Homage to Catalonia

As we see more twists and turns in the Catalan crisis, Angus Brown argues for the right of Catalans to vote for independence and offers a thought-provoking critique of his fellow OULC members.

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”

These words were how George Orwell, a veteran of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification who fought fascism in Spain from 1936 described the sentiment in revolutionary Catalonia, then under the control of the CNT-FAI (an Anarcho-Syndicalist organisation which had rallied a significant portion of the Spanish left behind her vision of decentralisation, democracy and equality for all). That was eighty-one years ago, and now once more – against a backdrop of global financial crisis and stagnation, the rise of populist demagoguery, and growing geopolitical tensions – the people of Catalonia have risen up. In a bold play for self-determination, the Catalan government called a referendum on independence for the region based upon the victory of the Catalan nationalist JxSÍ in the region’s 2015 election, which resulted in parties in favour of Catalan self-determination securing an astonishing 56.7% of the vote – in such circumstances it seems only fair that the Catalan government should see whether her people support the region’s exit from Spain. What was Spain’s response? A brutal crackdown; violent repression and the suppression of the voting rights of Catalan citizens by force. The world was horrified at what had transpired, and condemnation of the violence was near universal even if the global establishment was characteristically reticent about any intervention.

It was with this violent oppression – the culmination, one must add, of centuries of oppression of Catalonians by Spain – as a background that I attended a debate of the Oxford University Labour Club on the subject, expecting condemnations of Spain and wholehearted support for the Catalan struggle. What I instead discovered was that many of my colleagues in the OULC, though rightly condemning the violence of the Spanish Government, not only did not support the referendum, but, shockingly, did not believe Catalonia even had a right to hold it. Excuses were given of course – the Catalonian government wishes to be independent to implement right-wing policies, or that we should be working to abolish nationalism in favour of Internationalist solidarity, or that a referendum in which voters were actively beaten up by the police did not see a high turnout; there were even some questionable claims that Catalonia is hardly oppressed due to its relative wealth within Spain (this despite decades of Francoist oppression and centuries of Spanish imperialism before that). Where here were the values of the Labour Party? A party which supports self-determination and democracy in the face of oppression, the same party which supported the Spanish rebels of the 1930s, and whose members – in Oxford at least – now seemed to reject that right to decide one’s own fate merely because the people making the decision had the audacity to hold different political views to them.

The same old arguments were made of course that no group have a “right” to simply declare themselves a nation and leave the one they are currently in, but even if one accepts such a claim it hardly applies here – Catalonia has a long history of independence as the pre-Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, and a distinct cultural legacy separate from the Castilian cultural hegemony of Madrid. The people of Catalonia have hardly woken up one day and declared that they shall now reject Spain, but have instead long struggled first for autonomy and now for independence. Even if one believes that the referendum held this year did not see a high enough turnout to be binding and conclusive, should one not still accept that the Catalonian people have a right to a free and fair referendum to settle the issue for themselves? If such a referendum were to yield a radically different result to this one (in which over 90% of voters cast their ballots in favour of independence) then of course we should respect their decision to remain within Spain, but what is important is that they have the right to choose for themselves.

Of course, one does not agree with the views of Catalonia’s government that the poorer regions of Spain are “stealing” their money through taxes, but this does not void their right to choose their own fate. One would not, for example, bar someone from voting merely because they believed in right-wing policies with which we supporters of the Labour party often find vile and dangerous, so why should a people with such right-wing ideals be prevented from voting on the future of their own nation? Unless one gives into dark and undemocratic impulses it seems impossible to justify denying the Catalans a referendum on their own sovereignty. Such ideas are as dangerous as they are inconsistent, and mark a worrying trend in modern politics to see those we disagree with as “the enemy” – any other with views alien to our own who we must oppose at every turn.

In short, if one is committed both to progressive politics and to the right of all peoples to democracy and self-determination then one must also accept that it is just and fair for Catalonia to hold a referendum on the future of the region and whether or not it shall remain part of Spain. To say that the Catalonian people are not oppressed in the light of the force used against them is so clearly untrue, as is the claim that they do not form a nation “worthy” of independence, and one finds it to not only to be logically inconsistent but dangerous to suggest that their right-wing aims should prevent them from having a right to decide their own nation’s future. In such times of strife and turbulence as these, we must not stoop so low as to deny our ideological rivals of their rights, and we must remain committed, as always, to the progressive policies of democracy and self-determination.


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