THE CATALONIAN SITUATION AND SOME COMPARISONS WITH SCOTLAND
In considering any political issue from a Maoist perspective the focus should be on what is in the objective interests of the proletariat, not just within one particular locality but throughout the world as a whole. This is particularly so given the increasingly globalised character of the world and the fact that more than ever before the proletariat is becoming an international class in a very concrete sense.
WHAT IS NATIONAL OPPRESSION?
In discussing national oppression we need to be clear on exactly what we mean by these terms. The typical situation is where one ruling class and its state dominate and exploit the people living in another country, e.g. Britain and Ireland during the nineteenth century. The economic exploitation of the dominated people is often the principal motive driving the conquering power, e.g. British imperialism in India. With modern capitalist imperialism the main driving forces are the quest for new sources of raw materials, new markets for “home” produced commodities and, above all, outlets for the profitable investment of capital, e.g. China’s expansion into Africa. Sometimes it is the desire to seize territory for settlement which is primary, e.g. the Zionists in Palestine. Often the imperialist power tries to impose its own culture, including its language, on the conquered people as a way of weakening their self-identity and incorporating them into acceptance of a new order, e.g. France in Western Africa. Very often an imperialist ruling class sees itself as not simply driven by economic motives but as engaged in a civilising mission whereby they will bring about an all round improvement in the lives of those they are subjugating. Ideological self-deception is strong.
Also in analysing any particular case the main focus should be on the current situation and not on injustices which may have been committed in the remote past, e.g. the expulsion from Judea of some Jews by the Romans in the first century AD is of little, if any, relevance to conflicts within Palestine today. What it is important to concentrate on is who is oppressing and exploiting whom in the present, particularly in terms of class divisions, and what policies could serve and advance the interests of the people, especially the workers and peasants.
THE VIEWS OF LENIN, STALIN AND MAO
Marxists have always recognised the right of nations to self-determination particularly since the time when Lenin and Stalin grappled with this problem with respect to the various nationalities oppressed and exploited within the Russian Empire. They argued that the oppressed nations in this area did have the right to become completely independent, sovereign nations if that is what the majorities of their peoples wanted. But at the same time Lenin and Stalin said that it would be in the best interests of these peoples, especially for the proletariat and peasantry, if they adopted socialist constitutions and became part of a federation of neighbouring socialist states. This came about as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It was also the view of Lenin and Stalin that a nation suffering imperialist oppression had the right to demand independence even if those people are led by reactionary elements. For example contemporary Afghanistan is a predominantly feudal society and the resistance to NATO occupation is led by the Taliban, a Muslim fundamentalist organisation. The leadership of this national liberation movement consists of tribal and religious leaders. They want to establish a Muslim caliphate in their country but have no political ambitions outside of Afghanistan. The Taliban is a genuine mass movement with widespread popular support and participation. They are weakening the imperialist occupation of their country and thus objectively are serving not just the objective interests of their own people but that of oppressed and exploited people throughout the world. It is the duty of communists to support this anti-NATO war of national resistance. Of course, for the Afghani people to thoroughly defeat imperialist forces it will be necessary for communists to win leadership of the national liberation movement. Otherwise the Taliban and their allies will eventually do some sort of compromise deal with the imperialists.
This does not mean that any group who happen to come into conflict with an imperialist power should automatically be supported. So-called Islamic State are certainly in conflict with Western and Russian imperialism but at the same time they are vicious oppressors of the Muslim people they claim to represent. ISIS does far more damage to the peoples in whose homelands it operates than it does to the imperialists. ISIS are not objectively serving the interests of the people in the way that the Taliban do. It is an enemy of the people.
A major problem with national liberation movements which are not under the leadership of a worker-peasant alliance led by a communist party is that at a certain point in the struggle they tend to do a deal with the imperialist aggressors and thus sell out the great mass of the people. This happened in the case of Palestine where the struggle against the Zionist State was led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation which essentially represented the interests of the Palestinian national bourgeoisie led by Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Accords which the PLO signed with the Zionist State in 1993 have left the Palestinian workers and peasants in a worse position than they had before. As Mao Tse-tung pointed out, the national bourgeoisie are “flabby and vacillating” and they will probably do a deal with imperialism at a certain point in the struggle and become a comprador bourgeoisie. Only if proletarian forces take the lead in the national liberation struggle is there a chance of a thorough defeat of the imperialist oppressors.
THE CASE OF CATALONIA
Are the people of Catalonia oppressed and exploited by Spanish imperialism? In considering this question some comparisons and contrasts will be made with the case of Scotland where the nationalists claim that the people are under the domination of British imperialism.
The region where people speak Catalan was a feudal kingdom which over a period of hundreds of years was incorporated with other feudal realms to constitute one Spanish state focused around Madrid. It was the Spanish language as it developed in the central regions of Spain – Castillano – which became the predominant mode of discourse throughout the regions ruled by the Spanish state. At the same time distinctly different languages survived, principally Basque and Catalan, as well as regional dialects, e.g. Gallego.
Here, it should be pointed out that there is no necessary coincidence between language and national consciousness. The Swiss have a very strong sense of national identity yet at least three different languages – German, French and Italian – are spoken by the Swiss. The same is true of Finland where Finnish and Swedish are the main languages. A language very similar to Catalan is spoken by the people in the region around Valencia although they refer to the language as “Valenciano”. Although the two languages are for practical purposes very similar the people in this region definitely do not regard themselves as Catalonians. The relationships between language and national identity are complex and each case should be examined in its concrete particularity.
During the nineteenth century Catalonia underwent rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, especially in the Barcelona area. This brought about the development of an industrial capitalist class, an industrial working class and an urban petit bourgeoisie. It was among the petit bourgeoisie, especially the intelligentsia, that demands for political autonomy or even independence developed. The emergence of this sort of national consciousness could be seen across Europe during this period rising out of the same type of urban petit bourgeois milieu. Modern nationalism is not a product of rural, peasant areas where personal identities and loyalties tend to be much more localised. As for the industrial working class, they were more drawn towards anarchism and socialism and under their influence there were a number of violent uprisings.
Eventually with the establishment of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931 Catolonia achieved a large degree of regional autonomy with the establishment of the Generalitat government. This ended with the triumph of the Franco fascist dictatorship in 1939. The Franco regime vigorously suppressed aspirations for regional autonomy and preservation of cultural differences throughout the whole of Spain. The Catalan language was banned from public life. After the death of Franco a new Spanish Constitution was adopted in 1978 which ended the language ban and gave Catalonia considerable regional autonomy. However in recent years there has been a rise in support for the demand that Catolonia should have a greater or lesser degree of national independence.
Who are the Catalans?
Ever since industrialisation began in the mid-nineteenth century there has been an influx of people from other parts of Spain, e.g. Andalucia, and from abroad into Catalonia. More recently this includes large numbers of people from North Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Most of these people speak Castillano and probably the majority know Catalan as well because it is taught in the schools. The population of Catalonia is increasingly heterogenous as is the case in most developed capitalist countries such as Britain in general, including Scotland. The latter has a declining population and for this reason the Scottish Government welcomes immigrants including asylum seekers.
Is Catalonia economically dominated and exploited by foreign capitalists?
Much the same large corporations, Spanish and multinational, operate within Catalonia as in the rest of Spain. There does not seem to be a distinct Catalonian monopoly capitalist class. Of course there are many small scale, petit bourgeois capitalist enterprises in that region. Catalonia is in fact the most economically developed and prosperous part of Spain. One complaint of the Catalan nationalists is that the flow of revenue from Catalonia to the central Spanish State is greater than vice versa. But does this constitute “imperialist exploitation”? Is surplus value being extracted from the working class in Catalonia and being taken by the owners of large capitalist enterprises any more than is the case in the other regions of Spain?
In all the countries of Western Europe the central state redistributes some revenue from the more prosperous parts of the country to the relatively poorer regions. In Britain this is the case with respect to Scotland, Wales and some regions such as North East England which are the net beneficiaries. The Catalan nationalists are very keen to stay in the European Union which has long standing redistributive policies. Also membership of the EU entails a considerable loss of national sovereignty. It is interesting to note that in England some nationalists complain about the net flow of revenue from England to Scotland.
Catalonia is not subjected to imperialist exploitation in the way that are many Latin American countries at the hands of large Spanish-owned companies. In fact many of the companies based in and operating from Catalonia are engaged in business operations in less developed countries. Thus there is a net flow of revenue from less developed countries into Catalonia. There is no suggestion from the nationalists that this would change if Catalonia became fully independent. The same line of reasoning applies to Scotland.
Is Catalonia suffering from cultural oppression?
Since the end of the Franco period there has in fact been a flourishing of regional cultures throughout many parts of Spain including Catalonia. There are all sorts of programmes, both state and voluntary, in Catalonia, including language ones, to strengthen and extend what is distinctly Catalonian. It is hardly in the interest of the central Spanish state to crack down on these developments because this would strengthen separatist sentiments.
SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The Catalan independence movement is strong. Judging from recent elections, referenda and opinion polls around half of the population support more independence from the central Spanish State. On a Marxist analysis there must be an underlying material basis for this phenomenon.
One important factor is probably the growing disaffection throughout Spain with the mainstream political parties and their ineptness when in national government office. The two main parties are Partido Popular (PP) (“centre right”) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) (“centre left”). They have alternated in forming national governments since 1978 and are notoriously corrupt at every level.
In reaction a number of new political movements demanding change have emerged in recent years. The larger ones in terms of support are Unidos Podemos (left-leaning) and
Ciudadanos (right-leaning). In addition, in Catalonia there are Together for Yes, Catalonia Yes We Can, and Popular Unity Candidacy all of whom are to a greater or lesser degree in favour of Catalonian independence. The pro-independence movement is a constantly shifting morass of alliances between mostly small organisations. Even if they had the opportunity to form an independent Catalan government it is hard to see that it
would be able to formulate and successfully apply coherent and viable state policies.
The Spanish political system is undergoing a legitimisation crisis whereby many people have lost confidence in the ability of the mainstream political parties to govern competently. This is probably an important reason for the turn to nationalism in Catalonia. Also in Britain there has been a decline in support for the main two political parties; Conservative and Labour. In recent elections the Scottish National Party has given the Tories and Labour a severe beating and the Brexit vote in England in the EU Referendum was strongly influenced by nationalist and racist sentiments.
Nature abhors a vacuum and this is just as true in politics as it is in physics. If current mainstream political doctrines seem to be inadequate then people will look elsewhere for political guidance. In such circumstances it is not too difficult for various types of nationalism to find a following because such sentiments are already deeply embedded within bourgeois culture and ideology. At the same time left political forces in the Western European countries have been in long-term decline. In Spain the revisionist, Eurocommunist Communist Party of Spain played the electoral game from 1978 onwards but failed to gain any significant foothold in the Spanish political system. The more revolutionary-inclined political groups, including Maoists, also quickly faded away.
By 2008 widespread disaffection with mainstream politics in Spain was compounded by the financial crisis from which Spain particularly suffered. It brought about a very high level of unemployment, especially among young people, and many house reposessions. This gave rise to the Indignate movement which staged many occupations of public places and which spread to other countries. Economic recovery in Spain has been slow and this gives rise to the idea in Catalonia that perhaps things would improve if ties with Spain were to be severed.
The same is probably true of Scotland. The Scottish National Party was founded in 1934 but it only really started to attract a significant number of followers in the nineteen sixties when large oil deposits were discovered in the North Sea. This held out the prospect of a massive influx of wealth into Scotland as subsequently happened in the case of Norway. A major SNP demand was that the North Sea oil fields rightly belonged to the people of Scotland.
As in the rest of Britain, the advance of the SNP since the sixties in winning seats in local and national elections has been facilitated by a decline in support in Scotland for the Conservative and Labour parties. The support for the SNP was boosted by the impact of the 2008 financial crisis which gave succour to the idea that Scotland would be economically better off if it became independent from the rest of Britain. This brought about the large, but minority, vote for independence in the 2014 referendum and then the SNP winning practically all of Scottish parliamentary seats in the General Election of 2015. Even so, the evidence suggests that, rather like Catalonia, the majority of Scots accept the present degree of devolved government they have and do not want outright independence. Although Scotland had a strong left-wing tradition and despite the growing disaffection with the Labour Party which occurred no significant socialist organisations of a revolutionary orientation have emerged.
It should also be noted that the economy of Scotland is an integral part of that of Britain as a whole and thus a part of the nexus of British imperialist oppression and domination throughout the world. There is no distinct Scottish national bourgeoisie at odds with the British bourgeoisie. The working class in Scotland are no more and no less exploited by big capital than are workers in England and Wales.
There certainly are cases of national oppression in the world today. For example, the Kurds and Palestinians. Or take the case of the Rohingya people in Myanmar who are being driven out of their homeland. If they demand a greater or lesser degree of independence from Myanmar then this should be supported. But the people of Catalonia and Scotland are not subject to the same sort of oppression and exploitation. They are economically exploited in the same capitalist way as are the rest of the people living in Spain and Britain. They are controlled and oppressed by the same sort of capitalist state structures as are found throughout the so-called liberal democracies in the world. Neither the Catalan nationalists nor the Scottish nationalists are calling for the expropriation of big capital or the creation of truly democratic political structures. These people range from mildly social democratic reformers through to neo-liberal elements. What they want is capitalist business as usual but on a smaller scale.
The class character of these petty nationalist movements is significant. They certainly are not led by the big bourgeoisie who, in a world of growing globalisation, tend to have a more internationalist (?) perspective. Neither are working class people prominent members of these organisations. Rather it is petit bourgeois, middle strata elements who are the political centre of gravity of Catalan and Scottish nationalisms. As always with such people, they have some difficulties with and resentments against the capitalist status quo but at the same time are trepidatious about the working class and alarmed by any suggestions of revolutionary solutions to their problems. Petty nationalism is an appropriate ideological expression of the objective material position of these people in capitalist society.
Clearly, large numbers of working class people have supported Catalan and Scottish nationalisms otherwise they could not have performed as well in elections as they have done. It has always been the case in the capitalist countries that a significant section of the working class have voted for right wing parties which otherwise would never achieve government office. At the same time it is true that many workers are not enthused by petty nationalism. This seems to be particularly the case in Catalonia where many working class people and their families originate in other parts of Spain.
We live in an increasingly globalised world brought about by capitalism and imperialism. Not only is this bringing about greater economic integration between different countries but also unprecedented and growing movements of people between countries. National differences are in fact weakening and the proletariat is developing as an international class
in a way it was not in the past. The emergence and development of the European Union has been brought about by these strong and irreversible trends. We should be under no illusions about the character of this capitalist superstate or its negative side as far as the working class is concerned. Just look at what the EU has done to Greece and Portugal in the wake of the financial crisis. Even so, the answers to the problems we face is not a retreat into petty nationalism.
Catalonia and Scotland have had strong radical and revolutionary movements in the past, especially the former. Yet as organised, effective political forces they no longer exist in those places. We must face up to the fact that Marxist elements throughout Europe, including Maoists, have completely failed to reach out to the working class and begin to build any sort of real revolutionary organisations with significant mass support. The ball is in our court.
NOT SO PETTY NATIONALISM?
In some of the major capitalist economies of Western Europe in recent decades the response to growing economic difficulties and mass immigration has been a perpetuation of racist attitudes and a strengthening of nationalist sentiments. For example in France the fascist Front National has become a major political force and in Germany the entry of large numbers of asylum seekers has fuelled the rise of the racist and nationalist Alternative for Germany Party. In Britain, especially in England, the rise of UKIP was based on stirring up racist and nationalist sentiments and it played an important role in securing the Brexit vote in the Referendum on Britain’s EU membership. What was notable in the Referendum campaign was that practically all of the organisations claiming to be Marxist campaigned for a “No” vote putting forward reasons not all that different from those of the rightists, e.g. “getting back control of our own affairs”. With the outcome of the negotiations for Britain to leave the EU not likely to do the economic health of that country much good there could easily be a strengthening of nationalist sentiments in the future.
Just as in Scotland, leftist forces in England and Wales are very weak. The revival in the membership and electoral support for the Labour Party should be treated with caution. As has been the trend for some time, in the General Election of 2017 Labour attracted very little more support from working class voters than did the Tories. The rise in support for and membership of the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader has been largely from middle strata elements and not from working class people. The great majority of Labour MP’s and local councillors are of New Labour convictions and are likely to obstruct any radical policies any future Labour government may try to implement. Leftist elements have tried to combat racism in Britain but not very effectively. There is little reason for believing that a future Labour government is any more likely to achieve any really radical changes than did its predecessors.
NATIONALISM OR INTERNATIONALISM?
At present Catalonian nationalism seems to be a fairly benign sort of nationalism. But caution should be exercised. The nationalist sentiments bubbling under the surface in the former Yugoslavia did not seem all that significant back in the nineteen eighties. Then the succession of Slovenia in 1989 sparked off the emergence of a number of vicious, regional nationalisms, e.g. Serbian, Croatian, which brought about internecine wars in which hundreds of thousands perished. Nobody really foresaw this disaster. Spain has a history of internecine strife. Quite apart for the Civil War in the nineteen thirties, in the nineteenth century there were a number of internal wars to some extent based on regional differences. It is not inconceivable that the increasing disaffection with the Spanish political system and the rise of petty nationalism could in the future bring about such disastrous violent conflicts.
In Spain today the forces of the extreme right, Falangists and others, have little support. But we should not be complacent. As we have seen in other parts of Europe, in conditions of economic difficulties and mass immigration such elements can quickly gain a mass following. All the more reason not to dally with petty nationalism however benign it may seem at present.
If a substantial majority of the people in a geographical region demand full political independence then communists should accept this demand even we consider it is not in the objective interests of those people. (We are hardly in a position to effectively oppose such a mass political movement!) We should oppose any repressive measures an existing state apparatus takes to crush such a movement. But we have urgent, positive tasks to pursue.
The task of communists in the European countries is not to retreat into supporting petty and ultimately reactionary nationalisms. Rather we should be vigorously prosecuting a policy of proletarian internationalism and opposition to nationalism and racism within imperialist countries. We should pay particular attention to those sections of the working class who originate from imperialistically dominated parts of the world and work to help them build and strengthen bonds with the longer established sections of the working class. This work should not be done on a narrowly national basis but increasingly with communists across Europe working together in a purposeful and coordinated way.
WORKERS AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!
Revolutionary Praxis December 2017