Catalonia and the fight against the Spanish state

catalonia protest

The Catalan referendum on 1 October 2017, with a 90.1% vote in favour of independence, has accelerated a crisis for the Spanish state that has been a long time brewing. The repressive and autocratic response of the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy has exposed its Francoist leanings; in doing so it can only strengthen those sections of the independence movement which identify their struggle not with purely nationalist aspirations but with an unrelenting struggle against the brutality, austerity measures and corruption of the Spanish state. The 21 December regional election imposed on Catalonia by the Rajoy government will be a litmus test for that emerging movement. Juanjo Rivas and Cat Alison report.

Catalan referendum, Spanish repression

The run-up to the referendum and the day of the ballot itself were marked by the extreme violence of the Spanish national police drafted into Catalonia in an attempt to prevent the vote going ahead. Hundreds of people were battered by police batons and rubber bullets, many dragged bleeding out of polling stations. Ballot boxes were seized and those suspected of facilitating the vote arrested. But across the region, people mobilised in their thousands to defend the polling stations – mostly local schools – and resist the police onslaught. The days that followed saw mass mobilisations and strikes in support of independence and against police brutality. The Spanish King Felipe added his reactionary support for state repression in a menacing televised broadcast in which, with the arrogance of a true Bourbon, he condemned Catalan nationalists for their ‘inadmissible disloyalty’ and called on the governing party to ‘restore constitutional order’. Meanwhile, those supporting a ‘unified Spain’ also came out on the streets in Barcelona and in the capital Madrid, some sporting the fascist insignia and flags of the Franco era.

The Spanish government then attempted to browbeat the independence movement into submission. It banned the Catalan parliamentary session on 9 October when independence was due to be announced, and changed the law to allow major companies to relocate more easily out of Catalonia – with two of the region’s biggest banks doing so within days, depriving the region of important economic resources. On 16 October, two leaders of grassroots independence movements, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, were arrested and imprisoned without bail, on charges of sedition. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison. The chief of the regional Catalan police was bailed, also charged with sedition for allowing some schools that were functioning as polling stations on the day of the referendum to remain open.

On 27 October, after a number of postponed announcements and faced with an increasingly impatient electorate, the president of the Catalan parliament, Carles Puigdemont, finally declared unilateral independence. It seems clear he had hoped initially to use the result to pressurise the Rajoy government into entering into meaningful negotiations aimed at restoring the wider Catalan autonomy lost in 2010. But the sheer anger and strength of the people on the streets in the face of increasing provocation by the Spanish state forced him into a more radical stance. Even then, within a minute of making the declaration – and while the crowds gathered outside parliament to watch the event on big screens were still cheering – he backtracked, saying moves towards independence would be suspended until they could be ‘feasibly developed’.

The Spanish government’s response was swift and unequivocal: the declaration was immediately pronounced illegal by the Constitutional Court (made up of members of the ruling Partido Popular); Parliament invoked the infamous Article 155 of the Spanish constitution and imposed direct rule on the whole of Catalonia: the regional parliament was disbanded, sections of the Catalan media closed down and warrants issued for the arrest of Puigdemont and five other ministers for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The charges carry a possible 30-year sentence. On 11 November, three-quarters of a million people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand the release of their jailed leaders.

With tensions rising, by the end of October the European Commissioner was warning that Spain risked spiraling once again into ‘civil war’.

Roots of the crisis

These roots lie not simply in the issue of regional sovereignty, but in the very nature of the Spanish state. As the journalist Sebastien Bauer puts it, the independence question ‘gives a territorial expression to conflicts born elsewhere’ (Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2017). For years ‘independence’ was not an issue. The bourgeois nationalist parties that dominate the Catalan parliament have limited their ambitions to regaining the far greater autonomy the region lost in 2010. In 1931, Catalonia and other regions of Spain enjoyed a level of quasi-independence under the Republican government. This was completely quashed under the Franco dictatorship and Catalan was banned, along with Basque, Galician and other regional languages. Following Franco’s death in 1975, a new constitution was drawn up. Ostensibly signalling a transition to bourgeois democracy, the 1978 constitution in reality preserved Franco-era privileges for landowners, the powerful Catholic Church and politicians. In return for ceding their demand for a federal republic and agreeing to the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ – as well as accepting a hereditary monarchy – Catalans were granted autonomy. In 2006 the Catalan parliament voted on a statute to extend some of its powers. While this was not in itself controversial, in 2010 Rajoy was facing an election with sinking popularity in the polls. Whipping up a crude nationalism that boosted his electoral support, he used the Constitutional Court to severely curtail Catalan autonomy. This violated the post-Franco settlement of a federal state with autonomous regions.

The resurgence of a movement to restore Catalan autonomy began in 2012, as Spain’s savage austerity measures began to bite and with the rise of grassroots social movements like 15-M.* The Catalan parliament was dominated by bourgeois forces who were amongst the first to impose the cuts handed down by central government and engaged in the repression of political activists and social movements. With a growing movement on the streets, the Catalan regional president, Artur Mas, was happy to divert attention away from austerity measures and corruption within his own party by pointing the finger at Madrid, not only blaming it for cuts, but for taking wealth out of the region: ‘They’re robbing us!’ he declared.

There is nothing progressive about this trend. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. With just 16% of the population, it accounts for 20% of GDP; foreign investment in the region is £37bn – a quarter of all inward investment into Spain – and it pays 23% of the country’s taxes. The nationalism of Puigdemont and his business-friendly coalition is fuelled by a chauvinism that does not want to see Catalonia funding poorer parts of the country. While big businesses and landowners unstintingly support the reactionary Spanish state, these petit- bourgeois forces see regional autonomy as advancing their own interests – not an independent republic. Like Artur Mas in 2014, Puigdemont was forced into calling an independence referendum that went further than he really wanted by the force of the movement on the ground. When the people voted overwhelmingly for independence, Puigdemont was terrified, suggesting a two-month delay in implementation, or new elections, or simply persuading the government to enter into talks. It was only the savage response of a deeply reactionary Spanish government that refused point-blank to discuss the issue that forced his hand. Puigdemont and his ministers did not challenge the imposition of Article 155, but preferred to flee the country to prepare as candidates for the forthcoming Catalan election. Even now, as Puigdemont faces possible extradition from Brussels at the request of the Spanish government for sedition and the prospect of a 30-year jail sentence, his own PDeCAT party and its former government ally, the moderate-left ERC party, are reportedly planning to abandon their unilateral call for independence in their programmes for the 21 December election. The Spanish government has announced it will consider giving Catalonia powers to collect and manage its own taxes, as already happens in the Basque Country and Navarre – a clear sop to these petit-bourgeois forces.

Despite the region’s relative wealth, austerity measures have taken their toll, with steeply rising university fees and the privatisation of health clinics. Unemployment stands at around 14% overall – but at 33% for those aged under 25. For the most radical Catalan forces the struggle for independence is associated with building a movement amongst the working class to oppose the Spanish state: its attacks on the working class, police brutality, the curtailment of civil rights. The grassroots, anti-capitalist CUP for example – which held the balance of power in the last Catalan government – has worked for over a decade to coordinate assemblies and cooperatives in cities and municipalities across Catalonia. It has blocked some austerity measures, opposed right-wing nationalists and prevented their coalition partners from backing down from the referendum result. It sees its parliamentary participation as tactical, saying ‘We understand that politics is born and made in the streets’. It has announced it will now stand in the December elections, after initially proposing a boycott.

It may be that the momentum for independence has been temporarily lost, given the failure of the main parties to show leadership – although pro-independence parties were leading the polls as of late November. But the demand has unleashed real working class forces and displayed to them clearly how the Spanish state reacts to any perceived threat to its authority and power: police violence, political prisoners, media censorship, withdrawal of capital to starve a region of funds, dismissal of elected officials, restriction of political activity and the promotion of fascist gangs, which are also seeing a resurgence in Catalonia, attacking pro-independence protesters. There has recently been evidence of online police chatrooms, where Madrid police made racist remarks, uploaded photos of Hitler and casually discussed assassinating journalists. The spokesman for the ruling Partido Popular, Pablo Casado, implied Puigdemont could face the same fate as Companys – a reference to a former Catalan president executed by firing squad in 1940 on the orders of Franco. As the crisis in Spain deepens and the ruling class feels threatened, we can expect fascist activity to intensify.

But the social movements in Catalonia and beyond must build on what is undoubtedly a victory. That means discussing with people what kind of demands they should be making, what social programme they want – what kind of Catalonia the working class should be fighting for. As we wrote in FRFI 260: ‘The anti-capitalist, pro-independence movement expects to push its social agenda against cuts, evictions and austerity policies in the frame of a Catalan republic, but has already won a step forward. The great victory of the Catalan movement for independence is to have turned the struggle for national rights into a struggle for civil rights… As in May 2011, the movement has unmasked the state violence against any real democracy and the underlying aftertaste of a never-broken dictatorial rule.’ (FRFI 260, October/November 2017, ‘Spain flexes its Francoist muscle’).

That struggle, to build an anti-capitalist working class movement willing to take on the vicious, authoritarian and utterly corrupt Spanish state deserves the support of all progressive forces in Spain and beyond.

* For more on the 15 May movement see

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 261 December 2017/January 2018


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