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Marxism and the National Question in the Spanish State

Jim Padmore

THE SPANISH unification of 1492 led to the formation of one of the earliest and strongest European states. Today Spain is one of the European states whose unity is most under question.

Spain has known periods of great power and wealth, with dominance in Europe and an empire in America. But the profits from America were not invested in a capitalist way, and the embryonic bourgeoisie was all but destroyed. So the state’s exaggerated centralisation didn’t have at all the same effect as in, for example, France where the economic base was very different. So there was a strengthening of the state, an absence of capitalist development, and the particularities of the old kingdoms persisted to a large extent.

Industrialisation, when it did take place, was almost exclusively in Cataluña and the Basque Country. The 1898 crisis with the loss of the last overseas colonies only spurred on the Basque and Catalan nationalists. Writing in 1931, Trotsky noted that "Spain’s retarded economic development inevitably weakened the centralist tendencies inherent in capitalism. The decline of the commercial and industrial life in the cities and of the economic ties between them inevitably led to the lessening of the dependence of individual provinces upon each other. This is the chief reason why bourgeois Spain has not succeeded to this day in eliminating the centrifugal tendencies of its historic provinces. The meagreness of the national resources and the feeling of restlessness all over the country could not help but foster separatist tendencies. Particularism appears in Spain with unusual force, especially compared with neighbouring France, where the Great Revolution finally established the bourgeois nation, united and indivisible, over the old feudal provinces".1

Almost eighty years earlier Marx had written of how, in the sixteenth century, towns had exchanged "the local independence and sovereignty of the Middle Ages for the general rule of the middle classes, and the common sway of civil society. In Spain, on the contrary, while the aristocracy sunk into degradation without losing their worst privilege, the towns lost their medieval power without gaining modern importance. Since the establishment of absolute monarchy they have vegetated in a state of continuous decay ... the absolute monarchy in Spain, bearing but a superficial resemblance to the absolute monarchies of Europe in general, is rather to be ranged in a class with Asiatic forms of government. Spain, like Turkey, remained an agglomeration of mismanaged republics with a nominal sovereign at their head. Despotism changed character in the different provinces with the arbitrary interpretation of the general laws by viceroys and governors; but despotic as was the government it did not prevent the provinces from subsisting with different laws and customs, different coins, military banners of different colours, and with their respective systems of taxation".2

In the twentieth century, especially from the 1920s onwards, separatist tendencies came to the fore, and the question of the possible independence of Euskadi and Cataluña was posed. What attitude should Marxists take in this situation? Trotsky explained that "We are not concerned, of course, with calling upon the Catalans and the Basques to separate from Spain; but it is our duty to insist on their right to do this should they themselves want it",3 and that "The workers will fully and completely defend the right of the Catalans and Basques to organise their state life independently in the event that the majority of these nationalities express themselves for complete separation. But this does not, of course, mean that the advanced workers will push the Catalans and Basques on the road of secession. On the contrary, the economic unity of the country with extensive autonomy of national districts, would represent great advantages for the workers and peasants from the viewpoint of economy and culture".4

Is this consistent with the positions of Lenin and the revolutionary Comintern? Lenin argued that the demand for the right to self-determination was "not the equivalent of a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states. It implies only a consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression".5

His Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution states: "the proletarian party first of all must advocate the proclamation and immediate realisation of complete freedom of secession from Russia.... The proletarian party strives to create as large a state as possible, for this is to the advantage of the working people; it strives to draw nations closer together, and bring about their further fusion.... Complete freedom of secession, the broadest local (and national) autonomy, and elaborate guarantees of the rights of national minorities – this is the programme of the revolutionary proletariat."6

What of socialists who are inclined to reconcile themselves with the ideas of separatism? Trotsky had this to say: "What does the programme of separatism mean? – the economic and political dismemberment of Spain, or in other words, the transformation of the Iberian Peninsula into a sort of Balkan Peninsula, with independent states divided by customs barriers, and with independent armies conducting independent Hispanic wars. Of course, the sage Maurín7 will say that he does not want this. But programmes have their own logic, something Maurín doesn#146;t have."8


1. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1931-1939, 1973, p.68.

2. Marx, "Revolutionary Spain", in Marx and Engels, Revolution in Spain, 1939, pp.25-6.

3. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, p.117.

4. Ibid, p.78.

5. Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination", Collected Works, Vol.22, p.146.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.24, p.73.

7. Joaquín Maurín was a leader of the Workers and Peasants Bloc, and later of the POUM.

8. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, p.155.