As Solidarity goes to press on 10 October, Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, has announced his response to the referendum on independence in Catalonia his government called on 1 October.
The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal, and deployed heavy Spanish police force to try to stop it, but it largely went ahead. 92% voted yes, on a 43% turnout. A series of opinion polls carried out by the Catalan government since 2011 has in recent years shown a slight majority against independence, most recently 49%-41% in July this year.
Puigdemont asked the Catalan parliament, where he leads a coalition government, for a mandate to declare Catalonia an independent state. He proposed “suspending the effect” of the independence declaration “for a few weeks” and seeking talks with the Spanish government and exploring international mediation. The Spanish government had warned that it would suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule from Madrid if Puigdemont went for independence. It may still do so, though the immediate call by EU chief Donald Tusk for Madrid to negotiate makes that less likely.
Judging from the failure of the Spanish police to stop the 1 October referendum, such an attempt by Madrid could not go smoothly, and might lead to a low-level civil war between Spanish and Catalan police. The European Union and neighbouring France have said that a Catalonia which declared itself independent could not expect to be admitted to the European Union, implying that it would face a degree of economic blockade, with serious trade barriers surrounding it. It is conceivable that the stand-off could be resolved by the reintroduction of a 2006 law ceding more autonomy to Catalonia, which was approved at the time both by a referendum in Catalonia and by a vote in the Spanish parliament, led at that time by the social-democratic PSOE.
The current People’s Party (conservative) government in Madrid got that law annulled by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010, starting a process towards the current crisis. Democratic principle mandates concessions by Madrid to Catalonia.
The people of Catalonia have the right to a proper referendum on separation, and to be allowed to separate without sabotage or disruption if they vote for separation. It is, however, good that Puigdemont called for negotiations rather than immediate separation. To denounce restraint as a sell-out would be wrong for three reasons.
Firstly, there is no solid evidence of a majority for separation. That 40% of the electorate voted yes on 1 October is not solid evidence.
Secondly, many socialists in Catalonia oppose separation, and for good reasons. Catalonia was an oppressed nation under Franco. Today, better-off than the rest of Spain, it is not. Or not to any large degree. Maybe not under the current PP government in Madrid, but in moderate time, there is good reason to suppose it can win whatever additional degrees of autonomy it wants to satisfy remaining national grievances. The social resentments generated by the Madrid government’s aggressive social cuts since the 2008 crash and the eurozone crisis cannot be remedied by separation.
Thirdly, disruption, violence, and economic damage caused by separation will tend to harm the solidarity of the working class across the Spanish state and across Europe.
The idea, promoted by some left-wingers, that anything which messes up the established order must be good for socialism, is false. In one of his articles during World War One, Lenin wrote: “Let us assume that between two great monarchies there is a little monarchy whose kinglet is ‘bound’ by blood and other ties to the monarchs of both neighbouring countries. Let us further assume that the declaration of a republic in the little country and the expulsion of its monarch would in practice lead to a war between the two neighbouring big countries for the restoration of that or another monarch in the little country. “There is no doubt that all international Social-Democracy, as well as the really internationalist section of Social-Democracy in the little country, would be against substituting a republic for the monarchy in this case. The substitution of a republic for a monarchy is not an absolute, but one of the democratic demands, subordinate to the interests of democracy (and still more, of course, to those of the socialist proletariat) as a whole...” (The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up)
The analogy is not exact. But Lenin’s argument suggests that even if socialists were in principle for Catalan independence (as of course we are for replacing monarchies by republics), they should not push for it to go through in a way that is sure to cause damage greater than any near-term gain from the independence. The supreme value here is the unity and solidarity of the working class, across the Spanish state and across Europe. That is best served by support from workers elsewhere in Spain and Europe for Catalonia’s right to decide, and opposition by workers within Catalonia to destructive separation.
The 3 October strike
The left and the trade unions CGT, COS Intersindical-CSC, and IAC called a general strike for 3 October to protest against the repression and call for a guarantee of independence. Sectors like the port workers boycotted any movement of police forces and their vessels. Firefighters stood between the voters and the forces of repression at various polling stations. In the face of the strength of the call for action, the trade union bureaucracies of the UGT and the CC OO came to an agreement with the Catalan government and employers’ organisations to call a “country-wide stoppage”, intending to reduce the radical content of the general strike call.
The day of 3 October demonstrated once again the power of the workers and the popular masses. Dozens of roads and avenues were blocked, over 700,000 people took part in the demonstrations in Barcelona, 60,000 in Girona, 45,000 in Lleida and 30,000 in Tarragona. The national police and Guardia Civil sent from Madrid were mobbed and driven from the various hostels where they were billeted.
• From the socialist group UIT-CI
Good is more than “bad for Rajoy”
Socialists and consistent democrats are for the right of nations to self-determination. We oppose state violence and repression against those attempting to use their democratic freedoms. So the British left has, rightly, condemned the violence of the Spanish government last week in Catalonia. It has called for the Guardia Civil to be withdrawn, for democratic rights to be respected and for Catalonia’s institutions of self-government to be not tampered with by Spain.
But favouring a nation’s right to self-determination, and positively arguing that in that self-determination it should go for independence, are two different things. Many socialist groups in the UK, including the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, have gone from one position to the other, calling for an independent Catalan state. In general, socialists have historically have favoured bigger, more integrated states, with fewer borders which divide workers and impede economic life.
In some circumstances, working-class unity is better served by a country’s independence than by unity. If a national group is being held within the borders of a state against its will, and its economic and cultural development stunted by alien rule, then the oppression of that national group by the dominant nation within the state will be a constant source of poison and resentment.
Under the Franco regime, Catalonia’s regional autonomy and cultural and linguistic freedoms were harshly repressed. After the fall of Franco, those freedoms began to return and flourish. Today, Catalonia enjoys very devolved local government and the Catalan language has seen an enormous revival. In many areas it has supplanted Spanish as the everyday mode of public discourse. The Catalan people can express their national identity without secession.
It is still the right of the Catalan people to declare for independence if they so wish. But polls have consistently found that a majority in Catalonia opposes independence. Although “Yes” won a huge majority in the referendum of 1st October, only 2.2 million votes were cast out of an eligible voting public of 5.3 million. As was the case in the referendum of 2014, those in favour of staying in Spain abstained from the vote in their millions. On 22 September, Socialist Worker carried an article that noted “only 28 per cent of Catalans support the Spanish state constitution”. True enough. But how many support independence? And what does the meagre level of support for independence imply for a separate Catalan state?
The International Marxist Tendency (Socialist Appeal) has published 29 theses on the Catalan question. There apparently was no room for a 30th to acknowledge the lack of a pro-independence majority. Even if one were to favour secession, what end is served by ignoring this fact? If the IMT thinks independence is the right course of action, surely it has a duty to get to grips with the problem?
A common logic underlies most of the pro-separation statements from the British left. They start by noting the undemocratic nature of the Spanish constitution and the right-wing, corrupt character of its capitalist regime. They then note that Catalan separatism, traditionally a minority pursuit, has been much buoyed by disgust and dissatisfaction with the Spanish regime. They conclude that an independent Catalonia must be supported as a way of “breaking” with that regime and “sparking” left-wing revolt in the rest of the Iberian peninsula. No thought is given to the democratic implications of setting up a breakaway nation state in which half or almost half of the population wanted to remain linked to Spain.
Many especially of the working class have family origins from elsewhere in Spain and have a reasonable fear of Catalan-chauvinist revanchism. No thought is given to the national divisions the independence movement has driven not just between Catalan workers and those in the rest of Spain, but also between Catalan workers themselves, many of whom are alienated by a politics of ethno-linguistic identity which leaves them in the cold. No thought is given to what effect independence will have on the rest of the Spanish labour movement by lopping off one of its most militant industrial centres.
No thought is given to what kind of a state will be created by a thoroughly neoliberal Catalan nationalist bourgeoisie, competing for contracts and market access with the bigger capitalist neighbours surrounding it, and deprived of the counterweights against world-market pressures which larger units like the EU have. No thought is given to what effect will be had on a generation of Catalan workers taught that austerity, corruption and exploitation are the fault, not of the ruling class present in all regions and all countries including their own, but of “Madrid”. We are told only that independence will “weaken” the Spanish state. Perhaps it will.
But what weakens the bosses does not automatically strengthen the workers. Emotionally tempting as it might be, simply supporting the opposite of whatever the unpleasant regime of Mariano Rajoy wants is no programme for socialist advance.
As Leon Trotsky, a long-term advocate of a federal Spanish republic rather than an independent Catalonia, once said: “The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat.”
Against the nationalisms of both Spanish and Catalan stripes, the left must make its own voice heard. Against state repression! For the Catalans’ freedom to decide their own fate! Against nationalist separatism, and for working-class unity in a struggle for workers’ rights, democracy and socialism across Spain and beyond!
Socialists in Spain speak out
On 1 October, thousands of people expressed their support for the referendum by intending to vote, or voting. The significance of the mobilisation of thousands of people who demand to vote for independence cannot be silenced by the police violence organised by the Rajoy government.
The level of political repression seen in Catalonia gives us a sample of what this government is capable of doing to the rights of the people, and what it in fact does, every time that the working class try to defend themselves against the attacks of the bosses and their politicians. The PP, along with Ciudadanos and the PSOE, speak of democracy, of the law and equality for all: they lie. As for this Catalan conflict, it is nothing more than the democratic right that millions of people in Catalonia want, to have a say in a referendum about their future — and the state is opposing them with unjust legalisms, to try to get things back to how they liked them. But they’ll change the constitution when the banks call in their debts!
We mustn’t forget the role of the numerous Catalan nationalists who are filling their mouths with pro-independence proclamations: Los Mas, Puigdemont, Junqueras, Forcadell, Pujol, etc. whose Catalan governments have seen the working people crushed, and who are now stoking a nationalist conflict to hide capitalist exploitation.
The workers of Spain, of all Spain cannot fall into divisions between Catalans, Andalusians, Castilians, Galicians, etc. because that would only mean fighting ourselves. We must struggle for our rights and interests, as workers, as a class, against the bosses. Changing nationality — independence — would not change exploitation, precarious work, social inequality. Our enemy is capitalism, the Spanish and Catalan bourgeoisie, and only the working class is able to settle the social conflict, through workers’ unity, fighting together, against capital and its corrupt governments.
• From the revolutionary socialist group Voz Obrera