In the clear yet cold winter of 1936-1937 a 33-year-old George Orwell found himself fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He was to vividly record his experiences in Homage to Catalonia, one of the first-rate nonfictional books on the brutality of war. Now, with almost 50% of Catalans in favor breaking away from Spain, Spaniards are facing a possible fracturing of their country. Absurd? Impossible? Illegal? Unconstitutional? Well, Orwell had never imagined that the Barcelona he admired, where “the working class was in the saddle,” and where “there was a belief in the revolution and the future,” was to have “lies and rumors circulating everywhere, the posters screaming from the hoardings that I and everyone like me was a Fascist spy” in less than six months’ time.
No one is predicting that in today’s Spain fellow countrymen will be killing each other, and the Minister of Defense has said that Spanish military involvement will be unnecessary as long as everybody “fulfills their duty.” But there are several salient historical and political parallels between what Orwell experienced in the Spanish Civil War and the current independence movement in Catalonia.
Orwell was inspired by Barcelona’s revolutionary and egalitarian atmosphere in that December of 1936. Anarchist flags were ubiquitous and former class splits had been disintegrated. “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” He joined the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).
After spending the remainder of the winter and early spring fighting on the Aragon front, Orwell returned to an altogether different Barcelona. The revolutionary resoluteness of the city had faded, food prices had skyrocketed without a matching wage increase and the dominance of the working class had vanished. Orwell lamented: The “restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty getting whatever they wanted, but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were hundreds of yards long.”
There was an ominous feeling of distrust between the various Leftist factions. The Kremlin-backed Communists carried out a deliberate campaign of misinformation aimed at the Anarchists, whose spirit of independence Stalin wanted to control. “Various people were infected with spy mania and were creeping around whispering that everyone else was a spy of the Communists, or the Trotskyists, or the Anarchists, or what-not,” wrote Orwell. Barcelona, with Orwell caught in the middle, fell into three days and three nights of street warfare. When the street fighting had stopped, Orwell was off to the front again. In May of 1937, his throat was pierced by a sniper’s bullet that almost killed him. Back in Barcelona, he was greeted with news that the government had outlawed the POUM and had incarcerated, tortured and executed many of its members and sympathizers. In a “horrible atmosphere of suspicion and hatred,” Orwell was deemed a traitor and the police searched his hotel room. He and his wife eventually escaped to France. Although he began as a selfless Republican—and remained a flinty socialist for life—volunteering in the battle against Fascism, “planned state-capitalism” and the Catholic Church, Orwell was forced to flee Spain as an accused Trotskyite conspirator whose true allegiance was to Fascism. Orwell’s time in Spain—the “result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism”; rather, “the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings”—was essential to the ideas he would write about in Animal Farm and 1984. He “suffered the premonitory pangs of a man living under a police regime: a police regime ruling in the name of socialism and the people,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in his book Why Orwell Matters. Orwell “had seen Stalinist frame-ups and falsified denunciations at first hand.”
Yet the infighting between the Socialists and Anarchists and the acrimonious rivalry between the Anarchists and Soviet Communists divided the Left in the Spanish Civil War and effectively led to Franco’s Fascist victory over the Republican forces for which Orwell had volunteered in first place. There is a similar internecine struggle in today’s secessionist movement in Catalonia that is putting a future Catalonian republic in jeopardy, which in many ways mirrors the self-sabotaging of the never-to-be revolution that Orwell supported.
Voter turnout was at a record high of 77.4% in Catalan regional elections of last September. With 48% of the popular vote, the two pro-secessionist parties, Together for Yes (JpS) and Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), won 72 of Catalonia’s 135 seats, giving pro-independence parties a majority in parliament for the first time in Catalonia’s modern history. Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP), an alliance of progressive parties with Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos (We Can) at the helm, took 9% of the votes, getting 11 seats. Although Podemos doesn’t support the already-passed parliamentary motion—a nine-point document calling for an 18-month unilateral declaration of independence and the formation of a republic—the party is in favor of holding a Scottish-style referendum to decide if Catalonia is to formally secede from Spain. The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC), which finished with 13% and 16 seats, respectively, also has leaders that back the “right to decide.” That the Popular Party of Catalonia (PPC), the Catalan branch of acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s fiercely unionist and anti-referendum PP, came away with only 9% of the vote and 11 seats is noteworthy. Opinion surveys show upwards of 80% of Catalans in favor of holding a binding referendum.
Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Generalitat of Catalonia, whose party, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), fused with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) to run together as JpS in the regional elections, has more ideologically pure independentista credentials than his predecessor, Artur Mas. Puigdemont openly defied the Spanish state and tradition by becoming the first Catalan premier to take office without swearing allegiance to the Spanish king or the Constitution. In fact, just last month, Puigdemont wrote in an op-ed article in the Guardian newspaper that “if Madrid fails to grant Catalonia a referendum, we will advance with the democratic mandate given to the pro-independence parties by the Catalan people. The roadmap we laid out prior to our own elections last September shows an 18-month timeline to prepare the laws and state institutions necessary for Catalonia to make the transition to independence with legal certainty following a referendum.” (Remember: Because in Spain’s elections of last December no political party won enough seats to form a majority in parliament, new elections have been called for June 26.) The current speaker of the parliament of Catalonia, Carme Forcadell, a secessionist like Puigdemont, took her new position by pronouncing a robust “Long live the Catalan Republic!”
So in the face of such public and political support, why haven’t the terms and date for a referendum been agreed, to say nothing of an outright declaration of independence?
One reason is that the pro-independence parties are bickering over details. Neither the CUP and CSQEP are the POUM nor ERC and CDC are the Soviet Union, and, for that matter, none of them is the equivalent to the Spanish Socialists of the 1930s. But they are engaging in an internal, Pyrrhic fight. In reaction to the Spanish Constitutional Court’s decision of last November to temporarily suspend the 18-month separatist motion passed by the Catalan parliament, Neus Munté, the then-acting deputy premier, said: “The political will is to push forward the parliament’s mandate and the resolution that was approved.” Despite Neus’s clear statement, the CUP countered by submitting a new motion that demands the “validity” of the previous motion for independence. Francesc Homs, the Spokesperson for the Government of Catalonia, criticized CUP’s filing, saying it would only effectuate “ridiculous arguments” among supporters of independence. CSQEP contends, on the other hand, that without a winning “yes” vote in a referendum, any creation of a new republic would lack democratic legitimacy.
Disputes, moreover, about policy and procedure may be masking insidious competition for power and influence, echoing the bitter rivalry between the Anarchists and Soviet Communists. The center-right CDC and the far-left CUP are allies in the centuries-old debate over the right of self-determination versus the territorial integrity of nation-states. But they, along with CSQEP, are still competing for the same votes in elections, seeking party donors and trying to win or maintain the same contested seats and offices.
Nor do the challenges facing the creation of a Catalan republic only come from within Catalonia. There are obvious adversaries at the national level. Orwell wrote that Franco’s “rising was a military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the Church.” The official position of the present-day Spanish Episcopal Conference (SEC) is that “policies directed toward the unilateral dissolution of [Spain] gives us great worry.” Four Catalans, though, sit on SEC’s Standing Committee, and one of them, Lluís Martínez Sistach, the Auxiliary Bishop of Barcelona, supposedly speaking on behalf of the three other Catalan clergymen, said the Catalan Church “would be on the side of the Catalan people” if they opted for secession. (Ironically, Teresa Forcades, a Catalan Benedictine nun, has become something of an international sensation for her cutting criticism of big banks, big pharma and inequality and for her radical approach to achieving a republican Catalonia.)
And of course there is stout political and social resistance to Catalonian independence outside of Catalonia. The PP, the party garnering the most votes in the last national election, is unwavering in its stance that the Spanish union must stay intact and maintains that a referendum would be illegal and unconstitutional. The raison d’être of Ciudadanos (Citizens), a center-right party founded by Albert Rivera, a 36-year-old Barcelona-born lawyer, which, along with Podemos, has upended three decades of two-party rule in Spain, is the continued threat of Catalan separatism. And Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), can attribute, at least in part, his two failed attempts to become prime minister to the fact that he was forced to try to form a coalition government with Citizens: It would seem that the PSOE and Podemos, two parties on the left, would have been more natural allies, but Podemos made a referendum in Catalonia a prerequisite for its backing.
Several of the most powerful foreign leaders have also weighed in against Catalan nationhood. Just as Franco received financial, military and political support from Hitler and Mussolini, so too Obama, Merkel and Cameron have all publicly reproved Catalonian independence ambitions. To be sure, said heads of state are not fascists. Nor are the E.U., NATO or the U.N. totalitarian organizations. But each of them has taken issue with Catalonian independence. “A newly independent region, by the fact of its independence, would become a third country with respect to the [European] Union, and may apply to become a member of the Union,” said Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in September of 2015. But is it fair or realistic to insinuate that Catalonia (and Scotland) would be put in line behind Albania and Macedonia as candidates for accession to the European Union?
At the time of writing, however, 23 out of 28 EU countries and 24 out of 28 members of NATO have formally recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state. And although many EU leaders, including Rajoy, Cameron and Merkel, were not in favor of Scottish independence, many were reticent to openly express their opinion. Merkel, for instance, didn’t make hardly any public comments and when she did make one after the voting it was cagey: “Before, I preferred not to stick my nose in because I thought it was an internal process. Now, I say that I respect the result and I say it with a smile.” David Cameron, to be fair, has at least allowed Scots to vote in a Quebec-style referendum on their future.
It is no surprise that Spain isn’t one of the EU member states to have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state, because it fears that the Balkan country’s declaration of independence may set a precedent for Catalonia. Unlike the sanguinary breakup of Yugoslavia and the Spanish Civil War, the tug-of-war in Catalonia is not violent. But parallels can be drawn from Kosovo.
Russia and the US may be the most self-serving and hypocritical countries apropos of sovereignty vs. self-rule. According to Russia, any recognition of Kosovo’s independence disobeys UN charter on the grounds that it violates Serbian sovereignty. But President Putin backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in severing ties with Georgia and supported, in September 2006, a referendum—albeit illegal and internationally unrecognized—in which Transnistria voted to split from Moldova. More recently, in another case of imperial irredentism, Russia has annexed Crimea, a former part of Ukraine. This annexation occurred after a referendum in which Crimean voters were asked if they wanted remain in Ukraine or attach themselves to Russia, although the referendum, carried out under the occupation of Russian troops, was admittedly a piece of Kremlin gimcrackery.
America, dissimilarly, rejects Crimean’s right to breakaway from Ukraine without consent of the national government in Kiev, asserting that Serbia lost its right to rule in Kosovo when it had turned to violence. But America’s official position in recent bids for independence hasn’t been evenhanded: It has favored self-determination in East Timor and South Sudan but has been in opposition in Chechnya and Abkhazia. And although the early United States was a child of revolution, cutting ties with Great Britain without her accord, the young republic’s civil war was fought to preserve the union of North and South.
It is, however, accepted that the preservation of the American union was not the greatest good to come of the American Civil War; the war’s finest legacy was the abolishment of slavery. And it is well-known, despite Orwell and his comrades’ efforts, that their side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War, resulting in nearly four decades of rule by the fascist regime of Franco. But what is impossible to know is if the Republican forces hadn’t been weakened, to use Orwell’s words, by “the details of inter-party polemics,” if they would have won the war. Equally beyond knowing is whether Catalan pro-independence parties will learn anything from Orwell’s experiences or continue jeopardizing the future Republic of Catalonia as onlookers go on “marveling at the folly of it all.”