Nationalist dead end

Paul Demarty examines the complex politics involved in the Catalan independence dispute.

The resurgence of the Catalonian independence crisis cannot have surprised many.

The heavy sentences - between nine and 13 years in prison - handed out last week could only have triggered the kind of response it did, being as it was a naked insult from the central state apparatus to separatist forces in Spain’s richest region. Mass demonstrations ensued immediately, and before long the occupations of major transport hubs and public spaces began to bring forth a robust police response. Rubber bullets and tear gas are widely used against demonstrators, with several serious injuries.

We will look at the longer-term roots of Catalan separatism in due course, but it is worth remembering that this crisis emerged out of very vulgar, short-term considerations. By the end of 2017, the regional government had been dominated by the centre-right separatist parties, and Catalonia suffered under the post-2009 austerity regime as much as any other. Losing popularity, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont took a leaf out of David Cameron’s book, and promised an independence referendum. Resentment at unpopular policies, in which Puigdemont was complicit at the very least, was thereby laid at the door of Madrid.

There is an alternative history, beginning two years ago, where the Spanish state apparatus and the mainstream Spain-wide political parties - the Partido Popular (PP - the conservative party and successor to Franco’s party, suitably ‘democratised’), the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (the social democratic PSOE) and Ciudadanos (vigorously anti-separatist neoliberals) - smothered the referendum peacefully. It might have been enough merely to have the referendum declared illegal (a formality, since it very clearly was) and have the national parties campaign for a boycott of the poll. Puigdemont would then have the two options of declaring independence on the basis of a flagrantly unrepresentative result, which would have implicitly legitimised the arrests and sentences of the sort we saw, or his backing down. It is very likely he would have chosen the latter, as it would have allowed his party to fight the upcoming elections to the regional parliament (the Generalitat) to get a mandate for a serious attempt at withdrawing from Spain or (more likely still) even further devolution of powers from Madrid to Barcelona.

Of course, that is not what happened, because Puigdemont was not the only man in Spain with a need to conduct a piece of political sleight of hand. Prime minister Mariano Rajoy of the PP was embroiled in a corruption scandal, and running out of time to get his forces in order for an election. Rajoy - a deeply unpleasant, reactionary crook - is not the sort of man to let a crisis go to waste. Instead of ‘managing’ Puigdemont’s referendum, he resolved to crush it. Polling stations were attacked by police. Hundreds of protestors were injured, some seriously, in the chaos that followed. The usual suspects were rounded up, ultimately to receive last week’s sentences. Puigdemont escaped to Brussels, where he remains in exile.

There was some bafflement at the time as to why Rajoy would take a course of action guaranteed to turn a rather desperate separatist stunt into a constitutional crisis, but this is precisely the issue: Rajoy was desperate, and needed to shore up his core vote with a show of ruthlessness and strength against a movement resented in much of the rest of Spain. It was not enough to save him, however, and the corruption allegations in the end gave us the present caretaker administration of the PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez.

Sánchez’s response to the sentences is straightforwardly risible: due process was followed; the sentences were appropriate. “Nobody is above the law,” he said. “In a democracy like Spain, nobody is subject to trial for his or her ideas or politics, but rather for criminal conduct, as provided by the law.” If he really believes that, I have a Gaudi cathedral to sell him. The very laws being so ‘impartially’ enforced here are overbroad to the point of self-parody, and essentially permit mass protest movements of all kinds to be arbitrarily crushed. There is little enough Sánchez can do about it, however - at least if he intends to fight an election in good order. He must dance around Catalan and anti-Catalan sentiment just as craftily as his rightist opponents; and, as a good social democratic constitutional cretin in an acting premiership, he can hardly be expected to demand suddenly that the sedition law ought to be torn up.

In the meantime, there is the kabuki dance of Sánchez and Catalan president Quim Torra, as they blame each other for not entering into talks. Torra is an interesting, opportunist figure - in origin a corporate lawyer and painfully mainstream, centre-right separatist, he heated up his rhetoric after the referendum and craftily got himself the top job by uniting both the right and left separatists in the Generalitat. His Janus act continues, as he cheers on the protests at the same time as authorising the police to use force against them. We assume he will keep his nose clean in the end.

This is the toxic part of Rajoy’s legacy, so far as the Spanish political establishment is concerned - he has turned a troublesome problem into a matter of state loyalty, such that all constitutional parties must participate in the ‘strategy of tension’. Podemos, the ‘radical’ left party, has been notable for its total political paralysis throughout this crisis, made worse by the rightwing split of long-time leading figure Íñigo Errejón. In this period, of course, it has been involved in complex negotiations with the PSOE, which demands tests of loyalty and reliability in the face of little ‘problems’ like the Catalan crisis.


As all nationalist movements do, the Catalan separatists trace their people’s origins with rather more grand antiquity than may actually have been the case. Nonetheless, it is clear that some prototype of Catalan national sentiment had emerged by the turn of the 15th century, as Spain consolidated - after the reconquista - into a dual monarchy, with Castilian Spanish as its primary language group. On the border of Spain and France, Catalonia was liable to get sucked into any strife involving both the French and Spanish; and, by the 19th century, a small-nation nationalist movement like many others in Europe had fully formed, including new political forces and a literary renaissance.

It was the Franco regime, born 80 years ago this year, that truly lit a fire under Catalan national sentiment, by the usual law of unintended consequences entailed in his violent suppression of the movement. Catalonia had, of course, been a republican stronghold in the civil war; and part of the controversy currently surrounding el clásico (the football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid) is the status of that fixture in the Franco years. Real was the general’s team - matches against Barcelona were opportunities for protest against the regime of a sort hard to come by in public. The constitution that replaced Franco’s dictatorship offered broad autonomy for regions like Catalonia and the Basque country, but no right of self-determination; this held Spain together during the transition, but - clearly - has not put the issue to bed.

That more recent republican heritage gives Catalan nationalism a certain leftwing coloration, especially in the eyes of uncritical leftwing admirers abroad. The actual politics of separatism in the region is a little more complicated than that. In the run-up to the 2017 crisis, as we noted, the regional government was dominated by centre-right separatists, and this should not necessarily surprise us. Catalonia is the richest region of Spain; and, just as some Spaniards resent the privileges afforded to regions like Catalonia and the Basque country, there exists in Catalonia itself the sort of resentment of freeloading Andalusians that we might recognise from the early days of Italy’s Lega Nord, before its current incarnation as a straightforward far-right party.

This is hardly surprising from a serious Marxist point of view, which holds that the most important fact about nationalism is that it is intrinsically reactionary, even when it is fused with a wider leftwing programme - perhaps especially then, since it diverts leftwing politics into dead-end fantasies of autarky. The severity of this judgment, nevertheless, does not hide from us the real injustices on which nationalism feeds. In the Catalan case, brutal treatment at the hands of the generalissimo certainly lends moral weight to separatism.

But the right of nations to self-determination is so often confused with support for separatism by the revolutionary left. The main principles, for Marxists, are working class unity and democratic republicanism; and self-determination must be advocated in a way that serves those aims. In other words, while we uphold the right to self-determination, we do not advocate separation unless it appears the only way in which the aim of long-term unity can be served. In other cases we are against calls for national independence. When imperialist powers undermine their enemies by sponsoring separatist movements, for example (a very old hobby indeed of colonialism), we should be very wary indeed of supporting such independence.

There is, of course, a historically constituted nation of Catalan speakers, which forms a majority in a contiguous territory of north-eastern Spain, hundreds of years old, with a high level of national consciousness. The Spanish constitution forbids this people from democratically deciding whether to remain within Spain or strike out on their own, for better or worse. This poisons working class unity, since it drives others in Spain towards chauvinist resentment of the Catalans, and Catalan workers to nationalist resentment of the supporters of their oppressors. It is also straightforwardly a defect of Spanish ‘democracy’ (which is in reality nothing of the sort).

It does not follow from this, as it seems to for most of the far left, that we must champion separation, any more than it follows from our support for the right of couples to divorce that we must campaign for any given couple to do so. It is not the job of Marxists to encourage the reactionary illusions of nationalism. The central political point to be made in the present connection is the establishment of the right to self-determination in Catalonia, by a movement of the working class across Spain; in the light of such an act of good faith, there is every chance that separation would be rejected in favour of class solidarity.

But it can hardly happen under current circumstances, where the Catalans are trapped in a gilded cage designed by Franco’s political heirs; centre-left parties like the PSOE and Podemos are rendered mute, at best, by their constitutionalism; and revolutionary left forces overwhelmingly support separatism because it looks popular, has that warm, fuzzy ‘underdog’ feeling, and turns out numbers on the streets.