. They depend economically on the Spanish market, and, as property owners, whose priority is to protect their own privileges, they are weary of embarking on revolutionary adventures. And most importantly, the greatest foe of the Catalan ruling class is not the central government, but the proletariat. Faced with the threat of the workers they have always sided with Madrid. Their objective has been to have a greater say in Spanish politics. In the epoch of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, the bourgeoisie has become a conservative, reactionary class incapable of carrying out any pending democratic tasks, which in some countries were accomplished by the revolutionary bourgeois of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The cynicism and demagoguery of the Catalan bourgeoisie is epitomised by the early twentieth century nationalist liberal Francesc Cambó, who led the Regionalist League. In the summer of 1917, he attempted to organise a constituent assembly against the despotic Bourbon regime, for democratic reform and for Catalan autonomy. He attempted to involve the workers’ movement in this endeavour, and to back the call for the assembly with the threat of a general strike. The assembly entered into negotiations with the socialist and anarcho-syndicalist unions.
The preparations for the strike gathered unexpected momentum. The mood of the liberals became increasingly sombre, as they realised they were conjuring forces they could not control. Cambó and his liberal and nationalist followers turned their backs to the workers and dropped the project of the constituent assembly. When the strike broke out in August 1917, they denounced it and supported the government’s brutal repression, which claimed over a hundred deaths. As Cambó himself conceded in his memoirs, faced with the threat of Bolshevism, ‘the question of liberty had to be put off for some time’ (Francesc Cambó, Memòries, p.329). This statement encapsulates the mentality of the Catalan bourgeoisie – and, indeed, of bourgeois democrats in general. In the years of revolutionary agitation and class struggle that followed the 1917 strike, the Catalan bourgeois nationalists became the most ferocious and violent enemies of the workers, organising paramilitary gangs and supporting the military coup d’état of Primo de Rivera in 1923. A coup that was hatched from the manor houses of the industrialists of Barcelona. Unsurprisingly, Cambó would support Franco’s fascist uprising in 1936.
The cynicism of the bourgeoisie is complemented with the cowardice of the petty bourgeois democrats and nationalists, equally terrified of the revolution and of the counterrevolution. Perhaps the best historical representative of the Catalan petty bourgeois nationalists is Lluís Companys, a labour lawyer who rose to prominence in the 1930s as the leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). In the summer of 1934, the country was in a state of ferment as the influence of Gil Robles’ fascist party increased. In October, the decision by Prime Minister Alejandro Lerroux to bring the fascists into his cabinet gave rise to a powerful insurrectionary movement across the country. The uprising reached its highest pitch in Asturias, where the workers took power for two weeks.
In Catalonia, the movement was led by Companys, president of the Catalan region, who proclaimed the Catalan republic with much pomp. The initiative was in the hands of a petty bourgeois nationalist because the main proletarian organisation, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, had turned its back on the insurrection on a sectarian basis, dismissing it as a “political” affair. While the workers of Asturias fought the counterrevolutionaries to the death, Companys hastily surrendered without putting up a fight, calling for the masses to stay at home, and giving up as soon as the government troops were dispatched to Barcelona. Such is the mind-set of the petty bourgeois democrats, in Catalonia and everywhere else! As Marx said about the French democrats of 1848:
"If it called to arms in parliament it should not have acted in parliamentary fashion in the streets. If the peaceful demonstration was meant seriously, then it was folly not to foresee that it would be given a warlike reception. If a real struggle was intended, then it was a queer idea to lay down the weapons with which it would have to be waged. But the revolutionary threats of the petty bourgeois and their democratic representatives are mere attempts to intimidate the antagonist. And when they have run into a blind alley, when they have sufficiently compromised themselves to make it necessary to activate their threats, then this is done in an ambiguous fashion that avoids nothing so much as the means to the end and tries to find excuses for succumbing. The blaring overture that announced the contest dies away in pusillanimous snarl as soon as the struggle has to begin the actors cease to take themselves au sérieux, and the action collapses completely, like a pricked bubble." (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire)
Companys was jailed and sentenced to death by Lerroux, and later met a tragic end in the hands of the Franco regime. It would be unfair to compare him with the farcical and mediocre petty bourgeois nationalists of today’s Catalonia.
The current coalition
The government currently in power in the Catalan regional government is a coalition. It involves two major nationalist parties, the Democratic European Catalan Party (PDeCAT) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), with the additional involvement of some civil society organisations and public figures. This minority government is propped up from outside by the left-wing, pro-independence Popular Unity Lists (CUP). The PDeCAT is the new brand of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which has traditionally been the representative of the Catalan bourgeoisie. Set up in 1974, it came to defend the interests of the Catalan capitalists in Madrid. Originally in the mid-1970s, the battle for Catalonia’s democratic rights, was spearheaded by the workers’ movement, by the communist and by the socialist parties and the trade unions, but their capitulations during the transition to democracy opened the way for the rise of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism.
CDC (now PDeCAT) has been used in the national parliament to back PP and PSOE minority governments in exchange for this or that concession. It is a right-wing formation, with connections to the Catholic establishment, and it is corrupt to the bone. The party is being investigated for systematically taking a 3% cut from public contracts over the years. The austerity measures it carried out in recent years in the Catalan region are unmatched, even by PP governments. In fact, CDC has had no qualms in relying on the votes of the PP to pass austerity bills in the Catalan parliament. Its jingoistic, xenophobic form of nationalism puts the blame of Catalonia’s woes on the “lazy Andalusians”. In 2011, they participated in a mass organised by the PP government to commemorate the Catholic “martyrs” of the Civil War. It is also a repressive party that has clamped down heavily on dissent. In 2011, it used the regional Catalan police to crack down on the indignados movement in Barcelona. With this record, it is doubtful that an independent Catalonia dominated by these reactionaries would represent a great advancement from the rule of the PP.
It was precisely in the aftermath of the indignados movement that CDC entered into a crisis, as it plummeted in the polls. At this point, its leader at the time and Catalan president, Artur Mas, began to radicalise his nationalist rhetoric. The party had never called for independence, but Mas began to move in that direction in an attempt to recover support. This led to tensions in CDC and even to some splits – losing their long-time partner, Unió. In a context of deep economic, social, and political crisis, the representatives of the capitalists can gain relative independence from their masters and embark on risky demagogic adventures to save their political career. We have seen such a phenomenon in Britain with Brexit. In Catalonia, CDC under Mas leaned more and more on the radicalised petty bourgeoisie, to the dismay of the big capitalists who are overwhelmingly hostile to independence. In 2012, Mas began to raise the idea of a unilateral referendum on independence. In November 2014, a symbolic consultation on the matter was held with the opposition of the central government, which persecuted some CDC politicians in its aftermath, including Mas himself.
This secessionist turn by CDC coincided with a mass movement for self-determination, which reached its apogee on September 11, 2014, on Catalonia’s national day, when as many as two million Catalans (out of a population of 7.5 million) took to the streets of Barcelona to demand a referendum on independence. Some polls began to indicate for the first time that a majority of Catalans were in favour of secession. This movement had a contradictory character. It was partially conditioned by the deep economic crisis and the search for political and social change, which made many Catalans warm up to the idea of independence. At the same time, it was abetted by the provocations of the new PP government, elected in November 2011, and by the reactionary Constitutional Court. In 2010 the court revoked a new legal arrangement that gave greater autonomy to Catalonia and recognised its status as a nation. Within this mass, cross-class movement, the regressive nationalist views of some coexisted with the progressive sentiments. Many were repulsed by the provocations of Rajoy, the king, and the entire Spanish establishment and they aspired for freedom and for a socially advanced Catalan republic.
Politically, the main beneficiary of this mass movement was not CDC but the centre-left party ERC. The ERC is more decidedly in favour of independence and does not share CDC’s reactionary and corrupt profile. This is Companys’ party, the party of the Catalan democratic, left-leaning petty bourgeoisie. Artur Mas was able to exploit their cowardice to woo them into a nationalist front, thus saving the skin of CDC, renamed PDeCAT in 2016. In a classic display of petty bourgeois fear and indecision, ERC felt incapable of standing up to the Spanish state on its own, and ran to the arms of Mas. This is yet another striking confirmation that the petty bourgeoisie, an intermediate and ancillary class, cannot stand on its own, but must ultimately tail the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.
The Catalan elections of September 2015 were presented as a referendum of independence, and a vote for the new nationalist bloc (Junts pel Sí). It was supposed to be a vote for independence. However, this front only won a simple majority of the votes, which it did not consider as being enough to declare outright independence. Indeed, by September 2015 the political situation had changed significantly both in Catalonia and in Spain. The rise of Podemos, which put forward a radical, class-based alternative, partially cut across the nationalist movement. The (inconsistent) defence by Podemos of the right to self-determination garnered much support in Catalonia and the Basque Country. While Mas was able to win the elections in 2015, the mass support for independence of 2014 had receded somewhat.
Mas needed to secure the abstention of 8 of the MPs of the CUP, a radical left-wing pro-independence party that had refused to enter the nationalist bloc. In words, the CUP is an anti-capitalist, revolutionary party. Their rise to prominence, winning 8% of the vote in 2015 mostly from young voters, is a welcome symptom of the radicalisation of the Catalan youth. However, the nationalist establishment was able to cow the CUP into submission, revealing the party’s political and theoretical weakness. The debate over whether to allow the government to be sworn in split the CUP down the middle. It revealed deep divisions between its more left-wing urban, proletarian base and the more nationalist small-town, petty bourgeois sectors. The nationalists finally agreed to remove the hated right-winger Artur Mas from the presidency under pressure from the CUP, but the same deplorable arrangement remained under his successor, Carles Puigdemont, also from PDeCAT. In fact, Mas blatantly continues to pull the strings. The nature of the farcical pact with the CUP was summed up by Mas himself in a recent interview:
"It may appear that the PDeCAT is vulnerable to the CUP, but that’s not the truth. Let me give you some examples. The CUP put as a precondition to back the budget for 2017, that all taxes were increased, but that was not done, no taxes were raised. This was a fiasco for the CUP. They did make a lot of noise though. Another example: they demanded that the educational concerts [subsidies to private schools] were scrapped, but they were not altered. Despite their tantrums, nothing changes in reality. If you look at the noise, you may think the CUP is getting what it wants. But reality is very different." (La Vanguardia, 09/07/2017)
Under the excuse of Catalonia’s “national interests” the CUP was drawn into a humiliating, class-collaborationist deal. It ended up backing a government led by a corrupt bourgeois party whose support for independence is, at best, dubious and propped up its budget which is one of austerity cuts. Indeed, Mas and Puigdemont promised to take decisive steps towards independence within a month of the government’s formation, but nothing of the sort happened. Puigdemont, supposedly the head of a provisional administration to oversee secession, continued to govern normally as in the past and continued to pass reactionary, anti-workers’ legislation. In fact, in the national parliament in Madrid, the PDeCAT helped Rajoy’s minority government, the sworn enemy of Catalan independence, pass many a reactionary bill, like the dockworkers’ counterreform. At bottom for both the PP and the PDeCAT the class interests of the capitalists trump nationalism. It is no surprise that pro-independence sentiments have been declining in the polls since Puigdemont was sworn in, and now are well below 50%. Under these conditions, the alliance of PDeCAT with ERC and their pact with the CUP were strained, and Puigdemont was driven to announce a binding referendum on independence for 1 October , 2017.
One may well wonder why a referendum is necessary, when the elections of September 2015 were presented as a plebiscite on independence. But there is little logic to the bourgeois nationalists’ improvised pirouettes, other than to save their careers and their reputation in the short term. The events in June and July have further revealed the cowardice and demagoguery of PDeCAT and ERC.
Upon his appointment as referendum organiser, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of ERC, found that most PDeCAT councillors (the regional equivalent to a minister) refused to sign collective statements that might “endanger their property”. That is, statements that might lead to fines and sanctions by the Spanish state. Moreover, the Catalan government has so far been incapable of buying the ballots for the referendum because of the intimidations of the Spanish state, which has threatened to intervene in Catalonia’s finances if public money is spent on the plebiscite. The government in Barcelona plays political hide and seek with Madrid. These are the people that are preparing for battle with the Spanish state!
These ridiculous incidents have prompted a purge of three councillors and the replacement of the head of the Catalan police by nationalist hardliners. It is only likely that the coming weeks will see these resignations, purges, and clashes multiply. The more petty bourgeois, radicalised sectors of PDeCAT are pitted against the more “respectable” sectors, more closely connected with big business.
The next moves of the Catalan government are fairly clear. They expect to pass a bill for the referendum in August (so far the referendum has been announced but has yet to be formally promulgated). The Constitutional Court in Madrid will immediately annul the bill, but Puigdemont expects to counteract this with a popular show of force on the national day of Catalonia on 11 September. What will happen then is uncertain. It seems that Puigdemont and Mas are hoping for some dramatic episode of repression, with the arrest of leading Catalan politicians and the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy.
This will serve as an excuse to cancel the referendum while saving face, claiming to have done everything in their hands. They could then try to hold a symbolic consultation like in 2014, or hold some form of protest. A decisive clampdown by Madrid is a very real possibility. Indeed, Rajoy cannot allow the referendum to take place – not least because the abstention of a sector of opponents of secession, who see the referendum as illegitimate, could give a victory to independence. Moreover, the PP is in a minority government, and is being spurred to the right by the chauvinistic party Ciudadanos. The crackdown will have to be proportional to the nationalists’ resoluteness, which, predictably, will not be very pronounced.
The way events unfold will define the shifts in public opinion. It is conceivable that in the medium term the secessionist movement will be undermined by its wavering and lose traction, although a layer of nationalists could simultaneously become radicalised, possibly under the banners of the ERC. The impact of Catalan events on national politics is also unpredictable, but Rajoy, in a minority and harried by corruption scandals, is not in a strong position to capitalise on these developments.
So far Rajoy has played a patient, levelheaded strategy of avoiding unnecessary provocations. The central state has counteracted the moves by Puigdemont without overplaying its hand. The mettle of Madrid and the vacillations of Barcelona are illustrative of the class forces at work. The central government stands firmly on the chauvinistic principle of national unity and of defence of the state, with the full support of Spanish and European imperialism. The Catalan nationalists, driven by the contradictory demands of the situation, are being pushed towards a cul-de-sac and feel that their class masters, the Catalan bourgeois, are defecting on them. A reactionary class is pretending to carry out a revolutionary task, and this can only result in a farce.
The only way to counteract the coercion from the central government is to mobilise the Catalan masses. The Catalan government could easily summon hundreds of thousands to the streets and call on the masses to take the initiative, but Puigdemont and his clique are terrified of such an unmanageable scenario. However, there are already elements of uncontrollability in the situation, and faced with major provocations from the central state the hard core of the nationalist movement might take to the streets in large numbers.
Unidos Podemos (UP, the alliance between Podemos and the United Left) could potentially become a major factor for the national question in Spain. As said above, they have partially cut across nationalist sentiments both in Catalonia and the Basque Country, combining a progressive, left-wing programme with the defence of the right to self-determination.
However, the party’s support for the latter has been inconsistent. Pablo Iglesias and Alberto Garzón, the leaders of Podemos and the United Left, have come out against the October referendum, claiming that it is illegal and that it lacks international recognition (unsurprisingly, the EU and the UN have disavowed the referendum, siding squarely with the oppressive force of Spanish chauvinism and imperialism).
Iglesias and Garzón propose to wait until they come to power, when they will reform the constitution and ensure that the Catalans get a fair referendum, supposedly with “international recognition”. This spineless position offers no solution to Catalans who want to vote now, postponing the plebiscite to a distant future, and it is also utopian in its own terms. Two thirds of MPs are required to reform the constitution, and it is almost impossible that UP and its allies will ever get such a majority.
Ada Colau, the left-wing mayor of Barcelona, and her party have also come out with an ambiguous and cowardly position. This is a regrettable retreat from their original line of holding a unilateral Catalan constituent assembly and independence referendum. Only the Catalan branch of Podemos has taken a more courageous stance. After an internal consultation, they are calling for people to participate in the ballot, although they see this as a symbolic act of protest and not as a genuine, binding plebiscite.
The timid position by UP reflects Iglesias and Garzón’s legalistic approach to social change and their faith in bourgeois democracy and diplomacy, and also their fear of confronting Spanish chauvinism head on. It possibly also reveals an attempt by Iglesias to seduce the new leader of the social democratic PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, who stands to the left of his predecessors. Sánchez, of course, is against the referendum, but is in favour of constitutional reform and of turning Spain into a multinational federation. The workers who support the socialists will not be won over by mimicking the reformist attitudes and the inconsistencies of the leaders of the PSOE, but by putting bold demands on them.
The right of self-determination of the Catalans cannot be delivered within the framework of bourgeois democracy. The task of the leaders of UP is not to call for respect for the legislation of the Spanish state, hated by millions in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, but to support a unilateral referendum. Nationally, they must attack the reactionary character of the central government and of the Spanish constitution, and at the same time, in Catalonia, they must support the referendum and call for people to participate but also unmask the cowardice and cynicism of the Catalan bourgeois nationalists.
Such a battle with the central state would represent a clash with the entire capitalist and imperialist system, and if pursued consistently would necessarily have to move in an anti-capitalist direction. If Podemos mobilised its forces fearlessly in support of the plebiscite and in opposition to repression from the central state, they could change the situation and put Rajoy and Puigdemont between a rock and a hard place. Today, Podemos, like the CNT in 1934 (but this time on the basis of a gutless reformist argument), has left a clear road for the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists to call the shots.
The working class of Catalonia is currently divided over the national question, partly because no clear class alternative is being put forward. A bold line in support of the October referendum but in opposition to the bourgeois nationalists could conquer the sympathy of millions of Catalans who want to have a vote and defy Rajoy. It can win them over to the idea that the workers of all of Spain have a shared interest, and that together they can bring down the reactionary regime in Madrid. A recent survey by the Centre for Opinion Studies, the polling company of the Catalan government, revealed that 41% of Catalans are in favour of independence and 49% are opposed to it. But most importantly it showed that 67.5% of the population wants to participate in the referendum.
Public mood can change sharply in the coming weeks depending on the character and the evolution of the campaign and the moves by Madrid. Insofar as the referendum is spearheaded by PDeCAT and ERC, many workers will be put off. A significant sector of the Catalan proletariat, especially in Barcelona and its industrial belt, is Spanish-speaking and, while hostile to Rajoy, is also repelled by the bigoted, bourgeois PDeCAT. In any case, the figures reveal that, while there is limited support for independence, most Catalans want to have a say on their relations with Spain and are defiant of the central government.
Podemos was born in the heat of the mass social struggles of 2011-14, which were not only a rebellion against economic injustice and inequality, but also a movement for freedom against an oppressive, backward, and corrupt regime. To make good on these economic and political aspirations, Podemos has to break with the exploitative economic system of capitalism and with the rotten and oppressive bourgeois political system, abandoning faith in bourgeois legality and fighting for freedom with revolutionary methods. The right to self-determination is a revolutionary task, which in the epoch of imperialism and capitalist decomposition belongs not to craven bourgeois nationalists, but to their gravediggers, to the radical left and to the fighting workers and youth.
In our opinion, the workers of Spain will be stronger if they march together in the struggle against the capitalists and their oppressive state apparatus. The socialist transformation of society cannot be successful if it remains secluded in this or that region, but must spread to the entire Iberian Peninsula and, ultimately, to Europe and beyond. However, the genuine unity of the workers of Spain has to be voluntary and democratic, and built on the basis of freedom and mutual respect. This means that working-class and left-wing organisations in Spain have to guarantee the right of self-determination, up to the point of secession, for the peoples of the Peninsula. The current conflict over Catalonia is an occasion to implement this principle and to cement working-class unity over the struggle against Spanish chauvinism and state oppression.