Demonstrators on the 12,000-strong regional march in Lleida, Catalonia on Sunday 5th November. Photo: Twitter/@CDRsLleida Demonstrators on the 12,000-strong regional march in Lleida, Catalonia on Sunday 5th November. Photo: Twitter/@CDRsLleida

As the Catalan government stand immobilised and imprisoned, the base of the movement has taken the lead with a “week of struggle” and general strike ahead, reports Jack Woodvale

Since the jailing on Thursday of eight Catalan government ministers without bail by the Spanish high court – “preventative detention” pending the Francoist charges of rebellion and sedition against them – people in Catalonia have once again flooded into the streets, filling town squares and blocking roads.

At the same time, pro-independence political parties have been absorbed in fraught internal discussions and informal negotiations over the December 21 regional elections imposed by the Spanish government and labelled “illegal” by many.  There is strong debate over the possibilities for either some kind of unitary ticket for pro-independence parties, or a much broader coalition of anti-repression, pro-autonomy forces; both aiming to ensure victory is secured against the pro-repression, anti-independence parties of the right and centre, which have looked to be gaining marginally in support in recent polls. 

The radical pro-independence party, and ‘kingmaker’ of the current coalition, the CUP (which has 10 regional parliamentary seats) has not even declared that it will stand, with a special assembly called for this Saturday to decide if and how.

As the Catalan government’s main administrative functions look to have been taken over by the Spanish state, its parliament dissolved and its President and only other ‘free’ government ministers seeking temporary refuge in Belgium, the focus of political initiative in the independence movement has shifted to the only place where the people of Catalonia maintain any real element of democratic leverage: the streets and resistance.

On Thursday and Friday evenings tens of thousands joined protests in town squares across Catalonia and outside the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona – the first coordinated mass mobilisations since the previous Thursday and the weekend’s celebrations of the Republic, setting off five days of mass resistance.

However, the lull in street activity that preceded it was not expected, had seemed perilous and is important to recount.


The quiet

In the days leading up to the unilateral declaration of independence by parliament on Friday October 27th, and the weekend following, pro-independence community assemblies had placed particular focus on preparing for mass resistance and nonviolent civil disobedience from the Monday onwards. The overwhelming expectation on the left and at the grassroots of the independence movement was of direct major confrontation with Spanish police attempting to take over Catalan government buildings and institutions and arrest ministers and officials.

What was perhaps underestimated was how this might hinge critically on the decisions of the Catalan President and his ministers over whether to remain in their offices and resist the dissolution of parliament, passing on a clear example to all civil servants.

As Monday came it was found that the Catalan President and four ministers had in fact flown to Belgium, ostensibly to make their democratic case more directly in Europe. The major civil independence organisations seeming to have placed full trust in this now scattered government, and the movement seemed demobilised. The Catalan government websites were shut down, and the speaker in Parliament accepted its dissolution by Madrid.

Even more ominously, the Spanish prosecutor declared it would be pressing for Francoist charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against the whole Catalan government.

The only sign of resistance was an impressive lunchtime mass workers’ assembly outside the town hall of the city of Girona. To compound this general inertia, state of ambivalence over the existence of any new Catalan republic, and growing demoralisation, there had been a large (300,000 estimated) Spanish unionist demonstration in Barcelona on the Sunday. Amongst it, highly visible hundred-strong groups of fascists had launched small scale attacks on government buildings, Catalan police and even individuals, such as a Sikh man who fortunately managed to defend himself. There was no opposition in the streets that evening and little political response from the independence camp.


On the Tuesday the Catalan government formally announced it accepted the December 21st elections imposed by the Spanish state. Everything seemed to be falling away.

The CUP-CC radical independence party’s statement on that day, though generally supportive of the President and government, criticised them for failing to prepare “the creation and consolidation of State structures” over the two years since its election. It also echoed rather abstractly-framed calls from the President that day for “resistance” to the implementation of the autonomy-stripping Article 155.  Yet there was no mention of concrete steps for the movement to take in resisting the Spanish state takeover.

The truth is it wasn’t just the government which was not prepared to organise against the repression of a new Catalan Republic following declaration – it was the left and grassroots of the independence movement too, which seemed to be taken aback by the defensive position of Catalan leaders and have no independent strategy and plans of their own.

Speaking to activists on the ground it seems clear fatigue also played a role, and during the acceleration of the independence movement over the previous months what may have lacked at this vital point was the existence of militant organisation across the whole base of the movement that could drive people to take matters into their own hands as social democratic leadership falters.

This has started to change.

A storm of activity

Demonstrations against article 155 were finally called on the Wednesday evening for the following evening across Catalonia by the two main civil independence organisations Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Omnium Cultural, under the banner of “Freedom: we say those who govern Catalonia are the ones we voted for!”

However this announcement was preceded by a matter of half an hour by the call from the militant ‘Universities for the Republic’ student campaign for demonstrations during lunchtime the following day. Yet again, students proved to lead in setting the pace for the movement – as with their strike action in previous weeks, and as with demos demanding the UDI the previous Thursday.

Indeed, in the morning mass stoppages were called in tandem with the students by ANC and Omnium for the lunch hour and thousands came out to St Jaume square in Barcelona and protested outside workplaces, in addition to large campus demos in the city.

By the evening the crowds grew to tens of thousands following the news of the jailing of the eight government ministers, and they took on a more radical tenor: importantly, banners were brought to the protests by the self-organised local Republic Defence Committees (CDRs) bearing calls for a “general strike”, and chants of this resounded in the square outside the Catalan parliament following a speech by the CUP’s Catalan MP Albert Botran in which he called for trades unions to take a more leading role in this political moment.

In the rural area of Alt Penedes thousands turned out in the capital Vilafranca, headed by the district CDR banner, and the committee was already advertising a breakfast meeting and action for the following day by then end of the night. Meanwhile back in Barcelona, inspired by the students, another CDR in the Barcelona district of Gracia had opted to blockade a main road in tandem with the central demo, following a mass assembly in their local square.


This shift towards a renewal and extension of more militant forms of action, such as immediately followed the violent suppression of the October referendum, has continued, along with an increasing transfer of initiative to these Republic Defence Committees – themselves products of community organising to facilitate the defence of polling stations and ballot boxes.

On the Friday morning and lunchtime young people and students, led by the Arran socialist youth group as well as a number of CDRs urban and rural, began blockading train tracks, motorways and city central avenues throughout the Barcelona region, in groups from dozens to hundreds, calling for “Free political prisoners” – 10 prisoners by now of course – and proclaiming “If it is not now, when? If we are not us, who? We take the streets to defend the Republic.”  A dozen tractors – not seen since those post-referendum actions – also blocked the AP-2 motorway to Alfes.

More massive student rallies and marches on campuses also played out, called on the day.

The sense of spontaneity around these actions called at very short notice, with fantastic large home-made banners by groups in a variety of areas, seems to have become self-reinforcing.  Action in the streets has not stopped since, morning day and night, and the sense of “if not now, when? If not us, who?” might now be taken as a common truth and mantra by those at the base of the movement, looking towards their own actions rather than towards a stumbling government leadership.


By mid-afternoon Friday the civil pro-independence organisations ANC and Omnium had been prompted to call another round of mass demos outside town halls for the evening, and the radical Intersindical-CSC union had made an announcement calling for a General Strike on Weds 8 November.

As town squares filled to the brim for the second night running, amidst widespread roadblocks and mass pot-banging (‘cacerolada’) sessions, one experienced activist commented that the mood was as intense and febrile as the height of the ‘indignados’ anti-austerity movement 2011-2012.

At a basketball match of Barcelona v. Olympiacos at the Palau Blaugrana arena, giant banners bearing “Free political prisoners” and pro-independence slogans were hung from the stands alongside Catalan national flags, in further signs of a more generalised confidence.  The following evening a giant Catalan flag bedecked the Nou Camp stadium as FC Barcelona played.

Official announcements can only have added to the swelling popular anger: from the Spanish state presecutor on Friday evening issuing European arrest warrants for the Catalan President and four remaining non-jailed ministers, and from the lawyer of the eight jailed ministers on Saturday morning, declaring on live Catalan television that they had been veiled, harassed, stripped, violently handcuffed and kept without food.

Under torrential rain and in a sea of umbrellas, the 45,000-strong Catalonia solidarity march in Bilbao (Basque country) on the Saturday can only have given further strength to the movement at this critical point.


The Defence Committees of the Republic

Back in the Lleida region of Catalonia during recent days over 35 CDRs had been independently planning a mass demonstration for the Sunday, as well as beginning a process of mass signature collections in every village and town to demand the release of all political prisoners and denounce the injustice of their judicial process – for petitions to be presented to national and European institutions.

They called on their equivalents in Barcelona and other cities to call demonstrations in solidarity, but this did not occur and there was no official support from the ANC and Omnium organisations.

Perhaps these others were surprised to find 12,000 turn out in Lleida on the day – led by banners reading “We are the Republic – defend it” and “Republic now” – testament to a broad provincial working class movement that may be outstripping the vision of what have been the central protagonists in more officialised organisations, and even of the activist left in urban centres (and organising in CDRs).


It is an interesting question. Many of the CDRs are said to be led by members of either the CUP, the ANC civil independence organisation, or the larger more centrist pro-independence parties.  CUP members say that there has been a conscious strategic initiative in fuelling these local organs of popular power, which have become widely recognised and well-attended in their assemblies after organising the defence of polling stations on referendum day. They are more responsive, open and broad-based than electoral party or NGO-style (eg. ANC and Omnium) structures can allow; crucial in a fast changing and radically shifting political situation.

This could also have other consequences in driving forward the movement however.  New sections of ordinary local people can be drawn into these open and action-focused democratic assemblies.  Mobilising initiatives can be radically democratised in the movement as the organisation of the Lleida demo shows. Furthermore, there is the potential for radicalising greater layers of people amongst what are said to be ideologically diverse CDR groups, through demonstrating the effectiveness of militant left wing tactics and leadership in furthering the independence cause.

In short, it is crucial that the Catalan left involves itself as heavily as possible in this emergent form of community organisation which nonetheless has a strong central political focus: the securing of a Republic in the interests of ordinary people, as their banners and slogans proclaim.

The CDRs are also playing an increasingly important role in strategic political debate and the transmission of ideas, in combination with their actions.

Sunday saw the upscaling to a mass level of the community ‘paste-up’ flyposting sessions that they have developed alongside the #Empaperem iconic poster designs and social media trend.   This time the sessions occurred simultaneously across numerous towns, with very large numbers meeting and, significantly, with the ANC and Omnium organisations joining in.

And now a wave of CDR community assemblies is taking place across Catalonia, looking to be the biggest yet, with many hundreds in attendance at one in the Gracia district on Sunday and many taking place yesterday and today.  A “week of struggle” is being planned (#SetmanaDeLluita) and the assemblies are making Wednesday’s general strike a focus of this.


Indeed there are now well in excess of 150 of these local CDR assemblies littered across the nation, as illustrated in an interactive map produced by their newly established central communication body.

The rising strength of the CDR formation as an effective class-based and concrete-focused one was exemplified to in the town of Mataró on Sunday.

A snap pro-Spanish nationalist demo estimated at two thousand descended on the town on Saturday from across the region and Spain.  I culminated in a young man being battered to hospital in the evening by flag-wearing fascist attackers – in a repeat of recent weeks’ preponderance of far right street attacks that have gone uncensured by Spanish authorities. The town CDR did not hesitate in immediately calling a mass mobilisation the following morning for that evening: “NO PASSARAN: No impunity for fascists.”

Over two thousand of the town’s own turned out for a defiant march through a place whose population barely exceeds ten thousand. Yet by contrast the established civil pro-independence organisations and political parties seemed unable to respond at all to similar numbers of fascists abusing people on the streets of Barcelona on the previous Sunday, and smashing up Catalan radio premises the week before.

One message from this is that only a mass working class organisation which recognises itself as they fascists’ main target – including its scapegoated minorities – that is capable of effectively mobilising and indeed defeating the far-right and fascist tendencies on the streets. Tendencies which have been legitimised and given new life by Rajoy’s locking up of elected officials a brutal police repression tactics.


On a broader point, the political reality is that it was only this kind of militant working class mobilisation – including a general strike – which turned the political tide in Catalonia against fear and demoralisation in the face of the Spanish state’s referendum day onslaught.  And it is only this which might be able to provide the necessary resistance to secure a Catalan Republic or even simply a restored regional autonomy in the face of further mass repression around the 21st December elections. With credible rumours circulating that ostensibly pro-independence forces could barred from the elections, with concerns elections may be rigged and with threats from Madrid that a pro-independence vote could be brushed aside, a simple victory and transition for Catalan republicans seems very unlikely.

However, such working class organisation has been struggling to consistently express itself in a mass form independent of other class blocks. The main pro-independence parties and large organisations are dominated institutionally by the middle classes and the largest trades union confederations (conservative elements of the workers’ movement in Catalonia) refusing to support the declaration of independence or take major action over article 155.

The CDRs seem to be the most potent bodies for this purpose – the impressive mass road blockades they organised across the region on Monday morning speak to this – and are now working in tandem with the radical unions backing the general strike, including the main education workers union USTEC-STEs.

Rupture and the Republic

Signs point towards a huge mobilisation for the general strike tomorrow, also backed by students and now the CUP. Two million were said to be on the streets for that of October 3rd.  It is these kinds of numbers which will be needed to profoundly generalise dissent against Spanish intervention in order that local civil servants refuse to carry out instructions from Madrid, that the possibility of reinstating Catalan institutions becomes a recognisable one and that the tide can begin to be turned internationally against Madrid’s repression when faced with a seriously economically threatening upheaval. However for the strike and general dissent to reach this scale, a measure of support needs urgently to be regained from the substantial part of the Catalan left which does not support independence, as was the case on October 3rd: in particular amongst the Catalunya en Comú and Podem (Podemos Catalonia) parties.

Simultaneously, a bigger explicitly pro-independence movement than ever before needs to be built in order to maintain the very actual collective dream and the political possibility of a Catalan Republic. This latter seems the only real democratic route out of a conflict with an intractably repressive Spanish state, but requires victory for pro-independence forces at the December 21 elections for which polling is currently tight.

Such a movement can only be built by winning new people to the side on the basis of offering the greatest hope and the most convincing answers to questions which cut across the independence divide and which are fundamentally class issues: popular democracy, improvement of living standards for the many and the need to address social inequalities. This current has informed the left pro-independence parties’ traditions up to this point.  It has at key points, such as following the Spanish constitutional court’s attacks on the statute of autonomy from 2006, drawn people into the movement. But now the movement needs to become the main embodiment of progressive politics over these concerns.


That means an important role for Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural, ideally with greater independence from the vacillating Catalan government, in employing their mass communicational infrastructure and public profiles to organise, firstly, national rallies such as the one planned for this Saturday: “We are the Republic: free political prisoners”.  And secondly, mass regional assemblies that become the hotbeds for popular debate on how a Catalan republic could change lives. Let us remember how tactics such as these fuelled an insurgent Scottish referendum campaign against the full political force of the establishment.

At the same time, the demands for freedom for the imprisoned Catalan government ministers and civil independence leaders (Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart of ANC and Omnium) must be kept centre stage and taken extremely seriously, as both the greatest popular tool in delegitimising the Spanish government and a struggle without which a Catalan republic will seem groundless.

For the radical left there is a role of equal significance. To begin with, it will be the anticapitalist CUP-CC alone who can direct a fight to ensure that the same near-collapse at the head of the independence movement does not reoccur at the next probable decisive point of rupture with the Spanish state. Notably, immediately following the December 21 elections.  The reason for this is its long-term interests by nature in breaking the bonds of capitalist state authority and building a transformation of society by and for those below, and its analysis (at least on the part of many amongst it) of the historical weaknesses of reformist social democratic leadership at points of rupture with the ruling class. Thus, only the CUP-CC can drive a mass popular movement based on working class agency to the achievement of a republic beyond inevitable major clashes with Spanish state power. To do this it will need to continue prioritising its work in the CDRs.


Secondly, the CUP is best placed to make strong arguments from a socialist position for a Catalan republic that breaks with the neoliberal status quo. Arguments that offer genuine hope as previously mentioned, and that instil a radical vigour in the movement, allying the independence rupture with the cause of better conditions for “bread, shelter, work” (its slogan of the moment).

Only in these ways might the CUP sufficiently distinguish itself from whichever coalition of pro-independence or anti-repression parties emerges at the December 21 elections, to which it must surely nonetheless consider offering further support. All the same, it must also learn lessons from the months behind which have seen it lose support according to most recent polls in a period where it has been perhaps most closely associated with the centrist-led government.

Internationally we should pay particular attention to the Catalan struggle. I emphasise this both because of the great and growing level of working class organisation from which we can learn and be inspired, but also because it is now at the heart of popular contention over the nature of the European Union economic and democratic project, as the latter’s institutions and member governments line up almost unanimously to support Spanish state repression, reject recognition of the republic and oppose independence. Defeat for the Catalan movement will mean a victory for the forces rallying against democracy, including the most extreme elements. 

It has been positive in the last week to see signs of serious international solidarity emerging, from the launch of a Friends of Catalonia initiative in England, to the Scottish independence conference, to Dublin city council, to a large demonstration in Perpignan and smaller gatherings from San Francisco, to Bristol, to Paris. But much more is needed from labour movements internationally, and now. Citing Desmond Tutu’s famous quote, the radical Catalan CGT trade union said yesterday in relation to the November 8th general strike: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Jack Sherwood

Jack Sherwood has been an organiser in the People's Assembly and Stop the War. Based in Bristol, he coordinated the largest demonstrations and public meetings in the city 2014-2019: against austerity, in support of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour, over the Junior Doctors' struggle and against the British bombing of Syria.