Spain, Catalonia : The workers have no country

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Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, is one of those places inscribed in the memory of the Spanish and world proletariat. The struggles, the victories and defeats of the working class in this region have left their mark in the history of our class. Therefore, in the present situation, the ICC, through this article and others which have appeared in our territorial press, aims to alert our class to the danger of the proletariat being dragged into the unfolding nationalist squabble, which can only damage it.

From the hope generated by the Indignados movement in 2011…

In the same place, only a few years apart, two social scenarios that are not just different, but completely opposed to each other.

Barcelona, a few days after 15 May 2011: during the movement of the Indignados, Catalonia Square is a nub of meetings and assemblies. More than 40 different commissions are looking into questions from the environmental catastrophe to solidarity with the struggles in Greece against the cuts in social benefits. There are no flags, but there are improvised libraries brought along by anonymous participants and available to all, with the aim of widening the vision of the movement, which is essentially an expression of indignation about the ravages of the capitalist crisis, of concern about the sombre future which the survival of this system implies for the whole of humanity. Places like this in Barcelona or elsewhere in Spain, in a movement initiated at the Puerta de Sol in Madrid, are seeing people of all ages, all languages, different conditions, coming together and debating with a sense of respect and a desire to listen. Day after day workers’ demonstrations converge on the assemblies, demonstrations against the cuts in health benefits, delegations from neighbourhoods looking for solidarity in their fight against evictions and so on. The assemblies function as a collective brain which tries to link together the different expressions of the struggle into a common, unifying cause. “We are against the system because the system is inhuman”, this is what is proudly proclaimed. The movement is subjected to ruthless repression[1]. This violent attack is denounced, but the movement also raises the slogan “violence is also being paid 600 euros a month”.

…to the backward step into nationalism in 2017

And today, in the same streets, hundreds of thousands are demonstrating “for the independence of Catalonia”, but in this they can only be manipulated, can only operate as a mass to be manoeuvred, can only follow actions called by shadowy forces, actions which follow a script written by others. This is what happened to those who suffered the blows of police truncheons when they defended the ballot boxes during the October 1st referendum, those who saw how, in the days that followed the referendum, the organisations behind it relativised its significance and reduced it to a purely “symbolic” act. It’s what happened to those who got caught up in the euphoria of “we are already a republic” after the pantomime of the proclamation of the Catalan republic on 27 October. As the independence leaders later insisted, this was a virtual, “symbolic” action. In complete contrast to 15th May movement 15M in 2011, when you join in with nationalist actions, the slightest critical spirit can only be an obstacle. All you need is to learn by heart the national “narrative”. This is true of all nationalism, but in the case of Catalonia and other countries which don’t have their own state, this narrative is real mess where everything is mixed up and where no critical voices can be heard. So there are demands for a lost Arcadia , for a Catalan fatherland that never existed. In this process an enemy is needed and this can only be the central state with its “fascist” vestiges. And a scapegoat: the “Spanish” in general and everything which goes with them, presented as the cause of all the suffering of this society. And then you are ready to respond to the calls on social media and march, head down, eyes closed, alongside Catalan exploiters, corrupt Catalan politicians, the Catalan police, the Catalanist “ultras” dedicated to pointing the finger at and intimidating anyone who’s not fervent enough in their anti-Spanish feelings. And it’s the same ignoble schema we see again in the demonstrations which, a few days later, in the same streets, march “against the independence of Catalonia”. This time the lost paradise is the “peaceful co-existence of all Spaniards”. This time, the scapegoats, those to blame for poverty or uncertainty about the future are those who “defy the law” or “those who want to break up Spain”. And again, you march with a cohort of corrupt and repressive exploiters, and with another set of ultras who follow the same path of more or less open violence and intimidation[2].

Two diametrically opposed options for the future of society

Between the Indignados movement in 2011 and the recent orgies of Catalan or Spanish patriotism, there is a class frontier, a gulf in perspectives. The first, despite the undeniable difficulties this movement had, was the expression of a class – the proletariat – which carries within itself the possibility of social transformation on a planetary scale, a class which needs to find a coherent explanation for all the problems facing the world, a class whose struggle creates the basis for a real unification of humanity, overcoming divisions of class, race, culture etc. A movement based on the quest for a revolutionary solution for humanity, for a future free from the chains of exploitation. These patriotic orgies, by contrast, are based on an atavistic yearning for a mythified past. Not only that: marching under nationalist flags justifies and deepens the separation between class brothers and sisters. Their perspective is not one of a revolutionary step forward, but of a reactionary step backwards to a past full of fear and distrust. It is fuelled not by a search for a new social organisation aimed at satisfying the needs of all, but by the decomposition of the old social order whose watchword is “every man for himself”.

How did it come to this?

Various circumstantial and local explanations are put forward. According to the Catalan nationalists, we are seeing the resurgence of the Francoist vestiges which remained in Spain after the transition to democracy. According to the Spanish nationalists, the movement for independence is a way of diverting attention from the corrupt practises which have characterised Catalan administrations for decades. The main refutation of these apologetics is the behaviour of the main actors in this process. For decades, the main party of the Generalitat (the autonomous Catalan administration), formerly known as CiU and now the PDECat[3], based its hegemony on a corrupt, client-centred regime. But this didn’t stop successive Spanish governments of right and left from handing out succulent subsidies to this party from the coffers of the central state. And for their part, the Catalan nationalists have never had any qualms about working with the “residues of Francoism” in the Spanish state they talk about so much, making agreements with the Popular Party on the right[4] and then with the Socialist Zapatero[5] on the left (the tripartite governments of ERC and Iniciativa[6], who are now part of the supporters of the Mayor of Barcelona). When the PDECat came back to the Generalitat in 2010, Artur Mas[7] – the successor anointed by Pujol himself[8] – didn’t hesitate to count on the PP to carry out a programme of implacable austerity against living standards which would later inspire Mariano Rajoy[9] himself.

This is why we can say that the explanation for the separatist drive in Catalonia can’t be found in the specific historical evolution of Catalonia or Spain but in world historic conditions, in the fact that world capitalism as a whole has entered into its final phase, its phase of social decomposition.

The historic causes

This is why we can say that the explanation for the separatist movement in Catalonia doesn’t have its origins in the specific elements of historical evolution in Catalonia or Spain, but in world historic conditions, in the entry of global capitalism into its final phase, the phase of social decomposition.

Marxism has never denied the existence of particular factors in the evolution of capitalism in each country. In particular, in the case of the different separatist movements in Spain, which function as a supplementary and reactionary barrier to the capacity of the proletariat to recognise itself as an indivisible class, it recognises the weight of the uneven development between those zones more open to commerce and industry, and others more caught up in isolation and unable to catch up with the rest[10]. But marxism also explains how the evolution of these local conflicts and contradictions is conditioned by the course of capitalism on world scale. This is especially obvious in the case of nationalism. While in the 18th and 19th centuries the formation of certain new nations could represent a decisive advance in the demolition of feudal structures and the development of the productive forces, once capitalism had reached the end of its ascendant phase at the beginning of the 20th century, “national liberation” became a clearly reactionary myth used to dragoon the population, and the revolutionary class in particular, in and for imperialist war[11] This is why genuine revolutionaries have always denounced the anti-proletarian character of separatism in Spain, as a means to defend exploitation, as an enemy of the working class. The proletariat in Catalonia, one of the oldest in the world workers’ movement, has been obliged on a number of occasions to recognise this.

The history of the proletariat in Catalonia and the grip of nationalism

It’s not by chance that Barcelona was the theatre for the first general strike on Spanish territory, in 1855, or that this city was the seat of the Congress of the Workers of the Spanish Region, which in 1870 formed the basis of the First International in Spain[12]. It was equally no coincidence that, faced with the most advanced expressions of the class struggle, such as the “La Canadiense” strike in Barcelona in 1919, the Catalan bourgeoisie, in 1920-22, made use of the bosses’ “pistolero” gangs against strikes and the militants of anarcho-syndicalist organisations[13]. It’s not by chance that Catalan nationalism (under the leadership of Francisco Cambó), along with the most backward sectors of the Spanish army, was the main promoter of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship of 1923-30. And it was again not by chance that it was the Catalan Generalitat (Companys supported by the Stalinists and with the complicity of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT itself) that became the bastion of the Republican state, diverting the workers – through both mystifications and force of arms - from their class terrain, from the fight against exploitation, towards the military fronts and the conflict between the fascist and democratic camps which prefigured the camp that lined up in the second world imperialist butchery. It was not fortuitous that it was the Catalan Generalitat which was charged with the criminal mission to put down in fire and blood the rising of the proletariat of Barcelona in May 1937, the last attempt of the proletariat to fight on its own terrain against the exploiters of all camps and all fatherlands[14].

Neither was it an accident that it was the workers of Catalonia, who had sometimes come from the most backward regions in the country, who in 1970 transformed their struggles (Bajo Llobregat in 1973, SEAT in 1975) into real beacons for the struggles of the whole working class in Spain. The working class in Catalonia, through its own development and its accumulated experience, is a central link in the chain of the associated production of social wealth, a process embodied in the international proletariat which comes up against the private, national appropriation of this wealth. In the region of Barcelona you will find workers from more than 60 nationalities, from trainee American engineers to immigrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa. All of them are an integral and fundamental part of the same world working class, even if capitalist ideology, above all through its forces on the extreme left, constantly seeks to confer a “national” identity on the proletariat, which can only serve to undermine its class unity.[15]

What’s at stake for the proletariat of Catalonia and for the proletariat of the world

Today, it’s the whole potential accumulated over decades of workers’ struggles which is threatened by the advance of capitalist social decomposition. This is not a social situation in which the workers are prepared to submit, like cannon fodder, to the quarrels between different factions of the exploiting class. That would mean the complete victory of the bourgeois solution to the historic crisis of capitalism. This is illustrated by the current situation in Catalonia, by the fact that the workers are not following with any great enthusiasm the calls for a general strike in favour of “independence”. But neither does it mean that the workers are aware that they represent an alternative for the future of humanity, a future which can banish forever the war of each against all which decomposing capitalism carries in its entrails.

Particularly dangerous to the consciousness of the working class are the alternatives which claim that there is a “rational” solution to these tensions within the exploiting class, when capitalist decomposition is throwing up increasingly irrational “populist” answers, such as the call to leave the European Union (proposed for example by the CUP or parts of Podemos[16]), or the total acceptance of the Spanish state, as put forward by the “constitutionalist” parties. Nationalism can only end in violence. The illusion of a “revolution of smiles” peddled by Catalan separatism, or the dream of a “return to normal” by the supporters of Spanish unity, is a mystifying fiction. As we already stressed in our 1990 article (International Review 62), “The East: nationalist barbarism” , “all expressions of nationalism, big or small, necessarily and fatally lead into the march of aggression, of war, of each against all’, of exclusivism and discrimination”.

The alternative of the world proletariat is a completely different perspective for humanity. As we underline in this article on nationalist barbarism:

“The struggle of the proletariat contains the seed for overcoming national, ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions with which capitalism ­continuing the work of the oppressors of the previous modes of production has tortured humanity. In the common body of the united struggle for class interests these divisions will naturally and logically disappear. The common bases are the conditions of exploitation, which everywhere will tend to worsen with the world crisis, the common interest is the affirmation of their necessities as human beings against the inhuman necessities, each time more despotic, of the commodity and the national interest”.

What’s at stake in the situation of the fraction of the world proletariat in Catalonia is the necessity for the revolutionary class to defend the interests of humanity as a whole, to advocate international class solidarity against the social disintegration which decadent capitalism is bringing about.

Faced with the search for a refuge in false local identities, with the notion of “every man for himself” to the detriment of everyone else, with growing social pessimism and national divisions, the proletariat must have confidence in its own forms of association. It must understand that the barbarism of the present world is the result of submitting the planet to the capitalist laws of profit and competition.  And above all, it is the duty of those groups who aim to stand in the forefront of the class struggle to denounce all the traps which divide our class and, above all, those elements who try to justify their support for one or another faction of the ruling class because they claim that they are “less repressive” or more favourable to the interests of the proletarian struggle. If the world-wide revolutionary alternative of the proletariat fails, the perspective can only be a war of each against all, in which it will be difficult to say which faction is the most cruel or the most inhuman in its attempt to ensure its survival at the expense of the rest of the human race.

When the police tried to tear down the camps of the 15M movement in Barcelona 2011, the cry went up: “we are all Barcelona”. It was raised in all the squares and all the demonstrations, and nowhere more loudly than at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The upsurge of nationalism in Catalonia is a blow to the head not only to the proletariat of Barcelona, but to the proletariat in the whole of Spain, since throughout the country proletarians have been pulled into mobilisations for or against the unity of the Spanish state. This poison has also affected the many immigrants from Spain now working in other European countries, where there have been small but significant demonstrations around the same theme. And a blow against the proletariat of Spain, precisely because of the depth of its revolutionary traditions, is a blow against the entire world proletariat. As ever, solidarity with the workers of Spain can only lie in the development of the international class struggle.

Valerio, 5 December 2017

[1] On 27 May 2011 the Catalan police carried out a brutal attack on the orders of the Catalan nationalist government, working closely with the Spanish interior minister, and aiming to “clear” Catalonia Square. More than 100 people were injured.

[2] This climate of seeking the source of all society’s ills in the other half of the population was also encouraged in the demonstrations against the terrorist attacks of 17 August. See Acción Proletaria: September 2017 ‘Atentados terroristas en Cataluña: la barbarie imperialista del capitalismo en descomposición

[3] Convergence and Union (CiU) was a right-wing Catalan coalition which governed the region since the transition (1978) with a few intervals where the left ran the show. It had two components: one more nationalist and the other more autonomist, but both in favour of a pact with the central power and above all solidly united behind the cronyism which made the CiU one of the corrupt parties in Spain. The coalition disappeared and the more nationalist wing, who are now separatists, set up the European democratic Party of Catalonia (PDECat), led by Puigdemont.

[4] The PP is the party of Rajoy which governs Spain today. It’s another champion in corruption.

[5] Zapatero was the head of the Spanish socialist government between 2004 and 2011. After minimising the economic crisis of 2008, he brought in anti-working class measures which paved the way to their brutal acceleration by the Rajoy government.

[6] The Catalan government of 2003-2010 formed by the “left”: SP, ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) and a coalition, Iniciativa, made up of the CP plus the Greens

[7] A Mas was president of the Generalitat between 2010 and 2016. After drawing the right wing towards a pro-independence policy, he organised the referendum for independence. He was succeeded by Carles Puigdemont

[8] Pujol was the leader of the party Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) from 1974 to 2003, and President of Catalonia Generalitat  from 1980 to 2003.

[9] Rajoy is the right-wing head of the Spanish government. He put in place article 155 of the Constitution in order to take direct charge of the Catalan Generalitat, sacking its ministers and putting some of them in jail. President Puigdemont took refuges in Belgium.

[10] This in turn was, as Marx pointed out, the result of the exceptional conditions behind the development of capitalism in Spain, which for centuries had a whole world in which to invest its capital without having any need to embark upon a generalised modification of its feudal structures and to industrialise the “mother country”. We have summarised this analysis of separatism in Spain in a recent online article ‘The Catalan quagmire shows the deepening decomposition of capitalism’.

[11] See our pamphlet Nation or Class, and also our articles denouncing the reactionary character of the demand for “the right of peoples to self-determination” in International Review 34, 37 and 42.

[12] The name of the territory given to the Congress (“the Spanish region” and absolutely not “the Catalan nation”) is an indication of the internationalist climate which reigned during these first steps of the workers’ movement, which saw each region as one that would be inhabited by a liberated world humanity.

[13] Which provokes all the more indignation when we see people claiming to be the heirs of the “Rosa de Foc” (the Fiery Rose, the name  the anarchists gave to Barcelona in the 1920s and 30s, because it was the centre of so many social conflagrations) while bowing down to those who proclaim the fight against “the national oppression of Catalonia”

[14] We encourage readers to refer to the texts of the Italian communist left on this question, republished in International Review 4, 6 and 7.

[15] The current campaign being led by the extreme left of capital, such as the CUP and Podemos, which tries to identify social interests with national interests is the heir – with an even more aberrant tone, if that is possible – of the campaign of the 70s and 80s led by the Stalinists, aimed at subordinating the class struggle to the demands of “democratic freedoms” or an “autonomous status” for Catalonia.

[16] On Podemos, see our online article, ‘Podemos, new clothes at the service of the capitalist emperor’, April 2016. This is a national Spanish party with regional “franchises”. The one in Catalonia, along with its allies such as the mayor of Barcelona, isn’t really sure which national garb to dance in. But it has been in favour of a referendum agreed to with the central power.