Spain: Showdown in Catalonia

A pro-Catalan independence march in Barcelona in 2014.

Catalonia’s regional government has declared it will hold a referendum on October 1 over whether it should become independent from Spain. In response, Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed that the “unconstitutional” referendum will not take place, setting the scene for the biggest crisis in the Spanish state since the 1978 transition from the Franco dictatorship.

Green Left Weekly’s Dick Nichols and Denis Rogatyuk spoke to Quim Arrufat, a joint national spokesperson for the People’s Unity List (CUP), about the referendum and the broader struggle for Catalan independence. The CUP is a Catalan based organisation committed to independence and socialism. 

This is second part of the interview with Arrufat. The first part, which covered the origins and nature of the CUP and its relationship with the Catalan government, can be read at


What scenario would a successful Yes vote in the independence referendum create? Does a break from Madrid really open up the road for a break with capitalism in a new Catalan state?

There is a step before that.

There are two ways to break out of the prison of the Spanish constitution, which was built with the agreement of Francoism. One is that political forces inside Spain win a majority in the Spanish parliament, allowing the building of a constitutional process that would be won by the popular classes and the left. That is a very, very distant prospect, and has been so for a long time.

After the waves of the economic crisis and mobilisations of the indignado movement, it seemed for some that it could be possible for [the newly-created left-wing party] Podemos to win or at the very least surge past the Socialist Party (PSOE).

However, changing the constitution requires the support of two-thirds of parliament, so it is almost impossible. So as long as you operate inside the system, you will be ruled by laws agreed to by the Francoists.

Also, in Spain — maybe not in other countries — the state is a party in and of itself, with its own program that does not depend on the political party that is in government. The Spanish state has always been the tool of the wealthy families, the banks and the big companies that have ruled Spain forever with their own political project, regardless of who is “governing”.

And the main institutions and the constitution are under their control, not that of the party that is governing, be it the PP or the PSOE.

So where is the democratic option for change? The opportunity to build something different lies in Catalonia, where a majority exists based on the mix of people’s movements, nationalist movements and many other forces: this majority delegitimises the rule of Spanish state institutions.

We see here the opening of an historical opportunity, a chance for a decisive battle, that could be won or lost — it depends on whether we are active enough, able to build our own specific agenda within the independence process and able to create enough majorities for change. If not, we will end up with a neoliberal Catalonia, independent or not.

However, we know from our own history and traditions, and from the present state of affairs that the social leaderships here in Catalonia have enough strength to at least allow us to see this battle through to the end.

There are important points on our agenda that a majority of the population agrees with: they would never be allowed in the Spanish state but would be allowed in a Catalan Republic, agreed to by other parties and the majority of the population.

For example, do we need an army? If you ask the population in Catalonia, they would tell you that we don’t and that we don’t need to be in NATO either. The social debate in Catalonia is very developed, because of our history, our experience of the Francoist army.

Or again, do you believe that migrants should be prevented from accessing the public health system? Nobody in Catalonia believes that! Yet this is happening in Spain.

Other examples include the cooperative system. Catalonia has 150,000 workers in cooperatives, with over 10,000 cooperatives based here, active and successful in many fields. Hence, the idea of building a mixed economic system based on a very strong public sector is possible in Catalonia.

Energy, for example, would be in public hands. There would be a free market for companies working on technology in advanced fields — not substituting for what the state can do but making the things that the state cannot — and a social economy based on the cooperative system.

This economy would be capitalist in form, but it would be very distant from other economic systems in Europe. This is a struggle we can win in Catalonia.

Catalan Premier Arthur Mas, with his idea of Catalonia as a Mediterranean Denmark or Austria, wouldn’t agree with that.

No, and that’s why we have to prepare for different battles. The first battle is for the referendum against the Spanish state and for a “Yes” vote — for independence for our people. The second is for the content of the constitutional process opened up by independence — it must be determined by the social majority, by the popular classes.

These battles demand different majorities, and therefore the CUP cannot stay isolated thinking “no one is more anti-capitalist and more pro-independence than us, so we will go it alone”. The opportunity is there.

Is there a synergy between the Catalan and Basque national struggles?

Well, there is a synergy among all struggles for national self-determination in Europe. For example, if Scottish nationalism had had success in their referendum, we would already be independent. It would have been a mirror for Spain and the whole of Europe: a people without a state can have a referendum, win independence and start creating its new state.

The situation with the Basque Country is different to that of Catalonia. Despite historical differences in strategy, there has always been a strong relation between the Catalan and Basque movements because both have for many years suffered — but to different degrees — from the Spanish state and its strategies.

However, the biggest problem that the Basque movement faces is the Basque bourgeoisie. Of course, both Basques and Catalans have nationalist bourgeoisies, with their economy, their national consciousness and their language and culture that they defend.

But the Basque Country has a special status within Spain while Catalonia does not: constitutionally Catalonia is the same as, say, [the autonomous community of] Murcia.

Over the past 20 years the Spanish state has not seen any need to support the Catalan bourgeois and has let it decline. All savings and credit unions, which once formed a very strong regional financial network for the Catalan bourgeoisie, have disappeared from Catalonia.

For example, all investment by the state goes to Madrid or to the south — we have the same railway lines as 100 years ago. Many things that workers wouldn't normally care about, but the bourgeoisie does, have been disregarded by the decision-making centres of the Spanish state.

Now, seeing their social and political support bases and activists demonstrating for independence, this bourgeoisie has no other alternative but to say: “Let’s take this decision to be independent, otherwise in 20 years we will be the same as the bourgeoisie of Murcia”, namely with an economy fuelled by speculation and with no real productive capacity. The Catalan bourgeoisie has seen an end to their cooperation with the Spanish state, provoked by the actions of that state.

The Basque Country is the opposite. Because of the economic compact between the Basque Country and the Spanish state, the Basque government collects taxes and then makes an agreement every year as to how much they will transfer for Spanish state purposes (for the armed forces, counter-terrorism etc). That gives them a lot of bargaining power.

Hence, the companies of the Basque Country are not based in Madrid, they stay in the Basque country, because their taxes pay for services there, acting as an economic multiplier. In Catalonia, taxes go to Madrid for the building of the Spanish state, as has been the case for more than 200 years.

Spanish nationalism, because it is based on the repression of other national rights, cannot function without creating an external or internal enemy. For 50 years, ETA [the political-military organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom] was the internal enemy, but it no longer presents any threat [after finally disarming in April]. So the new enemy must be the Catalans. They know they are becoming a minority here.

[The entire interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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