The national question has returned to mainland Europe and we have to choose a side, argues Dragan Plavšić
Catalonia’s struggle for independence has divided opinion across the political spectrum, including on the left. But amid all the many claims and counter-claims, we shouldn’t lose sight of the key - and compelling - reason for supporting the Catalan struggle.
For this is above all a political struggle for democracy, a struggle over who will exercise power in Catalonia and how: whether it will be Madrid dictatorially or the Catalans democratically.
So far, let’s recall, Madrid has forcibly disrupted Catalonia’s independence referendum and suspended its autonomy. It has sacked its government and dissolved its parliament. It has imposed direct rule and arrested its vice-president, seven ministers and two activists pending criminal trial. And it has issued European arrest warrants for its president, Carles Puigdemont, and four ministers who fled to Brussels to avoid arrest.
By any measure, this is a colossal attack on democracy.
The contrast with the popular resistance on the ground in Catalonia couldn’t be clearer. From the very beginning, Catalans have taken to the streets, gone on general strike, organised local defence assemblies. When Puigdemont hesitated in the face of threats from Madrid, they stood strong, injecting the Catalan parliament with the necessary resolve to vote for independence. Now they are back on the streets and on general strike again, demanding recognition of their right to self-determination and the immediate release of all political prisoners.
So Spanish and Catalan nationalisms can’t be equated, as some claim. Nationalisms are not ‘all the same’. The political character of a given nationalism will be determined by the particular role it plays in the concrete circumstances. More specifically, its character will be determined by whether it is suppressing another nation or resisting such suppression.
And in Catalonia, Madrid is suppressing and the Catalans are resisting. They stand at opposite poles of the struggle for democracy.
The stakes are clear. If Madrid wins, democracy loses. If the Catalans win, democracy wins. And if democracy wins, we all win, because other ruling classes will think twice before dispensing with democracy to achieve their political goals. The left can’t afford to treat the Catalan struggle with indifference. Democracy is essential for all our economic, political and social struggles, including national ones against repression.
This is also why the rest of Spain has nothing to gain from Madrid’s suppression of the Catalans. If the Catalan cause is successfully suppressed today, Madrid will feel fortified tomorrow when faced with anti-capitalist demonstrators or the Basques or striking workers. The Spanish monarchy will be strengthened as will the authoritarian centralism of the right, including those seeking to revive Franco’s fascist legacy.
So it was disappointing that Pablo Iglesias, the Spanish leader of the left party, Podemos, chose to back Madrid. This was a missed opportunity. He could – and should – have given the lead to a Spanish campaign to defend democracy, including the defence of Catalonia’s right to national self-determination. That would have been the internationalist thing to do.
But isn’t it better for the Catalans and the Spanish to live together in a large state than separately in two smaller ones? Not necessarily. It’s only better if living together has the voluntary consent of all. Otherwise it’s worse, and a source of endless nationalist feuding which can only corrupt democratic politics and undermine social struggles.
What then of the claim that Catalonia won’t be a ‘viable’ independent state? Opponents of independence wield this claim to deflect attention from the indefensible character of Madrid’s undemocratic actions. But it’s a bogus claim. There are many independent states in Europe and across the globe with lesser territorial areas, populations and GDPs. To give just three examples: Catalonia’s territorial area is larger than Belgium’s; its population is greater than Ireland’s; and its GDP exceeds Portugal’s.
But for the left there’s another key reason for supporting the Catalan struggle, a reason rooted in its democratic spirit. The Catalans seek national self-determination or control over their own affairs, free from Spanish suppression. But seeking control on one level can draw your attention to your lack of control on multiple other levels: at the workplace, over jobs, over housing, over a thousand and one injustices and indignities.
All of which can then encourage an interest in the type of self-determination that is of cardinal concern to the left – the economic and political self-determination of the working class, free from ruling class oppression.
Catalonia’s struggle for democracy continues to depend, as it always has, on the Catalans themselves. The EU supports Madrid as do all the main European states such as Britain, France and Germany. They are content to turn a blind eye to Madrid’s undemocratic course, thereby encouraging it.
Unfortunately, many on the Spanish and European left have also been found wanting. But we should be clear. The left should speak out in defence of Catalonia. Our democratic and internationalist principles demand it.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).