Ghosts and Ballots


by Liam Hunt


Liam (William) Hunt has previously written on George Orwell and his time in Burma for The Orwell Society.

Here, writing in a personal capacity, and arguing that “George Orwell may not have fully understood the Catalans, though he admired them“, he discusses the historic situation in Catalonia and Spain.



The Catalan Crisis in Context


The Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017, conducted in defiance of the central Spanish state, may or may not mark the birth of an independent Catalan Republic, but it certainly produced an impressive display of civil disobedience, and provoked the Spanish government into a potentially disastrous resort to force. At this writing Catalunya is in chaos, as the populace anxiously awaits the next move by Madrid. There is almost certainly more trouble in store. Anything written about Catalunya in the next few weeks is bound to be out of date in a matter of hours. Suffice it to say that the horizon continues to darken: that, perhaps, is the one statement likely to stand for a while.

The question placed on the ballot by the Generalitat, Catalunya’s1 semi-autonomous government, read simply: “Are you in favor of Catalunya becoming an independent state, in the form of a Republic?” The only alternatives were “Yes” and “No.” According to official results—which the Spanish police did their best to render meaningless, “Yes” received 90% of the vote, but the level of participation (only 41%) clearly undermined its significance. Just as clearly, however, the turnout was sabotaged by the government of Mariano Rajoy, which first boasted that the “illegal” referendum would never happen, and later vowed to turn it into a fiasco. With breath-taking cynicism, Madrid now accuses the Generalitat of “irregularities” in the conduct of a referendum that their police did everything possible to screw up–closing websites, hacking computer files, stealing ballots and ballot boxes, wounding hundreds of voters with truncheons and rubber bullets, and threatening the organizers with criminal prosecution.

The referendum was called by the ruling coalition in the Generalitat, known as Junts pel Si (“United for the Yes”). In September of 2015, Junts pel Si won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, though not an absolute majority of votes. The coalition promised to initiate an incremental “Process” (el Proces) leading by stages to an independent Catalan Republic. If “the Yes” won the referendum, Junts pel Si promised a unilateral declaration of independence (DUI in Catalan), followed by the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. The new constitution would also be submitted to a popular vote, followed by new general elections. There are thus a number of points on what is called the “road map “ at which the Process could be halted, even after a DUI.

The referendum that theCatalans2 were trying to hold on October 1 was modeled on the referenda that in recent years have been peacefully conducted in both Scotland and Quebec. Both consultations went forward by agreement with the central government, with the result, incidentally, that both independence initiatives were defeated. Over the past five years, millions of Catalans have taken to the street in support of their dret a decidir, the right to decide their future.

Support for outright independence has been hovering slightly below 50% for the past few years, but a large majority of Catalans have expressed their desire of have what they call a “referendum pactat,.” meaning one based on procedures negotiated with the existing authorities. Unlike the British and Canadian governments, however, the Spanish State has flatly refused even to discuss the matter. Madrid took increasingly authoritarian measures to block the referendum, while making increasingly dire threats against anyone who took part. The irony is that a referendum pactat, combined with a good faith offer to negotiate outstanding grievances, would probably have turned out like the ones in Scotland and Quebec.

The Spanish government, which Catalans call simply The State (L’Estat), has reacted to this campaign, which as so far remained strictly non-violent, with a flood of hysterical accusations.The referendum movement has been denounced as totalitarian—a risky charge in view of the ruling Popular Party’s own roots in the regime of Francisco Franco. Carles Puigdemont, the moderate, centre-right President of the Generalitat has been compared not only to Venezuela’s Maduro and Cuba’s Castro, but to Mussolini, and Hitler as well. Junts pel Si’s propaganda has been likened to that of Goebbels, while the referendum itself is being denounced as a coup d’etat.

During the run-up to the referendum seventy-five town mayors were threatened with arrest if they let it proceed. It remains to be seen how many of these threats will be carried out. On September 14 Madrid seized control of the Catalan government’s bank account, and the Spanish government began speaking darkly of declaring a “state of exception” and of invoking Article 155 of the Constitution, which would permit the suspension of Catalonia’s limited autonomy. Seventeen government officials were briefly detained on unspecified charges; leading figures in the government have been threatened with enormous fines, suspension from office and hazy penal sanctions.

More recently, the teachers who permitted their class rooms to serve as polling stations have been threatened with professional reprisals. Government websites were closed down; computer sites were hacked; printing presses were confiscated; Catalunya was flooded with supplemental security forces dispatched from Madrid. A million and a half leaflets were seized by the paramilitary Guardia Civil.

The deployment of the Guardia Civil was particularly ominous, since the Guardia, long nortorius for is brutality against striking workers and rebellious peasants, had functioned served as a kind of praetorian guard for Franco’s regime. 4,000 auxiliary policemen were billetted on four cruise ships moored in Barcelona harbor, though the Barcelona dockworkers refused to service them.

The mainstream Spanish media have been attacking the Catalan movement with astonishing venom. The anti-Catalan argument is oddly paradoxical, however, not to say schizophrenic. From the columns of El Pais¸ for example, or El Mundo¸ one gleans the impression that Catalanism is both too weak and silly to matter, and too dangerous to be allowed to persist. Since 1-O, however, ridicule has given way to alarm.

On October 2, the leading Madrid dailies ran front-page headlines shrieking things like “Insurrection!” and calling the referendum, which the Spanish police were disrupting with truncheons and rubber bullets, as a “golpe”– that is, an attempted coup d’etat. The leaders of Junts pel Si were accordingly denounced as “golpistas.” There is no handy English synomym for golpista, which means a “perpetrator of a coup.” Hispanics are more familiar with coups d’etat than we are in the English-speaking world and have a richer lexicon concerning them. Particularly depressing has been the descent of the once reputable El Pais to a sub-Foxian level of fairness and balance.

Nearly half of the eligible voters were undeterred by the threats from Madrid. More than two million of them managed to cast their forbidden ballots in the face physical abuse by the Spanish police and paramilitary Guardia Civil.(Significantly the local police refused to cooperate with the invaders, for which their commander has been charged with sedition.)

The voters demonstrated courage and good humor and they maintained their non-violent discipline. All age cohorts were represented: school-children took part in all-night vigils to keep their class rooms as polling places; seniors rolled up to the ballot boxes in wheelchairs; grandmothers leaned out of windows banging pots in support of the crowds surging toward the polls. The referendum demonstrated once again the power of social media as a weapon of mass mobilization. (This time the decisive tool was What’s App.) We have seen this before, at Tahir Square in Cairo and the Mejdan in Kiev. We also know how those mobilizations turned out.

Partisans of the referendum, however, show no signs of backing down. Catalans have resented the hyper-centralized power of Madrid for centuries and sporadically rebelled against it. The Catalan national hymn, “Els Segadors” commemorates a peasant insurrection against the crown in 1640. Many seem prepared to rebel again. Two days after the referendum Barcelona was paralyzed by a general strike on a scale not seen in decades, and for once employers were on the same side. As I write, massive protest demonstrations are being staged in all of the major cities.

It would be pointless to try to predict the outcome of the Process, which will depend as much on the international (especially European) response to events as on the balance of forces in Catalunya and Spain. It is certain, however, that 1-O, as the Catalans are calling it, marks a new phase of the drama.3


If we cannot forecast the denouement, we can at least make some sense of the incipient chaos by putting “1-O” in historical perspective. The first thing to notice is the spectral figure lurking in the background. It is the ghost of Francisco Franco, whose dictatorship, lasted from his victory in 1939 to his death in 1975. Since Franco was especially merciless toward Catalunya, any referendum on Catalunya’s future in bound to be, to some extent, a referendum on his reign, and therefore on the whole legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Seen from a broader angle the Catalan referendum yet another episode in a century-long conflict, of which the Civil War was the violent apogee, but which has yet to be finally resolved.

The Spanish Civil War was more than the first major clash between western democracy and Fascism, as it is still understood outside of Spain. Nor was it really the “first battle of the Second World War,” as is also claimed. Spain remained neutral in World War II, which is why Franco and his regime survived it. It was also more than the class war of rich against poor, as George Orwell, who fought in it briefly, believed. For the people of the Iberian peninsular it was, and remains, primarily a war over national identity. This national dimension completely eluded Orwell himself. Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s classic but mistitled memoir of the war, has virtually nothing to say about Catalunya per se.

If, as Benedict Anderson has persuasively argued, nations are essentially “imagined communities” then the Spanish Civil War arose from the violent collision of two radically different imaginations of Spain. On the one hand there was the ideal of a pluralistic “nation of nations” rooted in the political diversity of medieval Spain, and respectful of the cultural subjectivity of its component nationalities. Opposed to this federal conception, which was promoted most vigorously by the Catalans and the Basques, was the project of the Habsburg monarchy, later adopted by the Bourbons, of a rigidly centralized Spanish kingdom, ruled from Madrid.

A federal Spain would have fostered the interests of the commercial and later the industrial classes of the western, northern, and eastern periphery–the regions fronting on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and in cultural communication with France. The centralized kingdom that actually emerged in the 16th century was based on the martial kingdom of Castile, whose heartland was the Meseta, the arid tableland of central Spain.

This second model was firmly established by Philip II when he chose as his capital the insignificant, landlocked town of Madrid, whose only advantages were its central location and its lack of an independent, potentially troublesome bourgeoisie. The empire created by Philip was dominated by the macrocephalic royal court, the Catholic Church armed with its Inquisition, and the landed aristocracy, whose enormous herds of sheep migrated back and forth across the Meseta, trampling down peasant crops on their way.

The aristocracy of Castile and its satellite provinces, Andalucia and Estremadura subscribed to a martial ethos, centered on honor and violence, that disparaged commerce, industry, and manual labor. Their younger sons entered the church, enlisted as mercenaries, and sought fortunes in the New World: very rarely did they go into any kind of productive business. Daughters who could not be decorously married off were deposited in convents.

Operating from Madrid the Spanish monarchy struggled to hold together a unitary kingdom that had been cobbled together of centuries from the diverse and often fractious polities of the Peninsula. Catalan historians tend to see the history of Spain in terms of the interplay between two “Spains”—the provinces on the periphery as opposed to the Meseta and its frontiers. In reality the situation was far more complicated; there was really a myriad of “Spains,” each with its own internal contradictions. But the dualistic model has some heuristic value.

The two Spains—that of the periphery and that of the Meseta and its fringes—could often co-operate to mutual advantage, but there remained an undercurrent of a suspicion tinged with contempt, and there many sources of friction. Unsurprisingly, Spanish historians tend to stress the co-operation while the Catalans are more concerned with the conflicts.. There were stereotypes on both sides—not universally shared but deeply rooted.

Castilian aristocrats and courtiers despised, or affected to despise, the merchants of Barcelona and Bilba as money grubbers; Catalans and Basques condemned Castilians as lazy and rapacious cut-throats. Obviously these prejudices were far from universal, but they were widespread, and they worsened in hard times.

The most salient cultural contrast within the Habsburg/Bourbon kingdom was that which opposed Catalonia to Castile, and Barcelona to Madrid. Catalans considered themselves sensible, egalitarian, and inclined to compromise: their preferred political strategy was what they called “pactisme.” Castilians placed a higher value on courage, audacity, and, of course, honor. These aristocratic values, moreover were not confined to the elite. Castile claimed, with pride, to possess the most arrogant beggars in the world. It was Castile and Andalucia that invented the modern bull-fight, which has generally (though with notable exceptions) left the Catalans cold.

The Habsburg/Bourbon monarchy survived for five centuries, despite French invasions, provincial rebellion, the secession of Portugal, the loss of an American empire, and, in the nineteenth century, almost incessant civil war. Its social basis remained the trinity of Court, Church, and Aristocracy, though the professional Army came to play an increasingly decisive and often disruptive role. The political hegemony of Madrid endured.

In 1932 the monarchy gave way to the Second Republic, and hesitant steps were taken toward a federal state, largely due to pressure from Catalunya, Galicia, and Euskadi, the land of the Basques. The military rebellion of 1936 was, among other things, an attempt to put a violent halt to what the army considered the disintegration of Spain. Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War restored the centripetal power of Madrid. By this time, however, the main centralizing force was no longer the Church or the royal Court, but Franco’s army, and its political emanation, the Falange.

Franco’s opponents on the Left, like George Orwell, saw him primarily as the defender of the landlords, the Church, and the Army. But he was equally devoted to the grandeur, and above all the sacred unity, of Spain. In 1937 Franco adopted the Fascist salute but not the Fascist label, which in any case did really fit most of his followers. His forces called themselves Nationalist, rather than Fascists, and their battle cry was “Arriba Espana!” (“Up with Spain!”) The Nationalist motto was “Espana: Una, Grande, y Libre” (“Spain: One, Great, and Free”). Notice that Unity is the first term of the trinity. (“Free,” incidentally, meant free from the influence of the “Jewish-Masonic-Marxist Conspiracy” that threatened to destroy Spain.)

Franco’s visceral hostility to separatism led him to consider most Catalans and Basques as inveterate enemies of Spain. Upon his triumphal entry into the Catalan capital in 1939, Franco explained that he had chosen for his vanguard, “not the soldiers who had fought best, but those who felt the most hatred: that is to say hatred for Catalunya and the Catalans.” During the first few months after the fall of Barcelona, more than four thousand Republican civilians were summarily executed. That number would have been many times greater had not 150,000 Catalans escaped across the Pyrenees, to return, if at all, only decades later. In 1940 there were over 40,000 republican civilians in Franco’s jails, under wretched conditions.

The autonomy granted Catalunya by the second Republic was of course abolished, along with all political parties other than the Falange.

For the next thirty-five years Catalunya was subjected to an energetic, although ultimately unsuccessful campaign of cultural genocide. The autonomy statute was of course abolished along with all political parties, with the exception of Franco’s Falange, were banned. Banned from public use, the Catalan language seemed destined for extinction, exactly as Franco intended. Even the Sardana, the traditional circle dance thought to be particularly expressive of Catalan sociability, was forbidden. As the Catalans often bitterly observe, Franco was the only one of the major Fascist dictators to who managed to die not only in his bed, but in power—thanks in part to American and European complicity. Franco was a useful ally in the Cold War.

Catalans past middle age have first-hand memories of Fascism and have heard stories from their parents about the Civil War. These stories get told to grandchildren. These Catalans remember that Fascism came to them from Spain, and that it was inflicted on them in the name of Spanish unity. Only a few days before 1-O, a political cartoon appeared in Ara, the leading Catalan language daily, depicting Prime Minister Rajoy declaiming from a television screen: “Spaniards, Franco has not died!” On 1-O, observers noted the high proportion of senior citizens among the voters. As police reinforcements, including units of the hated Guardia Civil, flooded into Catalunya in on the eve of the referendum, older Catalans must have felt an unpleasant sense of deja vu.

(Wikipedia: Falangist flag)


Catalan anxieties about a renascent Fascism are naturally ridiculed by the Spanish press. Advocates for the State understandably prefer to avoid mentioning Franco at all. It is bad taste to dredge up bygone conflicts. The issue of the Dictatorship is assumed to have resolved by la Transicion, the peaceful passage in 1978 from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. The cult of the Transition is the foundational myth of the contemporary Spanish state.

The Transition was a compromise between the Franquist regime and the moderate Left. This pragmatic (and self-interested) coalition managed to peacefully dismantle the archaic trappings of the dictatorship, while leaving much of its social structure intact and much of its personnel in power. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Transicio, apart from freer hand given to bankers and realtors, was the liberalization of public sexual mores. One could now see girls legs in the streets and actresses’ panties in the cinema.

The Transition effectively erased the Civil War and its aftermath from public memory. There was no question of any trials for war crimes, since most of the surviving Franquist elite remained in place. Nor was there anything like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Mandela’s South Africa. Thousands of murdered Republicans continued to rot in unmarked graves. The process of systematic exhumation and identification has only recently begun.

Catalan anxieties about a renascent Fascism are ridiculed, of course, by the supporters and publicists of the Spanish State as either baseless paranoia, on the part of the citizenry, or cynical demoguery on the part of separatist leaders. Advocates for the State prefer, quite naturally, to avoid mentioning Franco at all, and regard it as since it is bad taste to dredge up bygone unpleasantness. In any case the issue of the Dictatorship is assumed to have resolved by la Transicion, the democratic Transition of 1978. The cult of the Transition is in fact the foundational myth of the restored, democratic, Bourbon monarchy.

The Transition was a compromise between the Franquist regime and the moderate Left. This pragmatic (and self-interested) coalition managed to peacefully dismantle the archaic trappings of the dictatorship, while leaving much of the social structure intact and much of its personnel in power. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Transicio, apart from freer hand given to bankers and real estate deals, was the considerable liberation of public sexual mores.

The Transition effectively erased the Civil War and its aftermath from public memory. There were of course no war crime trials, since most of the surviving Franquist elite remained in place. Nor was there anything like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Mandela’s South Africa. Thousands of bodies of murdered Republicans victims continued to rot in unmarked graves: the process of systematic exhumation has only recently begun.

To be sure, there was a good deal of killing on the Republican side as well, but the latest scholarship suggests that the Nationalists out-did them by at least four to one. Nationalist martyrs, in contrast, repose with Franco in the obscene grandeur of the Valle de los Caidos, the grotesque mausoleum excavated by Franco hard by the Escorial, the royal mausoleum/monastery that Philip II erected, with rather better taste, outside Madrid.

Catalunya nevertheless welcomed the Transition, with all its flaws. After more than a generation of Franco’s dictatorship, the Transition brought Catalunya enormous relief. The exiled Generalitat was restored, along with its president Josep Tarradellas, who had served as Catalunya’s last Prime Minister during the civil war. (“Well, I’m back,” said the old man laconically, from the balcony of the Generalitat.) The Catalan language, which seemed doomed to extinction, made an impressive recovery. Despite massive immigration over the past fifty years, something like 90% of the inhabitants of Catalunya can understand Catalan, and more than three-quarters can speak it.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Catalans—some 95% voted in favor of the new democratic Constitution of 1978. Espanyolists frequently remind independentistas of this massive endorsement, neglecting to notice that Catalan support for this Constitution has now fallen below 30%. It is worth asking why.

After more than a generation of Franco’s dictatorship, the Transition, despite its shortcomings, brought Catalunya enormous relief. The exiled Generalitat was restored, along with its president Josep Tarradellas, who had served as Catalunya’s last Prime Minister during the civil war. “Well, I’m back,” said the old man laconically, from the balcony of the Generalitat. The Catalan language, which seemed doomed to extinction, made an impressive comback: despite massive immigration over the past fifty years, something 90% of the inhabitants of Catalunya can understand Catalan, and more than three-quarters can speak it..


Nowadays Catalanists, and Spanish leftists generally, describe the Transition as a “Lampedusan” strategy for moving from dictatorship to a liberal capitalist regime. The term comes from Giuseppe Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), in which a wily aristocrat explains how he and his class must behave in order to survive the onrushing bourgeois revolution: “Everything must change,” he says, “so that nothing will change.”

The forty years of restored democracy since the death of Franco have brought enormous economic and technological progress to Spain, and especially to Barcelona, which has now become, somewhat to the distress of its inhabitants, one of the world’s premier tourist destinations/ The centripetal power of the state in Madrid remains intact, however, and the modern oligarchy—the people that Spanish New Left calls “la Casta”—has descended directly from the ancien regime: economically, culturally, and often biologically as well:

A huge and corrupt state bureaucracy has supplanted the royal court, and the army has replaced the Catholic Church (which nonetheless remains influential, especially in the counryside) as the guarantor of national unity. The great landlords and their henchmen still dominate much of rural Andalucia, although bankers hold more power in Madrid. The Bourbon monarchy has been restored, which gratifies conservatives and galls the Catalans and the Spanish Left. To be sure, the King has little personal political power, but he retains considerable charismatic influence. King Juan Carlos used that influence to discourage an attempted Franquist coup in 1981, and his heir Felipe VI has already has already begun to unleash his charisma against the Process.

The one new component of la Casta is the political machine of the PSOE, the absurdly misnamed Socialist Workers Party of Spain, which alternates rhythmically in power with the right-wing Popular Party. This comfortable arrangement, known as “bipartidarismo,” allows each party ample time in office to fill its pockets. The bipartidismo instituted by the Transition is the principle reason why the Kingdom of Spain is the most corrupt country in western Europe, ranking below Botswana and barely above Georgia on the Transparency International index.

Catalan disaffection, however, did not set in at once. Indeed the high point of Catalano-Spanish relations came in 2006, when a new, more liberal Statute of Autonomy was adopted by the Spanish Cortes and then massively endorsed in a Catalan referendum The new Statute enlarged the fiscal competence of the Generalitat and formally acknowledged Catalunya’s identity as a “nation.”

In 2010, however, an ambitious politician named Mariano Rajoy, rose to prominence by leading a successfully demagogic campaign to gut the Statute. As leader of the Popular Party (founded, as it happens, by Franco’s last interior minister) Rajoy elicited four million signatures to a petition demanding that both the new fiscal privileges and the recognition of nationality be annulled by the State’s Constitutional Tribunal. The Tribunal, already dominated by conservatives, complied, no doubt soothing Franco’s agitated ghost.

Rajoy’s Popular Party took power from the Socialists in 2011. Since his political ascent had been fueled by “Catalanophobia,” it was not to be expected that Rajoy would respond to Catalan concerns with tact, or even common sense. The Tribunal’s ruling, bitterly resented in Catalunya, initiated what Catalans call “the Second Transition.” Unlike the first Transition, this one transited backward, steadily augmenting the competence of the central State, which Catalanists took to calling La Estrella de la Muerte, the Death Star. But the Second Transition also revived the dream of a Catalan Republic.

Anger at the suspension of the Statute intensified popular indignation over the bank bailouts of the Great Recession and the austerity measures decreed by the EU, which Rajoy zealously imposed. Catalans also complained of being overtaxed, to the advantage of poorer regions like Andalucia, while their own infrastructural needs are neglected. Barcelona, for example, has for years been promised a high-speed rail link with Valencia and Alicante, which has never materialized.

Independentist sentiment has been growing fairly steadily ever since. There have been spectacular popular mobilizations: hundreds of thousands take to the streets each year on September 11 to celebrate La Diada, Catalunya’s National Day. In 2012 the crowd numbered over a million.

To summarize the current state of play. Popular sentiment in Catalunya is hard to assess and estimates of the popular mood vary over time and according to political bias. Immigrants have flooded into the province over the past century, and cultural assimilation, while extensive, has been uneven. On the eve of 1-O polls showed a high degree of support (perhaps as high 85%) for conducting the referendum. Over 70% declared their intention to vote even if the referendum were declared illegal. Since the actual turn-out was only slightly over 40%, it would appear that the truncheons and rubber bullets cut the turnout nearly in half.

Support for actual independence, on the other hand, has been hovering around 50%. It remains to be seen whether bullying by Madrid will cause this figure to rise or fall. The behavior of the Spanish state is designed to intimidate, but Catalans dislike being threatened, and are not easily cowed. Journalists from Madrid covering the mass demonstrations in response to the Ramblas massacre plausibly suggested that the crowds chanting “No Tinc Por!” (“I am Not Afraid!”) were defying Rajoy and King Felipe VI (both of whom were present) as much as the Islamic State.

Madrid’s policy is grounded in a rigid variant of Spanish Nationalism (Espanyolism) that proclaims the unity of Spain to be sacrosanct. Since the Transition, Spanish Catholicism has given way to Spanish Democracy as the moral foundation of centralism. Like its theological predecessor, this highly coercive version of democracy tolerates no heretical deviation.. Since the Spanish State is, by stipulation, democratic, Catalans are forever subject to the rule of the majority of its citizens. This means, in practice, that they will remain subjects of non-Catalans, who outnumber them nearly ten to one.

Rousseau’s general will has thus replaced the will of God as the fount of legitimacy. The unstated premise seems to be that the Catalans are really Spanish, but that some of them refuse to admit it. They are thereby self-exiled from the community to which they truly belong. Since they are out of tune with the Spanish General Will, these dissident Catalans must be “forced to be free.” Alexis De Tocqueville foresaw the consequence of this line of thought, and called it the Tyranny of the Majority. The sharp decline in Catalunyan support for the Constitution of 1978 should cause no suprise.


For the past two hundred years, however, the primary objective of Catalanism not been separation from Spain, so much as the transformation of Spain from a centralized Castilian monarchy into a pluralistic “nation of nations.” None of the historic champions of Catalan identity favored secession. In the late 19th century Francesco Pi y Margall led a pan-Hispanic Federalist movement, strongly influenced by the pacific anarchism of Pierre-Joseppy Proudhon, whose works he translated into Spanish. Pi y Magall served briefly as Prime Minister during the short-lived First Republic. Though a fervent Catalanist, he published only in Castilian.

At the founding of the Second Republic in 1932, when the Generalitat was restored after a hiatus of two hundred and eighteen years, its first president, Francesc Macia, proclaimed a “Catalan Republic within the Iberian Federation,” though he later had to settle for a more restricted autonomy. His successor Lluis Companys (revered as Catalunya’s iconic martyr after his execution under Franco) called for a “Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic.” Puigdemont might well settle for something similar, eventually.

One reason for the wide-spread popular prestige that the Soviet Union enjoyed in pre-civil war Catalunya, was the belief, or illusion, that Lenin’s theses on “national liberation” had resolved the so-called “National Question” in the Russian Empire. By conceding the right of secession to its various nationalities, the Bolsheviks persuaded them to reunite freely in a new federation–or so it seemed before the nature of Stalinism became clear.

Both of the major Marxist parties during the Civil War—the dissident POUM with which Orwell fought, as well as the Stalinist PSUC by which it was wiped it out–called for the creation of a Union of Iberian Socialist Republics, that would hopefully include Portugal as well as the rest of Spain. In such a union, Barcelona and Lisbon would share economic political and administrative hegemony with Madrid. The historical nations of Catalunya, Galicia, and Euskadi would enjoy cultural and political parity with Castile, while the rights and identities of other less historically prominant communities would be respected. Most Catalanists would support a similar solution today.

The critical issue for most Catalans is the right to decide, rather than independence per se. Many Catalans who were willing to risk jail to support the referendum would have voted against separation. The irony is that if the Spanish government were to permit a free expression of opinion, a majority of Catalans, having won the right to secede would probably not feel the need to exercise it. They would, after all, have the weapon of secession at hand should they need it in the future, because the bond with Spain would have become a voluntary union of equals. Even for many independentistas the threat of secession is primarily a blunt instrument with which to get Spain’s attention. For them to admit as much in advance, however, would be to throw the match. A “right to decide” is only meaningful when it is wrested from the force that would deny it.

Readers of Dissent are likely to view anything called “nationalism” with suspicion and to associate it almost instinctively with the right-wing xenophobia currently called “populism.” The suspicion is justified, though in my view this derogatory use of the word “populism” deprives us of a useful term for transversal progressive movements, such as the current Catalanist movement aspires to be. But that is another matter.

Catalanists insist that their movement is neither chauvinistic nor intolerant. Indeed, Catalanists since the 1930s have preferred to avoid the word “nationalism” altogether, precisely because of its reactionary associations. Catalan nationalism, to the extent that it exists, is emphatically civic, rather than ethnic nationalism. Like Americans, Catalanists profess pride in their ethnic diversity; their the national pantheon is filled with patriots of immigrant stock. Unlike the Americans, they have no history of genocide or slavery to embarrass or embitter them.

Most Catalanists regard as a “true Catalan” anyone who wishes to be considered as such. They have been far more hospitable to African and Middle Eastern refugees than the rest of Spain. While Catalan patriots are committed to protecting their native language, they have promised that Castilian (which the non-Hispanic world calls Spanish) will have equal status in a Catalan Republic. (So, incidentally, will Aranes, a language descended from the medieval Occitan of the troubadours, that still flourishes in the Pyrenees.)

As a columnist for the leading Catalan daily put it, Catalans boast of their “glorious impurity.”

The political agenda implied by the Process is hazy, but it tilts perceptibly to the Left. Catalunyan social policy has long been more generous than that of the rest of Spain. In the name of austerity, Madrid has recently blocked efforts to extend the Catalan welfare state, especially in the areas of housing, hunger, and energy insecurity. Hostility to Rajoy’s neo-liberalism has therefore heightened the appeal of independence. Activists in Catalunya’s effervescent constellation of progressive movements and associations—which includes socialists, feminists, ecologists, municipalists, co-operatists, anarchists, and whatnotists–generally support the referendum as a form of resistance to an autocratic state, while remaining skeptical about independence. They surely realize that the Left would fare better in a Catalan Republic than within the Kingdom of Spain.

George Orwell may not have fully understood the Catalans, though he admired them. Nevertheless, he had a very Catalan understanding of the difference between patriotism on the one hand, and nationalism and conservatism on the other. He expressed it, however, not in Homage to Catalonia but in his war-time pamphlet, the Lion and the Unicorn and his later “Notes on Nationalism.” The following passages, for example, would be endorsed by most adherents of Junts pel Si:

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has not wish to force on other people… Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” (“Notes on Nationalism”, (Complete Works, xvi, 142.

“Patriotism,” moreover, “has nothing to do with Conservativism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.” (Collected Journalism, Essays, and Letters. ii, 103).

Lluis Campanys, who faced Franco’s firing squad crying “Per a Catalunya!,” could have written those lines.

Much has been made in the Spanish and international press of Catalunya’s economic grievances against the Spanish State. Perhaps too much, because more is involved here than mercenary self-interest. Catalanists of all political persuasions resent domination by Madrid because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are being fiscally fleeced in the name of a specious national solidarity. Catalunya is the richest province of Spain and its relatively high taxes are supposed to finance the development of poorer provinces like Andalucia and Estremadura. Catalans suspect, however, that much of their money actually disappears into the pockets of corrupt local politicians, or into the patronage networks and pork barrel projects that keep these political machines in power.

One reason for the current impasse between Spain and Catalunya is the de facto alliance between the ruling PP and the leading opposition party. The PSOE is as dogmatic as the PP on the inviolable unity of Spain. One reason may be that its territorial bastion is the impoverished province of Andalucia, where PSOE apparatchiks have effectively replaced the latifundistas and caciques, the great landlords and local bosses of yore. Consistent with their character and historical antecedents, the factional leaders of the PSOE are known today as “the Barons” (Varones), though Andalucia is controlled by a Varonesa named Susanna Diaz. Andalucia is subsidized by Catalunya, and the Socialists, understandably, want to keep the spigot open.

Unfortunately, Rajoy’s belligerence seems to be going over well with the Spanish people. On the evening of October 2, King Felipe VI lent his symbolic prestige to Rajoy in a televised speech that made no appeal for dialogue, and expressed no misgivings about the use of force. The speech was almost universally applauded by the Spanish political class. The only criticism came from Podemos, which represents about a fifth of the electorate.

“Catalanophobia” plays the same role in securing Rajoy’s plebeian base that racism, xenophobia and misogyny perform for Trump. Given that depressing fact, it is entirely possible that the crackdown on Catalunya may boost Rajoy’s popularity among the plebs, at least for a while. But while the operation may have been politically successful at home, the international “optics,” as the Washington Post put it, have been “terrible.” Optics may not matter to Rajoy’s rank and file, but they matter a good deal to the globalist financiers who prop him up.

Nothing but a muffled tutt-tutting can be expected from the plush corridors of the European Union. So far the only intelligent proposal has come from Citibank—an unlikely source, perhaps, but a welcome and potentially influential one. Citibank calls for new negotiations to revise the Spanish Constitution, and suggests conceding broader fiscal powers to the Catalans while granting them a legal referendum on their national future. For once the global financiers, or a few of them anyway, have got things right.

(Senyera and Blue Estelada flags from


1 Since the referendum was about independence, it seems appropriate to use the Catalan name of the region we cal Catalunya.

2 By “Catalans” I mean people who regard themselves as at least as much Catalan and Spanish. This is true of everyone who resides in Catalunya. Probably about about 20% would describe themselves as more Spanish than Catalan or simply not Catalan at all.

3Note on political chronology.: the Spanish and the Catalans have the habit—confusing to foreigners of designation historical events simply by the day and first letter of the month, while omitting the year, as we do with “9/11”





2 thoughts on “Ghosts and Ballots

  1. Pretty good article…except Spain was not ‘neutral’ during WW2, it was, officially, ‘non-belligerent’. This status allowed Franco’s illegal government to offer port facilities to both German and Italian warships and submarines; supply Hitler’s forces with tungsten; recruit, equip and send a division of ‘volunteers’ to fight against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front; plan detailed joint military operations with the Nazis in the event of the Allies landing anywhere on the Iberian peninsula or in Morocco. It also allowed Franco to bargain with Churchill and extract millions in bribes to put a brake on any formal military alliance with the Axis powers. Only after the USA’s involvement (and their threat to jointly occupy, with the British, the Canaries) and only after a few military defeats inflicted on Germany and Italy did Franco change his tune and tone pretend to become neutral. I am surprised that the myth of Spanish neutrality during WW2 is still perpetuated.


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