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RSS Feed How Popular Was Support For Catalan Independence Before The Civil War

Catalan Independence March

By Ian Smitton

Anyone that has visited Catalonia will have noticed that there are significant cultural differences between the region and the rest of Spain, most notably the language. Catalans have also been considered outsiders by many Spaniards; a situation exacerbated by the prohibition of much of Catalan culture under the dictatorship of Franco.

Today, Catalan independence is back in the headlines, with effectively a vote for a referendum taking place in November 2012. While the motives now appear to be primarily economic, with social and cultural concerns not perhaps at the forefront of the movement, this was not always the case. Here we look at the popularity and success of Catalan nationalist movements in the period before the Civil War. We see that the movement had much popular support, from a wide base, and we look at some of the reasons why they did not follow this through to full independence.

When Valentí Almirall – “the father of Catalan nationalism”1 – founded the Centre Catalá, in 1882, Catalanism in a political form was born. Since that date Catalanism has taken many different forms covering most of the political spectrum. The success of the movement has also varied considerably – from being offered autonomy by Romanones in 1918, to repression under the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and Franco. Such is the depth of the subject; this article will primarily focus on the popularity of Catalanism in the period from 1898 to 1923.

The term ‘popular’ can be interpreted in two different ways when regarding a political movement; this writing will look at both. Firstly, ‘popular’ can refer to the social make-up of Catlanism; its support amongst all classes and social groups. Secondly, the popularity of Catalanism as a whole can be examined; this can obviously be assuaged by looking at election results and the achievement of nationalist goals. This article will examine both the Catalanist right and left wings to assess the popularity of the movement.

The Catalan Right

The Lliga Regionalista, formed in 1901 under the leadership of Enric Prat de la Riba, ostensibly represented “all political and social groups within the region.”2 However, the Lliga became increasingly right wing, particularly after heavy defeat in the 1903 elections. As such its main support came from the bourgeoisie and the upper middle class. Catalan Industrialists and Carlists also backed the Lliga; however, this was rather for their own gain than for the pursuit of nationalism. The peak of the Lliga’s popularity was in the period from 1914 to 1923 when they governed the Mancomunitat granted to Catalonia by José Canalejas’ national government. The Lliga, backed by the Carlists and the moderate Catalanist left, was sufficiently strong to lead the provincial government.

Remarkably, the Lliga’s greatest stage occurred just four years after the party had been forced to return to provincial politics in 1910, due to lack of popularity following the break up of the Solidariat alliance. It was not until 1916 that the Lliga became a force in the Madrid Cortes for the first time following excellent election results. Indeed, the Lliga’s most influential politician - Francesc Cambó - was appointed as Minister for Development under Maura’s government. In performing such an excellent job Cambó increased respect and popularity for the Lliga throughout Spain as well as in Catalonia. This popularity culminated in an offer to Catalans for regional autonomy which was rejected by the Catalanist left; who at the end of the First World War were seeking to follow in the footsteps of Russia and achieve full revolution.

The upper middle class in Catalonia were the basis of support for the Lliga. Catalanism for the middle classes was heavily linked to the renaixença. The revival of the Catalan language by poets such as Maragall and Guimerá, the pride of the Sardanes, the Jocs Floral and the artistic brilliance of Gaudí spurred the middle class on to seek regional autonomy. Balcells is one historian who is keen to promote the association between “great culture and the Catalanist movement.”3 In contrast, Ehrlich believes that a combination of new taxes and disillusionment with Madrid particularly after 1898, rather than cultural pride, prompted the middle classes to support Catalanism.4 Both historians do concur, however, that the upper middle classes were, as a group, the strongest supporters of the right wing nationalist movement – a view shared by Stanley Payne, “Catalanism was the vehicle of middle class modernisation.”5

The popularity of Catalanism in general, but particularly the right wing, was undoubtedly increased by the impact of the Spanish-American war in 1898. Historian Heather Graham claims that, “the disaster of 1898 transfromed the political climate in Spain.”6 This transformation was seen most profoundly in the growth of the Catalanist movement and the growth of support from business interests. Catalan industrialists were greatly dismayed by their anti-war sentiments being totally over looked in Madrid. As a consequence of losing the crucial Cuban market they turned to Catlanism as a way to put pressure on the centralist control – Payne asserts, “In 1899, for the first time, Catalanism and the demand for greater regional autonomy and direction of economic interests, began to draw support from Catalan economic leaders.7 Lliga opposition to proposals by the Liberals of increased tax in 1916 on war related profits was popular amongst the middle class and particularly the industrialists.

The Catalan industrial bourgeoisie were undeniably linked to the Lliga from its formation until 1918, however, the link was not inextricable. Three of the four Lliga candidates elected in 1901 – Rusiñol, Montaner and Torres - represented economic interests, for example, the Formetno employers association. Charles Ehrlich, however, is keen to assert that this link does not mean that the industrial bourgeoisie were committed to regional autonomy – in fact, many industrialists objected to the Lliga’s platform.8 Such a point seems valid considering the movement of industrialists away from Catalanism when, in 1918, the President of the Formento was appointed as Treasurer in García Prieto’s government. Indeed, once close to power the industrialists no longer needed the Lliga. Furthermore, the newly formed National Monarchist Union (UMN) – a party opposed to Catalanism became, according to Ehrlich, “the party of the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie.”9 Though the seeking of regional autonomy was not always the prime reason that industrialists supported Catalanism; during the First World War Catalonan autonomy would have benefited the local economy. The primary function that the Catalanists, and the Lliga in particularly, served for the industrialists was to put pressure on Madrid. This is perfectly illustrated by the offer from Santiago Alba in 1917 to make Barcelona a free port. Such a concession would not have been offered to the industrialists if Cambó and the Lliga had not been pressuring the government.10

The Catalan Left

In the period from 1901 to 1923 the left wing of Catalanism, for the most part, failed to achieve the popularity of the right wing Lliga – perhaps predictably for a nationalist movement. The Centre Nacionalista Republicà (CNR) was the representative of left wing Catalanism until the Esquerra took shape under Primo de Rivera. By far the most impressive results for the CNR came in the period from 1903 to 1907. In the 1907 provincial elections CNR candidates gained eight seats as part of the Catalnist Solidariat coalition in Barcelona. This figure was surpassed in the general elections of the same year, with CNR candidates winning twenty one out of the forty four Catalan constituencies – again as part of the Solidariat.11 Balcells is keen to stress the strength of the CNR in 1907, “If the Republicans had achieved the results in the rest of Spain that the CNR had in Catalonia, the monarchy would have been in danger of falling.”12 Unlike the Lliga, however, who were opposed only by the fading dynastic parties, the political left in Catalonia was much more hotly contested. The lower middle class and the working class votes were split between the CNR, the anarchists and the Radical Republicans – an anti-Catalanist, anti-clerical party led by Lerroux.

The Radical Republicans were more popular in Barcelona than anywhere else in Spain.13 Lerroux’s Republicanism became increasingly aimed at the working class in 1906 and proved a thorn in the side of the Catalanist left. Victor Alba asserts that although Lerrouxism had little hope of accomplishing anything it kept workers and the lower middle classes on the political sidelines.14 Romero Maura furthers this view in stating that the anarchists, particularly after the failure of the 1902 strike “turned to Radical Republicanism” instead of supporting Jaume Carner’s led CNR.15 The main support of Lerrouxism was not the workers but the lower middle classes, a fact explored by Jon Cowans, the Radical Republicans lost a lot of middle class support to the Solidariat alliance prompting Lerroux to move further to the political left – he was still, however, in direct challenge with the Catalanists.16

The Catalanist left gained ostensible support from the working class after the First World War as they rejected an offer for regional autonomy; instead the left sought to follow in the footsteps of Russia and many other European countries by inciting revolution. For the first time in 1919, with the Lliga dominating Catalanist politics, the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), who was opposed to the right wing stance of Catalanism, declared support for the CNR - Ehrlich states that the anarchists also approved of the disruption.17 Although support of Catalanism by the workers must only be seen as an alliance of two groups who were opposed in principle but shared a similar goal, it nevertheless demonstrates the popularity and strength of the Catalan movement at the time.

Predictably, the army was not in favour of the national movement in Catalonia, however, it did inadvertently contribute to the success and popularity of Catalanism. Following a cartoon in Cu-Cut – a popular Catalan newspaper – depicting the army as a failure, the army attacked the Catalanist movement, condemning the followers as traitors to Spain. Furthermore, the army demanded that the Law of Jurisdictions be passed; aimed mostly at Catalonia, the law made criticism of the army an illegal offence.18 It was, however, the army reaction to the cartoon that prompted all Catalanists to join forces and declare the Solidariat alliance – perhaps the most important step in catapulting the aims and declaring the popularity of Catalanism to the powers in Madrid.

How Popular Was Catalanism?

In conclusion, the national movement in Catalonia between 1898 and 1923 grew in popularity; both in terms of being supported by a wide social base and in achieving successful election results. Throughout the period the popularity of both the left and the right wing of the Catlanist movement varied enormously. The nationalist movement was undoubtedly popular in covering such a wide range of social groups. The middle classes, in particular the upper middle class bourgeoisie, were the founders of Catalanism and remained the most loyal supporters throughout this period. The renaixença inspired the bourgeoisie, such as Eusebi Guell, to promote Catalan culture as deserving of an autonomous region. In contrast, the industrialists saw Catalanism as a means to an end; John Payne argues that, “Catalan nationalism feeds on resentment of Madrid and all its works.”19 This is certainly the case for the industrialists – whose interest in Catalanism was financial rather than political. Similarly, the Carlists main aim was opposing the Restoration monarchy; in Catalonia the Lliga represented the only right wing option to serve their interests. Nevertheless, these groups did lend their popular support to Catalan nationalism.

Left wing Catalanism had a much larger potential support to draw on than the right wing yet, with the exception of the years following the Solidariat, failed to challenge the Lliga’s status as the primary Catalanist party until 1923. Much of the lower middle class and working class, which were potential CNR support, went to Lerroux and the anarchist movement; both of which until the Lliga began to falter, were vehemently anti-Catalanist. Regarding the popularity of Catalanism in terms of success, it is incorrect to argue as Armesto does that, “There was little popular enthusiasm for the Catalanist message during the first great era of electoral progress for Catalanism between 1898 and the Civil War.”20 The election results of the Solidariat and the success of the Mancoumintat suggests that there was popular support and enthusiasm for Catalanism, even if – as Harrison asserts, “The Lliga must ultimately be judged a failure.”21 Furthermore, Catalan nationalism was popular enough to persuade Madrid to offer Catalonia regional autonomy, following the First World War, only for the left-wing to turn down the offer. The failure to gain full autonomy by 1923, therefore, is not so much a reflection on the popularity of Catalanism – more an exhibition of the incompetence of some of its leaders.

In comparison to the Basque nationalist movement, for example, Catalanism acquired support from a much wider social and political spectrum in the period 1898 to 1923. Indeed, I would challenge any historian to name another nationalist movement that could draw on such a wide basis of support and achieve such electoral support as Catalanism did in this period whilst failing to achieve full regional autonomy.




[1]               Payne, Stanley – ‘Catalan and Basque Nationalism’  Journal of Contemporary History, 1971 p18

[2]               Ehrlich, Charles E. – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial Bourgeoisie’  Journal of Contemporary
                    History (July/1998)
p402

[3]               Balcells, A & Walker, G – ‘Catalan Nationalism’  (Macmillan/1996) p45

[4]               Ehrlich, Charles E. – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial Bourgeoisie’  Journal of Contemporary
                    History (July/1998)
p401

[5]               Payne, Stanley – ‘Catalan and Basque Nationalism’  Journal of Contemporary History 1971 p22

[6]               Graham, Heather & Labanyi, J – ‘Spanish Cultural Studies’  (Oxford / 1995) p25

[7]               Payne, Stanley – ‘Catalan and Basque Nationalism’  Journal of Contemporary History 1971 p23

[8]               Ehrlich, Charles E – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial Bourgeoisie’  Journal of Contemporary
                    History,  July 1998
p406

[9]               Ehrlich, Charles E – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial Bourgeoisie’  Journal of Contemporary
                    History, July 1998
p405-6

[10]              For more debate on Cambó versus Alba see: Ehrlich, Charles E – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial
                    Bourgeoisie’
 
Journal of Contemporary History, July 1998

[11]             Election statistics from - Balcells, A & Walker, G – ‘Catalan Nationalism’  (Macmillan/1996) p58

[12]             Balcells, A & Walker, G – ‘Catalan Nationalism’  (Macmillan/1996) p58

[13]             Alba, Victor – ‘Catalonia’ (London / 1975) p82-5

[14]             Alba, Victor – ‘Catalonia’ (London / 1975) p82

[15]             Romero Maura, J – ‘Terrorism in Barcelona and its impact on Spanish politics 1904-1909’  Past and Present (Dec.
                   1968)
p148

[16]             Cowans, Jon – ‘Modern Spain – A Documentary History’  (Philadelphia / 2003) p103-104

[17]             Ehrlich, Charles E. – ‘The Lliga Regionalista and the Catalan Industrial Bourgeoisie’  Journal of Contemporary
                   History (July/1998)
p407

[18]              Cowans, Jon – ‘Modern Spain – A Documentary History’  (Philadelphia / 2003) pp99-103

[19]              Payne, John – ‘Catalonia – Portrait of a Nation’  (London / 1991) p20

[20]              Fernández-Armesto, Felipe – ‘Barcelona’  (London / 1991) p165

[21]              Harrison, Joseph – ‘Big Businesses and the Failure of Right Wing Catalan Nationalism’  Historical Journal (Dec.
                    1976)
p917










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