Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Catalonia: How Class Struggle Forged a Restless Nation

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Michael Eude argues that modern Catalonia can only be understood by reference to its long history of peasant revolt, working class revolution and struggles for democracy.

Chris Bambery, historian and author of A People’s History of Scotland spoke to Michael Eude, author of A People’s History of Catalonia, about how a long history of class struggle has shaped the Catalan nation and its stand-off with the Spanish state. These struggles fused the national question to class conflicts over hundreds of years, and are still inseparable from Catalan dynamics today.


Chris Bambery: Scotland was at almost permanent war with England in the Medieval period but the borders of the Scottish kingdom and its English rival were established very early on – in contrast to elsewhere in Europe. Catalonia was caught between bigger forces – the Carolingian Empire and Al-Andalus, Castile and France. It’s almost a miracle Catalonia survived, but it did. Can you provide a little context?

Michael Eude: Geography’s important! Charlemagne’s Empire had set up the ‘Hispanic March’, a sort of buffer zone between it and Arab Al-Andalus to the South. In 985 Al-Andalus sacked Barcelona: they raped, pillaged and bore off slaves, but did not have the resources to occupy the town. The Carolingian Empire was then too weak to defend the Count of Barcelona, which meant that the latter stopped paying tribute to it in 988. Both empires were collapsing. This created a space for the Counts of Barcelona to become the strongest in the area. However, one cannot start talking of Catalonia as an entity until the twelfth century. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Catalonia, the most dynamic part of the Crown of Aragon, developed a sophisticated ‘estates’ structure. The corts (the Catalan parliament) had 3 estates, the ecclesiastical, the nobles (including military) and the towns (rich merchants) – the poor, peasants and artisans were of course excluded. The system reflected the weakness of the Count of Barcelona – if he wanted money from the barons, he had to negotiate.

CB: In the late Medieval period, the peasantry of Catalonia succeeded in overthrowing feudalism and serfdom. This created a peasantry that owned the land and would fight to defend that. How significant was this?

ME: One of Europe’s great peasant struggles was the remença rebellion that lasted from 1448 through to 1485. Remença means ‘redemption’ and was the payment peasants had to make to their feudal lord if they wanted to leave the land. The remença peasants were able to take advantage of divisions in Catalonia’s ruling class: the monarch backed their demands in order to weaken the power of the feudal nobles. The peasants ran through every possible means of struggle: assemblies and petition; offerings of money; negotiation; guerrilla warfare; terrorist assassination; and all-out war. Finally, in the 1480s, under Pere Joan Sala, a group of peasants made an ideological breakthrough: they realised that the king was not neutral. Though these radical peasants were defeated in battle and their leaders were executed, their struggle obliged the king and more moderate peasant leaders to agree to a wide range of reforms, including the abolition of the remença and other abusive payments.

CB: Twice, Catalan attempts to break away were defeated. How significant were these attempts, why did they not succeed and what was the result of Philip V’s victory in 1715?

ME: Catalonia was locked between Castile and France and, after 1492, between the newly united Spanish state and France. This Spanish state included Catalonia, but the Hapsburgs’ absolutist monarchy was unable to integrate a Catalonia accustomed to negotiation between its estates. Catalonia had different laws, a different language, different system of government, different taxation.

In 1641, after a long revolutionary process that included the killing by peasants of the Spanish viceroy, the President of the Generalitat (Catalan government) Pau Claris declared the Republic, but it lasted only a week as he had to rely on French support to defeat the Spanish, which in turn resulted in French abuse.

In the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Spanish state made a further effort to integrate Catalonia. In 1714, after a year-long siege of Barcelona, Philip V succeeded. The newly united United Kingdom had promised to defend Catalonia, but reneged on its commitments: perfidious Albion, whose ruling class could not be trusted. The last vestiges of Catalan independence were broken. Its governing bodies were dissolved, the language was banned, the university was closed – the absolutist Bourbon king’s word was law. No more tiresome negotiations with a recalcitrant Catalan government.

CB: There was no bourgeois revolution, to use the term in the Marxist sense, in the Iberian peninsula. Catalonia was the first area to industrialise (the Basque Country came later) and its bourgeoisie resented the dominance of Castile but also feared its lower orders. How did that play out?

ME: It played out in riots and rebellions that earned the admiration of Engels and gave Barcelona, Catalonia’s dominant city, the name ‘Rose of fire’. Industrialisation in Catalonia from the 1830s on created a new bourgeoisie and a new working class, naturally enough in violent conflict. This bourgeoisie suffered from having no state support, for the Spanish state centred on Castile was dominated by semi-feudal landlords and the military and had no interest in policies to defend Catalan industry. Several years of the 1830s and ’40s saw major uprisings in Catalonia’s cities. Typically, these were at first supported by sections of the bourgeoisie hoping to pressure the Spanish government, but who then switched sides as revolts threatened to get out of hand. In both 1842 and 1843 Spanish generals shelled the city of Barcelona and other Catalan cities to subdue revolts. Catalans could be forgiven for thinking that Madrid already saw Catalonia as a separate country.

CB: Why was anarcho-syndicalism, in particular the CNT, so powerful in Catalonia? One of the Rebel Portraits in the book is of Buenaventura Durruti. How important was he?

ME: Pressure on the working class was very high in Catalonia as the bourgeoisie’s profit margins were lower than elsewhere, due mainly to lack of support from the state. This state was also unstable: between 1843 and 1868 there were 28 different governments in Madrid, often ushered in by military coups, as out-and-out reactionaries struggled with forces desiring a more liberal constitution. There was little belief among the Catalan working class that parliamentary means could lead to reforms. Anarchism, with its refusal to take part in political struggle, fitted this situation well.

Durruti was the most famous anarchist leader, famous for his intransigence. When anarchists became ministers in the Spanish and Catalan governments in late 1936, Durruti was the de facto leader of those who rejected the anarchist betrayal of the Revolution. His significance was his honesty, his sincerity and his leadership qualities: he never accommodated with reformists.

CB: During the Second Republic, the one overthrown by Franco, and the revolution in Catalonia following the failed military coup, there is often an attempt to portray the class struggle as separate from the national question, particularly in many accounts of the CNT’s role. But the two were not separate, were they? And the working class at this time was overwhelmingly Catalan? There were also huge advances in the use of the language in education and elsewhere, plus in advancing women’s rights.

ME: The working class was mainly Catalan, though there was already considerable migration from other parts of the state, by people starved off the land and drawn by the prospect of jobs. In the 1936-39 Civil War the class struggle dominated, as the defeat of fascism was so urgent. But ERC (Republican Left) governed Catalonia throughout the Second Republic (1931-39). Politically, this reformist party failed, but as you say introduced important reforms in education, health, language, culture and women’s rights. For example, the first abortion law in Western Europe was approved in Catalonia in late 1936. Nationalists, in Catalonia as elsewhere, are usually right-wingers, but the struggle for national rights has usually shifted Catalan politics to the left of Spanish politics. It’s still the case today.

CB: The POUM was portrayed as Trotskyist by the Communist Party but denounced as centrists by Trotsky. Was either accurate?

ME: Neither was accurate, though ultra-orthodox Trotskyists’ feathers ruffle when you say that Trotsky was wrong. The POUM was a party that argued for socialist revolution. This was sufficient for the Communists, who were trying to restore bourgeois Republican government and suppress the Revolution, to attack and destroy the party. In addition, the POUM denounced the Moscow frame-ups of the Old Bolshevik leaders in summer 1936 and offered Trotsky refuge in Catalonia. POUM leader Andreu Nin was murdered by Stalinists in July 1937.

Trotsky himself was isolated in exile and poorly informed. He attacked the POUM for joining the Catalan government in September 1936 and for failing to try and take power in May 1937. Orthodox Trotskyists see the POUM as revolutionary in words but reformist in practice, classic ‘centrism’. The POUM made mistakes, of course, and was too recently formed and too small to be decisive. In fact, its main ‘error’ was probably to have joined the Socialist union, the UGT, rather than the anarchist CNT. This meant that it was neutralised when the Communists took over the UGT and that its calls on the CNT to take power were abstract, as it was agitating from outside and not fighting within the CNT.

CB: Its leaders like Andreu Nin and Joaquín Maurín also wrote with clarity on the relationship between the national question and revolution. Can you discuss this?

ME: Nin followed Lenin’s classic defence of the right of small/oppressed nations to self-determination. Maurín was more radical. He argued that all the nations in the Spanish state should rise up and declare independence, which would effectively destroy the state. Maurín’s position has been influential on later Catalan independentist organisations, such as the CUP (Popular Unity Candidacies) today.

Both Maurín and Nin, like the Bolsheviks, believed that the fight for national rights and/or independence was part of a struggle to complete the bourgeois revolution – and that only the working class could carry this through, as the bourgeoisie’s interests were best protected by fascism.

CB: One result of the Franco dictatorship was the virtual destruction of the CNT. How significant was that?

ME: Several famous guerrilla leaders were anarchists in the Franco years, but the mass base it had enjoyed from 1910 to 1938 was lost to the Communist-led Workers’ Commissions, who responded to the concrete demands of the working class on wages and conditions in the 1960s. In the transition from dictatorship to bourgeois democracy of the 1970s the CNT was reborn briefly as a mass organisation. It had its chance then, but was destroyed by its own ultraleftism and by a notorious police frame-up alleging that it was responsible for the death of four workers in the bombing of the Scala music hall in 1978. Anarchism as a mass force no longer exists, though there are anarchist unions and anarchistic anti-authoritarian attitudes and behaviour, a legacy of anarchism, are common throughout the Catalan-speaking lands.

CB: Catalonia was one of the main centres of resistance to the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. How did working-class resistance combine with the national issue? – I’m thinking particularly of the Assemblea de Catalunya.

ME: What was key to the strength of Catalan resistance in the ’60s and ’70s was that the sections of the working class who migrated from southern Spain in the 1950s and ’60s supported Catalan national demands. The demand for an Autonomy Statute was seen as a valid anti-Franco demand alongside demands such as the right to strike or right to assembly. The Assemblea de Catalunya was set up by the PSUC [Catalan Communist Party] as an umbrella organisation in 1971 and was highly effective in mobilising for democratic rights, including national rights, in a series of mass demonstrations. Alas, that unity in struggle has been lost today.

CB: The PSUC had hegemony within the working class, but the revolutionary left also had a presence. How did its challenge to the transition to parliamentary democracy, negotiated with reforming Francoists, work out?

ME: The revolutionary left had tens of thousands of members in the 1970s. Many of the groups were successive splits from the PSUC because of its reformist policies (it called for an all-class movement against Franco, rather than a class-struggle orientation), but unfortunately these groups were mainly Maoist. Though more radical than the PSUC, the Maoists retained a Stalinist framework. Some Maoist groups evolved leftwards, but others collapsed either into class collaboration or ultra-left posturing.

In some important strikes, such as the 95-day strike of the 4,800 workers at Roca Radiadores in 1976, the revolutionary left was able to pose a challenge to the PSUC by creating mass assemblies that voted on policy and directly elected workers’ representatives. The 1970s Transition from Francoism was not a pre-revolutionary period like the Republic from 1931 to 1936 or Portugal in 1974-75, but struggles like Roca pointed to how a much more radical outcome to the Transition could have occurred. The sad reality was that the heroic struggle against the dictatorship of tens of thousands of activists was liquidated by the Communist and Socialist leaders in successive agreements for a social contract that lost spending power, a monarchist constitution and amnesty not just for anti-Francoists but for their torturers too.

CB: Post-war the migration into Catalonia came mainly from Southern Spain, more recently from Latin America, North Africa and Asia. What influence has this had, in particular in relation to the language and the post-2010 upsurge in support for independence?

ME: Many Catalan nationalists lament this migration. It’s often argued that the presence of Spanish-speaking migrants and their descendants – nowadays some 50 percent of Catalonia’s 8 million population – has weakened the national struggle and language. It’s certainly true that parties like Ciudadanos a few years ago and now the Socialist Party have based themselves on sections of this immigrant working class to reject independence. But I don’t believe there is any universal anti-Catalan homogeneity among migrants. Many descendants of Andalusian migrants support independence. Many from Latin America (especially Andean peoples) come from countries where their languages are discriminated against. They are quite open to understanding Catalanist demands. Similarly, Africans usually speak at least a couple of languages as well as the colonial language. In the fruit-picking fields of Lleida, Africans learn Catalan with no prejudice, because everyone speaks it in that area.

CB: Catalonia is also unusual in having a strong radical left organisation, the CUP, at a time when elsewhere in Europe the radical left is mostly in retreat. What was key to its growth and what role does it play?

ME: The CUP is important, a far-left organisation with a mass base. At present it has 9 seats in the 135-seat Catalan Parliament, receiving nearly 200,000 votes in the February 2021 elections. It is an anti-capitalist, internationalist organisation fighting for a democratic republic, standing for feminism, welcome to refugees and expansion of public services. It has grown by being assembly-based and strongly rooted in local areas. For many years, it did not stand in Catalan elections, let alone state elections, because it concentrated on consolidating a municipal presence. It was very wary of the seductions of parliamentary politics.

Today it argues against the Catalan government on questions of housing, energy policy or the climate emergency, whilst calling on this government to convene another independence referendum.

CB: Since the Spanish state’s failed attempt to physically stop the October 2017 independence referendum and its subsequent suspension of Catalan autonomy, we’ve seen Madrid pursue a policy of mass repression, with some 5,000 independence activists facing prosecution. Has this attempt to wear down the movement succeeded?

ME: Yes. Repression stops a lot of people from going on demonstrations and court proceedings lose people jobs, cost money for lawyers and create anxiety. Movements, as we know, rise and fall. However, the two million-plus people who voted for independence in October 2017 have not disappeared and few will have changed their minds. That vote was based on years of mobilisation and deep distrust of successive Spanish governments for whom any dirty trick (illegal phone hacking is just the latest) against Catalan rights is valid.

CB: Currently we see the pro-independence political parties engaged in bitter infighting and Esquerra Republicana running a minority government committed to dialogue with the Socialist-led government in Madrid. Can this strategy succeed? How significant was the turn-out on this year’s Diada (11 September) march? What’s the role of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC)?

ME: ERC’s strategy in government is pragmatic: it postpones independence to a vague future date. And it is deceitful. There is no hope that this Table of Negotiation with the Socialist Government can produce an agreed, binding referendum (something that, polls say, over 70 percent of the Catalan people support), as the Socialists, scared of the unreconstructed Francoists of the Spanish right-wing parties, have ruled out even discussing the possibility of a referendum. In return for ERC support in the Madrid parliament, ERC will gain small reforms at the most. Curiously, the more right-wing Junts, the supporters of exiled ex-President Puigdemont, are now the most vociferous supporters of independence, though when they were the governing party before February 2021 they did little to advance towards it.

Despite the decline in mobilisations, the 700,000 people marching on 11 September this year showed a movement that is undefeated. The ANC, a mass organisation founded in 2012 by the activists who in the preceding years had organised all over Catalonia local consultative independence referendums, was the protagonist with its call on the ERC government to organise “independence or elections”. It is organising a civic ‘non-party’ list to stand in these elections.

CB: Will independence arrive?

ME: Who knows? The Spanish state is in deep, multiple crises – of the monarchy, the justice system, rise of fascism, mass poverty – that are very unlikely to improve. The 50 percent of Catalans that want a democratic Republic are unlikely to disappear. The material conditions for secession remain. It will depend on political organisation and will, particularly the ability of the forces in and around the CUP, to convince Socialist-voting immigrants from the rest of Spain that their interests are best served by an independent Republic.

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