The independence referendum and the Catalan national question

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.

The referendum

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

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.

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