On Catalonia – Debates in the Greek Left

by Dimitris Bellantis, ex-member of the CC of SYRIZA

On  Catalonia-an essentially  different opinion inside the Greek Left

 Dimitris Belantis,  Lawyer-Political Theorist , PhD   in Public Law  

The  subject of the Catalonian  secession  is an extremely  serious one,  at  a national, a European  and an international level . Overlooking this obvious reality, many members of the  Greek Left discuss it without well-founded  positions, typically raising their voices and resorting to stereotypic slogans.   On 1st October  the people of Catalonia  faced repulsive, antidemocratic and rather bloody  repression  from the police and the  security forces of Spain, under the leadership of prime minister Mariano Rajoy.  Nobody should remain  indifferent to these practices.  The violation of the  public  and democratic rights of Catalan-Spanish  citizens,   which we all should  condemn unequivocally, tends to create an emotional situation that blocks  free and rational discussion. Although we express our solidarity with the victims of political repression, we are not obliged to support  the secession tendency without critical analysis of what that entails.

So, without the burden of self-censorship  or “political correctness”  on our backs, let us examine what the possible secession of Catalonia actually  means and where it could potentially  lead.

  1. The right to self determination and to secession in the classical Marxist discussion    

The right to self –determination and political independence  of a people or a nation is always contingent on the autonomy of its specific historical trajectory, its culture and the strength of its national identity[1].  A specific national language  is a typical  dimension  of national culture – albeit not always.   It would be quite  impossible to deny that Catalans possess the above-mentioned characteristics. Nevertheless, national self-determination is not in all cases to be equated with the right of secession.  Secession is a necessary option in the event  that  cultural and political rights of a people  within a multinational state (political rights in  a possible  form  initially of  regional autonomy) are not being respected and cannot be respected. That is to say, in the event that they are continuously  repressed and violated.

The Leninist contribution to the notion of  self-determination of nations  is not a simplistic one, as many  friends and comrades  suppose it to be.  It does not give a metaphysical and pure  answer, a “yes” or no”,  for all possible cases. It examines the specific  characteristics and forms of every single case, and in particular the impacts  of the form of self-determination and of secession on the national and international class struggle[2].  Although Lenin defends the right to secession against the opinion of Rosa Luxemburg , for cases when it  is really needed for the oppressed nation,  he  also indicates the possibility of a chasm existing between the national interest  in secession and the  interests of the proletariat, national or international.  In fact, in the Balkans in particular,  we have a recent  example of that chasm and contradiction : the Kossovo case. The secession of Kossovo from Yugoslavia in 1999  was  the catalyst for a massive  imperialist intervention in the place of the former (then still existing)  Federation of Yugoslavia, giving rise to a totally dependent  horror state. We should also take it into account that the Serbian minority that lived in Kossovo has been to all intents and purposes expelled from it by force. On the other hand the secessionist movement of the Kossovars corresponded entirely to the profile of  a majority political movement, an armed political movement.  To ignore this would lead us to a  false “conspiracy theory” (that it was “constructed” only from above, from  the practices of American imperialism: that the secessionists were  just Albanian/Kossovar   mercenaries of NATO ).  Moreover  the mass-supported cases of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, triggered by a number of factors  including  the authoritarian practices of  Serbia, led to a catastrophic war that  could have been averted.   So the “majority of the people” consideration,  if we assume that there is a clear majority for independence in Catalonia despite the electoral abstention of half the population on October 1st , implies that one should respect the majority’s right to secede  and deplore the unleashing of state  repression against a majority movement. But do we as Marxists necessarily have to agree with the  political aims of the secession movement  ? And  should we refrain from  our right to criticize  politically it and moderate its propably negative consequences if they  exist?

Catalonia is a historical nation, an absolutely distinct nation from Castille and –to some degree- from the federal Spanish identity. We mean this in a twofold sense.  In the sense of  a modern “bourgeois” nation, associated with the rise of capitalism and the development of modern  industrialism in Catalonia   :  Catalans  fought for their political  independence  from Spain during the War of Spanish Succession   (1702-1714) as allies of France,  and again in the 19th Century in order to construct a separate  nation-state or unite with France. The second sense  has to do with  the formation of a pre-capitalist national community (the one  which merged with Castille in the 1490s) prior to the modern era,  as we do not accept the theory that  the nation is something constructed  from scratch by the bourgeois state in modern times without there being a preexisting national community. The modern state of Spain was formed  through the unification of the Kingdom of Castille and  the Kingdom of Aragon   (including, then, the modern Catalonia).  For historical reasons (the Francoist dictatorship being one of the most important), the renewal of the Catalan national  identity in the 18th, 19th and the 20th centuries did not lead to  the formation of a separate  national state. Catalonia remained in a status of semi-autonomy,  severely repressed  in periods of clear reaction such as the Francoist dictatorship.

   In spite of these factors,  and the Catalan attempts to enlarge the frame of autonomy in the last decades , Catalonia has been  an important , if not decisive, economic and political  partner of the  state of Spain throughout  the last decades of bourgeois democracy. The 1978 constitution has been indeed relatively  centralist constitution, without at the same time excluding  a frame of autonomy for the districts/nationalities.  Although the Catalans’ attempts to minimize the difference between autonomy and independence  have continued (First, Second and Third Statute for Autonomy) , they were rejected by the Constitutional Court of Spain in 2010. Our assessment, when we compare Catalonia to the  case of the Basques (Euskadi), is that the political and even more so the cultural repression by Spain of Catalonia, up until the crisis of the last months, has been  relatively minor.  This is a region where the Catalonian, and only the Catalonian, flag is raised on public buildings, where the Catalonian  language is spoken,  excluding the “federal” language, where there is broad regional autonomy, excepting only financial and fiscal  policies and burdens, and where economic prosperity –in capitalist terms- is by no means negligible. Catalonia accounts for one quarter of  Spanish GDP , and its population is proportionally much  smaller  (16 %).

  1. Real causes and  causes put forward by the supporters of secession  
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Given all the above, why is it so vital that Catalonia should secede from Spain and  constitute a separate state ? It is a secession that will possibly be followed by other regional  secessions in Spain and lead to the crippling and possible destruction of the modern Spanish state.  The following is a presentation of the arguments and suggested causes put forward first  and foremost by supporters of independence:

1 Spain,” the existing Spanish State”, as it is characteristically named by the supporters of secession, is a monarchist, antidemocratic, reactionary   post-Francoist state, whereas the future Catalonia will be a totally democratic state. Wrong, and  an arbitrary argument in our opinion. It is an argument supported by conservative liberals, left liberals and anti-capitalist leftists alike. Comparing  contemporary Spain to the other bourgeois democratic  EU states or western democracies in toto, we conclude that it shares with them  the oligarchic decay/degeneration  of capitalist democracies and their transformation into a form of postmodern parliamentary totalitarianism of capital. Saying this does not amount to equating  the state form  with the open  military dictatorship of General Franco, as if it has never been abolished, or with fascism generally. Besides this, exactly what guarantee is there that an independent Catalonia will correspond to any democratic ideal, or to a bourgeois democracy better than that of Spain.  As for the “anti-monarchy”  argument : who really believes that the puppet role of the King in Spain or in Sweden or in the Netherlands  is politically essential to the functioning of a modern  post-industrial capitalist state?

2 Spain, or  ”the Spanish State” is “a Prison of the Peoples”.  This argument, as we perceive it, leads to the destruction of Spain as a whole and not just to the secession of Catalonia. The famous phrase derives from Karl Marx and refers to the role of   Great Russia in the 19th  century vis à vis its “imprisoned” nations (Poland, Finland, Ukraine, etc), guarded by force by the Tsarist police and army.  There is a nation or nationality in Spain for which such designations of oppression might aptly be applied but it is not Catalonia, it is Euskadi.  Before the escalation into the current crisis,  Catalonia was not ruled by  Madrid through any Tsarist-style whip, with tanks and secret police. The picture  created through application of such language to this particular secessionism encourages an emotional identification that evades critical thinking.

3 Buanaventura Durruti, POUM, CNT, the  revolutionary  movement of collectivization in  1936-1937, all the rich experience of the Spanish social revolution, were a Catalan and not a Spanish phenomenon. All this is evidently being  revived by the   contemporary independence movement.   The Catalonia of  George Orwell (“Homage to Catalonia”) or of Franz Borkenau  (“The Spanish Cockpit”)  is said to be the ancestor of the contemporary Catalan movement.  This is a pure myth, to be added to all the others. Contemporary Catalonia  is socially very different from  the revolutionary Catalonia of the 1930s, in terms of  class composition and attitudes to class struggle and as a culture.  Francoist  repression steamrollered that radical  Catalonia for half a century and –to a large extent – crushed   To begin with, the revolution of 1936-1947 did indeed have Catalonia as its center, but it extended over all of Spain. Secondly,  the Catalan capitalist class has always been repressive, not “democratic-liberal”, towards the strong anarcho-syndicalist and Marxist  labor movement  in Catalonia. They  suppressed    the 1909  anarchist workers’ rebellion in Barcelona by force, whereas at the same time  the central  Madrid  government was supporting the anarchists to undermine the Catalan capitalists , its financial  competitors, and their political  demands  for  autonomy or independence [3].   In the period  between 1918 and 1921 , the  rising anarcho-syndicalist  movement  of the CNT  was met by the Catalan industrialists not only with the force of the police and army but also with the force of armed gangs hired by capital (as is eloquently described in the novel  of Paco Ignacio Taibo II “Leonardo’s Bicycle” , 1995, whose subject is the historical  personage Anjel  Pestania).   In the revolutionary period between July 1936 and May 1937, the  Catalan capitalist class, represented by Esquerra  party  president  Luis Companys (of the local Generalitat government) tried to manipulate the CNT and POUM to strengthen the independence perspective, which seemed to be enjoying a period of favor.  Later Companys   allied  himself  with Madrid and the counter-revolutionary bourgeois-democratic- Stalinist  bloc  ( Madrid Democrats-Right Socialists- Stalinist PCE-PSUC Communists ) in order to crush the revolutionary movement, as happened in the 1937 May Days  in Barcelona[4]. It is ridiculous to take advantage of a butchered revolutionary tradition (butchered by Castilian  and Catalan bourgeois forces and by the Stalinist USSR )  to legitimize an entirely different political cause today. It is not only ridiculous but also manipulative. Without the misuse and usurpation of that  radical Catalan tradition of the past how different and how much more radical  would the Catalan independence cause look than the cause of the Lega Lombarda’s “free Lombardy” in Italy or the cause of “free Flanders”  in Belgium?  How much  more supportable?  Isn’ t it a case of the living wearing the dresses of the dead, as Marx formulated  it in his classic work  “The 18th Brumaire of  Louis  Bonaparte ”?

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4 There is a strong and possibly majoritarian popular movement in Catalonia  for the cause of independence. It won 92% support in the Memorandum. This is the only true point and cannot be denied. Nobody is entitled to try to face this  popular movement down by force, though the massive abstention in the referendum indicates that the Catalan nation is divided. This existing cruel reality  undoubtedly strengthens the cause of secession at a moral and political level. But does it amount to complete  political legitimation for this movement ? Not in our view.  Not all majoritarian popular  movements are progressive or  work, in reality, towards emancipation.  Let us recall some facts from the  quite recent political    The collapse of “Really Existing Socialism” was also marked  by huge popular movements against  those regimes. We do not believe that those movements were directly  backed or created by western capitalism,  as the Greek Communist Party or other Stalinist organizations typically suggest in the manner of conspiracy theorists.  Nevertheless, the movements of 1988-1991  did not work  in the direction of socialist renovation but in the direction of restoration of classical capitalism. Does it mean that we must condemn the people who protested out of despair due to the authoritarian options of those “non socialist”  societies  or out of illusory faith in the West? No, not at all,  but the people were politically  wrong, even if they weren’t manipulated. Another example :  the  rebellions of the Arab  Spring of 2011-2012 against the old regimes of Arab nationalism. We do not overlook the fact that there were some positive dimensions to these movements and their motives. They were  resisting the authority of non-democratic regimes. Nevertheless, the final  outcome of the Arab Spring was absolute geopolitical chaos and  deep destruction/demolition  of the social and political structures in the whole area,  destruction that was symmetrical to some Western imperialist interests,  more or less.   Unfortunately,  facing a  really difficult situation of social and, partly, ideological defeat in their countries, some organizations and parties of the Left in Europe have tended to seek an  imaginary refuge, an illusory refuge, or even to “construct” it  from the ground up. Such a refuge was once  the “red Moscow” or the more interesting Third World revolutionary movements.  They do not exist anymore ,  with the possible exception of Cuba and Venezuela.   Nowadays, we search for a substitute  for the “lost Paradise”. Radical Catalonia seems to be a “revolutionary refuge” once more.

Let us attempt an approach to the real causes of the Catalonia case, the hidden and material ones.

The first  has to do with the  significant financial and industrial power of  capitalist Catalonia, its important  contribution to the Spanish GDP and other indicators.  It produces more than 20 % of the Spanish GDP.  The exports from Catalonia  amount to one quarter of the total for Spain as a whole. Foreign investments in Catalonia are more than one quarter of the investments in all of Spain.  It is also linked to regional inequalities and conflicts and to forms of uneven development in Spain. Catalonia contributes  €11.8 billion more to the overall   Spanish budget than it receives from it ( source : ” Washington Post”, 10.2017). So, it is obvious that the Catalan capitalist class will be  trying to negotiate a niche for itself, above all a financial niche, inside or outside of the Spanish framework.  The present position of the EU leadership vis à vis membership of an independent Catalonia in the EU  is not favourable. The EU has for the moment   other problems to solve. It  does not exclude the possibility of later negotiation if the Catalan  experiment proceeds successfully. One deeper factor behind the relation of Catalan  independence to the EU lies in the EU’s so-called “regionalization” policies,  which amount to an attempt to connect  the central apparatus of the EU with regions in the member states, bypassing existing national or multinational state structures.  In our assessment the position of the Catalan ruling class is similar in many ways to that of the élites in federal  or  multinational states who do not like to share their privileged status with other poorer nations or regions within the same state structure.  Scotland might be another case in the future. This  behavior is not essentially different from the Slovenian or Croatian position in the period between 1988 and 1995. The bloodless Slovenian secession in particular is said to have had an   important influence on the Catalans.   The demand for more economic  power is thus dressed up and legitimated through the respectable notion of democratic  self-determination.

The second  factor has to do with the more or less arbitrary reconstruction of cultural or historical  identities in the postmodern era.   Struggles and situations of the past are revived  in order to disguise modern needs and strategies. People whose mentality is in no way different from that of the everyday petty bourgeois may imagine themselves to be the heirs of Durruti or Che Guevara.  This illusion does not exclude the possibility that many of the demonstrating Catalans may really feel that they are continuing –in one way or the other -the radical and democratic  traditions and experiences  of  past ages.  The political  élite of the country has an interest in fostering this imaginary association, as it provides practical support for its aims.   One might imagine that even this form of consciousness (of “remembering” and acting) could have radical consequences.  This  –unfortunately- is not the case. The radicalism of the past is not transmuted into a radicalism of the present. The coalition for independence  neither has a “progressive” or left radical social and economic programme, nor does it present an alternative agenda on major democratic issues  (abolition of the authoritarian anti-terrorism legislation of Spain, different policies towards refugees, etc.) The basic  social and economic effect of independence   on the class struggle will be the weakening  and division of the Spanish-Catalan  working class and its henceforth weaker resistance to capitalist aggression (this a correct assumption of the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain).

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Our Left, the Greek Left, is divided on the subject of the national and anti-imperialist  questions. For example, some organizations (of the “internationalist tendency”) believe that Memoranda policies are merely an internal  class matter and have nothing to do with national  sovereignty or  national independence. The term ”national” is thought simply to imply  nationalism.  Other organizations (of the “left patriotic tendency”) believe that Greece has an outstanding  national problem in the face of EU imperialism  interacting with class-motivated austerity.  As regards the Catalonia problem,  there is a certain logical contradiction. The Trotskyist organizations (which of course are part of the first-mentioned tendency) reject all  arguments mentioning  national oppression when it comes to Greece. But they are all against national oppression and for  national liberation when the subject is Catalonia. So, the national identity of Catalonia is by definition radical whereas  the national identity of Greece is by definition reactionary. The inconsistency is obvious.

3. Geopolitical effects of possible  Catalan secession         

The  Left in Greece[5] continues  a tradition of neglecting or ignoring geopolitical problems : they are thought to be “bourgeois” or simply to reflect  intercapitalist contradictions.  We do not share this view. Although the Merkel-Macron coalition is trying to slow it down,  the financial and institutional crisis of the EU appears to be deepening.  It is not impossible that it will lead to destabilization  of member states , whether  encouraged from ”below” or from ”above”.

Already, Britain’s exit from the EU is making the  EU territorially and financially  weaker.  On the other hand, under the failing German hegemony of the EU, regional contradictions and conflicts within the architecture of the EU or inside the member states  are growing sharper.  Given these conditions it is probable that existing  member states will either leave the EU (which, counterfactually, might prove  to be positive if the exit is combined with an alternative social and economic program) or that existing states of the EU will break up  as the regions try to change the equilibrium of profits and losses  inside the formerly united state ( a negative counterfactual that could lead  to  aggressive nationalisms  and divisions within the laboring classes and the popular classes  of every divided state).

The subject of political violence should also not be underestimated.  Is has already appeared and it can escalate. If the Catalan government does not back down and finally declares  independence , it will have to establish its own monopoly of legal power (to employ the  terminology of Max Weber) and overthrow the Spanish monopoly  of violence on its own soil.  If Madrid  accepts this fact, it is possible that other regions will attempt to leave Spain, so that Spain will soon be abolished as a state, as the former USSR or Yugoslavia were. If Madrid  continues to reject  Catalan independence, citing article 155  of its Constitution and dissolving  Catalonia as an autonomous region,   this  may lead to a violent outcome.   So we cannot exclude an evolution of civil unrest and war and international intervention by major states , which  will or not recognize the formation of  new state in Europe. Independence would then be the prelude to  a major European crisis. The supporters of independence do not appear to be taking such possible developments into account.

There is one other Left position that favors Catalonian independence. The EU, as  we all agree, is a reactionary neoliberal union. Secessions from member states  of the EU are conducive to the destruction of the EU as a system. They  constitute, in Leninist terminology, “breaks of the weaker  links in the imperialist chain”. This school of thought , which sees the breakup of existing  states as a way of breaking up the EU could, logically, lead to monstrous results. A world war could also bring about the destruction of the EU but we would not favor it for that reason. We are currently living through the potential first acts of an international war crisis, and even of a world war (starting in Korea?). Should we encourage developments that might accelerate the course to war?  Unfortunately, we, who belong to the  political tradition of the Greek and the international Left, do not lack only correct understanding of the present developments. We also lack historical imagination, even as it may pertain to the immediate future.

[1] Among many  contributions:  Otto Bauer “Social Democracy and the Nationalities’ Question”, 1907.

[2] . V.I. Lenin “The Right of Nations to  Self-Determination” (1916), Chapter 4. “Practicality” in the National Question, in www.marxists.org, Lenin Archive.  “In either case ( secession or equality with the other nation) the important thing for the proletariat  is to ensure the development of its class.” Also see footnote 1 to Chapter 10 ( Conclusion) : “Recognition of the right to divorce does not preclude agitation against a particular case of  divorce”.

[3] Gerald Brennan “The Spanish Labyrinth“, Cambridge  1943, Reprint 1988, pp. 117-136.   

[4]  P.Broue, E. Temime “Revolution and Civil War in Spain 1936-1939” (1971) , 2006. Haymarket Books, pp 265-280, 281-295, concerning the violent break-up of the democratic coalition in Barcelona in May 1937. 

[5] We do not include  the governing SYRIZA  party in the Greek Left  after its total  neoliberal and “neocolonial”  turn of summer 2015.