The continuing struggle over Catalan independence raises many questions for socialists and the left, especially those in countries, such as Ireland, where the national question still has a prime place in politics.
Events in Catalunya show that independence movements are not, as idealists would think, concerned only with such issues as flags and the like but rather are motivated by real material conditions. Of course this also means that there are different class interests at play. We shouldn’t fall prey to supporting any and all independence movements, as some are reactionary and only serve capitalist and imperialist interests and not the interests of the majority of the people in that territory.
However, there is also a danger in simplifying the struggle against capitalism and imperialism into an economistic “bosses v. workers” analysis, which fails to take into account the hegemonic manifestation of capitalism as a political-economic system. Such things as language etc. are real material things that are affected by political policies adopted to suit economic interests.
Therefore, class struggle is manifested within the struggle for language rights, and cultural and national rights, as well as the issue of sovereignty. Whether or not that sovereignty takes the form of autonomy or independence is a product of the conditions. James Connolly was one of the main Marxist thinkers who contributed to this understanding of the national question, and this contribution is shown in the Connolly-Walker controversy.
Catalunya is one of the better-off regions controlled by the Spanish state, thanks to its early industrialisation. Its loss to Spain would mean a significant dent in the state. It is also home to one-fifth of co-operatives in the Spanish state, which reveals a latent radicalism and consciousness, going back to the famous struggles in Catalunya against the fascists in the 1930s. The main party in government is united with Madrid in its economic policies, which are fiercely pro-austerity and anti-worker.
Youth unemployment in the Spanish state is at 50 per cent, while in Catalunya it is about 40 per cent—slightly less, but still very significant.
Language is one of the pillars of the independence movement. Madrid has paid scant attention to the Catalan language, which was heavily suppressed in the Franco era. To give an example, twice as many university courses in Catalan are available in Germany as there are in the Spanish state.
As a result of the influx of migrants to the industrialised Catalunya, many Castilians learnt the language, and today it is seen as the language of all resident in Catalunya, regardless of origin. This has contributed to the feeling that the solution to Madrid’s refusal to actively promote the language can be found only if Catalunya has its own independent state.
The demands centred around the call for sovereignty began in the wake of continued intransigence by Madrid over giving concessions to the region. It is also in the context of the imposed “austerity” measures, which have seen the average income of Catalans drop by a fifth.
The Spanish state has been even more intransigent with the Basque Country, where the state established death squads, which murdered Basque activists. Basque political movements were banned if they were seen to support independence, which included the Basque Communist Party.
It is in this context that more and more Catalans took to the streets to call for a referendum on independence. More than a million have taken part in the annual demonstrations, which have taken place every year since 2012. Pro-independence parties have been in a majority for nearly a decade.
Clearly, the demand for Catalunya’s right to decide its future is a mass movement, albeit one with a broad character. The capitalist class in Catalunya, and the main right-wing parties, adopted a pro-independence stance only after the mass movement began in the streets. The Catalan capitalists are still dependent on Madrid and are fearful of independence actually happening, preferring instead more concessions. They are begging for Madrid to agree to negotiations before the mass movement forces them to declare a new independent state.
The demand for sovereignty, the right to decide, which was brutally repressed on the 1st of October, has been replaced with a demand for independence. The Catalan working class demonstrated its strength, and support, with a general strike. It should be noted that this independence would be in the form of a republic, as against the monarchy in Madrid.
The socialist understanding of such movements is that the energy and momentum should be pushed further and employed to bring the struggle of the people for national-democratic demands to the next stage, or, to quote Lenin, “we would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis.”