Enough wishful thinking
The left must do better than acting as Puigdemont’s PR department, argues Paul Demarty
There was perhaps an opportunity for de-escalating the crisis in Catalonia, but that opportunity is now certainly gone.
After a few weeks of games of chicken between Madrid and Barcelona, defiance won out in the latter, and independence was duly declared - what was already an inevitability became a formality when the Spanish government invoked article 155 of the constitution and imposed direct rule. In a peculiar way you could almost say that nothing has changed, so monotonic ultimately was the motion on both sides towards the current outcome: the Catalan government was on notice from the moment it proceeded with its referendum and, short of divine intervention, there is surely nothing that would divert Mariano Rajoy from his determination to ready a Hottentot election in the not too distant future.
Within Catalonia, the next flashpoint - assuming, of course, that one protest or another does not get ‘out of hand’ in the magnanimous view of the Guardia Civil and spark major disturbances - is indeed the election called for December 21, by means of which some threadbare mandate for restoring order might be obtained by the central government. It is a smart move, in that it might divide the separatist camp - Carles Puigdemont, the erstwhile president of the Generalitat, has indicated that he will accept the result, if he is guaranteed a fair judicial process in his trial for a bevy of onerous charges. If he does, then presumably his Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) - the largest separatist party, and also a party of the right - will follow suit. We cannot assume that the left-nationalists of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) will cooperate. Other elements of PDeCAT’s ‘broad church’ coalition will fall where they fall.
The high drama of events in Catalonia, and the malevolent cynicism of the Spanish government’s response, has naturally provoked discussion far beyond the borders either of Catalonia or Spain as a whole. On the left, such discussion has been overwhelmingly pro-nationalist.
We might refer to a statement of Izquierda Revolucionaria, which represents our own Socialist Party in England and Wales’s oil-slick international in Spain, enthusiastically republished by the London mothership. The clear line for these r-r-revolutionaries is support for the “Catalan Republic”, opposition to “the Spanish state”1 and the blessing of the whole affair through the addition of magical socialist demands:
At a moment like this, all organisations are tested. What should the role of [the Spanish left coalition] Unidos Podemos ... be? The answer is obvious: lead and organise the mass response on the streets against 155 and a movement in solidarity with the Catalan Republic, linked to a programme against the cuts and corruption to remove the PP from government and defeat the regime of 1978.2
IR’s conviction is that the movement is running ahead of Puigdemont and co, who are desperately trying to compromise, but are forced forward by the sheer revolutionary élan of the masses. The United Left (IU), one of the main components of Unidos Podemos, is heartily criticised for taking a ‘both sides must sit down and talk to each other’ sort of line - which indeed is ridiculous under circumstances where one side has charged the other with sedition. The legacy of IU’s largest component, the ‘official’ Communist Party of Spain (PCE), is raised in a scabrous attack on IU’s ambiguity:
[Santiago] Carrillo and the CP, together with González and PSOE, were the main architects of the regime of 1978. The CP was the main party of the working class. Today, despite the dignity and commitment to socialism of many of its members, it is not a shadow of what it once was. Does its collapse have nothing to do with its policy during the Transition? ...
The CP leadership opposed the right of self-determination of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, and as a result became politically insignificant in these territories. Why does [it] draw no conclusions from this?
One might, of course, ask the very same question right back. Lord almighty - how many times have overexcited Trotskyists told us that the movement is running ahead of its leaders, and ‘with one more push’, etc? Indeed, the reference to the birth of the current constitutional regime in Spain invites such a comparison. In IR’s view, during the collapse of the Franco regime the PCE “called for dialogue and consensus with the Spanish ruling class and inheritors of the dictatorship, in order to abort a revolutionary situation which was escaping their control”. The fact that they succeeded shows, surely, that it was under their control after all, and the mere presence of angry demonstrations actually proves nothing to the contrary. Why does IR draw no conclusions from this?
In its case, the question is quite answerable - for to do so would be to compromise its insouciance about the political character of the PDeCAT - which is not a communist party (not even a degenerate Eurocommunist party like Carrillo’s PCE) or even a party of the workers’ movement at all, but a rightwing bourgeois nationalist party. Only by pretending that PDeCAT’s objectives are not really its objectives, but instead a concession to the mass movement, can IR justify its own opportunism in enthusiastically pursuing the same objectives. These are, naturally, to be “linked to a political programme of action against austerity and cuts” - a phrase which would surely be inserted by the London comrades if it was not there already, such is its status as a SPEW/CWI cliché. It is also, naturally, meaningless - an implicit concession that no such intrinsic link actually exists, but one is rather being imposed on the situation by sheer force of will.
That is more work than our own Socialist Workers Party is prepared to put into things, of course, when the mere fact of mass demonstrations is enough to get the SWP excited (the ne plus ultra of such idiocy having come when the comrades effectively supported the military coup against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government, for whom they had only a year earlier called for electoral support). Plenty of breathless reports of mass militancy clog up the pages of Socialist Worker, along with the occasional bit of analysis - such as an op-ed from Alex Callinicos titled ‘Catalan struggle can damage smug bosses’.
On the face of it, ‘damaging the bosses’ is comically irrelevant - it is almost as if Callinicos were to argue that Catalan independence is a great boon to the socialist cause because it will make a 0.3% difference to the global price of saw-blades, or would provide the raw material for at least three excellent novels. If Salafist lunatics were to set off a sarin attack in Davos, or a comet were to hit the City, or global thermonuclear war were to break out, then the bosses - including the smug ones - would no doubt be inconvenienced in different ways. In no such case would the struggle for socialism be advanced. Some other argument is surely necessary, but - alas - hardly forthcoming: Callinicos’s consists entirely of arguing that Spain retains its Francoist state core, that Rajoy’s Popular Party is the inheritor of the Franco regime, and isn’t it wonderful that people are fighting back?3
The method in the madness is the SWP theory of revolution: the meaning of the old slogan about the liberation of the working class being the act of the working class itself is that such liberation proceeds first of all from the spontaneous action of the class. Through ever more intense degrees of struggle, the true meaning not just of this struggle, but of struggle itself, will emerge, and the massed ranks of workers will flood into the ranks of a revolutionary party capable of facing down the violence of the state. The problem is the same, in the end, as the one we have already identified: we have heard this tune many times before, and it always seems to end the same way.
In fact, the details do matter. Mass struggles have an internal logic to them, all right - the logic leads to the question, ‘What now?’ The answer of the SWP and suchlike is always: more struggle, and more militant struggle! But that is no answer at all.
The long-distance left urges support for the “Catalan Republic”; but that republic exists largely in theory, and the local state apparatus is largely obeying the new direct rulers. To make the republic a reality, what is demanded is nothing less than the organisation of a militia or other armed force; but to call for such a thing would be politically divisive, and not a little scary to people who have no desire for civil war. So we are to settle instead for endless peaceful street demonstrations, which we secretly hope will ‘grow over’ into insurrection without anyone actually suggesting it.
But say that a diet of endless demonstrations does, somehow, yield the capitulation of Madrid, what then? Resented and isolated by Spain and the European Union at large, enormous economic dislocation looms. IR/SPEW demands “socialist policies” and a firm line against “cuts and austerity”. The SWP barely mentions the problem, but we know that for it, the failure of Syriza in Greece was down to its refusal to make a clean break with the European Union, and thus ultimately its refusal to constantly up the ante.
Yet you cannot eat socialist policies, nor can you eat defiance - we must be able to implement those policies, and we must have a material basis for defiance. To indulge in wishful thinking on one’s own behalf is one thing: to urge it on others without bearing any of the consequences is morally corrupt.
Quite lost in all this, for all the noise about it, is the issue of national self-determination in its actual significance for Marxists. For we do not support self-determination as a fundamental principle - as a fundamental principle, we seek the abolition of all nations! - but merely as a strategic approach to a particular way in which the working class is, as it actually exists, disunited. The IR document is correct in its argument against the PCE that merely huffing about nationalism being reactionary will not disperse the national aspirations of the Catalans: something better must be offered and fought for - like the effective unity of the Spanish working class, and indeed the European working class.
Catalan self-determination is thus a policy for the Spanish working class - to reject the anti-democratic swaggering of the PP and offer, in good faith, full national rights, to maximise the possibility that those rights will be exercised in favour of unity. It is not a carte blanche to indulge in fatuous left-nationalist opportunism.
1. One especially tedious feature of the left’s total capitulation to petty bourgeois nationalism - in the Catalan case, as in many others - is its insistence of calling Spain ‘the Spanish state’: an affectation quite as gratingly adolescent as the habit of certain stateside Maoists of calling their own country the ‘United $nake$ of Amerikkka’.
3. Socialist Worker October 24.