The catalan referendum: anarchy and/or self-determination?

Sunday, October 1st, was the day in which the residents of catalonia were asked to vote on the region’s independence.  The referendum, having earlier been declared unconstitutional by the spanish courts, became then the object of an active judicially driven prohibition with police seizures of voting bulletins, ballot boxes, the closure and barring from probable voting spaces, the shutting down of websites supportive of the referendum, arrests or threats of arrest against local civil servants and politicians involved in the organisation of the vote (for the crime of sedition which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years), debates on the referendum within public spaces were prohibited, and the like.  With the Rajoy government hiding behind the law, it did what it does best in the face of opposition: send in the police.  Over 10,000 Guardia Civil and national police agents were sent to the region from the across the country, along with hundreds of special mobile units of the national police, for the October 1st date.  And the result was inevitable mass police violence, with over 800 people hurt and wounded, some seriously.  In most instances, the violence was against those trying to protect voting stations, election material and ballots cast.

The “law” showed its face in spain: a constitutional order before peaceful dissidence, rebellion, depends ultimately upon the threat and/or use of violence, even when that rebellion wishes to express itself through the ballot box.

The images of people being beaten as they try to vote, of firefighters protecting people against police aggression and suffering the violence in turn, of catalan police (Mossos d’Esquadra) facing off with national police, of spanish police being forced to leave hotels in the nights following, chased out by locals, have already condemned the spanish government to defeat, and this regardless of the legitimacy or result of the referendum.  The fragile, post-Franco political order of 1978 is dead.  It perhaps has been for some time, but the body was kept minimally alive through corrupt interests and power, passivity and fear.  Even this farce is now completely unmasked.

“Spain” will only be possible under a re-negotiated constitution, or it will cease to be. (The king’s speech on the night of October the 3rd points to this fear only too clearly. El Pais 03/10/2017)

Yet how much has changed since the mass protests of 15M, when, from the occupied square of the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, it was declared that “No one represents us!”, and that when the Mossos d’Esquadra, catalonia’s now apparently cherished police, tried to clear the square with batons, they were met with the insults of “Assassins!”, “Fascists!”.  (Not to forget the regular accusation of violence and torture leveled against this police, along with their involvement in the persecution of anarchists).  Or when the same movement, a month later, encircled catalonia’s parliament, to block the voting on a new austerity budget and to show to all that the institution and the nationalist government of Artur Mas lacked any legitimacy.       

Yesterday, October 3rd, work slowdowns, stoppages and a general strike in catalonia (the latter called by the “minority” labour unions, among which the anarchist CNT and CGT) brought “normal” life to a crawl.  If the larger unions, the UGT and the CCOO, along with local authorities, independence organisations and business associations, only called for a work slowdown in protest against the violence of the police, the call for a general strike preceded these events, in part, in the name of the right to a people’s self-determination.  The strike affected not only work places, state and private, but movement in general, with schools and universities being occupied and shutting down, roads cut, commerce closing; all has become unpredictable.

Where are the anarchists in all of this is our question.  Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, remain significant centres of anarchist militancy.  And yet before questions of national self-determination, in all of its varieties, there has always been enormous difficulty for the movement(s) to find common ground.

The testimony of anarchist activists here is telling (crimethinc 03/10/2017):

There is no single anarchist position on all of this. All anarchists reject institutional politics, bourgeois nationalism, and class collaboration, and we will never applaud the Catalan police. At times, the situation is not inviting to anarchist participation. Even so, there are many who affirm that where they live, they find themselves on the side of those who decided to take the streets. What anarchist can stay indoors while police threaten and beat people who desire to have more of a say in their lives? It is tempting to want to break up the Spanish state or, if not to destroy it, at least to debilitate it through a popular struggle. And when people are in the streets, this presents the possibility that things might overflow, exceeding their limits… although at the moment, this is difficult, since it is politicians who hold the initiative.

Anarchists hadn’t thought about what to do in relation to this movement until the referendum was approaching and the Spanish state began to crack down on civil liberties. Faced with the censorship imposed by the state, a large number of anarchist groups from different parts of Barcelona, who have already been organized in their own neighborhood assemblies and social centers, decided to give support to the local independentista movements.

Within the anarchist movement, there are people who support the referendum itself, and also people who don’t. Independentist people are demanding basic democratic rights and civil liberties, such as the right to vote, and some anarchists believe that anarchists should be out there with them. There are also people involved in the independence movement who we lost track of years ago when the political parties like CUP and Podemos that gained momentum after the 15M movement in 2011 institutionalized the energy from the streets. Now, with the referendum, people are returning to the streets, so we decided it was an important moment for us to be out there too. But this has created a good deal of debate within and between anrchist collectives, because we are definitely not coming from the same place politically as many of the independentistas.

For us, it has been really complicated. For me personally, sure, I hold contradictory positions all the time, like supporting certain reformist campaigns or engaging with single issue movements… but to defend a democratic process towards national dependence… it’s very hard to figure out where I stand. Many of the comrades in our neighborhood are trying to figure it out too.

We have been organizing ourselves and coordinating with independentista groups that have been active in the neighborhood. We attended some assemblies and announced that on the day of the referendum, we would open up our social center as an info-point with food and outlets for charging cellphones, a place where you could rest up and get hydrated. This was also a way of suggesting to people who believed in self-determination, albeit through statist means, that there are other ways to take direct control over our lives, in these spaces at the margins of society.

So yes, we decided to lend our support. Yesterday was the day of the vote, and there was no other topic either on the news or in discussions on the street. It was the only subject of conversation.

Many of us went home yesterday very annoyed, because we had a lot of differences with what was happening. About two weeks ago, the anarchist collective here in my neighborhood had a discussion about whether or not to defend the process of national “self-determination.” There were many people close to us, with whom we share a lot of political affinity, who said it was better to struggle against the institutions of a Catalan state because it would be a smaller state. Many people also supported the process in hopes of destabilizing the Spanish state, because at the moment the Spanish state is very weakened. It’s a moment that could tip either way.

Personally, I don’t like either of the options. We can’t lose track of where we stand as anarchists. I think we should be supporting people in the streets, but I truly believe the worst thing that could happen to us would be if a Catalan state gained independence. In the end, it’s just a way to legitimize the social and political exclusions that exist today to believe that we’d have more control over them in a smaller state. But it’s hard for people to see a Catalan state as something other than their own, especially after struggling for years to achieve it.

While people went out to vote impassioned to the point of tears, several police murders have taken place in Barcelona in the last several months without any response. Meanwhile, thanks to the referendum process, the Mossos d’Esquadra have gotten a PR makeover as the good guys; until this, they always received negative press coverage. The Policia Nacional (Spanish police) have practically tortured people, leaving many with visible injuries. On the good side, they’ve turned public opinion against them. So the militarized Policia Nacional now look very dirty, and the Mossos de Escuadra seem more “clean”—although their current “clean” image just means they will be able to utilize this legitimacy to employ violence with fewer obstacles.

I believe we have to acknowledge the disobedience of the Catalan people, their confrontation with the police, and the resistance that they’ve demonstrated. It has been incredible. Like I’ve mentioned, the anarchist movement has arrived late and ill-prepared to a process that has been gestating for five years already. We can’t expect to do the work of years in just a couple weeks. Carving out our own space is difficult and we have to take a humble approach to it.

The point isn’t to help build a new state, but rather to demonstrate through practice that self-organization, networks of mutual aid, and assemblies are the real alternative to the Spanish state, and through this we find each other, some of us being anarchists, but many others too. What is clear is that the struggle against statist hierarchies is not on its way out: it simply continues in a different context. If a Catalan state comes to exist, we will maintain our opposition to the state from the very same networks with our own practices, our own communities, our own economies of mutual aid.

My enemy continues to be capitalism, the military, the clergy, the farcical politicians and bankers. Anarchists don’t stop being anarchists just because they express solidarity with people facing retaliation from the state. I know perfectly well what happened in 19371 and that we must not abandon our memory of the previous times we were betrayed by statists, but we also must oppose current state repression—or else will we simply stay put, watching? Our struggle is to be present in the streets to offer our vision and denounce the violence of the state, whether it be Spanish, Catalan, or Chinese!

We must learn about what happened in the past, when anarchists were betrayed. We should try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, which is to say, we should foment a consensus among anarchists and anti-authoritarians for when this situation is over, when we will continue building self-organization. I, at least, for many years now, have been working for this 24/7, and whatever happens I will continue doing it as I’ve done every day.

Anarchism is not a dogma, neither is it a religion. It is a form of life, a way of feeling and acting as a human in harmony with the earth. Every era has its context, and it’s true that those who believe in the state have betrayed us before, but we forget that without us, they won’t change either! We will continue influencing society, despite ourselves.

The Anarcho-Independentista current is criticized by comrades who are more “orthodox” or dogmatic, depending on how you see them. There are some who support the idea of independence without a state. It’s not a majoritarian position, but I consider it a valid one. For a long time, anarchists have not focused attention on the subject of independence. Now this issue has served to inspire debate and discussion; we disagree with each other, but we try to come to some consensus.

I don’t know if we ought to vote or not, but I do know that the Spanish government is getting more fascist by the day. It’s not that it surprises me, in any case I am against a government that approves the slogan “better bloody than broken,” referring to the Iberian peninsula and so-called Spain, which already indicates how old this subject is—something that has been going on for centuries.

In a common statement released by catalonia based anarchist collectives, an effort is made to go beyond indignation and rage (a las barricadas 02/10/2017) …

The undersigned labour unions, organisations and collectives want to communicate to the workers and the ensemble of popular classes our position before the different events of recent days in the streets of our cities and towns.

For a few years now, we have seen how the escalation of tension of an already historical conflict has served to cut the fundamental rights of the population.  We come from a labour union and political tradition that has historically defended the rights and freedoms of the oppressed classes and that has taken to the streets when it has been necessary to take from power everything that allows us to be protagonists of our present and future.

As libertarians and as an active part of the labour, popular and associative movements of Catalonia, we will always defend the right of the self-determination of peoples – beginning with our own.  We understand it as a basic principle of confederalism, something that makes possible human conviviality in a regime of equality.

We understand that all complete emancipation will be impossible without the prior step of eliminating the economic structure that sustains the existing order, capitalism.  While this does not occur, the living conditions of the working class will continue to be ruined by a spanish oligarchy that will always, arm in arm, impose labour counter-reforms and cuts in social rights.

Even so, we want to denounce the militarisation and the repression that we are suffering at the hands of the spanish state, who revealing its most stark and authoritarian face, wants to impose its will to the end.  We have always been against those who militarised Catalonia – and any territory – to deal with large popular protests or all desire for social emancipation.

We oppose the State’s repression because we have suffered it in our own bodies, in the streets and in companies.  For this same reason, we want to denounce the repressive nature of the same Generalitat de Catalunya [reginal government of catalonia], which during the last years has harassed, beaten, detained and arrested all of those who did not wish to look elsewhere each time the civil and human rights of the people were being stepped upon.  We have not forgotten how the mossos de escuadra evicted us from the Plaza Cataluña, imprisoned and reported on labour union activists, persecuted us for the mobilisation surrounding the parliament during the days in which our social rights were being cut, arrested and imprisoned us in the recent Pandora Operations, or killed and mutilated, and so on.  We will thus not allow  anyone to take what is ours, regardless of what flag they carry.

For us, the self-determination and emancipation of our villages, towns and cities cannot remain limited to a decision marked only by a specific territory.  Collective freedom will not be possible without the determined action of the people and workers before a State and political elites who maintain anti-social, hetero-patriarchal and oppressive structures; structures also defended by some actors in the catalan independence movement.  Self-determination and emancipation will only be possible through the sustained rebellious action of the oppressed, who understand by this the defense and improvement of the material conditions of their lives.  The socialisation of the means of production, of wealth and the elimination of all forms of oppression, such as hetero-patriarchy and its different structures of power, both explicit as well as implicit, the broadest freedom of decision and participation by means of direct action and self-management, will be what renders us truly free.

We thus believe that it is the people constituted as a political and class subject who have to serve as the basis for any significant social change and, therefore, we celebrate the expansion of grass roots popular organisations to practice disobedience and confront the existing authoritarian context.  We want this attitude of disobedience and confrontation with authority to go beyond the current circumstances and that it direct itself against all of the injustices to which we are subject.

For all of this, we call upon the workers of Catalonia to participate in the mobilisations in defence of our rights and freedoms, and more specifically, to participate massively in the general strike called for the 3rd of October.  Because the combative spirit that is historically passing over this part of the earth will not be repeated so easily, because we are the working class and we want to decide everything, now it is time to take to the streets, now it is time to struggle!


  • CGT Catalunya
  • Negres Tempestes
  • Embat, organización libertaria de Cataluña
  • Heura Negra, asamblea libertaria de Vallcarca
  • CNT Cataluña y Baleares
  • Oca Negra, asamblea libertaria del Clot-Camp de l’Arpa
  • Solidaritat Obrera

And yet, what anarchist can see in national self-determination or liberation an expression of collective self-management, direct action or autonomy?  Is not any nationally defined and confined liberation inevitably statist?  (The recently repeated and recurring response that an independent catalan state will be freer than the spanish state can only be described as an expression of blind faith).

What can be hoped for from a government and a movement largely animated by neoliberal politicians (who have made of Barcelona a global, “branded” city)?  

What “people” are these who must necessarily find themselves in a state to be a people?  If the concept makes any sense for an anarchist, it can only be understood to refer to an autonomous collectivity or group, and not a national people.

This is not to defend quietism before the events in catalonia.  But it also has to be said that if events have reached this point, it is also due to the failure of anarchists and others to perpetuate the kind of energy, the resonances and practices/interventions, that arose in the wake of 15M (and earlier radical events and moments).  In other words, if catalan nationalism has been able to find such a voice among so many, it is in part because other more radical voices were too weak (for many and different reasons).

Indignation, defence and rebellion against state violence and oppression go without question.  If the organisation of these come from below, remain organised collectively and horizontally, then the anarchist can only rejoice.  And if all of this serves to render as many as possible ungovernable to state authority, then all becomes possible.  But none of this translates into support for a state managed referendum on national independence from/against another state.

To end with an intervention by Tomás Ibañez (a las barricadas 27/09/2017) …

… when a movement of struggle carries within it a strong nationalist element, and this is the case, without a doubt, in the present conflict, the possibilities for an emancipatory change are non-existent.

I would like to share the optimism of the comrades who want to try to open cracks in the current situation to render emancipatory paths possible.  But I cannot close my eyes before the evidence that popular insurrections and movements for social rights are never transversal, they always find the dominant classes forming a tight-knit group on one side of the barricades.  While in processes of self-determination, and the current movement is clearly of this nature, a strong inter-classist component always strongly intervenes.

These processes always tie fraternally the exploited and the exploiters in pursuit of an objective that is never to overcome social inequalities.  The result, confirmed by history, is that processes of national self-determination always end by reproducing class societies, once again subjugating the popular classes after they were the principal canon fodder in these conflicts.

This does not mean that one should not struggle against dominant nationalisms and try to destroy them, but this has to be done while constantly denouncing ascending nationalisms, rather than joining them under the pretext that this common struggle can offer possibilities for going beyond their positions and thereby leave aside those who only pursue the creation of a new national State that they can control.  Let no one doubt, these fellow travelers will be the first to repress us when they no longer need us and we should already be eager to take our chestnuts out of the fire.

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