This is the second article we are posting written by Lorena Sorantes, from Galicia in Spain, about the political situation in Catalunya.
This brief article will be an attempt to enumerate and then explain the current challenges the Catalan left-wing movement is facing and will face from this year onwards . In order to do that properly, first I will define what I understand by Catalan left-wing. Then, I’ll describe the situation this movement finds itself in by analysing the latest events that are shaping politics in Catalonia and the Spanish State. That way I can provide a diagnosis of how things are so the reader can draw his / her conclusions.
It’s noteworthy to say the debates going on within the left spectrum in Catalonia are not new to the worldwide movement. Most of them address old matters that the classical writers and theorists couldn’t explain in their time or left for the next generations to debate and solve. The Catalan left-wing movement is going through a period of reorganisation, reformation and self-criticism. We cannot guess what the outcome of these discussions and arguments is going to be. The sure thing is today’s political subjects, organisations and ideas are bound to undergo big changes in the short-term. As the old patterns are renewed, my approach to the Catalan left will derive from this dynamic political background.
The Catalan left-wing movement
I am always concerned about definitions and terminology, and even more when I write in a foreign language and not in my native one, as I want to be understood in the best way possible. Wrong definitions produce wrong answers about our reality. That’s why my intention in this paragraph is to clarify what the Catalan left-wing movement is and what is not. The reader might know of the rising relevance of the national question in Spanish politics. Catalonia acts as the epicentre of the earthquake against centralism, I think this is worth mentioning because this forms one of the pivotal roles shaping the behaviour of the left (and right) in Catalonia.
Thus we find a unionist left, linked to Spanish politics and the transition to democracy in the late 1970s; and a nationalist left, rooted in the republican tradition and with a limited view of democracy. Both sides have embraced liberal politics, refusing to take steps towards anti-capitalist positions, a common reaction from the European left since the 80s. When I refer to the Catalan left-wing movement, I have to incorporate the unionist and nationalist traditions as part of the whole spectrum, regardless of their organisational and self-declared political status. That means the left in Catalonia is often in competition. They are divided into diverse ideological caucuses which prevent them from establishing larger alliances. I’m not saying this is right or wrong; only it’s a fragmented pattern that will not disappear in the future. The Catalan national question has proven to be the first challenge for the left.
In concluding this definition, the Catalan left-wing movement is made of individuals and organisations that share a desire for equality and social justice, and that to encompass the worldwide left-wing political spectrum, ranging from social democracy to communism and anarchism. We exclude “centrist” groups or individuals who might adopt left rhetoric in situations of crisis or general discontent but then apply the same thinking and policies of the right-wing (i.e. the Blairites and Starmerites in the Labour Party). Having defined what the movement is and what it’s s not, political parties such as the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) or Citizens (C’s) don’t belong to the left because of their opportunism, whilst social democratic groups like Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), We Can (PODEMOS) and United Left (EU) are part of the left-wing spectrum.
This definition assumes the social democratic left is part of the movement because it has developed patterns of action that force us to consider it as a different phenomenon from the Spanish liberal “left”. New political parties such as We Can (PODEMOS) have rejected collaboration with right-wingers and have also introduced social measures we can’t deny as progressive and closer to a social capitalist model of society. Despite this being true, we also observe how these kinds of organisations will not put pressure on the financial and economic elites. They do not have a revolutionary program. Their objective is to increase their representation within the existing political structures, and they would most likely return to the old United Left patterns, acting as a “control party” to hold the PSOE to account. Knowing the position these actors hold lets us use an analytical eye when addressing them. But it also provides us with a chance to pressure them into harder positions on the left spectrum.
After these introductory paragraphs, our goal is to explain what challenges are still open for the Catalan left. Some of these deepen the negative aspects of the stalemate the left-wing suffers (not only in Catalonia), whilst others create opportunities to conquer spaces traditionally left behind by progressive and revolutionary forces. I will briefly enumerate them, then I’ll add comments about potential possibilities to seize for each one.
The national question
The first challenge we find when we refer to the Catalan left-wing movement is their approach to the national question. It is necessary to address this issue of national self-determination including higher levels of autonomy. This seems easy for the right-wing, which has kept a coherent Spanish nationalist discourse through the years, opposing Catalan nationalism and advocating the recovery of a centralist form of government (i.e. the liberal right has France, one of the most centralist European countries, as the example to follow); but it is more problematic for progressive and revolutionary organisations and individuals. The Catalan left has always tried to identify “the people of Catalonia” as a unifying concept, escaping the duality of claiming a “Spanish-Catalan identity”. This has been the tradition even within the social democrat parties like United Left or the defunct Initiative for a Green Catalonia (ICV), a surprising approach coming from Spanish parties. That strategy of promoting a Catalan left, different from the rest of the forces in the state and with sovereign aspirations, has pushed unionist left groupings into the background until the renaissance of the Spanish ultra-nationalism with Citizens (C’s) and most recently Vox.
Pro-independence leftism has grown in electoral support and legitimacy after the referendum and the imprisonment of political and civil society leaders. Despite this growing tendency, to keep on forgetting the struggle for social and public services, trade unionism or alternative grounds of action such as the streets and universities. The lack of organisation in workshops and of an alternative self-determination policy leave the streets to the extreme right, the trade unions to the individualistic and social democratic traditions (particularly imposed by the Spanish main unions UGT and CCOO). Furthermore, it provides bourgeois nationalism with a full victimisation theory where they claim to be the real targets of the repressive Spanish State.
One of the mistakes of the pro-independence left has been to back Puigdemont’s’(leader of the right wing Together for Catalonia) electoral campaign by putting themselves as supporters of the former Catalan leader, instead of creating new dynamics of struggle against the incarceration of political figures. I’m not saying the left should not stand in solidarity with the exiles and the arrested politicians and civilians. However, the lack of a proper campaign of their own has given the right-wing nationalists grounds for identifying the cause of independence with the Catalan presidency. This presidency is backed by a bourgeoisie acting in the interests of financial powers only interested in creating a Catalan Republic on similar lines to Spain. This would be organised as a liberal democracy competing with the rest of European states within the controversial European Union.
The non-nationalist left, struggling between Spanish nationalism and a federal response (difficult to believe), hasn’t been able to find a place to create a stable base of supporters. It maintains its electoralist pattern, like the left in the rest of the Spanish territory, combined with a strong criticism of Catalan nationalism (a cliché that derives from the centralist tradition of the social democrats in Spain). They argue that independence won’t provide a solution for the working class of Catalonia. Their continuous claim not to be nationalists but also to be outside Spanish unionist politics leaves this part of the movement alone in an equivocal position nobody understands.
PODEMOS is the creator of a policy of “equidistance”, which has turned out to be an excuse to justify alignments and agreements with the PSOE and Republican Left of Catalonia and attempting to escape criticism at the same time. Their electoral performances are useless in constructing the social base needed to deliver on worker’s rights and a society that hopes to abolish capitalism. They do not have the ability to make gains in workshops, to organise non-spontaneous protests on the streets or to put pressure on the system.
The social democrats aren’t there for the abolition of capitalism. Their main objective (short and long-term) is winning elections to promote reforms from within the parliamentary system. So the first task for the movement is to learn how to separate these opportunist discourses, empty of revolutionary content, from an organised collective of groups that can steer the debate for autonomy or independence. It’s wrong to let the right-wing nationalists play the national question game without any opposition (or serious opposition). The battle to confront hegemonic nationalism needs to begin by a conscious debate on the left that hasn’t happened yet as a result of wrong tactics and direction loss within many organisations.
We know the national question is a long-standing issue on the left, and it’s genuinely difficult to oppose well-established bourgeois nationalist discourse. That’s an undeniable fact; so creating grounds to establish contacts and conversations on the matter would increase the argumentation about a people’s alternative both to right-wing politics and the opportunist left. PODEMOS and Republican Left of Catalonia, as systemic parties, need to adopt approaches from within it, but this should never be the case of socialists and communists. Analysing the conditions of the system in Catalonia is the way to start discussing how a future socialist Catalonia should relate to Spain. As a pro-independence supporter, I don’t completely dismiss behind the possibility of a Confederal State, although my reflections and experience listening and understanding the left in this country has forced me to abandon any Spanish republican illusion. The centralist left simply doesn’t understand the distinctive characteristics of each territory (mostly the periphery).
The electoral question
The second challenge the left-wing faces nowadays is the electoral question, another classic debate where we can find different tactics and strategies throughout history. Here it’s important again to watch for the conditions the capitalist system has created in different areas of the planet. Electoralist attitudes are as erroneous as anti-political ways of acting. The Catalan left has always been inclined to focus on electoral success while leaving the workplaces and the streets to small localist groups. That way both extreme strategies, either the electoralist or the solely trade-union-oriented, find themselves separated in two different struggles with nothing to share and lacking a common objective. That would be defeating the systemic forces in favour of building socialism.
We’ve seen this debate emerge within the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), that works through assemblies. The more moderate and independence-focused sector advocates a union with the rest of the pro-independence formations to stand in elections with a common program against the Spanish State. As tempting as this strategy seems in order to conquer power for the pro-independence left, it brings us to the point where the left keeps buying liberal tactics and sharing common grounds with the bourgeoisie, which will eventually marginalise the working class in that project, handing the lead to the establishment and not to the people. The radical wing of the CUP supports instead a focus on social policies and forming alliances with social movements, trade unions and other organisations which use the protest as the first means to push for reform. The benefits from this way to campaign are the solidarity within the people and a clear possibility for paving the road to a better society. Although it’s an interesting model and leaves behind electoralist manners, it’s not enough to reach the abolition of capitalism. There’s not a correlation of forces to destroy the economic system if the battle is just polarised on these types of political and social grounds. Losing programmatic coherence in favour of presenting candidates to a parliament is disastrous and breaks the sense of existence that the movement could have at the beginning.
However, I’m not particularly a fan of keeping the left-wing movement aside from elections and the political game. I think it provides visibility, and can represent a new ground of action to inform the people what socialists advocate. I genuinely believe political debates and parliamentary discussions can become a serious place to promote anticapitalism and criticism of big corporations, corruption and far right blasphemy. The danger is to fall into the systemic dynamics of competition, individualism and disorganisation; which I believe are contaminating the social democratic parties (because they are fully committed to that strategy). What bothers me the most is to find those electoralist and reductionist processes occurring within the revolutionary left (the CUP and associated groups). The solution is to promote again a serious debate revising and correcting new and old mistakes on this matter, to avoid diluted messages and reformist agendas that end up benefiting the centre-left or even the right. It’s important to find, although it is complex and hard, a balance between self-determination, action at workplaces with the unions, social issues and electoral-political strategies. As you can see, it’s not a mere one-day’s work, nor can it be done without a committed militancy.
The relationship with social democracy and the bourgeois opportunist left
The third and last challenge I will explain consists of the relationship with the actors of “new politics”, these being the New Left exponents in the Spanish State (PODEMOS, Más País and others). If the pro-independence left knows how to handle relations with the PSOE and the PP (traditional centrist parties), cutting all the possible links with them due to their behaviour sending to jail democratic politicians, it’s not as clear when it comes to refusing to collaborate with bourgeois nationalism. That is wrong and has to change. Social democracy, whatever the colour and the defence of the national question they support, represents the oligarchies and is pressured to continue reinforcing capitalism as a “moderate” way to win workers’ votes. Alliances or coalitions with PODEMOS and its associates in Catalonia have to derive from a deep and long discussion and to be temporary. The Spanish left has had these types of alliances with opportunist organisations in the past (i.e. the Popular Front against Francoism in 1936), but these never lasted more than one electoral campaign or a special conjuncture. In articulating these alliances, the left cannot become the minor partner, lending the reformists the leading role, because as the opportunist left gets the chance to demobilise the anti-capitalist revolutionaries and go back to moderation and stability (translated into neoliberalism). That’s the problem of relations with the bourgeois parties.
In the beginning of the article, I considered the social democratic organisations as part of the left-wing movement. Indeed, they are, but that doesn’t imply they belong to the revolutionary cause, so it’s up to the alternative left to formulate a radical option for the majority. Whether there’s a revolutionary force on the frontline of action, opportunists have to stay on the back and eventually they join contra revolutionary forces (i. e. social democrats in Venezuela). As for PODEMOS, its “radical” discourse shouldn’t fool anyone, their “new politics” strategy is just old opportunism with renewed faces and new ways. Nevertheless, the work PODEMOS has done in order to demobilise the people in every corner of the state has to be undone.
The national question, electoral strategies and relations with the reformist left and bourgeois parties – those are the three main challenges for the Catalan left-wing movement. It finds itself in a period of reorganisation and realignment that will have lots of implications in the future, and this also implies debates, complex decisions and mistakes to amend. It will take some time to establish a real alternative to bourgeois nationalism within the pro-independence left; as for the non-nationalist left, past errors and coalitions with opportunist forces can’t become the usual way to act. Both sides should understand how to work together in reclaiming the space of an alternative left to provide a solution for Catalonia.
19th March 2021
for other articles by Lorena Sorantes see:-
Right-wing nationalism, Spanish republicanism and the real alternative