A Homage to Catalonia

One can, of course, only pass tribute to the title of the great book [1] by Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell of his experiences of this region during the Spanish Civil War. Countless essays have been written on this event and doubtless many lessons are learned. Orwell's short text in the Anglophone world remains particularly memorable due to its glaring honesty of the violent divisions within the Republican army and the degree of dishonest reporting [2]. Indeed it is even surprisingly and moving that the loyalists held on as long as they did. From the outset they were significantly outnumbered in troops, aircraft, and tanks. The nationalist rebels had most of the army of professional soldiers on their side, as well as military support from Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and fascist Portugal. The republican loyalists received questionable assistance from the Soviet Union, and diplomatic support from Mexico, along with international brigades - constituting up to ten percent of the overall republican force.

It remains an extraordinary tragedy that the French Popular Front government under Léon Blum did not offer military support for the Spanish Popular Front government, whereas the UK's policy of stringent non-intervention virtually ensured the fascist victory (although in the arcane world of politics, the latter probably believed they achieved a good deal by bribing key officials of the Franco government to stay out of the second world war). For world history, the Spanish Civil War remains both marginal and central to Europe of the twentieth century. It was the first test case of how liberal democracies responded to the international crisis of fascism and how they failed and an ongoing reminder to the limits non-interventionist ideologies.

With half a million killed in the war itself, and a subsequent forty years of Francoist Spain with its own death toll of around fifty thousand, the dead were many. Franco's Falangist ideology despite its long rule, is celebrated by very few today and is hated by many. Whilst the Republicans lost the "short war", they won the "long war", with the eventual return of democracy and ongoing cultural accolades [3]. Today the weight of the period weighs heavily in the minds of the people of Spain - and the enduring respect in that country for their elderly is an inevitable and necessary consequence of those who experienced such horrors and oppression.

Returning to the focus of Catalonia, there is an ongoing independence movement in that country (along with their sometimes Valencian colleagues) - less than the Basques and Navarrese, but certainly more than the Cantabrian, Aragonese, or Galician communities, to cite other regions where there are significant independence and regionalist movement. Spain, it must be recalled, is not a federation, but a highly decentralized unitary state. Each of these areas where regionalism is strong has its own linguistic identity - recalling the modernist notion of the nation-state, that a political identity and a national identity are sufficient justifications for statehood, tempered of course by the commitment of the state in question to universalism in human rights. Despite French national-chauvinism it is difficult to suggest that post-war Breton assertions for independence from Parisian rule were helped by a prior association with the extreme right (c.f., Breton National Party).

This of course cannot be said of Catalan regionalist politics. Catalan regionalism has historically been associated with democratic, liberal, and socialist approaches, from the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya which governed the region in the 1930s, the election and exile of Tarradellas from the same party as Generalitat de Catalunya (in office from 1954-1980, in exile from 1954-1977). Today, as one walks the streets of Barcelona and other population centres of Catalonia, it is clear that this remains the case today. In addition to the widespread use of the Estelada Blava hanging from apartment windows, the red-star version of the same is also common. This is reflected in several recent election and plebiscite results, which show victories to various left-wing coalitions of the Socialists' Party of Catalonia, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the far-left Green alliance, the ICV-EUiA, Unidos Podemos etc. In 2009 and 2013 independence plebiscites were carried by a large majority, although in both these cases the turnout was low and the Spanish government has rejected their validity [4].

In part, this and other regionalist movements are part of the tensions of a new framework of a European federalism [5]. There are very few advocates for Catalan independence from Spain who also seek independence from the European Union, although there is certainly a larger selfish grouping whose desire for independence in part comes from the realisation that the region contributes almost 20% of the Spanish GDP but with little local financial control. However the main issue really comes down to the degree of self-determination for regions to manage their local affairs whilst also contributing to the wider affairs of international politics, defense, etc within a larger federation. Spain has demonstrably failed to provide the self-determination that the Catalan people desire. Even something as relatively simple as a regional ban on bullfighting was overturned by the Spanish Constitutional Court [6], and as a result of such aggressive centralism Catalans are seeking a more genuine federal relationship with alternative powers.

The matter of Catalonia is illustrative of not just that regions relationship with Spain, or the European Union, but also the principles of political federalism and rational governmental structures of scale. At the basic level, people want the right to determine what larger political structure they wish to be part of [7]. From the largest political structure outward-facing matters such as foreign affairs and defense are organised and from an inward perspective, national infrastructure (including social welfare and human rights) are appropriate. As the degree of regionalisation shrinks, so too in proportion should the appropriate political authority (e.g., regional transportation, localised implementations of education curricula and health policy etc).

What is being witnessed in Catalonia will continue and expand - as is being witnessed in Scotland, in Brittany, in Transylvania, etc. Either existing governments that exert claims over such areas must provide appropriately scaled powers to the self-identified communities that exist in such places, or risk at their peril being by-passed by alternative authorities that will grant such recognition. Such is the inevitably trajectory of contemporary politics, strengthened by advances in communications and transport technologies. There is increased desire for self-determination brought up on by the increasing importance and adherence to local democracy and, simultaneously, an increased desire to be a member of a wider federation of communities brought on by increasing importance and adherence to internationalism and universalism.


[1] George Orwell, 'Homage to Catalonia', FP 1938 Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0201111.txt

[2] For a particularly honest and longer Spanish language text see J. Lopez, "Los que perdimos la paz : testimonio de un oficial republicano", Circulo de Lectores, 1991

[3] For example: Pablo Picasso's painting, 'Guernica', 1937, Pablo Neruda's collection of poetry, 'España en el corazón', 1937, Ernest Hemmingway's novel 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', 1940., Boris Peskine and André Malraux's film. 'Espoir: Sierra de Teruel', 1945, Fred Zinnemann's film 'Behold a Pale Horse', 1964, Fernando Arrabal's film 'Viva la Muerte', 1971, The Clash's song 'Spanish Bombs', 1979, James Watson's novel 'The Freedom Tree', 1986, Ken Loaach's film 'Land and Freedom', 1995, the Manic Street Preachers song 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', 1998, Almudena Grandes' novel 'El corazón helado', 2007, & etc.

[4] For a summary see: Catalan self-determination referendum, 2014, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_self-determination_referendum,_2014

[5] Cuadras Morató, Xavier. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe?: A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge, 2016.

[6] Animal rights activists protest in Barcelona after Spanish court overturns bullfighting ban, ABC News, October 23, 2016

[7] c.f., Lev Lafayette, The Ukrainian Crisis: Electoral History, Great Powers, and Self-Determination, The Isocracy Network, July 7, 2014

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