Spain: the trial against Catalan political prisoners and the struggle for the Republic

In the coming days, the Spanish Supreme Court will issue sentences against nine Catalan politicians involved in the referendum of 1 October 2017. Seven of them have been on remand for almost two years. This includes five ministers from the previous Catalan government, as well as two prominent civil society leaders. In addition, a number of prominent politicians and activists are in exile in Belgium, the UK, and Switzerland, which have refused to extradite them.

There is little doubt the sentences will be harsh. After all, this is no ordinary court case. It is a political trial against Catalonia’s right to self-determination, and, above all, against the mass insurrection of autumn 2017, which shook the Bourbon regime down to its foundations. The state must restore its tarnished authority through exemplary punishment of these political prisoners. This, however, is bound to revive the national question in Catalonia, stoking anger and mass mobilisations. Indeed, the last few weeks have seen a stiffening of state repression in the region, with new rounds of arrests against pro-independence activists. The Spanish state is playing with fire.

A show trial

The prosecutor accuses the Catalan political prisoners of embezzlement, sedition and rebellion. Even from the point of view of bourgeois legality, which in Spain is especially restrictive, these charges are highly questionable. The Spanish exchequer itself denied there had been any embezzlement; in fact, it had been auditing Catalan finances throughout September 2017 to stop any public money from going into the referendum. Sedition is a serious crime, which involves a “riotous” uprising against the state, and is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Yet not only was the 1 October referendum notoriously peaceful (save for the police violence), but the Catalan government that is being tried attempted at all steps to curb the movement rather than stimulate it. Indeed, the two civil society leaders in the dock, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, are accused of whipping up the crowds that surrounded Spanish police while it raided Catalonia’s finance department on 20 September 2017. However, as attested by all the evidence, they intervened to call on the protesters to disperse and allow the policemen out of the building.

Catalan political prisoners trial Image OmniumThe Spanish prosecutor accuses the nine Catalan political prisoners of embezzlement, sedition and rebellion. These preposterous charges are intended to make an example of the defendants and Catalan Republicanism in general / Image: Omnium

Most outrageously though, prosecutors accuse the prisoners of rebellion, an extremely serious offence punishable by 25 years in prison, and which involves an armed uprising against the state. This accusation is so outlandish that it forced the authorities in Belgium and Germany to refuse the arrest warrants issued by Spain against Catalan president Puigdemont and two of his ministers. Indeed, this allegation was too much even for Spain’s Solicitor General, who has dropped this charge, and asks the prisoners be indicted only for sedition. It is likely the court will focus on the crime of sedition, which, in combination with other lesser offences, is serious enough to ensure long jail sentences. The Supreme Court Prosecutor nevertheless maintains the charge of rebellion.

The state is twisting its own laws to obtain harsh sentences in what is clearly a political show trial against 1 October referendum. Established legal experts, including a former president of the Supreme Court, have questioned the proceedings. Not only are the charges intensely partisan, the prisoners have also been subjected to an inordinately long, two-year remand. The rulings have to be issued before 16 October as the state would otherwise infringe the two-year limit for pre-trial detention. The prisoners have had to spend extended periods of time in jails near Madrid, far away from their families. During the court hearings, the jury displayed its bias on numerous occasions, affirming, for instance, that “one cannot see in their inner psychological sphere a powerful element which would allow us to conclude that their respect for the decisions of this judge will be permanent”, acknowledging that their political convictions will sway the court’s decision.

Bourgeois legality compromised

The crisis of capitalism has led to a questioning of all pillars of bourgeois society, including the judiciary. In Spain, where the state apparatus was inherited wholesale from the Franco dictatorship, and has retained a notoriously reactionary character, state institutions are being brought into disrepute. The trial of the Catalan political prisoners will further discredit Spanish bourgeois democracy – in Catalonia above all, but also elsewhere. Not only are many questioning the charges and the bias of the jury, they also contrast this to the lenient treatment that corrupt politicians, businessmen and fascists receive in the dock – if they are brought to trial at all.

Pedro Sanchez congreso PSOE EDIIMA20170618 0312 21Pedro Sanchez is leaning on Spanish chauvinism to secure his position by championing 'national unity'. Unidos Podemos is assisting in this endeavour / Image: PSOE

As the Catalan political prisoners were being subjected to a humiliating mock trial, the brother-in-law of King Felipe VI was sentenced to merely five years in prison for embezzling around 6 million euros, being allowed to pick a jail of his own choosing and promptly being allowed out on bail. More scandalously, in April 2018 a tribunal in Pamplona cleared a gang of proved rapists (including a Civil Guard and a military man) of sexual aggression charges. They were subsequently released on bail, until pressure from the streets forced a review of the ruling.

Another much-publicised case has revealed the connivance between the judiciary and big business. In November 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that banks should pay mortgage taxes. Up until then, these taxes had been paid by customers. Yet in less than a week, upon coming under pressure from bankers, the Supreme Court made a 180-degree turn on this sentence to rule in favour of the banks and against customers, who will continue to shoulder these payments.

In November 2018, a far-right militant who had planned to murder Social Democratic president Pedro Sánchez was arrested and a large arms cache seized at his home. Despite the evidence, the prosecutor cleared him of terrorism charges. In stark contrast, in September 2019 nine Catalan activists from the Committees for the Defence of the Republic were arrested and accused of terrorism despite the absence of any evidence – no bombs, no weapons, no concrete plans. The Spanish state wields an iron fist for leftists, social activists, Catalan and Basque nationalists, and the poor and oppressed in general, while it treats the rich and powerful with a silk glove.

Repression continues

After the suspension of Catalan autonomy on 27 October 2017, and the subsequent arrest or exile of the Catalan government, regional elections were forcibly called by the Spanish state. They were held in a climate of fear and intimidation, including a campaign by Spanish and Catalan capitalists of economic blackmail against independence. Despite all this, separatist parties won a resounding victory, bearing witness to the vitality of the movement for the Catalan republic. The Spanish state, however, blocked three successive attempts to form a new government until a suitable candidate (that is, one not involved in the 2017 events) was found in May 2018, the obscure figure of Quim Torra. This was accompanied by new rounds of arrests, trials, and exile.

The fall of right-wing president Rajoy and the formation of Pedro Sánchez’s Social Democratic government did not change the situation fundamentally. After months of verbal threats against the republican movement and against Quim Torra’s government, the Spanish police carried out raids against the Committees for the Defence of the Republic and arrested the aforementioned activists. Through police provocation and outright manipulation, and with the connivance of bourgeois media, there is a concerted campaign to criminalise Catalan republicans. The aim is to crack down on the most militant sector of the pro-independence movement in the lead-up to the court rulings, and also to besmirch Catalan republicanism in the rest of Spain by connecting it to terror and violence, thus putting a cordon sanitaire around the region.

Catalan November 3 Image RevolucióAchieving Catalan self-determination is a revolutionary task, which is why the 1 October Referendum was met with such severe repression by the Spanish state / Image: Revolució

Pedro Sánchez does not mince his words when it comes to Spanish unity. The sacrosanct unity of the Kingdom of Spain is one of the linchpins of Spanish capitalism, to whose defence Pedro Sánchez is fully committed. The emergence of nation-states in Europe was always accompanied by repression and coercion. But in countries such as Britain, France, or the Netherlands, the process of national integration was abetted by democratic reform and economic development, which gave unification more stable foundations. Spain, however, relied almost exclusively on brute force to centralise the country and keep it together. The fear and intolerance towards any centrifugal tendencies is part of the DNA of the Spanish ruling class. At the same time, however, national conflict is being stoked by accidental, political causes. Some sectors of the ruling class resent the belligerence of the Spanish state against Catalan nationalism and would prefer a more conciliatory line. The Catalan employers’ association made notable efforts to bring Sánchez and Torra to the negotiating table. However, parties are driven by political motivations that have their own dynamics.

Sánchez is now threatening to suspend Catalan autonomy once again if Torra does not toe the line and abscond all plans for secession. He is trying to curry favour with the voters of right-wing party Ciudadanos, which is going through severe difficulties. Approaching politics through a formalistic perspective, Sánchez believes he has already won the support of most of the left-wing electorate; now he simply needs to appeal to the “centre” to secure a stable majority. He hopes to do this by posing as a stalwart of national unity. By moving right, Pedro Sánchez is also preparing the ground for a future government agreement with Ciudadanos. In this endeavour, he is being assisted by the Spanish left, namely Pablo Iglesias’ Unidas Podemos (UP) and a new splinter party, Íñigo Errejón’s Más País. Both have long reneged on self-determination, and, in this campaign, are fudging the burning issue of Catalonia. By not counterpoising an alternative to Spanish chauvinism, they unconsciously help to strength it. At the same time, Torra is under pressure from his own ranks to stand up to the Spanish state. Although he is a cowardly petty bourgeois with no will or vision for secession, his political survival demands he bait Madrid through occasional displays of verbal bravado. This is not only provoking the central government, but is also incensing the state apparatus, which has its own outlook and agenda, and which cannot countenance even the hollowest of threats against its power and privileges.

Yet for all of Sánchez’s inflammatory talk, he will think twice before suspending Catalan autonomy. This would trigger an unprecedented social explosion in Catalonia that he would not be able to control. He prefers to clamp down selectively on the pro-independence movement and try to cow its petty-bourgeois leadership into submission. But the court rulings will up the ante unpredictably, producing mass mobilisations and forcing Torra to harden his stance. In such a context, and in the midst of an election campaign, with the state apparatus breathing down his neck, Sánchez might be forced to push the repression further than he intends to.

The republican leadership

In the past years, the Catalan masses have shown extraordinary courage and determination. Sadly, they are lions led by donkeys. At the forefront of the pro-independence movement stands the centre-left ERC (Catalan Republican Left) and the centre-right PDECAT (Party of European Democrats of Catalonia). Since 2015, both have been united in a bloc for independence. These are petty-bourgeois formations with a cowardly outlook, which are not up to the task of national liberation. In Spain, winning the right to self-determination is a revolutionary task, because it involves life-or-death struggle with a powerful imperialist state and the capitalist system on which it rests. It can only be conquered through mass mobilisation and class struggle and by securing the solidarity of the Spanish working class. In order to mobilise the masses, it is necessary to enthuse them with a programme for radical social transformation and offer an internationalist perspective. Indeed, only part of the working class in Catalonia nurtures strong Catalan nationalist sentiments, whereas a large section is Spanish speaking and has a Spanish national identity. The only way to overcome this divide and bring the latter into the movement is through a bold socialist programme. Clearly, ERC and PDECAT cannot do any of this.

Versed not in strikes and occupations, but in European Parliament resolutions and court appeals; fluent not in the language of revolution and class struggle, but in lofty liberal values; Catalonia’s petty-bourgeois nationalists are at a dead end. During the struggle in autumn 2017, they wavered and held the movement back at all stages. Since then, they have combined occasional verbal recalcitrance with persistent practical capitulation, yielding to all the demands of the state. Only last week, a jury forced the removal of the yellow ribbon (the sign of solidarity with the political prisoners) that hung from the façade of the building of the Catalan government. Quim Torra duly complied with the ruling. The triband flag of the Kingdom of Spain blazons atop the seat of the Catalan government, while its ministers deliver pompous speeches about republicanism and self-determination.

The current political tendency has been for the growth of ERC to the detriment of PDECAT. The former is the more honest of the two. It admits the 2017 referendum was defeated, and that republicans need to reorganise, broaden their social base, and enter into negotiations with the Spanish state, leaning on the Social Democrat Pedro Sánchez in particular. On the contrary, PDECAT, with which Quim Torra is aligned, is verbally more defiant (but internally split), and continues to speak of unilateral secession, but this is hot air.

Carles Puigdemont Image Puigdemont acompanyat de càrrecs electes de CiUThe Catalan masses have shown tremendous courage and resolve, but they are led by petty-bourgeois cowards / Image: CiU

Moreover, while they engage in secessionist demagoguery, Quim Torra’s government has continued a policy of austerity and pro-capitalist policies. There is widespread discontent in Catalonia, not simply about repression and national oppression, but also about festering inequality, precariousness, and falling living standards for the working class and the impoverished middle classes. Understandably, ERC appears more realistic and convincing than PDECAT, and also has a more progressive, left-leaning outlook. This explains its electoral growth. After the dust from the sentences settles, it is likely Catalan elections will be called and it is uncertain whether the bloc between ERC and PDECAT will be repeated.

The far-left of the pro-independence movement, the CUP (Popular Unity Lists) is called on to play an important role in the present situation. The political bankruptcy of ERC and PDECAT is plain for all to see. A revolutionary alternative that links self-determination with root-and-branch social transformation, and which appeals to workers (in Catalonia and beyond) regardless of their national identity, connecting anger against national oppression with widespread social malaise, could transform the political situation.

So far, however, the CUP has played an ambiguous role. In 2015-17, it backed the ruling ERC-PDECAT bloc, helping generate illusions about its capacity to achieve self-determination. During the critical weeks of 2017, it failed to come out with a distinct strategy, tailing Puigdemont’s government. Since then, it has stood on the margins, without a clear, comprehensive vision. By not participating in the important Spanish general elections of April 2019, which had a record turnout, it lost an excellent platform for propaganda and agitation. It saw its share of the vote drop in the local elections of May 2019. Its lack of personality has retarded the process of political differentiation within the pro-independence camp.

Today, there are calls for unity from the rank-and-file of the republican movement. No clear explanation for the defeat of the 1 October referendum has been put forward, and as there is no convincing alternative to ERC and PDECAT. Therefore, an important part of Catalan society has come to believe that unity is paramount, and that they will be stronger against the Spanish state if they are united. The CUP must unmask the political character of these parties, and patiently explain that the right to self-determination is a revolutionary task that they cannot deliver. Its decision to stand in the upcoming Spanish general elections on 10 November is correct and will provide it with an important mouthpiece to reach a wider audience.

Above all, the protests that will follow the court rulings on the political prisoners will be an opportunity to challenge the leadership of the pro-independence movement, and wrest it from the hands of ERC and PDECAT. The CUP must throw itself headlong into this movement, but should not confound itself with its leadership. It should maintain an attitude of political independence and defiance. Where ERC and PDECAT will call for restraint and caution, the CUP must call for permanent mobilisation and stimulate organisation from below, especially through the Committees for the Defence of the Republic, which, though deflated, can rapidly revive in the din of battle. Where ERC and PDECAT call for unity (i.e., unity behind their treacherous strategy) the CUP must call for vigilance and instil mistrust in these parties. The three main slogans it has put forward - amnesty, self-determination and social rights - are a step in the right direction.

Marx and Engels explained the relationship between communists and petty-bourgeois democrats in the struggle against common oppression:

“At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organisation in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This unity must therefore be resisted in the most decisive manner. […]

“In the event of a struggle against a common enemy a special alliance is unnecessary. As soon as such an enemy has to be fought directly, the interests of both parties will coincide for the moment and an association of momentary expedience will arise spontaneously in the future, as it has in the past. It goes without saying that in the bloody conflicts to come, as in all others, it will be the workers, with their courage, resolution and self-sacrifice, who will be chiefly responsible for achieving victory. As in the past, so in the coming struggle also, the petty bourgeoisie, to a man, will hesitate as long as possible and remain fearful, irresolute and inactive; but when victory is certain it will claim it for itself and will call upon the workers to behave in an orderly fashion, to return to work and to prevent so-called excesses, and it will exclude the proletariat from the fruits of victory. It does not lie within the power of the workers to prevent the petty-bourgeois democrats from doing this; but it does lie within their power to make it as difficult as possible for the petty bourgeoisie to use its power against the armed proletariat, and to dictate such conditions to them that the rule of the bourgeois democrats, from the very first, will carry within it the seeds of its own destruction, and its subsequent displacement by the proletariat will be made considerably easier. Above all, during and immediately after the struggle the workers, as far as it is at all possible, must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phrases. […]

“During and after the struggle the workers must at every opportunity put forward their own demands against those of the bourgeois democrats. […]

“Alongside the new official governments they must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers’ clubs or committees, so that the bourgeois-democratic governments not only immediately lost the support of the workers but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers.”

Freedom for the political prisoners, down with the regime!

The court rulings will generate anger and mass protests. The whip of reaction will shake consciousness and stimulate struggle. Before and during these protests more repression and attacks against Catalan autonomy are to be expected. Various parties and civil society organisations, more-or-less aligned with the current Catalan government, have set up a platform for joint mobilisation, the Tsunami Democràtic (Democratic Tsunami), which is planning student strikes, walkouts and mass civil disobedience as soon as the sentences are announced.

The ANC and the Òmnium are organising a three-day, five-column march on foot, starting on the day of the sentencing and converging in Barcelona. Some of the Catalan trade unions have called for a 24-hour general strike on 18 October. It is the task of all revolutionaries to participate in this united front, striking jointly against repression and reaction while criticising the ERC-PDECAT bloc at the head of the movement.

The only way to overwhelm the state and vanquish repression is through sustained, mass mobilisation, that brings into the fray the Spanish-speaking sectors of the Catalan working class that have thus far remained apathetic or hostile to the republican movement, and which is able to attract and galvanise a significant sector of the working class in the rest of Spain. For this, a revolutionary leadership is needed, which can and should be established in the heat of struggle.

Continuing mobilisation, organise the Committees for the Defence of the Republic!

Freedom for the political prisoners!

Down with the 1978 regime!

For the Catalan socialist republic, spark of the Iberian revolution!

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