Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

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Do socialists have a duty to support Catalan independence or simply the right to self determination? How does this relate to the Scottish national question? In this week’s long read, Chris Bambery wrestles with these thorny issues. Alongside SNP MP George Kerevan, he co-authors ‘Catalonia Reborn’, forthcoming from Luath Press.

One of the glaring contradictions of today’s world is that we exist within a globalised economy yet each of us remains a citizen of a particular nation state. While many argued globalisation would erode the nation state, that has simply not happened. The nation state remains the battle ground on which we fight. The European Union requires that its member states accept a common neo-liberal template, but the enforcement of that, and of the austerity programmes, which were the price of EU bail outs following the 2008 financial crash, was left to national governments. Thus, the huge effort to ensure that the left wing Syriza government accepted austerity and the unrelenting pressure to ensure they enforced it. If those had simply been imposed from Brussels it would have thrown petrol on the already burning flames.

The EU was following the model established by the International Monetary Fund with its Structural Adjustment Programmes in Africa, Latin America and Asia. So, the key battle ground on which we fight remains that of the nation state. Yet the ability of any state to determine its policy has been severely restrained by institutions like the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the EU. Sovereignty – the authority of a state to govern itself, and determine its own laws and policies – is something much trumpeted by right wing Brexiteers. But the idea, in a world where the market seems to be beyond regulation – the idea of sovereignty as popular control – takes on a new power. 

Pointing to why sovereignty remains an issue for the left, Costas Lapavitsas argues: “The conduct of EU institutions is largely determined by nation states as well as by the ceaseless lobbying of giant enterprises and big banks with a permanent presence in Brussels. In the course of the Eurozone crisis the role of some nation states has been strengthened, as has the role of governments sitting together in council. “Dominant in the EU is a hierarchy of “core” nation states, above all, Germany and France. The process, however, remains fluid since the Commission has also acquired fresh powers as part of the Excessive Deficit Procedure and by policing the compliance of nation states with the Six Pack.”

If we are to use the term sovereignty it should be in terms of control by the people, popular control. That was how it was used in the carnival of meetings, debates and events which spread across Scotland in the final stage of the 2014 referendum campaign. Those were not concerned with nationalism but with how an independent Scotland could break from the priorities of the UK state: the dominance of finance, unquestioning adherence to neo-liberalism and to trailing behind the coattails of US imperialism.

In Catalonia, similar themes in relation to the Spanish state reverberate around the pro-independence assemblies and marches. Following the referendum, the Catalan parliament voted to establish an independent republic, which meant freeing themselves of the Bourbon monarchy, an important democratic step, but also evident is a desire to escape austerity, the corruption of the Spanish state and to create a more equal society. Catalan sovereignty took on a particular importance when in 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court struck out key parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, agreed in a region wide referendum, and has since overturned a bevy of laws passed by the parliament in Barcelona. 

The rebellion in Catalonia might best be understood as a rebellion against the authoritarian nationalism of the Spanish state. Since 2004, when it lost a general election after claiming the horrific Madrid bombings were the work of the Basques not Islamists, the Popular Party has taken up the mantle of Spanish nationalism, mainly in relation to Catalonia. Today, Rajoy and the PP government have unleashed the forces of Spanish nationalism onto the streets, and find themselves under pressure from the right, not least from the neo-liberal Ciudanos party, which has taken an even harder line on Catalan independence.

What the Catalan crisis has done has brought a spot light on the realities of the Spanish state and the rushed transition from the dictatorship of General Franco, following his death in 1975, to parliamentary democracy. The main forces of the opposition to Francoism, the Communist and Socialist Parties, had stood for a democratic rupture with the dictatorship, which implied a thorough cleaning out of fascist elements from the state. But when ex-Francoists, now rebranded as Christian Democrats, offered a rupture by agreement, or a pact, the left jumped at it because they were promised legality and parliamentary elections. Both the Communists and Socialists dropped their previous support for a federal Spain, one of the key things the Spanish Army desired.


The current constitution of Spain was drawn up in a Madrid restaurant in a private meeting between four representatives of the unelected post-Franco government and four representatives of the Socialist Party. The Communists and Catalan parties signed up to it because it guaranteed a rapid transition to democracy and granted autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country (where it was less warmly received). In a referendum on the new constitution, voters were warned about the threat posed by hardcore Francoists, the “bunker,” and told a Yes vote would guarantee a quick, peaceful transition. Despite that, there was a high abstention in Catalonia and a No vote in the Basque Country.

Little wonder, neither were recognised as nations. The constitution proclaimed Spanish unity must be preserved and the Spanish Army recognised as its guarantor. After an attempted military coup in 1981 Spanish governments of both the centre-left and centre-right attempted to recoup powers devolved to the Catalans and Basques. Beneath this there was no cleaning out of Francoists and they retained their positions in the military, judiciary and civil service The Spanish state dirty war in response to Basque terrorism also saw a serious erosion of civil liberties.

Turning back to Scotland, the demand for independence very much flows from the archaic nature of the British state and Westminster democracy. In the Marxist tradition, it was vital for Lenin and Trotsky in Russia or Gramsci in Italy to analyse the nation state they faced and look at the line up of class forces within it. That seems to be something absent within the left today. In addition, there is little effort made to grasp what the European Union really is, and why any progressive advance is blocked within it.

So, if we are to examine Catalan and Scottish nationalism, we need to start with the evolution of the Spanish and British states – the former the first absolutist super power, the latter the first capitalist one. Both did not create either fully centralized state as in France following the revolution or a federal one as in Germany or the United States. Catalonia and Scotland remained distinct nations but with little political control over their affairs.

In both countries, nationalism arose in response to imperial decline. Catalan nationalism developed as a serious force in response to Spain’s loss of its Cuban colony in 1898. Cuba was a source of great wealth for the Catalan bourgeoisie, and a key market. The inability of the Spanish state to protect their interests led to a shift, not to independence but to a demand for autonomy. But the necessity of the Catalan bourgeoisie to rely on the Spanish state to repress its own insurgent working class always took precedence over that ambition.

Scottish nationalism emerged in the inter war period following the collapse of much of Scottish indigenous capitalism, through bankruptcies and the takeover of Scottish firms and banks by UK based corporations. It gathered pace in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was evident successive Labour and Tory governments were unable to halt the UK’s relentless decline, and the discovery of North Sea Oil offered a salvation to Scotland’s economic problems, not least its high level of emigration.

If you try to read support for Scottish self-determination against a Lenin-based criteria, you will struggle. Scotland was never an “oppressed nation.” Following the 1707 Parliamentary Union, which effectively created the UK, the Scottish bourgeoisie was more than simply a junior partner in British colonialism then imperialism – it was a full party. A British bourgeoisie and British state was formed in which its Scottish members found no obstacle to advancement. In the latter half of the 18th century, Scotland leapt forward to be in the van of global capitalism, economically and ideologically. The contrast with Ireland, a colony suffering under-development and a pattern of rebellion and repression, is clear. 

Catalonia’s history does have a very strong element of oppression by the Spanish state with, first, the ineffectual attempts of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the 1920s to destroy the Catalan language and culture, and then the much more sustained and vicious experience of the dictatorship of General Franco. It was also the case that while the Catalan bourgeoisie in the 19th century controlled the key industrial region of Spain, they found themselves excluded from political control of the Spanish state. From the restoration of the Spanish monarchy in 1874 until today there has been no Catalan prime minister of Spain. That too fed support for autonomy, but not independence.

That is important for those on the left who still insist Catalan independence is a project of the Catalan bourgeoisie. It never was, and is not today, as witness the number of companies and banks queuing up to say they are off following the declaration of independence. The same was true of hypothetical Scottish independence at the time of the 2014 referendum. That’s not to say there aren’t capitalists who support independence, but they are very much a minority. There certainly are bourgeois nationalists, people who see independence as the means to secure a more vibrant capitalist economy and society, but independence is not the choice of anything near a majority of the Catalan and Scottish bourgeoisie, far from it. 

Currently in Catalonia, as with the 2014 Scottish referendum, it was not just the British and Spanish elites who opposed independence, along with the majority of their Scottish and Catalan sisters and brothers, but the EU, the President of the United States and an assortment of world leaders. In Scotland the results of the referendum demonstrated support for independence grew the further down the social ladder you went.

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Lord Ashcroft’s polls found that the biggest reasons for backing independence was concern over the NHS and dissatisfaction with Westminster politics, while for No voters keeping the Pound was the biggest reason. Regarding Catalonia, a recent article in The Atlantic pointed out: “The share of those favoring independence began to rise steeply in 2010, from 25 percent to its peak of 57 percent in 2012.

“The first reason for this rise was likely the 2008 economic crisis. Using government data from 2005 to 2016, we found a very high correlation between support for independence and unemployment in Catalonia. The second reason for this rise was public outrage at the 2010 constitutional court’s cutting down of reforms aimed at increasing sovereignty in Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, its equivalent of a constitution. Both events led many to feel that Catalonia would be better off under self rule.”

Democracy, then, is very much at the heart of support for independence in both cases, but it is intertwined with economic and social concerns. In Scotland, support for the creation of a Scottish Parliament grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s because people saw it could be a shield from Thatcherite governments in Westminster that had no popular mandate north of the border. Support for independence followed after people felt the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had ditched old social democratic values people in Scotland still largely championed. Independence came to be seen as a means of escaping the worst of neo-liberalism.

In Catalonia the issue is much more vivid because of the Spanish state’s constant interference in Catalan democratic procedures. The earlier anti-capitalist movements have also impacted into both independence movements in the form of CUP in Catalonia and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland. The idea that you cannot support demands for independence because no state can be independent in a capitalist world dominated by the IMF, World Bank, GATTS, the EU and so on, was addressed by Lenin.

Taken from his collected works: “… finance capital, in its striving towards expansion, will ‘freely’ buy and bribe the freest, most democratic and republican government and the elected officials of any country, however “independent” it may be. The domination of finance capital, as of capital in general, cannot be abolished by any kind of reforms in the realm of political democracy, and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this realm.

“The domination of finance capital, however, does not in the least destroy the significance of political democracy as the freer, wider and more distinct form of class oppression and class struggle. Hence, all arguments about the ‘impossibility of achieving’ economically one of the demands of political democracy under capitalism reduce themselves to a theoretically incorrect definition of the general and fundamental relations of capitalism and of political democracy in general.”

The creation of a new state opens up a debate about the nature and goals of that state. The job of the left is to take hopes for greater democracy and for freedom from neo-liberalism and translate them into a more radical vision of an inclusive democracy. In Catalonia, the CUP argues that requires quitting the EU, NATO and other such undemocratic bodies. The left should be the greatest champions of democracy, one not limited to parliamentary elections, but allowing for popular control over the economy and the institutions of the state.

The whole question of how you respond to nationalism led to a major and rich debate in the international socialist movement in the first two decades of the last century. But in the case of the Russian revolutionary Lenin, the clearest of all contributors to that debate I’d argue, the method behind his analysis is more important rather than repeating the conclusions he came to in applying it. 

In regards to Catalan independence in recent weeks and months, I’ve heard or read left wingers argue that supporting independence means supporting the agenda of the Catalan bourgeoisie, that it means deserting the Spanish working class and undermines class unity, or that Catalonia cannot ever be really truly independent in today’s world. That these are irrelevant to the debates within the Catalan independence movement does not seem to matter. So how do we approach demands for secession?

The strength of Lenin’s understanding of the national question was he didn’t try to judge a particular demand for independence on economic or cultural grounds (or even the psychological ones put forward by Stalin in his 1913 work, Marxism and the National Question). Instead, Lenin argued one’s attitude to a particular demand for self-determination ‘belongs wholly and exclusively to the sphere of political democracy.’

What counted for Lenin was democracy and the international unity of the working class. Support for self-determination of oppressed countries flowed from both. So, in looking at whether or not to support a demand for national independence Lenin stressed that this needed to be judged on the basis of its democratic content. Fast forward to today’s neo-liberal world we live in where the limited democracy we have won is being whittled back. In Europe we see that the EU, far from guaranteeing democracy, is silent on the rise of the far right in Hungary and Poland, and on the authoritarian response of Manuel Rajoy to the Catalan referendum and independence declaration.

That has created a reaction with anti-capitalist movements which fight to retain and expand democracy. For the left it should be obvious that we welcome that, and fight to increase democracy under capitalism, even if we believe a society based on equality will require a revolution. Returning to support for Catalan and Scottish independence both are rooted in a desire for greater democracy. In the Catalan case the actions of the Rajoy government have reinforced that, revealing not just that his party is made up of the grand children of Francoists but the way the dictatorship’s tradition is rooted in the Spanish state, because the transition from Francoism to parliamentary democracy involved no purge of the state nor any attempt to come to terms with the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the repression which followed Franco’s victory.


The battle line which has been drawn requires anyone with any democratic impulse to take sides, with those resisting the repression and nationalism of the Spanish state. A number of people on the left have tried to escape having support for Catalan independence by arguing that Catalans should fight instead for greater autonomy within a Spanish federal state. Prior to 1936 this was the common position on the left, with the radical left arguing this had to be a socialist federation.

This had real force because the Catalan working class saw itself in alliance with landless labourers in the rural south of Spain, the miners of Asturias, and the working class of the Basque Country and Madrid. The centre left, republicans and the Catalan nationalists of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had signed a pact in 1931, as the ruling military dictatorship was dissolving, agreeing to create a federal republic. In the wake of Franco’s death that alliance existed, in weaker form, as a consequence of common resistance to fascism. In particular the illegal, Communist led unions of the Workers Commissions had spearheaded that resistance. They were strongest in Catalonia and entered into alliance with supporters of Catalan autonomy.

Today, the Workers Commissions are run by deeply new realist bureaucrats who hate Catalan demands for independence almost as much as they do strikes. Tragically, appeals to respect the unity of the Spanish working class carry a historical and moral appeal but don’t mean much in terms of recent experience. More worryingly from the Catalan standpoint is the way the Spanish left, including the radical left, have opposed independence; Podemos’ purge of its Catalan leadership for being too soft on independence being a case in point.

Sometimes this is based on ignorance, claims that all nationalisms are the same and must be opposed. Well, they are not. The sight of the Guardia Civil attacking voters in Barcelona revives deep memories of the repression of the Catalan language, autonomy and culture under Franco when Catalan “dogs” were told to speak Spanish, “the language of Empire,” and the democratically elected head of state was put against a wall and shot. The counter-position of a federal Spain to Catalan independence is a false one. No serious force in Spanish politics is arguing force this, certainly not the PP, the Socialist Party and Ciudanos who back Rajoy’s crackdown in Catalonia. In fact, it’s the reality federal reform is not on the agenda and the attacks on Catalan autonomy that has fed the growth in support for Catalan nationalism.

In the current situation, arguing in favour of federalism means not championing the democratic right of the Catalan people up to and including independence. For people in Spain the best course must be to seek an amicable divorce rather than siding with the abusive partner. The creation of a Catalan Republic would set a model for Spain and its regions and nations. Only when Catalonia is independent could the Catalans address their relations with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula (I include Portugal in that), anything short of that would mean growing bitterness at being trapped within an authoritarian Spanish state.

Similarly, an independent Catalonia (an indeed an independent Scotland) would need to address what sort of Europe we want, because the EU has been shown for what it is over its backing of Rajoy. In this article I have quoted Lenin, which I did only after some hesitation, because I think the left’s impulse to simply to look in the text books of Marxism carries dangers, as well as benefits. Lenin’s writings on the national question addressed first his hatred of the Russian, Tsarist Empire, the “prison house of nations,” and then his opposition to colonialism and imperialism.

Today, colonialism is not the key feature of imperialism but support for self-determination remains crucial. The US led permanent “war on terror” makes that imperative. Support for the Palestinians is the acid test of where you stand in today’s world while, nearer home, Irish unity remains unfinished business. As argued, you cannot compare Scotland to Ireland or Palestine. As an integral part of the UK. it took part in the suppression of the rights of both people there. The Scottish elite were not junior partners in Empire, they were in many ways its vanguard.

One of the priorities for an independent Scotland, for me, was that it could move beyond issuing faux apologies, like Tony Blair’s for the Great Famine in Ireland, build international links based on respect and ensure Scots are educated in the realities of what Scottish slaveowners, colonial officials, missionaries and generals did, and the subsequent debt we owe. Catalonia did suffer oppression under the iron heel of Franco but earlier it was the key force in developing and running the slave economy of Cuba in the 19th century. When you visit Barcelona’s Park Güell, was built for Gaudi’s patron whose family made their fortune from the slave trade. So, trying to apply the content of Lenin’s argument does not get you very far.

But if you apply the method, that support for Catalan and Scottish independence is a democratic impulse, that gets you very far indeed. So does the reality that both the UK and Spain are both imperialist states, with their own “deep states” tied to the US, and that the greatest danger is British and Spanish nationalism, not that of those currently on the streets of Catalonia or those who rallied to Scottish independence in 2014. As 2017 comes to a close, Catalonia is the key fault line in Europe. The EU and Theresa May has lined up four square behind Rajoy. That should be enough to decide where you stand.

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