Nationalism And Socialism – The Two Souls Of Catalan Separatism



“They steal from us €60 million a day, independence=necessary”; pro-independence march in July 2010 (by JuanmaRamos-Avui-El Punt via Wikimedia Commons)

Catalan separatism is not a coherent movement that unites the entire population of the region. Not only are Catalan voters split on the issue of independence, with about half of them supporting the preservation of autonomy within Spain. But the Catalan independence movement itself is deeply divided.

On the one hand, secessionism is fuelled by a nationalist ideology that views the nation as a community with a distinct language, history and culture which requires an independent state to thrive. According to this view, people who are different cannot coexist within the same state. We have already discussed the contradictions of this concept of self-determination in a previous article.

However, there is also another element to the independence movement that has not been often explored: a far-left ideology that regards the formation of an independent Catalan state as a way to institutionalize leftist social policies.

If the attempt at founding a Catalan Republic succeeds, the tensions between Catalan nationalists, leftists and Spanish unionists will undoubtedly lead to further polarization of an already divided society.

In this article we shall briefly discuss the issue of Catalan nationalism and of Catalan socialism as the main ideological driving forces of the independence movement.



Catalan Nationalism



In an article published on October 28, one day after the Catalan parliament voted to secede from Spain, Catalan journalist Antoni Bassas argued that Catalonia needed statehood in order to safeguard its “right to exist (dret a existir).”

“Having a language, a history, a culture, a territory and even government institutions is to have almost everything, but the whole thing is the state, because the state is a source of normality,” he wrote.

The state is the “unit of measurement of recognition” that allows each citizen to travel around the world and to see his or her own language, history and culture recognized by the international community “without having to give explanations.”

Bassas argued that a state is, among other things, “a generator of self-esteem (generador d’autoestima)” which allows one’s national history, language and symbols to be acknowledged as equal, instead of being considered inferior to others.

The author claimed that states like Switzerland, which have a “willingness to integrate different identities,” can allow people to coexist. Spain, however, does not have such willingness, according to Bassas, who believes that Spain has a “bad reputation” as an agent of “coercion.”

Bassas’s arguments capture two main elements of Catalan nationalism: the first is the traditional principle of the nation as a linguistic, cultural and historical community that is distinct from others and needs its own state to be able to exist. We have pointed out the contradictions of such nationalist ideology.

The second element is the idea that Spain is an oppressor. We shall not analyse this argument in detail, but we shall point out that past Spanish rulers (who, like Franco and his associates, indeed oppressed Catalonia) do not represent the totality of the Spanish people as individuals; moreover, since its democratic transition Spain has not committed acts that violate basic human rights targeting Catalan residents. Whoever says that it is the case, should provide concrete proof of this instead of making abstract accusations.

Some people argue that the Spanish police’s heavy-handed approach to the October 1st independence referendum is a proof that Spain violates Catalans’ rights. However, it seems unconvincing to argue that Catalan nationalists wanted an independence referendum because of human rights violations which actually happened on the day of the referendum itself, after the police had received orders to block a vote that the supreme court had ruled illegal. It is also not clear why illegal acts in the name of nationalism should be tolerated, while illegal acts in the name of religion, economic privation etc. should be punished.

The Catalan national identity, as constructed by nationalists or as commonly understood by Catalans, is a combination of various elements that ultimately prove to be extremely subjective and arbitrary.

Catalan identity is often articulated in terms of specific ‘virtues’ that the Catalan people are supposed to have: continuitat (a culture of hard work and persistence to achieve long-term goals); mesura (balance and restraint); ironía (irony); seny (common sense). Many Catalans also believe to be efficient, frugal, innovative and patriotic (see John Hargreaves, Freedom for Catalonia? Catalan Nationalism, Spanish Identity, and the Barcelona Olympic Games, 2000, p. 22).

However, people who express their sense of Catalan identity often appear to need to refer to an external ‘people’ who is supposedly inferior to them but also hostile and more powerful: the Spanish-speaking population of Spain.

The Spanish-speakers (‘Castilians’) are regarded by many Catalans as indolent and oppressive, prone to deprive others of their freedom and the fruits of their hard work. There is a certain degree of xenophobia in the way the ‘self-styled real Catalans’ (Catalans de sempre) view the ‘other’. For instance, when hundreds of thousands of people from other regions of Spain moved to Catalonia in the 1960s and 70s to look for employment opportunities, the Catalans called them ‘xarnegos‘, a derogatory term for Spanish-speaking immigrants (Hargreaves 2000, p. 23).

One of the main features of Catalan nationalism is the disdain for Spain and the Spanish state as backward and oppressive. This view is partly explained by the fact that  Catalonia was one of the few regions of southern Europe (alongside Lombardy in Italy) to have experienced the industrial revolution in the 19th century. While the majority of Spain remained poor, Catalonia developed a vibrant bourgeois society (ibid.).

Catalan cultural nationalism became an important factor in the development of what later became a political movement. The Renaixença (rebirth) is a term that describes the revival of Catalan culture which started in the 1830s. However, it was not a natural phenomenon. It was an intellectual cultural movement, common to all European societies of the time. It was inspired by the romantic desire to explore the past, which was also a process of redefinition and reinterpretation of the past by the intelligentsia (ibid., p. 24).

The backwardness of the Spanish central state and the humiliation caused by the loss of its last colonies, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, in 1898, only fuelled Catalan elites’ disdain (ibid., p. 24-27).

One of the leading figures of Catalan nationalism was Enric Prat de la Riba. He was a moderate conservative who believed that Catalonia should not pursue secession from Spain, but autonomy within the kingdom. His ideas contained the basic elements one recognizes in Catalan nationalism to this day. He believed that the Catalan people were a ‘natural’ nation as opposed to Spain, which he called “one of the great mechanical units formed by violence.” He argued that the Catalans should feel allegiance to the Catalan nation, not to the Spanish oppressor.

However, he did not view separation from Spain as the goal of his movement. He believed that “age-old living together” had created bonds with the larger unit of Spain “which could not be broken” and that Catalonia should aspire to an autonomous political entity “in federative union with the other nations of Spain” (Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808-1975, 1982, p. 546).

Yet Catalan nationalists were by no means united. The movement was split between a Republican left that wanted independence and had an ‘all or nothing’ stance; and a conservative right that advocated autonomy within Spain. Within the right there were also differences of opinion regarding how to achieve the goal of autonomy.

Prat’s efforts culminated in 1914 with the establishment of the Mancomunitat de Catalunya (Commonwealth of Catalonia), an association of provincial administrative units with limited local powers. It was a modest result that fell far short of Prat’s original objective to achieve extensive self-government. The Mancomunitat was disbanded and outlawed in 1925 during Miguel Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship.

But the root of the animosity Catalan nationalists feel towards the Spanish state must be traced back to Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

Franco … instituted the most thorough attempt in the history of Spain to subordinate the country to central control, and Catalonia was singled out for treatment as having constituted an especially serious threat to the state’s integrity. Thousands were executed or imprisoned or forced into exile; the region’s autonomous form of government, the Generalitat, was abolished and replaced by virtually total control from the centre.

A policy of cultural genocide was implemented: the Catalan language and key symbols of Catalan independent identity and nationhood, such as the flag (the senyera), the national hymn (‘Els Segadors’) and the national dance (the sardana), were proscribed. Any sign of independence or opposition, in fact, was brutally suppressed. Catalan identity and consequently the Catalan nation were threatened with extinction (Hargreaves 2000, p. 28).

Franco’s repression of Catalan language and culture achieved its goal only as long as it was backed by state coercion. But after the end of the Fascist regime, the legacy of injustice fuelled resentment and tensions.

The Spanish transition to democracy after the Franco era culminated in the adoption of the 1978 Constitution, which was drafted by all the main democratically elected political parties. It was the first time in Spanish history that a Constitution was written by all parties, thus giving the document a solid foundation based on inclusiveness and compromise (Montserrat Guibernau, Catalan Nationalism: Francoism, Transition, and Democracy, 2004, p. 72).

However, as it is obvious in such cases, not everyone got what they wanted, and in this lies a weakness of a text which can be criticized as having been excessively influenced either by Francoist Spanish nationalists or by regional nationalisms.

To be fair, the 1978 Constitution tried to bridge those two extreme positions. It stipulated the unity of the “Spanish nation”, but it also departed from Franco’s rigid centralism, giving ample autonomy to local governments.

The preamble to the Constitution states the desire of the Spanish nation to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain on exercising their human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions.”

Article 1 of the Constitutions states that “Spain is a social and democratic State which advocates as the highest principles of its legal system freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism.”

Article 2 stipulates that the “Constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible fatherland of all Spaniards, and recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions forming it and solidarity between all of them.”

In order to meet the demands of the Basque and Catalan communities, while at the same time preventing their secession, Spain adopted the Autonomous Communities System (Guibernau 2004, p. 73). The country was divided into seventeen such communities, some of which have broad autonomy.

The Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia, is a “quasi-state” with its own executive branch, elected parliament and even its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.

From this point of view, Spain is a democratic, plurinational state in which different communities enjoying a high degree of autonomy live together within a unitary framework.

After 1978 the potential for a peaceful coexistence of all various cultural and linguistic groups within Spain was given. However, tensions between the central state and the periphery remained, and nationalism always played a decisive role in the country’s politics, especially with regard to the Basque Country and Catalonia.

Until the 2008 financial crisis Catalan separatism had a pragmatic and moderate approach, somehow similar to Prat de la Riba’s a century ago. Convergence and Union (CiU), the main political party in the Catalan parliament from 1982 to 2015, was a Catalan nationalist party, but it did not push vigorously for secession from Spain. In the 2006 elections,  the CiU won 31.52%, the pro-unionism socialists won 26.82%, the pro-secession and ultra-nationalist Republican Left 14.03%, and the pro-unionism Popular Party (PP) won 10.65% of the vote.

Polls show that throughout the 1990s the vast majority of Catalans had a dual identity: Catalan and Spanish (Hargreaves 2000, p. 31). But the economic crisis, which hit Spain hard, caused a radicalization and a resurgence of nationalist sentiments, as it has in other parts of Europe and the world. Economic uncertainty and competition seem to have provided nationalists with a new impetus for secession: ‘without the poorer regions of Spain, we Catalans will be better off.’

The stance of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was accused of attempting to recentralize some of the powers of Catalonia and other regions, further worsened the situation. It seems as if both Spanish and Catalan nationalists have reacted to the radicalization brought about by economic distress. However, Catalan nationalists, instead of criticizing Rajoy and opposing him with the help of other parties, as should happen in a parliamentary democracy, chose to promote an increasingly radical version of their nationalist ideology of division.

While Catalan nationalists argue that their brand of nationalism is inclusive, peaceful and civic, in reality it has a strong ethnic component. And it is this element which makes it dangerous and contradictory.

We have already discussed the possible consequences that Catalan independence might have. One of the negative effects of Catalan nationalism is the polarization that it engenders within Catalan society itself by dividing its people into subgroups. Catalonia is far from being a homogeneous nation, as some people claim.

First of all, about half of the population of Catalonia is made up descendants of immigrants that came from other regions of Spain during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. According to a 1999 study, of the 6 million residents of Catalonia at the time, 3.6 million were descendants of immigrants. This includes someone like Gabriel Rufian, a Catalan pro-independence politician with roots outside of the region.

Moreover, Catalonia has a large number of foreign nationals. In 2014, Catalonia had a foreign-born population of more than a million people, which amounts to almost 15% of the region’s population. The largest immigrant communities are from Rumania (9.02%), China (4.57%), Italy (4.49%) and Pakistan (4.08%).

As John Hargreaves claimed as early as 2000, Catalan nationalism is an extremely complex ideology that does not always create harmony among Catalan residents:

Language is the primary ethnic marker distinguishing Catalans from Castilian-speaking Spain and, in particular, from that large sector of the region’s population which is of immigrant origin from the rest of Spain … The Catalan government is officially committed to the notion of civic nationalism, in the sense that it proclaims that Catalans are people who live and work in Catalonia, and its leader Jordi Pujol denies that his brand of Catalan nationalism is ethnic.

However, in reality Catalan nationalism is more complex. The Catalan government vigorously promotes Catalan culture in every shape and form. That ethnic nationalism predominates over civic nationalism is evidenced by the many public statements that Pujol has made concerning the centrality of the language to being Catalan and, above all, by the government’s policy of ‘linguistic normalisation’, whereby Castilian native speakers are compelled in a number of ways to become culturally Catalan.

Most importantly, the school curriculum is taught in Catalan and proficiency in the language is a condition of employment in much of the public sector. The Catalan government has succeeded in some ways in Catalanising the mass media, especially the popular government-controlled Catalan-language TV channel TV3.1 (Hargreaves 2000, p. 34). 

Indeed, the sense of urgency in reasserting a distinct Catalan national identity partly came as a result of the large influx of Spanish-speakers, who seemed to threatened the region’s traditional culture. Most Spanish-speakers were also separated from Catalan-speakers by social barriers, as they belonged to the working class and lived in working class areas.

Social differences between Catalan-speakers and Spanish-speakers are still evident. A recent PISA study shows that young people whose mother tongue is Spanish have a worse academic performance than Catalan-speakers. According to the study, 20% of Spanish-speakers performed poorly in tests, compared with only 10% of Catalan-speakers. The Catalan government has also failed to enforce rules prescribing the use of both Catalan and Spanish in official documents. In one famous case, the district of El Raval in Barcelona released official announcements in Catalan, Tagalog and Arabic, but not in Spanish.

The issue of nationalism is made more complicated by the fact that some areas of Catalonia are not even Catalan-speaking. The community of Val d’Aran, for instance, has a majority of Aranese- and Spanish-speakers, with Catalan being only the third most widely spoken language.

The contradictions of Catalan nationalism are obvious. Catalonia is not homogeneous. Immigration has changed Catalonia culturally and linguistically, and it continues to do so. But if the purpose of Catalan nationalists is not to create or preserve a homogeneous nation, then what is the reason why they should leave a plurinational state like Spain and gain independence? And if Catalonia became independent, what would be the fate of half of the population, who feel both Spanish and Catalan?

Nationalism, as we have already explained, is a profoundly incoherent ideology which is likely to divide people and force upon individuals state-sponsored standards of national identity which are ultimately detrimental to peaceful coexistence, diversity and the long-term development of a truly democratic society.



Catalan Socialism



One of the main drivers of Catalan separatism is the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC), founded in 1931. It is the party of the famous Catalan leader Lluis Company, who was executed by the Franco regime in 1940. Its current president, Oriol Junqueras, was the vice president of the Catalan government before the Spanish government disbanded it on October 28.

The ERC has both a nationalist platform and a socialist ideology. For the party, the realization of independence is not just a means to achieve a nation-state, but also a socialist state with a new social contract and low inequality.

The Popular Unity Candidacy (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) is a far-left party. With only 10 seats in the now dissolved Catalan parliament, the CUP represented only a marginal section of the population, but it was a key component of the pro-independence government coalition. Without CUP’s votes no independence declaration would have been possible.

The CUP’s political programme states that it is “a clearly socialist organization and its objective is to replace the capitalist socio-economic model with a new one, based on people’s collectives and the respect for the environment. We defend the public sector, promote cooperatives and other forms of social economy and solidarity.”

The CUP aims at achieving the “social and national liberation of the Catalan Countries”, meaning all Catalan-speaking areas both in Spain and in France.

It advocates the right of self-determination, direct democracy, the defence of the rights of the “popular classes”, wealth redistribution, gender equality and environmentalism.

Both the ERC and the CUP are ultra-nationalist parties that want to unite all Catalan-speaking countries, which comprise a much larger portion of Spain than the current Catalan autonomous region as well as areas of southern France.

But how does the leftist, socialist and nationalist vision reconcile with the views of moderate, liberal and pro-capitalist supporters of independence?






The many souls of Catalan separatism have been unified by a common enemy: the stereotype of a backward, oppressive, Fascist Spanish state and society that hold back the development of Catalonia.

If independence should be achieved, however, all the contradictions of the movement would come to the foreground.

First of all, the moderates, who have built a campaign upon dividing people, would struggle to unite Spanish-speaking and Catalan-speaking people, pro-unionism and pro-independence groups; they would also face the growing challenge of immigration as a force that constantly reshapes that culture of which nationalists are so proud.

Second, the supporters of a Utopian socialist vision would soon be confronted with growing resistance on the part of the business community, corporations and professionals, who would be unwilling to accept a radical socialist experiment. Differences between moderate and far-left independentists would become obvious during the process of drafting a new constitution and new laws. The conflicts between the various factions of the separatist movement would soon make clear that the ideal of national harmony is, more often than not, but a fragile illusion.

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