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The struggle for a Catalan republic: Rethinking the way forward

Kacper Grass

Platypus Review 103 | February 2018

THE EVENTS OF OCTOBER 2017 and the subsequent election held on December 21st have done little to resolve the issue of Catalan independence, which has now escalated into a regional and national crisis marked by political gridlock and polarization among the Catalan people. This polarization has taken a particular toll on the Catalan left as well as on the region’s labor movement, allowing the bourgeoisie to remain in power and further its own agenda by exploiting the issue while the Left remains fractionalized and at odds about the way forward. A historical analysis of the Catalan Left’s relationship with the independence movement from its origins to the present explains the state of affairs today and suggests a way forward, both for the Catalan Left as well as for the working class that depends on it.

The origins of Catalan independence as a leftist movement

The Catalan struggle for independence can be traced back to 1931, when Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys founded the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) following the death of Miguel Primo de Rivera and the collapse of his autocratic regime. Like many other republican parties that appeared in Spain at this crucial moment, the ERC was committed to socialist and anti-monarchist values. However, contrary to some of its counterparts from other regions of the country, the ERC’s nationalist tendencies distanced it from both the Soviet Union and the international socialist movement. In the period of political instability that followed, Macià was serving as the acting president of Catalonia and took advantage of the temporary power vacuum to proclaim the “Catalan Republic as a state of the Iberian Federation” on April 14.[1] That day coincided with the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic, which was quick to react and reincorporate Catalonia by April 17. In an act of political compromise, Catalonia was granted a high degree of self-government relative to the other regions of Spain. The resulting Statute of Autonomy established the Catalan government known as the Generalitat in 1932, being approved in a regional referendum that enjoyed 99.49 percent support with a high voter turnout of 75.13 percent.[2]

In 1933, Companys succeeded Macià as president of the Generalitat. Two years earlier he had led the ERC in the Spanish parliamentary elections of 1931, announcing in Madrid after the passing of the Statute of Autonomy that “the Catalan members of the Parliament have come here not only to defend our law of autonomy… and the fraternal and democratic understanding of the members of Parliament, but also to participate in matters that affect the greatness of Spain: the Constitution, the agrarian reforms, and social legislation."[3] Nonetheless, the agrarian reforms and social legislation that Companys envisioned were severely threatened by the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right’s (CEDA) victory in the 1934 elections. The CEDA’s rise to power ended left-wing rule in the Second Republic and, for the first time, introduced fascist elements into the Spanish parliament. In response, a left-wing insurrectionary movement broke out across the country, culminating in a major miners’ strike in Asturias on October 4 and Companys’ proclamation of the “Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic” on October 6, 1934.[4] The next day, however, the Spanish central government regained control in Catalonia, arresting Companys and suspending the region’s autonomy. General Francisco Franco was sent to suppress the Asturian miners, who had no choice but to capitulate after the army’s arrival. Companys was pardoned two years later when the country’s left-wing parties united in the Popular Front coalition to win the elections of 1936 and to restore the autonomy of Catalonia. The coalition consisted of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), among others. During the civil war that broke out soon after the elections, the Popular Front was supported by the ERC, the PSOE-affiliated Workers’ General Union (UGT), as well as the anarcho-syndicalist trade union National Confederation of Labor – Iberian Anarchist Federation (CNT-FAI).

Proclamation of the 'Catalan State' within the "Spanish Federal Republic" in Barcelona by the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Lluís Companys on October 6, 1934.

The victory of the fascist forces in 1939 brought about the period of political and cultural repression that lasted until Franco’s death in 1975. Franco’s dictatorship was perhaps most strongly felt in Catalonia and the Basque Country, two regions in which the local languages were banned from the public sphere in an effort to forcefully assimilate the people. Nonetheless, after the collapse of the Francoist regime and the ratification of the 1978 Spanish Constitution by all of the country’s regional governments, a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia was passed by regional referendum the following year. This time, though, popular support for the Statute was lower than in 1931, as 88.1 percent voted in favor and voter turnout was 59.7 percent.2

Fractionalization of the Left and bourgeois appropriation of the independence movement

The re-emergence of the Left in Catalonia was headed by the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC), the regional affiliate of the PSOE; the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), the regional affiliate of the PCE; and the ERC. Despite the transition to democracy and the legalization of left-wing parties, nearly four decades of fascist rule had taken their toll on Catalonia’s political culture, which was now dominated by centrist bourgeois parties. Not until the regional elections of 2003 did a left-wing coalition form a government in Catalonia. The members of this so-called Tripartit, formed by the ERC, the PSC, and a splinter group of the now-defunct PSUC called the Initiative for Catalonia Greens – United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), found common ground in their plans to amend the 1979 Statute of Autonomy in order to expand the self-governing powers of the Generalitat. Though the updated draft of the Statute was composed by all three parties, the ERC did not support the new law in parliament and encouraged a “no” vote in the referendum on the grounds that the final version did not demand sufficient autonomy. Nonetheless, the law was ultimately passed in parliament but received a controversially low level of popular support in the referendum, where 73.24 percent were in favor with a voter turnout of only 48.85 percent.2 By the time of the referendum, tensions between the ERC and its coalition partners had escalated to the point that a snap election was called in 2006 in order to preserve the Tripartit for another electoral term.

In 2010, however, the Constitutional Court of Spain challenged the legality of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy and finally rewrote fourteen of its articles. The intervention sparked a wave of protests in Catalonia and prompted the ERC to take a separatist stance, favoring independence over autonomy and leaving the Tripartit to run alone in the 2010 regional elections. The decision proved disastrous for the Catalan Left, as it allowed the centrist bourgeois Convergence and Union Party (CiU) to form a minority government with support from the People’s Party of Catalonia (PPC), the regional affiliate of the right-wing People’s Party that was created by former members of Franco’s government after his death. Despite the ruling government’s conservative ideology, massive pro-independence protests on Catalonia’s National Day in 2012 prompted the CiU president Artur Mas to call a snap election that same year. Capitalizing on the recently manifested popular support for independence, Mas announced that "this election will not be held to help a party to perpetuate itself in power. It will be held so that the whole of the Catalan population decides democratically and peacefully what their future will be as a nation."[5] The CiU’s electoral victory marked the bourgeois appropriation of the independence movement, leaving the Left divided between separatist and autonomist factions and unable to cooperate with one another.

As the issue of independence came to dominate the political agenda in Catalonia, the 2015 elections produced a dramatic change in the region’s political landscape. The separatist factions of the PSC split to form the Left Movement (MES) which together with the ERC joined a number of centrist bourgeois parties such as the Democrats of Catalonia (DC), the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), as well as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) that emerged from recent splits in the ruling CiU. This grand separatist coalition, known as Together for Yes (JxSí), campaigned on the promise of putting the issue of independence to referendum. Nonetheless, even though it provided the ERC and the MES a strong platform on which to push their separatist agendas, it forced them to compromise much in their social and economic positions to satisfy the capitalist bourgeois interests that dominated the coalition. The anti-independence PSC managed to run alone but was severely weakened by the loss of both members and voters to the independence movement. The 2015 elections also saw the formation of a new Leftist coalition called Catalonia Yes We Can (CatSíqueesPot), which was formed by the ICV, the EUiA, and a new green party called Equo. The coalition’s most potent force, however, was Catalonia’s regional affiliate of the recently formed left-wing party Podemos. Podem, as they are called in Catalan, supported amending the Spanish Constitution to allow for a referendum on independence but opposed the JxSí’s plans to hold an unconstitutional vote on the issue. This put the parties of CatSíqueesPot at odds with both the autonomist PSC and the left-wing groups which joined the separatist JxSí. Finally, the election was notable for the rise of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a revolutionary far-left group which demanded independence but vehemently opposed joining forces with the members of the JxSí coalition. The anti-independence centrists were represented by the newly formed Party of the Citizenry (C’s) while the PPC represented the strongly pro-Spanish right-wing. The elections concluded with JxSí winning 62 out of 135 parliamentary seats, lacking the majority needed to form a government outright.[6] The coalition members therefore had no choice but to reach out for support to the separatist CUP, which managed to win 10 seats and block the investiture of Artur Mas as president in favor of Carles Puigdemont, whom they saw as somewhat more agreeable to their interests.6 This set the stage for the events of 2017.

Referendum, Strike, and New Elections Following Suspension of Autonomy

On October 1, 2017, Catalans went to the polls to vote in the long-awaited, yet still illegal, referendum for independence. Support was high amongst those who voted (92.01 percent), but the referendum’s legitimacy was questioned as voter turnout hit a record low of 43.03 percent.[7] Two days later, a general strike was called in protest of several documented cases of violent police repression at the polls. Three far-left Catalan trade unions—the Workers’ Trade Union Coordinator (COS), the Catalan Trade Union Confederation (I-SCS), as well as the Syndicate of Students of the Catalan Countries (SEPC)—all viewing the CUP as their movement’s political representation in parliament, formed the backbone of the strike. They were joined by the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist unions General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the National Confederation of Labor (CNT). Nonetheless, like the parliamentary Left, the labor movement was also sharply divided on the independence issue. Indeed, Spain’s two largest unions refused to participate in the Catalan general strike. Both the general secretaries of the PSC/PSOE-affiliated UGT and the EUiA/PCE-affiliated Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) abstained from the protests, opposing Catalan separatism.

Following in the footsteps of both Macià and Companys, Puigdemont declared Catalonia an independent state on October 27, 2017, an act that prompted quick retaliation from Madrid. Unlike Companys, however, Puigdemont evaded arrest by seeking exile in Brussels while his ERC vice-president Oriol Junqueras was imprisoned along with several cabinet members on charges of sedition. Like in 1934, Catalonia’s autonomy was suspended and the Generalitat was dissolved until new elections could be held on December 21. This time around, the political landscape had changed little since 2015. Most notably, as tensions began to rise between the still-exiled president and his imprisoned vice-president, the JxSí coalition split into Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat), which consisted of PDeCAT and an assortment of independent politicians, and Junqueras’ Republican Left of Catalonia – Catalonia Yes (ERC-CatSí), which was supported by both the left-wing MES as well as the centrist DC. For fear of failure at the polls, the PSC was forced to compromise its leftist platform by forming an unofficial coalition with the centrist and anti-independence party United to Advance (Units per Avançar). The Podemos-led CatSíqueesPot coalition remained intact with its old green and left-wing partners but ran under the new label Catalonia in Common – We Can (CatComú-Podem). The revolutionary separatist CUP once again ran independently while the two center and right-wing parties, C’s and PPC, respectively, remained unchanged. The election resulted in a continued stalemate on the issue of independence and further losses for the Left. The C’s won a majority of 36 seats, but as JuntsxCat and ERC-Catsí won 34 and 32 seats respectively, they had no option but try to reunite to form a government with the now-weakened CUP, which dropped from 10 to only 4 seats.[8] CatComú-Podem lost seats as well, while the PSC exchanged its leftist platform for an electoral gain of one seat. The PPC also lost seats, as anti-independence voters disappointed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s handling of the secessionist crisis moved to the center in support of the C’s.

Revolutionary internationalism or reactionary nationalism?

The CUP’s clear anti-capitalist stance as well as its continued opposition to the neoliberal establishment in the Catalan parliament have won it the sympathy and support of a broad array of Marxist tendencies. Particularly represented among them are a number of Trotskyist groups, who frame the independence movement as an ongoing struggle for national liberation and the people’s right to self-determination. Indeed, the party’s platform defines “internationalism as a form of egalitarian, anti-colonial and fraternal relations between peoples, for the common management of general affairs and for overcoming international conflicts.”[9] Furthermore, the platform explains that “the CUP’s rupturist position is opposed to the hegemonic Catalanist position, as independence for the country without a breakaway from capitalist institutions is not something that the CUP's revolutionary position would support. Significantly, the CUP is opposed to the reformist position of the other independentists, as it doesn't desire social democratic reforms, rather a rupture from the capitalist system.”9

Nonetheless, the CUP’s declining popular support—as noted by its recent electoral setback—puts the efficacy and relevance of the party’s strategy into question. Its calls for the “defense of national language and identity,” the “promotion and officiality of Catalan throughout the national territory,” as well as the “reinforcement of cultural roots in the Catalan Countries” have marginalized a large sector of the working class over issues of cultural and linguistic identity. In fact, this nationalist rhetoric has been exploited by the liberal Party of the Citizenry, which managed to persuade a significant portion of the working class to vote against their own economic interests in the December election by evoking memories of Francoist cultural and linguistic repression in Catalonia.

Rethinking the way forward

The evolution of the independence issue in Catalonia has led to years of political gridlock and a deeply polarized society. The Left has fractionalized into three principal camps: the autonomists in favor of increasing the region’s level of self-government, the reformists in favor of a legal referendum regarding independence, and the revolutionaries who wish to secede from the Spanish state by any means necessary. The December 21 election demonstrated a desperate move by the PSC to remain in parliament. While politically effective, the party’s reliance on its conservative running mate has resulted in the compromise of its leftist principles, and so the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia continues as socialist in name alone. Moreover, the revolutionary CUP’s loss of more than half of its seats in parliament since the 2015 elections shows that even pro-independence voters have become weary of the far left’s radical approach to the issue. Lastly, the independence movement has not received support from any party with national affiliation, further isolating the coalition parties of CatComú-Podem from those of ERC-CatSí. The same is true of the labor movement, as the nationally affiliated labor unions UGT and CCOO found themselves at odds with the I-CSC, the COS, and the SEPC during the October 3 general strike.

The result of this fractionalization has been a state of disarray which the bourgeois centrists were quick to exploit, enjoying the political gridlock that allowed them to remain in government, speaking loudly of independence while silently perpetuating the status quo. This status quo will continue until the Left manages to reunite and remain united. Perhaps the way forward is actually a step backward to the days of the Tripartit. If the people of Catalonia no longer show the same support for independence as they did in the times of the Second Republic, perhaps it would be in their interest if the Left could compromise on a viable solution to what has become a regional and national crisis and focus instead on reforming a broken tax policy, creating jobs for a largely unemployed working class, and improving living conditions for the region’s homeless and immigrant populations. But as long as the Left remains incapable or unwilling to create a new popular front, it will remain a fractionalized and, effectively, sterilized political force. As long as the Left remains divided, no step forward can be taken. |P

[1] Yash Ghai and Sophia Woodman, Practising Self-Government: A Comparative Study of Autonomous Regions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 231.

[2] Generalitat of Catalonia, “1 Generalitat of Catalonia,” 2010.

[3] Arnau Gonzàlez i Vilalta, Lluis Companys: Un home de Govern (Barcelona: Base, 2009), 127.

[4] Marc Pons, “Macià, Companys and Mas. Catalonia on Trial,” El Nacional, February 12, 2017.

[5] Miquel Noguer, “Mas pone rumbo a la autodeterminación,” El País, September 26, 2012.

[6] Generalitat de Catalunya, “Eleccions al Parlament de Catalunya 2015,” September 27, 2015.

[7] Generalitat de Catalunya, “Referèndum d’Autodeterminació de Catalunya: Resultats definitius,” October 1, 2017.

[8] Generalitat de Catalunya, “Eleccions al Parlament de Catalunya 2017,” December 22, 2017.

[9] Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, “Què és la CUP?,” available online at <www.cup.cat>.

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