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Spanish unity and prosperity resulted from the global plunder and slavery that fuelled the emergence of the capitalist countries. The tonnes of gold looted from the New World by slave labour propped up the feudal aristocracy and its handmaid, the Catholic Church. Capitalism developed slowly and unevenly, and the Spanish state subordinated other territories with their own distinct history, language, culture and economy.

When Catalonia attempted to hold a referendum on its independence, the central state sent thousands of national police and paramilitary Guardia Civil to stop the voting. Although Spain is now a parliamentary democracy, the Guardia Civil, a paramilitary corps infamous for its swaggering brutality, were for decades the most hated enforcers of the regime of the fascist General Franco. Similarly, King Felipe, whose father was enthroned by Franco, denounced Catalan "disloyalty". He called the referendum "an unacceptable act of disrespect for the powers of the state" he heads and represents, failing to mention the nearly nine hundred injured. The Spanish establishment closed ranks to proclaim that any challenge to the unity of Spain is illegitimate and criminal.

Because the parties that govern the Spanish state are now elected, that state is said to embody the will of the people. But when people defy that state and the interests it represents, they are beaten, stomped and threatened with prison, whether or not their actions are violent. The state's ultimate reliance on force – as a dictatorship of the capitalist ruling class – begins to be revealed, and the country's unity can be seen as not something sacred and therefore beyond question, or even the product of the will of the people, but as a product and source of that state's power. But there is more that needs to be seen: the interests, classes and future represented by the main actors in this complex drama, and how it's connected to broader phenomena shaping the world stage today.

The "unity of Spain" and its "economic and social stability" that the king called the highest good would not have come into existence without the global plunder and slavery that fuelled the emergence of the capitalist countries and system in general. In Spain, the tonnes of gold looted from the New World by slave labour propped up the feudal aristocracy and its handmaid, the Catholic Church. As a result, capitalism developed slowly and unevenly, and the central Spanish state subordinated other territories with their own distinct history, language, culture and economy.

Catalonia, where early capitalism was most successful, was a pillar of Spain's first, short-lived republic (1873-74) and its second and last (1931-39), when an autonomous Catalonia was a stronghold of a revolutionary upsurge sweeping Spain's cities and countryside. Franco won the three-year civil war against the republic thanks to the support of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and the complicity of all the world's major powers – except the then-socialist USSR. Catalonia was occupied, the leadership of its parliament executed and its language banned from public life for the next two generations.

During the 1960s and early '70s, when Franco's fascist regime was under the protection of the U.S. as a counterweight to France and other European powers, Spain underwent very rapid capitalist development, becoming a more typical European country. These were also decades of cascading political upheavals, courageous illegal organizing, huge street protests, strikes and armed actions against fascism. This political ferment and capitalist development also worked to revive nationalist movements, in Galicia and especially Catalonia and the Basque region where much of the country's new industrial wealth was generated.

Despite the strength of the popular and revolutionary movements, in 1975 the Franco regime came to an end, not with its overthrow but with a pact brokered by the country's ruling classes, regime leaders, the army, Church and most of the mainstream opposition. Disoriented and unclear on its objectives, the revolutionary upheaval collapsed.

In his speech King Felipe declared that his primary duty is to defend Spain's 1978 constitution. That constitution does concentrate issues in today's crisis. It brought parliamentary democracy, but also made the monarch the head of state and the armed forces to ensure the continuity of the imperialist state. That constitution both made concessions to the minority nationalities (some degree of autonomy) and placed strict limits on their rights. It also placed strict limits on the rights of all the people, including forbidding legal pursuit of Francoist leaders and exposure of the regime's crimes. Even today, in the name of the country's unity and stability, it is forbidden to locate the graves of people secretly executed during and after the civil war, such as Spain's most famous poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca.

Yet the development of the global capitalist-imperialist system is digging the ground out from under the social and ideological unity embodied in that constitution. Spain's crisis is inseparably linked to the gathering turmoil in a world where old international alliances are becoming shaky, and national systems of governance and the corresponding ideological consensuses are tottering. This is what there is in common to global phenomena that are very different and even incomparable when considered individually, including rising nationalist movements (both those spurred by domination, and reactionary expressions of dominant nation chauvinism like Trumpism and Brexit) and the almost universal outbreak of religious fundamentalism.

In the context of ever more globalized and acute international competition, Spain, at least as much as anywhere else, is experiencing the crumbling of the social-democratic model that accompanied the long, awful night of post-World War 2 reactionary political stability in Europe and made the pact with Francoism possible. That social consensus was severely jolted when Spain broke ranks with Europe and joined the U.S. and UK invasion of Iraq in 2001, in flagrant opposition to public opinion and the most powerful anti-war movement in the West. It cracked further when decades of economic boom came to an abrupt end with the 2008 world financial crisis, which hit Spain particularly hard. Massive unemployment, widespread home evictions and state brutality against the old and new poor have spurred questioning and resistance. The two parties that have alternated in government since the Franco era, current Prime Minister Rajoy's Popular Party (founded by Franco politicians) and the Socialist Party (opposed to Franco), have lost much of the legitimacy they once enjoyed among different classes, along the same general lines as the mainstream "right" and "left" in most imperialist countries.

Within this context, there are other accelerating push and pull factors. Catalan capital has been particularly successful in its relations with other European capitals and looting Latin America and Africa through investment, while the central government has taken legal moves to reign in regional financial organizations. The main Catalan employers' association, the association of small and medium enterprises and the traditional political representatives of Catalan capital have become more favourable to Catalan independence, even as popular support seems to have ebbed. Politically, the demand for independence has been spurred by the state's harsh moves against the Catalan regional authorities.  

King Felipe needed to echo Franco in raising the indivisibility of Spain as the highest good because the country is increasingly divided in ways unfavourable to its rulers. The challenge to this unity has also set the stage for today's crowds of young people waving Spanish flags to avenge the "affront" of Catalan nationalism. More than a few can be seen making the stiff-armed Franco fascist salute. Self-declared fascists have been given much more political space by the resurgence of Spanish nationalism sanctified by most of the political spectrum.

At the same time, that nationalism cannot be painlessly propagated in a country where many millions remember or are aware of the role that inherently reactionary ideology played in justifying and sustaining the Franco regime and its suffocating grip on Spanish society. This is seen in duelling displays of Spanish and Catalan flags on balconies in Barcelona, Madrid and elsewhere. Some people who can't accept the Spanish banner instead fly the rainbow LGBT liberation flag in defiance of the homophobia, patriarchy and Catholic doctrine that thrived in the country's backwardness and defined Spain's official culture.

At the same time, many of the forces rallying around the indivisibility of Spain are also determined to reverse the legality of birth control, abortion and gay rights along with the most elementary rights of minority nationalists. The shadow of fascism stands not only in the Francoist past, but far more on the needs of the hour faced by Spanish imperialism.

The upheaval in Spain today is coming at a time when the unity of the European Union itself and the traditional arrangements for the governance of its constituents are under unprecedented strain. Following the crisis in Greece, Brexit and the rise of fascist movements throughout the EU, the spectre of Spain now being ripped apart has sent shock waves through Brussels and the capitals of Europe. And while the leaders of the Catalan nationalist movement have set their sights on joining the EU, the EU leaders have supported the central state.

While the contradictoriness of the Catalan bourgeoisie's interests (linked with Spanish capital and unable to do without the financial and political institutions of a strong state) means their position tends to waver, there is little chance that the Spanish state and ruling class overall will waver. This is not only due to life-and-death economic interests but even more because they need to get united, even if by force if that is required, rally some of the people and neutralize or isolate others, and defend their rule at all costs.

Catalan nationalism cannot offer a way out of this complex intermingling of contradictions, because it is not in the interests of the vast majority of Catalonia's people or the people of Spain and the world. Its interests are too narrow and its horizons far too limited. Even in the unlikely event of an independent Catalonia emerging, a new capitalist-imperialist state would perpetuate – and violently enforce – the exploitative and oppressive social relations so many people there and in the rest of Spain already find intolerable. It would be part of imprisoning humanity in an outmoded world system of antagonistic economic and social relationships that crushes human potential and is killing the planet.

The turbulence that is racking Spain and Europe's traditional social and political order more generally is weakening these powerful imperialist states and their traditional alliances and awakening people to political life, but in highly contradictory ways. Upholding and defending the rights of Spain's minority nationalities is essential to unite all those who can be united to carry out a revolution to overthrow the Spanish imperialist state and establish a socialist state or states throughout as much of Spain as possible on a voluntary basis. One key task of such a radically new state would be to achieve a just and democratic solution to the oppression of the Catalan and the other oppressed peoples of Spain. This would be an indispensable part of building a radically new society and moving toward the abolition of all inequalities and all forms of oppressive and repressive rule and all relations of domination and exploitation throughout the world. That kind of revolution is the only way out.

* JUAN SUI writes for A World to Win News Service (



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