Should socialists support Catalonia’s independence movement?

In June 2018, the Spanish parliament passed a censure motion that removed conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, replacing him with Socialist Pedro Sánchez. The Sánchez government inherits several major crises, one of the most important of which is the movement for an independent Catalonia’s challenge to the Spanish state. The struggle over Catalo- nia will have major impact on the shape of politics in the Spanish state for years to come. To understand what is at stake, and what pos tion socialists should take, the ISR is publishing here the contribution of Eva María, a member of the International Socialist Organization, at the panel on “Quebéc, Scotland, and Catalonia: The Radical Left and the Struggle for National Self-Determination,” presented May 19, 2018 at the Historical Materialism conference held at Université du Québec in Montréal.

Since the fall of 2017, the question of Catalonia’s right to self-determination and independence have been central to Spanish and European politics. On October 1, 2017, more than two million people voted for independence in a referendum that was dominated by brutal repression by the central state. In anticipation of this day, a sudden upsurge of self-organization occurred in defense of the right to vote.

As a response to the victory of the “yes” vote, the central government, under the conservative leadership of Mariano Rajoy, decided to dissolve the Catalán government and charged its leaders with crimes of rebellion against the state. Many politicians were arrested, and others, like Catalán President Carles Puigdemont, went into exile.

On the same day, Rajoy called for new parliamentary elections for December 21, 2017. In these elections, the pro-independence parties won a small majority, but the polarization of the electorate over the question of Spain has made it close to impossible to govern. Five months later, the Catalán government and the Spanish state are still at an impasse (although as of yesterday  a new president was chosen to replace Puigdemont in exile, hoping this will allow for some new possibilities).

With the limited time I have in this talk, I attempt to answer two questions: First, what is the root and trajectory of this latest Catalán explosion for independentismo? The question of Catalán oppression, although often on the agenda, had been able to remain peaceful and contained since the signing of the Constitution of 1978. Why has it only now, in the last six years, become so central to Spanish politics and culminating in a five-month-long impasse? What are the social factors informing the movement’s composition and goals?

And then secondly, I take a look at the current debate among socialists: Is the struggle against Catalán oppression and for the right to self-determination worth supporting, opposing, or not engaging with as socialists? Is the fight for Catalán independence one that has the possibility of advancing the interests of the working class in Catalonia and Spain? Or is it, on the contrary, a struggle that can sow unnecessary divisions among different layers of the working class?

This paper will rely heavily on the analyses made by historians Tom Lewis and Josep Maria Antentas about Marxism and oppression and Catalonia respectively, as well as in the classic writings by Lenin on the national question.

Roots and trajectory of Catalán independentismo

Catalán sociologist and activist Josep Maria Antentas1 attributes three linked factors to the explosion of independentismo, as the movement for independence is known in Spain:

  1. The effects of the harsh turn towards Spanish nationalism and chauvinism during the second mandate of right-wing president José Maria Aznar from 2000 to 2004.
  2. The failed attempt at reforming the “Estatut of Catalonia” (the law that determines self-government of Catalonia) initiated in 2003 in response to this nationalist turn.
  3. The impact of the economic crisis and harsh austerity implemented by the social-democrat government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2010.

In  the period between the signing of the Constitution of 1978 and   the re-election of conservative Prime Minister José Maria Aznar in 2000, Catalán politics had followed a gradualist, reformist path directed almost entirely from above by conservative Catalán nationalists who represented the middle class.

In 1975,  after the fascist dictator of forty years Francisco  Franco  died, a process of democratization commonly known as “the Spanish transition” was initiated, where a group of statesmen that included the king, post-Franco politicians, and anti-Franco leaders established the framework for the kind of state that Spain was going to be.

The majority of the Spanish left—together with conservative Basque and Catalán nationalists—joined this process, agreeing to the new institutional framework of the 1978 Constitution and its legitimating narrative.

This new institutional framework involved many agreements, but among the most important ones were what has been known as the pact of “silence and forgetting,” and the recognition of Spain as a plurinational state with a strong centralized government.

The pact of silence and forgetting was literally an agreement not to dig up the recent past of revolution, civil war, and dictatorship. All politicians and police officers involved in the brutal repression of Franco’s dictatorship were not only to walk free, but also to keep their jobs.

A common tale of blame on “both sides” developed, where those fighting for a democratic republic and those fighting to implement fascism were accused of being equally guilty of jeopardizing Spanish unity.

The recognition of Spain as a plurinational state came with some immediate reforms that pacified any movement for independence from below. In the specific case of Catalonia, the Catalán government known as Generalitat, which had been abolished in 1938, was restored from “above,” and former President Josep Tarradelles was brought back.

The first election of the Generalitat was won decisively by Jordi Pujol, a conservative Catalán nationalist with unmistakable anti-Franco credentials and with a moderate program to gradually gain the ability to self-govern in the interests of the Catalán petit-bourgeoisie. His campaign focused mainly on the supposed disaster for the Spanish Transition that it would mean to have the Catalán Communist Party govern, and it worked.

For a total of twenty-three years, from 1980 to 2003, Pujol was the champion of the Catalán middle classes, and his gradual approach to self-government went mostly unchallenged by the Spanish government led by Socialist Felipe Gonzalez from 1982 to 1996.

Arguably the most important achievements of this time were the success of the programs of linguistic immersion in schools, where any child living in Catalonia would learn both Catalán and Spanish, as well as the creation of Catalán-language media for the first time since the civil war.

In 2000, right-wing Prime Minister José Maria Aznar was re-elected, and the relationship between the Spanish and Catalán governments changed to one of higher conflict. Up until this point, a concrete struggle for full independence from Spain existed only at the margins and it did not visibly have a mass character.

But Aznar’s determination to attack Catalonia and the Basque Country, specifically, by eliminating the conception of Spain as a “nation of nations” started a new phase in Catalán politics.

As a response to this Spanish-nationalist turn, a new coalition led by social democrats and some left-of-center pro-independence parties in Catalonia put an end to Pujol’s term with the proposal to reform the “Estatut de Autonomia,” (or, in English, the Catalán Autonomy Law) in favor of more self-government, as well as, symbolically, the promotion of the recognition of Catalonia as a nation.

This process was marked by a contradictory duality: the new excitement of emerging layers of Catalán nationalists, combined with the complete absence of the working class as an organized participant in this movement. In 2005, the Generalitat approved the new law to be later ratified by a successful referendum that brought out 49 percent of the electorate and reflected over 70 percent of support for the new document.

But in 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared this new Autonomy Law unconstitutional, thus ending the gradualist and reformist strategy that had dominated the previous thirty years.

On September 11, 2012, historically a day of national celebration in Catalonia, an unprecedented one million people flooded the streets of Barcelona with independence flags, turning this holiday into a rallying cry for secession or at least a new strategy for self-determination.

This protest came a year after a series of youth occupations of public squares, the May 15 (or “indignados”) Movement exploded and quickly expanded in cities across Spain, Europe, and the United States. This was a movement against austerity led by a youth that saw no future in the neoliberal world directed from above by a few leading countries, and it had a major focus on the need to build a real, bottom-up democracy that could start with popular assemblies in the occupied squares.

This movement emerged after Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero imposed in 2010 an austerity package wildly rejected by the majority of Spain. The unemployment for the youth reached an astounding 50 percent of the population. One of the reflections of this rejection was the indignados movement, but the other one was the radicalization of the independence movement in Catalonia and the road it was taking.

After three years of million-strong marches on September 11, President Carles Puigdemont was forced to respond to this movement by providing a fictitious roadmap to a declaration of independence in a period of eighteen months that would culminate in the referendum of October 2017.

The strategy provided for this goal was to slowly disconnect Catalonia from Spain in a gradual transition toward building a separate Catalán State. The referendum, if successful, would then give the signal to Spain that Catalonia was ready to be its own country.

But Puigdemont and his party knew very well that Spain would not allow for this to happen gradually and peacefully. If anything, the trajectory of the central government was the opposite: one of administrative recentralization that would eliminate any real autonomy for Catalonia.

Their hope was to elevate this newly mobilized sector for independence as well as to show themselves as the defenseless victims against an authoritarian Spanish state that would not allow for any solutions that would lead to a “rupture” in the constitutional order, so that then they could get back to politics as usual.

But as October 1 was approaching, the level of mass self-organization from below to defend the right of Cataláns to decide through grassroots organizations, such as the Committees of Defense of the Referendum, swept the region in response to the brutal repression coming from Madrid. Rajoy would not let go: to him, the referendum was unconstitutional and it wouldn’t happen without consequences under his rule.

But the Catalán people would not let go either. New assemblies asking the questions of what kind of state people wanted to live in if they were to separate from Spain made this movement one of rising expectations. When October 1 came, masses of people from Catalonia made the event possible before the mass show of repression. Fifteen thousand Guardia Civil (national guard) troops were sent to the region. They injured nine hundred people.

Before this harsh approach from the state, no one in the Catalán Parliament dared back away from their role of defenders of democracy and the Catalán people. Puigdemont, not having foreseen the awakening of mobilization from below, and pressured by the pro-independence left in government, was forced to carry out a symbolic declaration of independence on October 10. Nevertheless, he had no plan, and that led to the Spanish government successfully imposing its rule over the region, thus creating the situation of impasse that Cataláns are currently still in.

So, to recap, the roots of the new independentismo come from the opposition to the central government’s turn to Spanish nationalism in 2000, an exhaustion of the gradualist state-led process of Catalán self-determination under moderate Catalán politicians, and the general opposition to austerity imposed by the Spanish State already in combat with a generation of indignados.

The right of nations to self-determination

Now that we have this background, what should we argue as socialists? How is the left to relate to the rapid radicalization of the Catalán people after the culmination of events in October.

Marxist historian Tom Lewis states that socialists are internationalists2. Whereas nationalists believe that the world is divided primarily into different nationalities, socialists consider social class to be the primary divide. For socialists, class struggle—not national identity—is the motor of history. And capitalism creates an international working class that must fight back against an international capitalist class.

But capitalism, in the form of imperialism, also creates something else. In a world defined by the existence of richer and poorer nations, not only do “nationalisms of the oppressed” emerge as agents of struggle against global capitalism; “nationalisms of the oppressor” emerge as well and are used by bosses and politicians in the strong nations to justify the imperialist system. For these reasons, Lenin thought that whenever people of oppressed nations organize as a collective against their oppressor nation, the fight can become one of winning more democratic rights, which socialists should always support. For him—and this is the key theoretical contribution—socialists’ decision to engage or not engage with a movement for national liberation can only depend on the answer to one question:

Does support of a specific national movement advance the interests of the working class and the oppressed? And, particularly to our subject, does the struggle for the formation of a Catalán state advance the fight against austerity and capitalism?

The leadership of national movements—and Catalonia is a clear example—is invariably bourgeois at the start. And what the bourgeoisie in the form of presidents Pujol and Puigdemont seeks through the national struggle is to further the interests of its own (i.e., Catalán) bourgeoisie within the global capitalist market.

But Lenin also recognizes that “the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support.”3

In the case of Catalonia, the fight for Catalán independence is one that inevitably challenges the institutional framework established in the Constitution of 1978, and whether bourgeois politicians intend it or not, it opens up the possibilities for mass radicalization as the events of October have shown.

But the full answer to this question only becomes more complex when we see the social forces involved in the Catalán movement for independence. Can it sustainably involve layers other than the middle class?

This has changed only recently, as of the past six years and most clearly in the last five months, where we have seen the mass participatory character of a movement to form a new Catalán republic.

In this short period of time, however, the involvement of the organized working class has remained between minimal and nonexistent. But according to Marxists, this sector of society is the motor of all revolutionary change, and Catalonia separating from Spain entails a change of that magnitude.

This situation has also in part been exacerbated by the left’s contradictory attitudes towards this process.

One approach, led by the Popular Unity Candidacy party in Catalonia (or CUP, by its initials in Catalán), has been to act within and in full support of independence as the key struggle to take up in Catalonia. It has centered its whole participation in mobilizing left-wing pro-independence sectors to formulate a socially progressive struggle for a new kind of society, one that would fight for a new state that could counter the neoliberal hegemony of Europe.

The CUP sees fighting for independence as the first step to fighting for a socialist republic.

Another approach, led by En Comu Podem and other parties, has been one of non-engagement with independentismo in favor of a more general struggle against austerity at the national level. Upholding a noncommittal stance for the right of Cataláns to self-determination, the Catalán party of Podemos has effectively been absent from the grassroots movements that have emerged during this process. They see fighting for independence as a distraction to the “real issues” affecting the majority of the working class, as well as a de facto alliance with a bourgeois movement with Puigdemont, his recent successor Quim Torras, and the Catalán middle classes.

The success of the first approach has been that it has been able to exert a big influence in the building of a left-wing pro-independence camp that can counter the conservative Catalán nationalism of the Generalitat. But these activists’ single focus on independence first has alienated them from sectors of the working class that don’t see this movement as the next most important step to take.

We need to note that a large part of the working class in Catalonia is migrants from other parts of Spain, especially from the South. They might not connect to the nationalist sentiment attached to this movement, while still agreeing with the need to break from the Spanish state’s leadership and values. Thus, the empowering task of imagining what a socialist republic could look like, lacks the participation of what Marxists believe to be the crucial actors of societal change, making this struggle highly unstable as a project of liberation.

On the other hand, the second approach of nonengagement has missed the opportunity to influence the new terrains of radicalization awakened by a national struggle against the oppressor nation of 1978 Spain. They cite the weaknesses of the pro-independence camp as an excuse to not participate in it at all, but this has only relegated them to a position of passive bystanders in what has become the largest movement Spain has had seen since 2011.

The left so far has been incapable of articulating a common strategy of rupture with the Spanish state and in favor of self-determination that can unite both the social forces emboldened after the anti-austerity events of 2011, and the ones born out of the struggle for Cataláns to have a right to decide.

Given this background, should socialists support this struggle? My answer and that of many revolutionary socialists in the Spanish state is a resounding “yes,” they should support it. But they should also commit to shaping it. This does not mean that independence should be the main or primary goal for socialists in Catalonia, but that engaging with people’s democratic struggle to have a right to decide needs to necessarily involve socialists to take it as far as the movement can go.

If socialists do not act, other more conservative ideologies will take the lead as has been the case in the past thirty years, deeming this struggle as simply bourgeois and uninspiring for the majority of people living in Catalonia.

Now, does this struggle for independence have the potential to advance the interests of the working class?

The answer to this question is yes, but the question here is how. For the past thirty years, the fight for independence has been a slow process led by conservative Catalán nationalists. But the events of October have shown that when the movement for independence becomes a serious question for which to organize from below, the Spanish State will strike back with all it has.

This creates an obvious confrontational dynamic that requires a break from the conservative direction Catalán politics have been taking.

The developments of this struggle in the fall of 2017 opened up the potential for a new, much more radical phase of this movement involving wider sectors of society than ever before. Notably, a labor strike was called and largely followed on October 3 after the referendum. This is the first time since the 1960s that the fight for Catalonia’s right to self-determination involved an organized labor fight-back, however temporary and small.

It is developments like these that socialists should rally behind so that they can help to draw the right lessons to move forward.

Now the challenge is for the left to overcome the current gap between the social and the national struggles in Catalonia, and to provide a new, joint agenda that can break from the impasse that gradualist and reformist proposals directed by liberals from above always put us in when social movements from below unexpectedly emerge under their lead.

What is clear is that, in the Spain and Catalonia of the indignados movement, the emergence of Podemos as a party with an anti-austerity platform, and now the recently radicalized struggle for the creation of a Catalán state away from the conservatism of the Spanish state, the working classes of both Spain and Catalonia stand to win from waging a joint fight against everything that the oppressive 1978 regime stands for. Just with this exciting potential in mind, Catalán and Spanish socialists should unapologetically support the struggle for national independence and argue for others to do the same.


  1. See, for example, his “Catalonia’s Independence Movement,” International Socialist Review 109 (Summer 2018), 61; or his articles at Viento Sur (www.vientosur.info).
  2. See Tom Lewis’s two-part series on “Marxism and Nationalism,” in International Socialist Review 13 (August 2000), https://isreview.org/issues/13/marxism_n... and International Socialist Review 14 (October 2000) http:// www.isreview.org/issues/14/marxism_nationalism_part2.shtml. 
  3. V. I. Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Collected Works Vol. 20, (Moscow: International Publishers, 1964), 412.

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