Catalonia and the National Question

The struggle for Catalan independence which has been raging all this autumn has proved controversial on the left.  

Socialist Worker

Catalonia and the National Question

By John Molyneux

There have been those like the present writer, and People Before Profit , who have given full support to this struggle. There have been others who have said socialists and the left should be wary of supporting any form of nationalism.

It has also been argued that the left should not support Catalan independence because: a) Carles Puigdemont and the Catalan government are rightwing neo-liberals so this is just a quarrel between rival factions in the ruling class; b) Catalonia is one of the richest areas in Spain, not an oppressed nation, and this is just a revolt of the privileged.

In answering these arguments I want first to say something about the general principle of national self-determination and then look at how it applies to Catalonia.


In general socialists should support the right of nations to self-determination, including their right to separate from larger states and establish themselves as independent. This is not because socialists support nationalism but precisely because they are internationalists and want to work towards the international unity of all working people.

They understand that to achieve that international unity it is necessary to oppose all forms of national oppression. International unity must be completely voluntary. It cannot be based on coercion.

Failure to support a nation’s right to self determination almost always involves actually supporting the much worse nationalism of the oppressor state. Thus those who oppose Scottish independence on the basis, supposedly, of opposing nationalism, actually end up supporting British nationalism which is far more reactionary.

Secondly socialists support self-determination because they understand that the struggles of smaller nations for independence tend to weaken the capitalist ruling classes of the major imperialist nations and thus assist the cause of the working class internationally.

For example, the struggle for Irish independence from 1916-22, weakened British imperialism and aided the cause of international revolution at that time. It was the same with Indian independence in 1947 and later with the movements for African independence. It was therefore the duty of every British socialist to support Irish, Indian and African independence.

Only on this basis could there be real unity between British socialists and British workers and Irish socialists and Irish workers or Indian and African workers.

The most committed internationalists in the history of socialism such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all understood and adhered to this principle. ‘A nation that oppresses another’, wrote Marx, ‘cannot itself be free’.


Is Catalonia an exception to this general rule? No it is not.

It is true that Carles Puigdemont and his government are right wing but that does not alter the right to self-determination of the Catalan people. Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera were also right wing – that did not change the right of the Irish people to be free from the British empire.

Defence of the right to self-determination in no way depends on approval of the government or the political character of the leadership of the national movement: it is a question of the democratic rights of the mass of the people.

Socialists do indeed criticize Puigdemont and the bourgeois nationalist leadership of Catalonia, but we criticise from the left for their failure to mobilise the masses and really put up a fight for independence, for their willingness to compromise and even sell out the struggle, not for their daring to defy Rajoy and the Spanish State who are much bigger and more reactionary nationalists with a long history as imperialist oppressors.

Is the Catalan struggle a ‘revolt of the privileged’? No, it is not. It is true that Catalonia is one of the more affluent parts of the Spanish State, as is the Basque country, but the difference in living standards with say Madrid and Castille is marginal. Moreover the Catalan big bourgeoisie, the really rich, are firmly opposed to independence.

This is a revolt, driven from below, by the mass of ordinary people in Catalonia. This is clear from the nature of the movement with its mass demonstrations and general strikes.

Moreover, the very denial of the right of the Catalan people to separate and their right to a referendum, including by force as on 1 October when the Spanish police attacked voters, turns Catalonia into an oppressed nation.

Therefore it is quite right for socialists to back the independence struggle of the Catalan people.

Also this issue is of wider significance. With the general decay of capitalism and the crisis of the EU we are likely to see more and more attempts to by smaller nations to breakaway. This is just what the European ruling class and the EU bureaucrats fear, but socialists should welcome this phenomenon and know how to relate to it and channel it in a radical and revolutionary direction.

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