A people's history of Catalonia

September 27, 2023
Book cover

A People’s History of Catalonia
By Micheal Eaude,
London: Pluto Press, 2022

“I am a Catalan. Today a province of Spain. But what has been Catalonia? Catalonia has been the greatest nation in the world. I will tell you why. Catalonia has had the first parliament, much before England. Catalonia had the beginning of the United Nations. All the authorities of Catalonia in the 11th century met in a city of France, at that time Catalonia, to speak about peace. 11th century! Peace in the world and against, against, against war, the inhumanity and brutality of war. This was Catalonia...”

Pau Casal, a Catalan cellist who was forced into exile by the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939‒75) said these words in his acceptance speech when awarded the United Nations Peace medal on October 24, 1971, in an act of defiance against that regime.

This is just one example in Catalonia’s history of defiance and resistance: from the peasants and urban masses of Barcelona resisting the Franco-Spanish siege in 1713–14, to the worker uprisings resisting Franco’s army in 1936‒37, to the two million people who voted for Catalonia’s independence on October 1, 2017, in the face of Spanish legal and police repression.

These events are recounted by Micheal Euade, an activist and author based in Catalonia, who has traced the history of the struggle for Catalonian nationhood as well as its intersection with class struggle from the medieval period to the present in his 2022 book, A People’s History of Catalonia.

In the late 15th century, Catalonia’s peasantry allied with the monarch, Joan II (John II), against the rising merchant bourgeoisie, which drew the region into a 10-year civil war (1462–72). After having been betrayed by Joan II in the aftermath of the war, the peasants — known as the Remenca — waged a rebellion, which, although defeated by 1485, succeeded in granting peasants control of the land they tilled, virtually abolishing serfdom.

However, this was followed in 1492 by the union of the Crowns of Aragon and Castille, who sought to forcibly integrate Catalonia into the Spanish Crown, leading to the wars of 1640–41 and the War of Spanish Succession (1705–14), when the Catalan masses fought against the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties to throw off Spanish rule.

The War of Spanish Succession ended with the 1713–14 siege of Barcelona where the city’s urban poor combined with the peasantry to resist a joint Franco-Spanish army. When the city surrendered on September 13, 1714, Catalonia lost any of the vestiges of its independence. To this day, Barcelona fans commemorate this event with pro-independence chants when the clock reaches the 17th minute and 14th second during games on September 13.

Euade recounts how the struggles for Catalan independence ran alongside working-class struggles from the time when anarchism became the dominant strand within the Catalonian working class in the 1860s — leading to the short-lived First Spanish Republic of 1873–74 — through to the anarchist National Labor Federation (CNT)-led general strike in Barcelona in 1917.

In the aftermath of the end of the Spanish empire in 1898, the Catalan working class struggled against both the Spanish state and the Catalan ruling class, who while claiming to be for Catalan independence, benefited from its position within the Spanish state and would support whichever regime was in power.

In July 1936, the fascist-led general’s coup against the centre-left Popular Front government led to a mass mobilisation to defeat the coup in Catalonia. This effectively led to the working classes of Barcelona taking power in a period of revolutionary upsurge, described in George Orwell’s 1938 Homage to Catalonia.

Ultimately, this revolution was crushed, in May 1937, by the central Spanish government, when members of the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party and Spanish Socialist Party attacked members of the CNT and the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) resulting in the fall of the revolution, the purging of CNT members from the Catalan and Spanish governments and the outlawing of the POUM in June, 1937.

It was hoped that the crushing of the Catalonian revolution by the Popular Front government would lead Western governments such as Britain and France to lift their policy of non-intervention to save the Spanish Republic. Ultimately this policy failed as the Western powers stood by while Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini assisted Franco’s fascists in defeating the Second Spanish Republic in early 1939.

Any previous Catalan autonomy was crushed by the Franco dictatorship, which outlawed Catalan institutions and the speaking of the Catalan language. Despite this, the capitalist class supported the regime and it was the working class who led the resistance starting with strikes in 1945–46, a successful 1951 boycott and strikes on Barcelona’s trams, all the way through to the death of Franco in November 1975.

After Franco's death, the conservative faction of Catalan nationalism came to dominate Catalonia through Jordi Pujol, who managed to run Catalonia by playing the conservative People’s Party (PP) and Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) governments, from 1980 until his fall in 2003.

The October 1, 2017 independence referendum, general strike and state repression is merely the latest chapter in Catalonia’s struggle for independence, in which the working masses have played a leading role. After the July 2023 election, neither the PSOE nor PP could form an absolute majority and will likely need to make serious concessions to Catalan and Basque nationalists to form a government.

Euade’s A People’s History of Catalonia provides a gripping account of these struggles. It includes portraits of Catalan rebels such as Sor Iseballa de Villena and Fransesc Layet, and refuses to flinch from the less noble aspects of Catalonia’s history, such as its role in Spanish colonialism and the slave trade. The book also provides a portrait of Black Carlotta, a slave woman who led a revolt in Spanish-ruled Cuba in 1843–44.

In showing the struggles of the Catalan people for self-determination from below, Euade provides an inspiring account of the possibilities for a better world, for which I recommend A People’s History of Catalonia.

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