Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

Responding to the Catalan Crisis

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Events in Catalonia are unraveling at a dramatic pace: Catalan ministers have now been placed into custody and leader Carles Puidgemont is in Belgium. Writing from Barcelona, Jonathon Shafi, co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and a signatory to the newly formed Catalan Defence Committee Scotland, argues there needs to be a Europe-wide response from the left…

The present crisis in Catalonia is a moment which requires clarity, not confusion, on the European left. When the Catalans seek to hold a referendum and it’s violently repressed by the Spanish Government, it’s clear who’s on the side of democracy and who’s not. 

When subsequently – after a 90% vote for independence – the Spanish Government refuses to negotiate and seeks to replace the Catalan Parliament with direct rule, including imprisoning independence supporters and threatening sedition charges against leading Catalan politicians, it’s clear who’s on the side of democracy and who’s not. 

When the Spanish Government refuses to give assurances to the Catalan Prime Minister that it will allow the Catalan Parliament to hold fresh elections without imposing direct rule, it’s clear who’s on the side of democracy and who’s not. And now, they are jailing the Catalan government itself.

Therefore, given all of this, it logically follows that it is equally clear that the Catalan Parliament’s declaration of independence was the only option it was left with in order to protect the Catalan democracy against those who are clearly seeking to crush it. Yet it’s fragile, needs support and is weakened by ongoing repression.

Those on the European left who argue otherwise, that somehow there was some sort of third way for the Catalan Parliament between independence and capitulation, are in effect using sophistry against the peaceful and democratic movement for democracy in Catalonia. They are effectively siding with the Francoist Spanish Government in practice. The truth is that many have been paralysed by the situation in Catalonia, preferring to look the other way.

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that many are too blinded by the ‘nationalist’ and ‘separatist’ labels to see what’s really going on. The Catalan social movement is overwhelmingly driven by a democratic impulse from below and is progressive in outlook. And it’s still radicalising.

The failure of left parties to understand that the breakdown of post-empire constitutions, whether in the UK or Spain, is a necessary part of the wider economic and political breakdown of neoliberal hegemony is a deep intellectual limitation of the likes of Pablo Iglesias in Spain’s Podemos. The Corbyn project too must recognise that rupture is part of this political era. Both should seek to utilise constitutional breakdown as part of creating a new, radically democratic constitutional order.

Secondly, many leftists are still restricted by a form of politics which could be described as ‘legalism’ – anything which challenges the legal authority of state power is a step too far. There’s an obvious contradiction here: look back in history and very few democratic breakthroughs occurred without challenging the laws of the day. There would have been no Rosa Parks and no Nelson Mandela if they were obedient to the law, but almost no one of progressive ilk would argue that their actions were not democratic in nature.

Some balk at a unilateral declaration of independence as the parliament imposing its will on the Catalans – in fact, if it were not for the movement from below imposing its will on the parliament it would have never happened. The CUP radical left party in Catalonia have now called for a “republic from below” – a new form of democracy which is participatory and driven by people power.

The European left must stand with them in this new and fragile democratic experiment. If we don’t stand with the Catalans now, why should anyone else in Europe expect solidarity when the anti-democratic forces of violent repression come for them? That will affect social movements far beyond independence causes. We cannot allow right wing Spanish nationalism and authoritarianism to strike another blow in Europe.

Solidarity in this case is a duty. But it must be broad and inclusive – and based on practical objectives such as building pressure to release political prisoners and calling for any future elections to be repression free. The Catalan Defence Committee has been established in Scotland and internationally to support the Catalans right to self-determination, and to oppose Spanish state repression. It will be stepping up efforts to defend the independent republic of Catalonia in the coming weeks. It is time for a European wide movement that challenges for a new democracy from below. One that is fit to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.



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