In Catalonia, Class Struggle and National Dispute Have Gone Hand in Hand

Catalonia has a proud history of popular protest, from the 15th-century peasant revolts to an anarchist-led revolution, and the anti-Franco resistance that followed. This has not been hindered by Catalans' desire for independence, but nurtured by it.

An activist holds a Catalan independence flag during a demonstration on October 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

On October 1, 2017, Catalonia became a focus of worldwide attention when over two million people voted in a referendum on independence despite state prohibition and police violence. This peaceful revolt — followed by a declaration of statehood and the imprisonment and exile of leaders and activists — was not the first time that Catalan heroism had inspired internationally. It happened in 1714, when Barcelona’s inhabitants resisted a joint Spanish-French siege for months — the defeat of which led Catalonia to lose its centuries-old institutions and public use of its language. It also occurred in 1936–37, when armed workers stopped Francisco Franco’s uprising across Catalonia and went to push back his armies in Aragon, initiating a deep social revolution in the process. That experience was famously witnessed by George Orwell and recorded in his Homage to Catalonia.

In A People’s History of Catalonia, locally based Michael Eaude provides an impressive and accessible roller-coaster history. It is spiced with biographies of key individuals, ranging from Buenaventura Durruti to Black Carlota (leader of the slave revolts in Spanish Cuba), literary quotes, and cultural references. A stated goal of A People’s History of Catalonia is to provide a background to Spanish hostility toward Catalan self-determination and statehood and demonstrate why the Left should embrace both (rather than seeing them as a distraction or simply divisive). Crucially, Eaude does this by telling the story “from below.”

A Historic Nation

A synopsis of Catalonia’s national history could be as follows. It was the dominant component in the Crown of Aragon, becoming an early trading and military empire (conquering Valencia and the Balearic Islands by the thirteenth century, and Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, and Athens not long after). In the same period, it developed representative and political institutions, which while restricted to elites, was somewhat effective in limiting monarchical power.

When King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, the territorial basis for Spain was created. Their attempts to construct a centralized state led to wars in Catalonia — including the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Catalonia supported the losing pretender to throne. Despite Catalonia then being stripped of its autonomy, its economy revived. Indeed, it was the first region to industrialize — helped by Catalan traders being allowed to participate in Spain’s exploitative Atlantic economy (including slave production).

In the nineteenth century, Catalonia developed a large and militant working class, which, over time, became organized mainly in the anarchist National Confederation of Labor (CNT). Meanwhile, liberals tried and failed to implement a modern Spanish constitution. Republicans attempting to create a federal (decentralized) Spain suffered a similar fate.

After monarchism was restored — thanks to a coup in 1874 — modern Catalan nationalism emerged, firstly organized in the bourgeois party Lliga Regionalista, and Catalan institutions slowly began being reintroduced. But backward-looking Spanish elites saw “separatists” (minority nationalists) as existential threats alongside “reds” (anarchists and communists). Under Spanish-nationalist military dictatorships before and after the Civil War, Catalan self-government, militant unions, and the radical left were prohibited. In the 1970s, Spain “transitioned” to democracy. Catalonia’s government (the Generalitat) gained some devolved powers but national injustices continued, exploding after 2012.

National and Social Struggles

A significant idea in the book is that the “explosiveness” of Catalan history is due to an “intertwining” of “social” and “national” struggles and the often-ignored central participation by popular classes in the latter. Many instances are given. Firstly, in 1640–41, abuses by billeted soldiers in the territory led to escalating violence between farm reapers and the state, with the peasants killing the viceroy and other powerful individuals, and the latter punishing whole towns. Merchants and artisans joined the peasants, and the president of the Generalitat declared a republic. This, however, would be under the protection of the French king Louis XIII — a mistake that led to a new abusive occupation and new revolts, and, later, the loss of Northern Catalonia to France. The rest of Catalonia managed to keep its institutions.

Similar social forces fought for Catalonia during the War of Secession. The French Bourbons had claimed the throne in Madrid after a monarch died without an heir, creating a dual-empire alliance. Fearing its potential power, the trading nations of England and Holland backed a rival pretender to the throne. Catalonia joined them to maintain trade and because it feared Bourbon rule based on “one king, one law, one language” (i.e., zero regional autonomy). Despite eventually being left to fight alone and hearing of massacres by the tens of thousands of troops approaching, the people of Barcelona and its surroundings decided to resist, organizing in militias and guerrilla units. This bravery and the eventual bloodbath suffered has since become a nationalist landmark. For Eaude, such episodes undermine the idea — common on the Spanish left — that Catalan identity was and is a bourgeois invention.

That does not mean that catalanisme (pro-Catalan identity) has never been politically hegemonized by bourgeois conservatives. This, A People’s History describes, happened with Francesc Cambó’s Lliga, which fought a violent war against the CNT in the early twentieth century to end a rising wave of struggle. First, it sponsored murders of trade unionists by right-wing squads. Then, it supported General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s coup and dictatorship (1923–30), despite his choosing to prohibit the Catalan language and institutions.

However, on many more occasions, pro-Catalans have been in the progressive camp. After the dictator’s fall (and with the Lliga now discredited), Catalan politics became dominated by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). On April 14, 1931, ERC’s leaders — running Barcelona councils — proclaimed a Catalan Republic (although one that might join an Iberian federation) the same day as the Spanish Republic was called. This unleashed a wave of protests that freed political and other prisoners and led to the dismantling of the anti-union squads. The same leaders were to settle for “autonomy” within Spain (and the reintroduction of the Generalitat). However, when the Right took power in Madrid and prevented a Catalan law increasing land rights to vineyard farmers, the Catalan president (Lluís Companys) again declared independence. For Eaude, these acts helped a prerevolutionary situation develop.

National and social demands also combined positively after fascism’s crushing victory in 1939. Despite Barcelona suffering disproportionally from repression and exile, it was the site of a first big victory against the regime when a near-total tram boycott was held against a sharp hike in fares. As well as the increase occurring at a time of hardship, it was deemed discriminatory as prices remained lower in the Spanish capital. The event showed that “the national question refused to disappear,” despite Franco’s efforts. (The same could be said about social conflict, which Franco claimed to have ended in 1939). After arrests, strikes paralyzed the city for three days. The rise in fares was scrapped, and those responsible for it sacked.

The regime survived until the late 1970s, but by then it had been become moribund thanks to a combination of working-class and pro-democracy protest. Leftists allied with nationalists created the Assemblea de Catalunya, which called for a “statute” of autonomy, as well as “elections” and “amnesty” for political prisoners. A People’s History shows how these alliances helped undermine divisions between native Catalans and the many Spanish migrants living in Catalonia. In all, it makes a strong case that the fight for Catalan national demands has benefited the broader emancipatory struggle, rather than create disunity.

Keys to Catalonia’s Past and Present

There are other strengths to A People’s History. It shows how peasants’ self-activity forced an erosion of serfdom that created the incentive for the economic dynamism underpinning many developments described in the book. Like Josep Fontana’s still untranslated Formació d’una Identitat — a scholarly history of Catalan identity that Eaude’s book complements and shares similarities with — A People’s History shows how long and significant Catalonia’s institutional history has been. And it does this without embellishing.

The Crown of Aragon was both “lord and terror of the Mediterranean” and did mass slaughter or enslavement of the male population in Menorca, Mallorca, and Sardinia. (So much for the historical trait of negotiating peacefully — pactisme — claimed by nationalists.) Furthermore, the territory’s early institutions were no more than “a participatory democracy for the upper classes.” (That said, it would be good to have explained how these attained “extraordinary prestige” and “legitimacy,” particularly as both the peasantry and artisans sided against them and with the Trastámaras — Aragonese kings — in the fifteenth-century civil wars).

Usefully, Eaude also identifies the “reactive” aspect to pro-Catalan sentiment that has grown in response to Spanish decadence, abuses, and affronts. For instance, he indicates how the recent drive for independence followed the Spanish constitutional court blocking any further significant devolution of powers (or recognition of Catalan nationhood), and the state underinvesting in the territory for years.

All the same, I was left wondering if Catalan nationalism has been even more reactive than the book identifies. For example, did the very slow “rebirth” of Catalan national demands after 1714, which waited until the nineteenth century, suggest that Catalan identity was thin and/or that rival Spanish identity had become stronger? After all, Spanish nationalism is shown to have blossomed across Iberia with the successful uprisings against Napoleonic occupation at the start of that century, and many Catalans were prominent in subsequent attempts to create a unified liberal Spain.

Similarly, the fight for devolution during the First Republic appears to have been just as much for municipal rule as regional, and was a Spain-wide phenomenon. In short, wasn’t the emergence of pro-Catalan politics, which followed the defeat of those movements (and the loss of the remains of Spain’s empire in 1898), mainly a response to the failure at modernizing and democratizing Spain?

The book does not just concern itself with the national question. It is also a gripping account of a workers’ movement that has repeatedly showed transformative potential on broader social questions, and has (unusually) been greatly influenced by anarchism. Eaude praises this political tendency for helping bring about the 1936–37 revolution (through the mass education it carried out, its militant organizing over decades, and leading the resistance to the 1936 coup).

During the revolution, most of Barcelona’s industry, and much of the Catalan and Aragonese countryside, became collectively self-managed. But, while leading that process, the CNT leaders left the official power structures untouched and these (led in Catalonia by ERC and the pro-Moscow Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia [PSUC]) managed to reassert themselves — helped by collaboration from the CNT and Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) leaders. Thousands of police, including reinforcements from Madrid, managed to dismantle workers’ power despite great resistance, which, again, the CNT leadership abandoned. The state centralized the war and economy from above (leading Catalonia to lose its autonomy again).

The latter part of the book gives vital context to the Catalonia-Spain contemporary conflict, showing that Franco’s authoritarian nationalism has partly survived democratization. The reform process in the late 1970s was controlled by his successors, excluded pro-independence forces, and was tempered by violence from far-right groups (creating the fear that the process might go into reverse). A new constitution was passed which outlawed independence of any territory. After dragging its heels on national devolution — sparking mass protests in Catalonia — seventeen Spanish “communities” (regions) were constructed and given equal rights to “autonomy.” Minority nationhood was denied and statehood preventable by force, which has been enforced since 2017.


A great value of Eaude’s book is its broad historical sweep. In its narrative, however, certain patterns can be viewed that, for me, complicate treating Catalonia’s national struggle as simply heroic — an idea that has been implied in the publicity for the book. Its institutions and large organizations have sometimes played an ambiguous and even reactionary role toward popular struggle. Nationalist parties opposed the revolution during the “May events” of 1937, and were responsible for neoliberal reforms under President Jordi Pujol (1980–2003).

This has produced a not-uncommon tendency for large sections of the popular classes to support forces hostile or apathetic to catalanisme, ranging  (enormously) from Trastámara monarchs to the CNT. Spanish speakers in the large cities (and others) have voted en masse for pro-Spanish populists: Alejandro Lerroux’s party in the early twentieth century and the right-wing Ciutadans (Ciudadanos or Citizens party) in the referendum period.

Lastly, whenever Catalan republics are proclaimed, Spain hits back. No resistance to this is mobilized (or armed when at war), and the Catalan president goes to jail or into exile. This was the case with Pau Claris in 1641, Francesc Macià and Companys in 1931 and 1934, and Carles Puigdemont in November 2017. Eaude shows that instead of relying on mass self-activity, these leaders sought aid for their cause from European states (or the EU, which Puigdemont hoped would broker mediation between Spain and Catalonia after the referendum). But each time, such powers turned their back (or took advantage to colonize Catalonia for its own gain, as France did). Why has the movement’s grassroots allowed this to happen repeatedly? Is it because leaderships weigh heavily in such movements? Or maybe the social classes behind them — often skewed toward the middle classes — are not well suited to sustained and deepening combat?

A People’s History left me feeling the need for further investigation into catalanisme as well as more explicit recognition of its historical contradictions. Yet Eaude’s powerhouse of a book provides more than a foundation to do this. It should be highly useful for those familiar with Catalan history and those new to the topic — particularly those fighting for a better world today.