Catalonia ferment undimmed

Weeks of protests against the jailing of rapper Pablo Hasél have rocked Catalonia and other parts of the Spanish state, becoming a lightning rod for the anger of a generation whose lives have hit a dead end. These social explosions are just a taste of the revolutionary confrontations that lie ahead.

The Mossos (Catalan police) finally arrested Hasél on February 16, after he had barricaded himself in the University of Lleida with supporters, refusing to comply with attempts by state forces to jail him after he was convicted under the hated Citizen Safety Law.

This anti-democratic edict, nicknamed the ‘gag law’, was enacted in 2015 by the government of the conservative Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy and left on the books by subsequent governments led by Pedro Sánchez and the so-called ‘Socialist Workers’ Party’ (PSOE). The law grants widespread powers to the state to attack democratic rights to speak freely, assemble and protest.

Hasél was convicted of insulting the monarchy and the state forces and of ‘glorifying’ terrorism using social media. He faces two years in jail. The Twitter account and music of this revolutionary socialist rapper reflects a hatred of the capitalist establishment that has found a profound echo amongst wide layers of the youth. Hasél rails against inequality in capitalist Spain, the corruption of the ‘gangster’ monarchy and the brutality of the police. In his disgust his anger often overflows in ways that anyone familiar with rap music would see is not unusual.

His audience is a generation cast onto the scrap heap not merely by Covid-19 but by the capitalist system in general. The pandemic has pushed youth unemployment up to 40%, but it was already at 30% before the virus arrived. Four million are unemployed, with another 900,000 only saved from the sack by the ERTE furlough programme due to end this spring. Spanish capitalism can offer no hope to the youth, and has increasingly instead turned to repression. It is backed to the hilt by the European Union institutions, which are assisting Madrid to repress Catalan national aspirations. The EU parliament has voted to scrap the immunity from prosecution of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and other politicians exiled after the Spanish state moved to crush the independence referendum of 2017.

Over 100 people have been arrested since the Hasél protests began. One protester lost an eye to a rubber bullet and many more are injured. Social media is awash with videos of police brutality, even as the mainstream capitalist press and politicians decry the ‘violence’ of the protesters. There is an urgent need for the protest movement to set up local committees and a national structure to coordinate its efforts, including how to defend demonstrations from attacks by the police and to raise a programme of demands that could recruit widespread support.

The trade union movement must also rise to repel this attack on democratic rights and connect with the youth on the protests to demonstrate that the organised working class can offer a way forward. If they do not, the trade unions – illegal under the Franco dictatorship – will pay a hefty price. Despite statues finally coming down, the legacy of the Franco dictatorship has never been dismantled in Spain. The 1978 constitution – shamefully supported by the Spanish Communist Party – continues many aspects of the Francoist state, all sealed by a monarchy now utterly exposed as rotten to the core. New far-right party Vox has forced its way into national and regional parliaments because the left has tied itself to an establishment increasingly hated by broader and broader swathes of the masses.

These were the processes underlying the results of the Catalan elections, held on February 14 after the president of the Generalitat, Catalonia’s parliament, was again deposed undemocratically by Madrid.

History was made in this election as parties which support independence for Catalonia obtained a majority for the first time. But at the same time PSOE – in the form of local affiliate the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) – almost doubled its seats, up to 33 from 17, gaining 9% more of the vote (to 23%). PSOE has headed the Spanish government while the independence movement in Catalonia has continued to be brutally repressed. The CWI alone has been able to explain what is behind this contradiction.

The majority obtained for pro-independence parties shows that the issue of national self-determination has not receded, and that PSOE’s results were not down to the base of this ex-social democratic party ‘returning home’ or restabilising. Rather, as the state government party with the highest national profile, PSC/PSOE became the main party of those not won to independence, including workers particularly in the so-called ‘red belt’ who are concerned that the economic impact of Catalan independence would hurt the living standards of working-class Catalans. In this election PSOE became the main party of the Spanish establishment, absorbing votes from new right-wing party Ciudadanos, which lost 80% of its voters and collapsed from 30 to just six seats (in the region which birthed it), and also some of the votes of the PP, which now commands just three seats and 4% of the vote.

We saw a similar process in Scotland following the 2014 independence referendum when electoral support for the Tories was driven up following the vote as No supporters were drawn temporarily around the most prominent unionist party. It would be a mistake to imagine PSOE is standing on firm ground. The party has delivered no significant material advances to the working class for decades. The electoral situation is still extremely volatile and the snap election for the Madrid regional assembly in May could go in several possible directions. There is no loyalty to PSOE, and Pablo Iglesias, who has resigned from the government in order to head the challenge of the left party Unidas Podemos (UP) in the region, could make significant gains with the correct approach and a bold programme of socialist transformation that promised to defend workers’ living standards.

Gains for Unidas Podemos – a coalition of Podemos, the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and other forces – would be a radical shift in the party’s current trajectory but are possible if mistakes are corrected and a new road taken. The results in Catalonia demonstrate that it is possible for the left to advance electorally, but they also underline that mistakes on programme and approach will be brutally punished.

Given the explosive and sustained prominence of the national question in Catalonia, adopting a correct position there has been of crucial importance. Only by supporting independence on a socialist basis, guaranteeing full language and culture rights to all, could a party win over and unite the working class. A socialist Catalonia could act as a beacon to all workers and youth throughout the Spanish state, and ignite a united struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist federation. The working class could plan the economy democratically and could thereby reassure those who fear cuts to living standards that all of society’s wealth would be held by the working class, and economic links with other states in the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe maintained within a socialist confederation.

This has not been the position of UP which, at the height of the crisis in 2017, could only manage a call for negotiations over a ‘legal referendum’ that Spanish capitalism would never concede. Additionally, UP has weakened its support amongst the left-moving masses, who were disgusted at party leaders who shook hands with the king at the Zarzuela palace. Podemos should never have joined the government with PSOE. It was quite possible to assist Sánchez to remove the right-wing PP government while retaining the party’s independence and ability to support or oppose individual proposals of the PSOE government based on whether they advanced the cause of workers or not. Their claim to fight the establishment is fatally compromised by joining it.

Like every party – besides PSOE – which did not sharply distinguish itself from the establishment, UP failed to advance in the Catalan elections. The party had won the 2016 general election in Catalonia, but wallowed at just 7% of the vote this year, coming sixth with eight seats.

Similarly, of the pro-independence parties, it was not the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) but the Catalan nationalist party Together for Catalonia (JxC) and left party Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) which made gains. ERC had placated the PSOE government in Madrid (despite the jailing of one ERC leader and the banning of another from office!) while JxC mounted ferocious but insincere verbal attacks on Sánchez.

Spanish nationalist party Vox won its first seats in the Catalan parliament in this election. At this stage the party is mainly cannibalising the votes of other right-wing parties in Catalonia but in the absence of a serious challenge to the establishment from the left, Vox could expand – even in Catalonia – out of the ranks of the ruined middle classes to gather support amongst a layer of desperate workers.

The potential for this confused picture to polarise further along class lines can be seen by CUP’s results. The party almost doubled its seats, going from five to nine. But there are clear warnings that should be heeded by both CUP and Unidas Podemos going into the Madrid elections. CUP has in the past been lured into a bloc that includes right-wing capitalist forces that support independence. If it repeats that mistake today, with class struggle sharpening, then it will be discredited and punished at least as harshly as UP has been in the past. Whatever the formal relationship between ERC and JxC, the new Catalan government that emerges will not do what is necessary to defend workers from the economic storm ahead, nor will it mount a serious struggle for independence. CUP must demonstrate that it will.

There is a similar crisis confronting Unidas Podemos. Iglesias has correctly appealed to Más País, which split from Podemos in 2019, to stand as part of a united left list, which will be popular amongst workers looking for a united front against the bosses. But Podemos must break decisively with PSOE if it is to credibly challenge other forces for the leadership of the growing anti-establishment mood. Not only Iglesias, but all of UP’s leaders should walk out of the Sánchez cabinet, decry the repression of the Pablo Hasél protesters, the failure to lift anti-protest and anti-union laws of previous governments, the prioritising of profits over the safety and incomes of workers during the pandemic, and the threat to further attack workers’ living standards to pay for the looming economic crisis.

Both UP and CUP should take an independent position in defence of the interests of workers and use every platform they have to fight. UP has been depleted but has still retained important platforms across the Spanish state. CUP has seats in the Spanish Cortes now, and in the Catalan parliament, as well 23 mayors and hundreds of councillors. All of these positions should be used to fight cuts and broadcast the need for a socialist programme that defends workers and refuses to sacrifice their interests for those of profit, linking up with workers in trade unions and on the streets to build, sustain and organise a mass movement.

CUP could be the nucleus around which a new party for the working class gathers in Catalonia. In Madrid, UP has perhaps another chance (its last?) to halt its descent and strike out on a new path. The far right are poised to exploit every misstep of the left, but with the correct strategy and a bold socialist programme that defies the demands of capitalism, the situation could rapidly be turned around. The protests which have erupted demonstrate that the masses are rising, angry at the capitalist system which offers them no future. That anger must be fashioned into an organisation that can smash the obstacles on the road to socialism.

Ross Saunders