Michael Eaude’s A People’s History of Catalonia brilliantly tells the story of an oppressed people’s struggle through the centuries, finds Chris Bambery

Michael Eaude, A People’s History of Catalonia (Pluto 2022), 288pp.

If you are looking for a book to give as a Christmas present or one to read yourself over the break, I thoroughly recommend A People’s History of Catalonia. I should admit I read a draft of this, it carries my endorsement on the back cover and front-piece, and even a picture I took of a mural of Antónia Androher, a founder of the revolutionary party, POUM (Partit Obrer d’Unificacío Marxista/Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) on the city walls of Girona. She was a teacher who in October 1936 was responsible for education and culture on Girona City Council, introducing free, progressive schooling in Catalan.

In my endorsement, I describe the Catalans as ‘one of the most rebellious peoples in Europe’. That, obviously, includes in modern times the working class, but that rebellious nature pre-dates its birth, as Michael shows. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Catalan peasantry carried through a successful revolt which ended serfdom and gave them virtual ownership of the land they tilled – a singular victory in medieval Europe.

In 1873, Friedrich Engels wrote that in Barcelona there were ‘more barricade fighting than in any other city in the world.’ The city became known as ‘la rosa de foc’ (the rose of fire). Michael Eaude has done the history of this rebellious people proud, so I have no problem in reviewing it with great approval.

One of the myths peddled by Spanish nationalists, who specialise in pouring vitriol on the Catalans, is that Catalan independence is about giving the Catalan bourgeoisie control of the richest part of Spain. Leaving aside the fact Catalonia is not the richest area of the Spanish state (that’s Madrid, something created in large part by the Spanish state), what Eaude also shows is that the Catalan elite have not and do not support or desire independence.

Their aspiration was to lead Spain, not to leave it, but they have been denied a key role in governing Spain. No Catalan has ever been prime minister of Spain except during the brief First Republic of 1873 to 1874. In contrast, there have been Basque premiers because Euskadi was always more integrated into Castile, the dominant province of Spain.

A history of rebellion

Despite that, during the nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth, the Catalan bourgeoisie relied on the Spanish state to supress the working class. The Spanish state took this up with relish.

In 1842, Barcelona rose in rebellion against taxes on food entering the city, military service, Madrid’s refusal to authorise the demolition of the city walls (which were a barrier against the city’s expansion) and against the regent of Spain, General Espartero. The city’s garrison was forced to retreat to the fortress of Montjuïc, overlooking the city. Espartero arrived and ordered the bombardment of the city. Some 300 buildings were destroyed. Taking control of the city, the general unleashed the usual repression.

He was also credited with stating, ‘Barcelona should be bombed every fifty years.’ The Spanish state certainly took his advice, but did not wait for half a century. The city was regularly bombarded by the Spanish military, and then bombed during the civil war by Franco’s, Mussolini’s and Hitler’s air forces.

The rebelliousness of a free peasantry would erupt onto the stage in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, joining with the urban populations to try and break Catalonia from the Hapsburg Spanish monarchy in 1640-1641, and from the new Borbón (in French Bourbon) monarchy of Philip V in 1705-1714, going down to defeat on both occasions. In the latter case, the war ended with Barcelona falling after a long siege, and after Britain, who had allied with the Catalans, ditched them in return for Gibraltar and access to the Spanish slave trade.

That defeat was followed by the abolition of Catalonia’s position as a separate kingdom with its own laws, parliament and taxes, and with the outlawing of the Catalan language from public use in an attempt to impose Castilian/Spanish. The peasantry would later fight Napoleon’s invasion, and rise in support of the Carlist claimant to the Spanish throne in 1833 to 1840. Eaude compares this rebellion to the Jacobite risings in Scotland and quotes Joaquín Maurín, one of the leaders of the POUM, as saying:

‘The Carlist wars … are at bottom nothing other than separatist movements deformed by the leftovers of feudalism … Their main centres were Catalonia and the Basque Country, which were where the national question was alive’ (p.99).

That spirit of rebellion would shift into the cities and towns where Catalonia was experiencing an industrial revolution, similar to that in Britain, based on small family firms producing textiles, with considerable British investment.

Rise of the workers’ movement

Two things developed in Catalonia from the 1830s onwards: the rise of a Catalanist cultural renaissance and of a militant working class which would be won to anarcho-syndicalism. In time this led to the creation of the Confederació Nacional de Treball (CNT, National Labour Federation), which was the dominant force within the Catalan working class until its defeat in 1939. Victor Serge’s novel, Birth of Our Power, describes the 1917 general strike called by the CNT, in which he took part while in exile in Barcelona working as a printer. He pictures its central leader at the time, his friend and comrade, Salvador Seguí, the ‘el noi des sucre’ (the Sugar Boy, so named because of his sweet tooth). Seguí was killed in March 1923 by gunmen working for the Catalan employers’ organisation under the protection of the Spanish security forces.

That same employers’ organisation welcomed a coup in 1923, led by the governor of Catalonia, Miguel Primo de Rivera, supported by the king. The new dictator banned the Catalan language, and even FC Barcelona, but the Catalan elite still preferred him to the CNT!

The Great Depression undermined the Spanish economy, de Rivera’s dictatorship and then the monarchy, giving way to the Second Spanish Republic. This was created in 1931, along with a declaration by the Esquerra (Left Republicans of Catalonia) leader, Francesc Maciá, of an independent Catalan Republic within a Spanish Federation, which was quickly rescinded. Catalonia now entered the rapids of revolution. This reached its height in July 1936 with the defeat of the military uprising by the working class.

There was no wall between working-class insurgency and the national question. The Catalan bourgeoisie would rally to Franco during the Civil War, even though one of his central messages was anti-Catalanism (it is difficult for foreigners to understand the strength of this within Castilian/Spanish nationalism). The middle class and the peasantry generally supported the centre-left Esquerra, the working class the CNT, with the POUM having a real base, including among the Rabassaires, small independent wine makers with a strong union, in which the POUM challenged Esquerra’s leadership.

The Catalan working class was at this time mainly Catalan speaking; migrants did come from southern Spain, but most came from Catalan speaking areas such as Valencia. Catalan autonomy saw an upsurge of Catalan books, magazines and newspapers, and of people learning to write in Catalan, a language they could speak but not write. There was a huge advance in women’s rights, including the legalisation of abortion – a first in Europe.

In this context, the militants of POUM understood that they had to unite the class struggle and the national question in a revolutionary strategy, and that became more urgent after July 1936 and the military uprising. In contrast, the right-wing of the Socialist Party, led by Juan Negrin, and the Communists wanted centralisation, and that meant undermining Catalan autonomy.

Civil war within the civil war

At first the Catalan Communist Party (PSUC) worked with the Esquerra-led Catalan government to harness and reverse the revolution. This culminating in armed clashes of the May Days of 1937, described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Communist security forces attacked the CNT-occupied telephone exchange, and barricades went up across the city as the CNT rank and file, joined by the POUM, responded, defending the gains of the revolution. The CNT leaders, many of them ministers in the Spanish and Catalan governments, urged the rank and file to go home and to take down the barricades, and they prevailed. Almost immediately, Communist-led security forces moved into Catalonia to suppress the revolution and to suppress the POUM, kidnapping and murdering its leader, Andreu Nin.

CNT, POUM and Esquerra units had been starved of the arms arriving from Russia, and now they were forcibly disbanded and their men absorbed into the Popular Army. Negrin and the Communists wanted a regular army, not one like the revolutionary Red Army Trotsky had led in the Russian Civil War. They had ousted Negrin’s rival in the Socialist Party, Francisco Largo Caballero, from the premiership, Negrin taking his place. The Spanish government had fled Madrid for Valencia when it seemed Franco would take the city in the previous autumn. Negrin now moved it to Barcelona and effectively ended Catalan autonomy.

Negrin and the Communists launched a series of offensives against the fascist Nationalists culminating in the Battle of Ebro in the summer of 1938. Franco’s troops had earlier cut Catalonia off from the rest of the Republican zone. In a familiar pattern, the Republican Popular Army won early success with its offensive across the river Ebro, but Franco brought up reserves, heavy artillery and his air force, along with those of Germany and Italy. The Popular Army could not compete. It had conscripted Catalan teenagers and middle-aged men, and when Franco’s army drove them back across the Ebro, Catalonia was defenceless. Barcelona fell without a fight and some 450,000 fled into France.

Resistance to the new independence movement

This is a familiar story, but Michael not only tells it well, he brings new elements to it. My favourite part of the book is Michael’s description of the anti-fascist resistance that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s. Catalonia was, with Euskadi, in the vanguard. Francoist repression had destroyed the CNT and the POUM, and the PSUC gained hegemony within the resistance. Nonetheless, a revolutionary left was formed which challenged the communists’ eventual strategy of entering a pact with the Francoist ‘reformers’ to shift Spain to a flawed parliamentary democracy under King Juan Carlos Borbón, Franco’s appointed heir.

Prior to that, the PSUC had created the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO, Worker’s Commissions). While it is now a conventional trade-union forum, in the dog days of the dictatorship it was a much more rank-and-file orientated grouping, operating through workplace assemblies and organising active solidarity for strikes and against repression. Neighbourhood Associations took up issues in the new industrial suburbs of Barcelona, which lacked basic amenities, and challenged corrupt planning procedures. These helped both Catalan and Spanish speaking workers unite (the 1950s and 1960s had seen considerable immigration from Southern Spain).

The PSUC also took the lead in launching the Assemblea de Catalunya (National Assembly of Catalonia) which united the CCOO, neighbourhood associations and left-wing parties with Catalan groups and civic movements on a platform of ‘Libertat, Aministia, Estatut d’Autonomia’ (Freedom, Amnesty, Statute of Autonomy), which called huge demonstrations against the regime.

In the first democratic elections, held in 1977, the Socialist Party, in first place, and the PSUC had won nearly half the vote in Catalonia, beating the Christian Democrats, the Francoist ‘reformers’, into third place, with the right-wing Catalan nationalists in fourth place. This contrasted with elsewhere in Spain, excluding Euskadi, where the ex-Francoists took first place. The new Spanish government manoeuvred to head off the left by bringing back the exiled Catalan government’s leader, Josep Tarradellas, and installing him as head of a new Catalan government, the generaliat, despite no-one having voted for him and the exiled government having had no authority.

Catalonia after the transition to democracy might have carried on undisturbed, ruled locally by moderate nationalists like Jordi Pujol, who manoeuvred between the Socialists and right-wing governments in Madrid. However, in 2010 something systemic occurred; the Spanish nationalism of the Spanish state took centre stage.

A new, stronger, Catalan Statute of Autonomy had been agreed between a Socialist-led government in Madrid and the generalitat, both parliaments voted it into effect and it was approved too by a referendum in Catalonia. The right-wing Popular Party, however, took legal action to the Spanish Constitutional Court which, in 2010, struck down several key clauses including the definition of Catalonia as a nation. Some one-million people took to the streets of Barcelona under the slogan, ‘We are a Nation. We decide’. Building on the tradition of the 1970s Assemblea de Catalunya, a new, pro-independence, mass membership, grassroots Assemblea Nacional Catalana was formed, which is a crucial force today.

In reaction to the court’s decision, support for independence mushroomed. Catalonia began its journey out of the Spanish state. That was never going to be easy and the Spanish state would not hesitate to turn to repression, relying on the silence of the European Union.

That story is well told here with brilliant accounts from participants. But Michael is not uncritical. For instance, the book ends with his insistence that the pro-independence movement needs a strategy to win over Spanish speaking workers in the peripheral zones of Barcelona, recreating the unity achieved in the resistance to Franco as the dictator’s end neared.

The book features ‘rebel portraits’, brief descriptions of key rebels (if it sounds familiar, Michael took the idea from my People’s History of Scotland, with my approval). It also has a brief appendix on great Catalan artists of the twentieth century; right wingers like Gaudi and Dali, left wingers like Joan Moro and Picasso. The latter lived in Barcelona for a relatively short time, and studied art there before moving to Paris. But it was a crucial, formative time and Picasso, who spoke Catalan, identified as a Catalan, thus combining Catalanism with his leftism.

I really encourage you to read this book. It was a joy to read, and while I think I know much about Catalonia, I learnt much that was new to me. Moltes gràcies, Michael.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.