Forward! A Week of Protest in Catalonia

Police attack a pro-independence rally in Barcelona.

This week in Catalonia the harsh sentences bestowed on the organizers of a 2017 referendum have sparked a wave of protests, breathing new life into the region’s independence movement. The new scenario might also open a space for the leftist independentist groups to push forward a program that combines Catalan independence with social transformation.

On the morning of Monday, October 14, the Spanish Supreme Court made it known that the nine politicians and social leaders who organized a referendum vote on independence two years ago were condemned for sedition and embezzlement and would be punished with nine to thirteen year prison terms.

The first important response was a takeover of the Barcelona airport on Monday night, organized by the platform Tsunami Democratic. In subsequent days, however, the response quickly overtook the framework proposed by this secret platform, which appears to be concerted between a range of independentist forces.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were confrontations in the center of Barcelona and other Catalan cities between protesters and the Mossos, the body of local militarized police. This caused some leaders to take distance from the protests or at least their form, whereas leftist groups such as Endavant and Arran called for a push forward toward a feminist and socialist republic.

The overall situation is favorable to leftist independentist forces in as much as the Catalan bourgeoisie is divided and relatively unprepared to channel the movement in its favor – as the Basque bourgeoisie has done with such success in its own context. However, the independentist left suffers from being a small minority in the overall movement, and it is also limited by Catalonia’s longstanding ultrademocratic political culture.

That political culture, which has much to do with Catalonia’s anarchist history, means that key decisions are often taken in assembly, and there is little possibility for a vanguard to launch projects or slogans that would orient the struggle in its favor. Nor has the independentist left been able to incorporate the most exploited sectors of the working class or the immigrants into the struggle.

The decision of some of the leftist organizations to remain in the backseat this week was dramatically illustrated during Tuesday night’s protest in which the small Endavant group retreated away from the frontline of the protest with its handmade banner well before the confrontations broke out near the building of the Spanish delegation in Barcelona.

The overall situation is clearly one in which the masses – with their rebelliousness and inchoate aspirations for change – surpass the leadership. That the mass media is so dominated by the right wing is no help. The media attempts to locate the issue of spontaneous (in fact minuscule) acts of popular violence in center stage (despite the fact that the majority of Catalonia’s residents couldn’t care less).

Because of this unfavorable climate of manufactured opinion and its own atomization, the left leadership has difficulty projecting a clear message: its call for a feminist and socialist republic is good but too abstract. It does not hit home the way a concrete slogan such as the Bolshevik’s all-time winner, “Peace, Bread and Land,” did one hundred years ago.

Nevertheless, the overall situation in Catalonia today should be seen as positive by anyone with revolutionary consciousness. Revolutions require a great deal of chaos before a new order can be imposed. If the outcome of this current wave of struggles continues to be a giant open question, that should inspire delight in those who realize that the majority of readymade answers to our problems – those that circulate in the public sphere – are also completely useless ones.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.