The Spanish state’s violent response to the Catalan independence referendum last month was shocking, writes Héctor Sierra, but now is the time for the left to take a lead.
The events in Catalonia have exposed the limitations of liberal democracies once again. Friedrich Engels wrote that the capitalist state is composed of “special bodies of armed men”. Few times in recent history has this been so clear as on Sunday 1 October, when the Spanish ruling party, the conservative People’s Party (PP) led by Mariano Rajoy, responded to the Catalan referendum on independence by deploying 10,000 police and paramilitary agents to physically stop voters from casting their ballots. They shut polling stations down, seized ballot papers and left more than 800 people wounded.
If the clampdown was brutal, resistance to it was inspiring. In the run-up to the referendum the Catalan people responded to every escalation in repressive measures mounted by the PP with renewed displays of mass mobilisation. Thousands volunteered as referendum stewards, risking prosecution, and committees for the defence of the referendum sprang up in cities and neighbourhoods. Two days before the referendum people occupied polling stations to prevent the police from sealing them. On the referendum day an estimated 3 million voters defied the state ban and the police and went out to take part in the ballot. Due to ballot paper confiscation and polling station closures, the real number of participants is uncertain, but 2.3 million votes — equivalent to 43 percent of the electorate — were counted, and they delivered a resounding 90 percent yes to independence.
Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, had vowed to declare independence following a yes vote. On Tuesday 10 October people gathered outside the Catalan parliament and other places to await his speech, fully expecting independence to be declared. To their surprise, Puigdemont did declare independence, but he immediately suspended its effects and called on the Spanish government to begin “dialogue”.
Only a day before, the PP’s spokesperson Pablo Casado had sent an ominous warning to Puigdemont: “Let’s hope that [independence] is not declared tomorrow, because he who declares it might end up like the last one who did it 83 years ago.” This was a reference to Lluís Companys, Catalan president during the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, who was arrested and executed by the fascist army following Francisco Franco’s military coup.
Further repression has confirmed the Spanish government’s unwillingness to discuss anything but the independence movement’s terms of surrender. The leaders of the two biggest pro-independence campaigns, Jordi Cuixart (Òmnium Cultural) and Jordi Sánchez (Catalan National Assembly), have been jailed with no bail as they await to be judged facing charges for sedition.
On Saturday 21 October Rajoy triggered the Spanish Constitution’s Article 155, which will dismiss Puigdemont and the elected government and place Catalan finances, police and public TV stations under control of the Madrid government until new elections are called, effectively suspending Catalan autonomy.
Some have concluded from the shocking images of the referendum day and subsequent events that the Spanish state is not really a democracy and that there was never a clean break with the fascist dictatorship that ruled the country for 40 years (1939-1978).
However, we should reject any attempt to explain away events as a Spanish deviation from the European norm. The French government announced that under no circumstances would they recognise Catalan independence and the European Union deemed the referendum “an internal affair” of the Spanish state and placed its trust in Rajoy’s leadership to solve the crisis “in accordance with the Spanish Constitution and human rights”.
The same disregard for ordinary people’s electoral will was shown in Greece only two years ago, when a majority rejected austerity in a referendum and the European Union institutions blackmailed the Syriza government into implementing more and worse cuts regardless.
At the same time, the question of why two modern European Conservative governments, that led by David Cameron in Britain and Rajoy’s in the Spanish state, responded to apparently similar crises — the pro-independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia — in such different ways requires examination. Cameron called the 2014 referendum from a position of confidence, as a gamble to settle the question; Rajoy, on the other hand, has all along acted out of weakness.
The Spanish state has been at the sharp end of the turmoil in the global neoliberal order for the past decade. There has been brutal austerity — and resistance to it. The PP has governed for six years of profound economic and political crisis, hit by numerous corruption scandals. Since 2016 Rajoy has presided over a minority government reliant on the centre-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). From the outset the PP ruled out any negotiation with the pro-independence government and has mostly resorted to threats and attacks, hoping to put the movement down through repression.
Having said all that, the legacy of Franco’s regime remains a factor. The dictatorship sought to impose a uniformity of language and national identity that fitted the interests of the capitalist class, and for decades it harshly repressed groups like the Catalans and the Basques as well as the workers’ movement.
The 1970s saw the organised working class and the fight for national rights making substantial gains, but ultimately those elements of Franco’s regime who understood the need for reform struck a deal with the leaders of the PSOE and the Spanish Communist Party that left many of the Francoist structures untouched and entrusted the army with the defence of national integrity. Juan Carlos I, installed by Franco as Spanish king, has revealed that, before dying, the dictator gave him a single task: “Your Highness, the only thing I ask you is to preserve Spanish unity.”
The PP was founded by seven of Franco’s ministers as the project around which the right could begin to gather strength again. It has never completely broken with its past and it incorporates the most reactionary sectors of society. Thus the PP is particularly subject to pressure from the far-right and its periphery, who won’t accept any compromise and want Rajoy to make an example of the Catalan people.
On the one hand, the PP cannot pursue a negotiated solution to the crisis without infuriating an important part of its electoral and economic support; on the other hand, its desperate resort to repression is exposing its weakness both at home and in Europe.
The Catalan movement for independence is the most serious challenge the Spanish post-dictatorship set-up has faced. Yet the left in most of the Spanish state has not risen to the challenge. A grassroots revolt in May led to the election of Pedro Sánchez as PSOE leader. Sánchez had previously been removed from the leadership by the party apparatus because of his belief that the party (that has plummeted from a 42.6 percent vote share in 2008 to 22.6 percent in 2016) should be closer to the anti-austerity party Podemos than to the Tory PP. However, his radical claims were quickly tested by the Catalan crisis and proved short-lived. Sánchez has unconditionally supported Rajoy’s measures to crush the independence movement and his discredited party is propping up the PP government.
More surprising is that Podemos, the radical left party that has inspired millions in Spain and that made “ending the 78 regime” (named after the 1978 constitution) its historical task, has not adopted a fundamentally different stance. Podemos and the Communist Party-led United Left (IU) refused to support the referendum on the grounds that it didn’t offer guarantees — that is, that it wasn’t authorised by the ruling party. As events have escalated Podemos and IU have remained stuck in their demand for a legal referendum. On 1 October they condemned the attacks and asked for Rajoy’s resignation, but soon afterward they announced they wouldn’t back a declaration of independence. Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias summed up the difference between them and the PP by saying, “We want to defeat independence supporters but not by means of force.”
Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos is a party set up with the aim of reforming the Spanish state, not destroying it. They do not see the capitalist state as a tool in the hands of the ruling class, but as contested terrain that the left can conquer to implement reforms that will improve people’s lives. As a consequence, when this state is teetering on the brink of collapse, they see their role as having to save it. Thus, in practice, they too are propping up Rajoy’s government in a moment of great weakness.
Criticising the Spanish left doesn’t mean accepting the idea, sometimes held by Catalan and Basque lefties, that Spain is an inherently reactionary country. As internationalists, we see independence not only as a tool to pursue the interests of the Catalan working class, but to spark a revolutionary process in the whole of the Spanish state and beyond. In a context of growing social unrest like the present one, people’s ideas can begin to change rapidly. While the leaders of the left have been paralysed by their commitment to Spanish capitalism, grassroots activists and Podemos supporters have rejected the narrative of national unity and have organised rallies and protests across the country in solidarity with the Catalan people.
But theirs is not the only force at work. The far-right, emboldened by the PP’s onslaught on Catalonia, are trying to mobilise their ranks and find an audience for their ideas, with worrying success in some cases. If the movement for independence is defeated, these are the people who will see it as their victory. They will not stop there. They will launch attacks with renewed energy on the others they see as their enemies, such as Podemos supporters or LGBT+ or abortion rights campaigners. Conversely, if independence wins, the lesson for millions of people sick of austerity and growing authoritarianism will be that the PP and the bosses can be fought, if ordinary people get organised.
Support for independence soared in 2010, after the PSOE governments in Spain and Catalonia attempted to introduce reforms to address Catalans’ growing unrest and were sabotaged by the PP and the Spanish Constitutional Court. The independence movement then radicalised in opposition to austerity implemented not only by the PP, but also by the Catalan nationalist right wing government.
In 2015 a pro-independence majority was elected to the Catalan parliament, made up of three parties: the neoliberal Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT), the social-democratic Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the anticapitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which decided not to join the government but to lend it conditional support.
As in Scotland, independence means different things to the classes involved in the fight for it. For the middle classes, radicalised by a crisis that worsened their living standards, a new Catalan state is mainly a better economic framework. For the working class independence has interplayed with a range of progressive demands, such as rejection of cuts, welcoming more refugees, opposition to fracking and, essentially, with the possibility of building a more democratic and egalitarian society. Big business has firmly opposed independence.
Crucially, the intransigence of the Spanish government — the fact that independence hasn’t been possible without breaking with the constitutional legal framework — means that every time the movement has encountered an obstacle, the right has dithered and it has been up to the masses and the left to move the process forward. As a result, ERC has grown at the expense of the PDeCAT. The CUP, which challenges people’s illusions in the Catalan police or the European Union as the movement’s ally, has become increasingly influential.
The 1 October referendum was not made possible by the smart manoeuvres of the Catalan government, but by the disobedient actions, the efforts and the blood of millions or ordinary people. The role of organised workers has become increasingly important, from the dockers’ refusal to work in ships taking in Spanish police agents to the firefighters protecting voters from the police on referendum day. The most powerful response to police violence took place two days after the referendum, when 80 percent of Catalan workers joined a general strike that brought the region to a halt. The committees for the defence of the referendum outlived their original purpose and, after being crucial to the organisation of the general strike, have now become a nationwide grassroots structure committed to the establishment of a Catalan republic.
Socialists defend the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Lenin famously asked, “Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations?” His answer was unambiguous: “It cannot”. But we reject the notion that a rich boss and a poor worker belonging to the same nation somehow have the same interests: society is divided along class, not national lines.
The Spanish ruling class strives to depict this crisis as a national conflict between ordinary Spaniards and Catalans so that Spanish workers will rally behind a deeply despised PP government. Similarly, the Catalan right has tried to curtail bold movements by the left by accusing them of jeopardising independence and blackmailing them into national unity against the PP.
Some argued that Puigdemont’s call for dialogue was yet another masterstroke to outsmart the Spanish government — by passing the buck to the PP, who would refuse to engage in talks and would act in an undemocratic way, international backing for independence would grow. However, there is no doubt that his manoeuvre attempted to fulfil a second purpose. The self-activity of the masses had become the driving force of the process and the Catalan government was trying to take the lead away from the streets and back to the institutions it controls.
Puigdemont has not “sold out”; rather the radicalisation of the movement has reached a point where the class question cannot be ignored any more. The leading role of the masses, alongside the EU’s siding with the Spanish state and big business’s threat to flee Catalonia, is not the independence the Catalan right had envisaged. They are still committed to independence, but they want to make sure it will be on their terms.
But Puigdemont’s gamble surrendered the initiative to the Spanish government and left Catalans defenceless before the PP’s fury. It has also given breathing space to the hesitant sectors of the PDeCAT who see the independence movement as an opportunity to realise their decades-long, safer dream of “home rule within Spain” — a far cry from the dreams of liberation held by millions.
The CUP criticised Puigdemont’s strategy of holding back from an independence declaration, but the mass movement was allowed to be put on standby for a week, until the leaders of ANC and Òmnium Cultural were imprisoned.
The Catalan left needs a strategy of its own independent from the right. Ensuring non-reliance on the PDeCat means winning over to independence the parties linked to Podemos in Catalonia and their rank and file activists, which cannot be done without deepening the class content of independence.
The radical left can place itself at the front of the movement for independence and for a better society, but it will have to be prepared to stand up to blackmail by the right. International solidarity by itself will not determine the outcome of the process, but it can make an important difference. Workers across Europe will win if the Spanish Tories and the undemocratic EU institutions are defeated.
Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in London