The struggle for Catalan independence: an interview with People’s Unity List (CUP) joint national spokesperson Quim Arrufat


Interview extract from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

Born in the rural Seu d’Urgell in 1982, People’s Unity List (CUP) joint national spokesperson Quim Arrufat became a well-known and respected figure in Catalan politics during his time as one of the CUP’s first three MPs in the Catalan parliament (2012-2015).


In an October 2012 interview with the Catalan web site Vilaweb, he described his organisation, which is committed to Catalan independence and socialism, as “urban Zapatistas”.


Arrufat’s life as an activist began at the age of 14 in Against The Current (Contracorrent), a counter-information collective in the port town of Vilanova i La Geltrú. Since then he has followed a double commitment: to building a municipality-based movement for radical social transformation in Catalonia — and in the broader Catalan-speaking territories within the Spanish state — and to fighting for the rights of oppressed peoples and nations.


From 2009 to 2012 Arrufat was a CUP town councilor in Vilanova I La Geltrú and also began working in the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic and National Minorities (CIEMEN), intervening in the World Social Forum and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in support of the rights of oppressed nations such as the Kurds.


Under CUP rules Arrufat could not repeat as a candidate in the September 27, 2015 Catalan election. This contest saw a majority of seats go to the two pro-independence tickets Together For The Yes (JxSi) — an alliance between the conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and various non-aligned pro-independence figures — and the CUP. The CDC refounded in July 2016 as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT).


Since then the JxSi government of premier Carles Puigdemont (PDeCAT) and deputy premier Oriol Junqueras (ERC) has called a unilateral referendum on Catalan independence, set for October 1. The Spanish government of conservative People’s Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed that this “unconstitutional” referendum will not take place, setting the scene for the biggest crisis in the Spanish state since the 1978 transition from the Franco dictatorship.


Arrufat was elected as a member of the CUP’s national secretariat in August 2016 and as its joint spokesperson with Núria Gibert in the following month.


Dick Nichols and Denis Rogatyuk interviewed Arrufat in the CUP’s office in the Catalan parliament on March 13. Relevant developments in Catalan and Spanish politics since the interview was done are explained in footnotes.


What features of Catalan society gave rise to the CUP? What political needs is it expressing that are not met by the ERC, which has clearly left figures like Joan Tardà (MP in the Spanish parliament) or more broadly by JxSi, which also includes a radical MP like singer-songwriter Lluis Llach?


It has a lot to do with the political history of Catalonia, with its strong movements of anarchist and cooperativist tendencies, grassroots social movements that have always defended a program of emancipation for Catalan society. The CUP comes from this tradition.


Over many years this tradition was not represented in official politics, but it has always existed in Catalan society. It always considered that being outside the parliament was much more effective than being inside elected institutions. That stance allowed the traditional political parties to operate within the institutions while keeping the street and various networks as the space for the social movements to organise their demands — and in a very effective way. These movements have included the anti-war movement, the movement against evictions and the movement for Catalan language and culture, which has been very active inside the country.


However, with the beginning of the crisis in 2008 the whole political system started to break down. The legitimacy of the political parties came into question, such that many people and movements saw that there was a need to bring their message and their way of doing politics from the street into parliament.


The CUP was one of the political instruments that had been operating on a local basis, making it possible to combine the struggle on the street with the struggle in the institutions.


A third axis, where we in the CUP were also working, was that of building institutions of counter-power. These included cultural centres, social centres, cooperatives, local alternative media etc.


Within the CUP, the practical experience of combining these three struggles and the circumstances of the crisis convinced a majority of the people in the social movements of the need to break into the institutional scene. That is why the CUP is now in the Catalan parliament.


As for figures like Lluis Llach and Joan Tardà, they represent sections of the middle class that work in the medium-sized private sector or public administration. This way they can afford to advocate a left-wing program to provide more rights to those groups within society as a whole.


By contrast, the CUP defends a program without any ties to interest groups: it represents an impoverished middle class that no longer has anything to lose and is asking for radical change in many areas, such as the provision of basic social rights or the holding of the independence referendum without the permission of the Spanish state.


Also, the CUP doesn’t consider itself part of the state. You have parties — political actors — that represent a part of society within the state, and you have the CUP, which is clearly coming from within society, with the goal of abolishing the capitalist state and creating another kind of democratic power.


Nor does the CUP consider itself to be permanently tied to parliament. We are there to drive further change at this particular political moment, but if we are not successful we will rethink what we are doing in the parliamentary arena.


The Catalan pro-independence left has historically been divided among many different currents.[1] How did unity among them in the framework of the CUP come about? How important were the need to have single tickets in municipal elections and decision-making by mass meeting in creating that unity?


The mass-meeting (or assembly) system was not crucial to overcoming these differences simply because it reproduces differences in a more democratic way. Overcoming differences depends not on the assembly system but on the political method with which you approach issues.


The key was our local orientation. The current period of the CUP can be traced back to about 15 years ago, with the emergence of a new generation of militants who undertook to revive the municipalist project of CUP, which had existing previously but was very weak. We consistently rejected the notion of building a national organisation until we’d accumulated some political power in the municipalities.


We sought to work together on practical matters in order to see how to manage power, how to manage social movements, how to organise people on a local basis, and only then build a national organisation. All previous practice was conducted in the opposite direction: one built on a national theory opposed to the national theory of others, one built on a national executive divided into two or three fractions and then one started debating — without a social basis, with not many activists, and without any local experience of working in real power situations, real society and on real everyday questions [laughs].


Our method has allowed us to confront testing issues without creating serious splits and with less risk of division than in other organisations. Take, as examples, the discussions we have had inside the CUP with regard to allowing the formation of the Puigdemont government[2], and more recently with regard to approving the Catalan budget.[3]


Meanwhile, at the local level, everyone is united, the project is working and growing, and this doesn’t depend on the leadership of the national organisation, even if there is some connection. If the national project of the CUP were one day destroyed because we became divided or lost elections, the local projects would be 100% secure and could survive without the national project.


So we are not playing with one card. The local project is in itself an advance for the social movement and for the people’s movement of Catalonia, independently of whether or not we do well in parliament.


Over the past seven years the CUP’s number of council representatives has increased with every local election (up to 382 councillors at the present time). What sort of people have been coming to the CUP?


The generation of CUP activists that formed about 15 years ago was educated politically during the government of [People’s Party prime minister José María] Aznar, during the so-called street war in Catalonia between the squatters’ movement and the state authorities. That was very violent.


During the 2000s, during the eight years of struggle, eight thousand people were jailed and there were very violent demonstrations every week, with some 300 squats in Barcelona city alone. Together with Amsterdam and Berlin, Barcelona was the capital city of the squatters’ movement.


It was not just a punk movement, despite having a somewhat punk aesthetic. Instead, it actually reflected one of the traditions of the Catalan popular social movement — opening social centres, providing space for different groups, organising in the neighbourhoods, even while the repression was very harsh. It culminated in the huge 2003-4 demonstrations against the war in Iraq, which saw the end of Aznar’s government.


The generation of those times created the basis of the CUP. We decided to bring the squats to our towns and cities and to transform them into legal social centres. Around the social centres, we started building the idea of municipalism: a social centre is not just a place for you and your friends to go but a home for the social movements and a social laboratory, a social toolkit. You organise from there, create the idea of organising your community.


Next, tickets were presented in local council elections and were voted in by the people, as happened in small regional cities like Vilafranca or Valls. Thus, there was no reason to believe that our ideas wouldn’t receive popular support. On the basis of our experience we presented a program of what we thought; we knew our cities, we knew our communities and we worked together on what we thought we could change in our communities.


That was the work of almost the same generation, together with a few people coming from a previous period. However, over the last seven years many people from different generations have joined the CUP, and people not necessarily coming from an activist background. They don’t join us, in the first instance, for the ideas of independence and socialism but rather for our democratic ways of organising.


You hold open assemblies in your town, in which everyone can take part regardless of whether they are CUP members or not. The elected councillors donate any money received for attending council meetings to the social movements. You make everything transparent. This is something that attracts not just voters, but also left-wing individuals: they may not be seen as activists but nevertheless support independence for Catalonia — with varying degrees of intensity — and are attracted by the CUP’s way of organising. They say: “The way you go to the neighbourhoods, the way you get people to participate–that’s what I like.”


There is a big crisis of faith in the representative institutions of the Spanish state, particularly since the beginning of the political and economic crisis. The feeling of: “I do not believe in those methods but rather in the people’s way of organising themselves.” There are no other political parties that conduct themselves in this way.


Political commentators commonly say that there are two CUPs, the radical, semi-anarchist CUP of inner Barcelona and the CUP of rural and regional Catalonia (“the sons and daughters of Convergence[4]” or the “rural patriots”). How much truth is there to this description?


Of course, in any comment like this there is some truth. I would say that within the pro-independence left movement there have always been two tendencies: the one that has prioritised independence and hence the need to unite all pro-independence and nationalist parties, and the other which puts forward the idea of the social front and hence the need to articulate the demand for independence within an alliance with other left forces. This is mainly a question of tactics rather than ideology, but of course it continues.


However, I wouldn’t agree with the description made. The CUP of Barcelona is not semi-anarchist, but communist. It is organised by a tendency within the CUP which is Marxist-Leninist.[5] Anarchism is to be found across the whole CUP, as well as within half of Catalan society. It is not formally expressed as anarchism, but there is a network of 200 CUPs without coordination: they have other methods of collaboration in a horizontal way, but no hierarchical co-ordination. When at a national level you feel that a statement about, say, Palestine is needed and you send a draft around all the local sovereign CUP assemblies and nobody listens to you — because “Who is he?” — this can be readily understood!


This way of organisation — anarchist or semi-anarchist, let’s say sociologically anarchist — prevails in our forms of self-organisation, while the other current is ideologically more communist. However, that current also prioritises the independence process and coordination with the parties that conduct it. They are less active on social questions, although these are differences you can only detect when you encounter a tactical decision — what to do next month? what to do with the budget? Everyone knows we have to move forward with the forces supporting the referendum, but the question arises: is it worth passing the budget or not? Do we have to take this step as well, or should we insist that the budget is a separate social question?


This distinction between a semi-anarchist Barcelona and rural areas, well, I would put that to one side because there are rural areas that belong to the same tendency as Barcelona. Also, take three cities run by the CUP — Badalona, Ripollet (a Spanish-speaking workers’ city) and Cerdenyola — they are industrial areas and yet of “rural patriotism”, the opposite tendency to Barcelona. Then you have small towns in rural Lleida — they would never pass the budget. So this issue is much more complicated than “Barcelona versus the countryside”.


And the national background of the CUP membership?


The biggest part of CUP’s membership is made up of people with one or two parents not born in Catalonia, more than in the other pro-independence parties. If you take a look at the CUP election tickets in the towns, you’ll notice a lot of Castilian and non-Spanish names. About 80% of the CUP is from the generation of 20 years ago and we have all grown up in the Catalan school system with Catalan TV as a reference, with a majority coming from progressive families.


Challenges of relating to the Catalan government


The CUP struggled to achieve a clear majority within its own ranks over the terms on which to support the pro-independence JxSí government (typified by the notorious 1515-1515 tied vote on December 27, 2015 on maintaining the veto of Artur Mas as premier).[6] Has this tension been resolved by the CUP’s decision to allow the 2017 Catalan budget to pass?


The good side of the CUP has been its ability to grow from local foundations. The disadvantage is that nobody has had the time to think from zero about the best parliamentary instrument and the best form of national organisation to deal with the tensions of the political situation in Catalonia.


When we started to grow nationally we continued to use the same methods as in the localities, but that didn’t work. When we got 10 MPs in the 2015 regional election and became a key party[7] for this new parliamentary period, nobody inside the CUP stopped to think that maybe our tools for solving this conflict were not the best. So, we put everything to the local assemblies, who looked at the issue as if the world might end after their decision — it was a life-or-death question. Some thought that if we voted “Yes” to Artur Mas, it would be the death of the organisation and others that voting “No” would result in the death of the independence process.


So, how did we solve it? Simply by having internal debates, which were participatory at the local level and addressed the longer term. We asked ourselves where we wanted to be and where we wanted the country to be in a year’s time. There were many decisions to take and we set them all within this perspective, not taking each single decision as a question of life or death.


In itself, it is hard to understand why the CUP is giving support to a coalition for independence that includes right-wing parties. In itself, it has no justification. In itself, the budget is nothing — it is simply maintaining privileges and social cuts. But then you put all the decisions together and say, “OK, we are in 2016, we will soon be in 2017, we want a referendum and it is the only opportunity we will have for one, with a parliamentary and social majority giving it support.”


A lot of people were willing to give this position a chance because, if not, every independence supporter in the country would say it was the CUP’s fault that we had not achieved the referendum. Such an outcome had to be the fault of Spain or of the right-wing parties, not of the CUP. And so it was agreed to give the referendum — and the Catalan government — a chance until September 2017.


Does this mean that we have lost our anti-capitalist perspective? No, but if you cannot adjust your position, you will never be able to build any kind of majority. The question of the referendum and independence will now be put to the test: we will either achieve independence or have a disaster such that no-one will want to talk about independence for the next ten years!


In either case the debate will then shift towards social questions and the way that the various left parties have responded to them. At the moment social issues are not on the front page, but when they return we will again recall who privatised many basic services. It was the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV).[8] Who created state-financed private education in religious schools? It was the left coalition when it was in the government.[9] So, that will be a starting point. The point I’m making is that there is no left majority in the parliament with which we agree but which we are undermining in order to give support to independence.


How much is the decision to have a national secretariat on which there were neither members of Endavant-OSAN or Poble Lliure[10] (the CUP’s two principal affiliates) facilitating the creation of clear majorities in the organisation?


With regards to Endavant and Poble Lliure, at one point in May 2016, when parliamentary debate on the budget stalled because the CUP had initially given an outright “No”, another crisis was created inside the party that was on the point of splitting it. But it was not the fault of one organisation or the other. The problem was that the CUP had not yet developed its own centralised process of reflection.


We have been activists not in theory but in very practical ways — always out there working in the field. Formally, we have 2000 members[11] in the national CUP organisation. But at the grassroots level we have 8500. We have a lot of people working in the cities and towns whom you don’t see on TV, but the people in towns and cities certainly see them at work. It might then seem that we work a lot and think theoretically very little.


Previously Endavant and Poble Lliure, two organisations created to think and act strategically, were our main ideological think tanks. Ideologically the same, tactically different, but leading the thinking of the organisation. When things came to a head over whether or not to support the investiture of Artur Mas, the two organisations had two different points of view and people wanted to participate in this debate where there were two distinct strategies outlined — completely legitimately — but none from the centre of the CUP itself.


Because there was no central thinking that could lead the debate, the two organisations continued trying to win hearts and minds. As they kept putting the debate before the rank-and-file, they began dividing the CUP without being conscious of it and neither could stop. It was a very crazy game, as if they were begging for someone to come and say “Halt!”. Then I and a few others proposed a new way of electing the secretariat and building a new team. Both organisations agreed to the new rules as a way of ending the crazy game that nobody had known how to end.


As a result, we have started to change the way we debate, also within the parliamentary caucus. No more big mass meetings with the media present — we have learned that this is a very bad way of solving our differences. More debate in the regions over the longer term and with no media presence, with involvement by all members and with a draft discussion document given to all who come. Nothing sent via email because then your debate ends up in the public domain and your members get angry because they cannot discuss calmly. We send an MP and a member of the national secretariat to each debate.


Since the summer of 2016 we’ve had three big waves of internal debate, with nothing in the media. In each debate, from 1500 to 2000 members have taken part in big local assemblies in which the MP and the member of the national secretariat present the two-to-three page document for debate. At the end, all opinions are recorded in writing to see where the organisation as a whole is headed. If there’s a critical decision, like on whether to support the budget, we take a vote on the political council.[12]


Effectively, we’ve taken the internal processes of the CUP away from the eyes of the media. We’ve discovered that when you have the media on the inside, the members are not controlling the organisation. We are also planning a national assembly[13] for October, following the referendum (or non-referendum), which will most likely change the organisation quite radically.


Towards the independence referendum and beyond


What scenario would a successful Yes vote in the independence referendum create? Does a break from Madrid really open up the road for a break with capitalism in a new Catalan state?


There is a step before that. There are two ways to break out of the prison of the Spanish constitution, which was built with the agreement of Francoism. One is that political forces inside Spain win a majority in the Spanish parliament, allowing the building of a constitutional process in Spain that would be won by the popular classes and the left. That is a very, very distant prospect, and has been so for a long time. After the waves of the economic crisis and mobilisations of the indignado movement, it seemed for some while that it could be possible for Podemos to win or at the very least surge past the PSOE.


However, changing the Spanish constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the parliament, so it is almost impossible. So, as long as you operate inside the system, you will be ruled by laws agreed with the Francoists. Also, in Spain — maybe not in other countries — the state is a party in and of itself, with its own program that does not depend on the political party that is in government. The Spanish state has always been the tool of the wealthy families, the banks and the big companies that have ruled Spain forever with their own political project, regardless of who is “governing”. And the main institutions and the constitution are under their control, not that of the party that is governing, be it the PP or the PSOE.


After the June 2016 elections, that possibility of change is even more distant, because Unidos Podemos and the various confluences in which it takes part[14] achieved only 21.1% of the vote, while the Spanish state remained intact with the support of the PP, PSOE and the Citizens[15].


So where is the democratic option for change? The opportunity to build something different lies in Catalonia, where a majority exists based on the mix of people’s movements, nationalist movements and many other forces: this majority delegitimises the rule of Spanish state institutions. We see here the opening of an historical opportunity, a chance for a decisive battle. That could be won or lost — it depends on whether we are active enough, able to build our own specific agenda within the independence process and able to create enough majorities for change. If not, we will end up with a neoliberal Catalonia, independent or not.


However, we know from our own history and traditions and from the present state of affairs that the social leaderships here in Catalonia have enough strength to at least allow us to see this battle through to the end. There are important points on our agenda that a majority of the population agrees with: they would never be allowed in the Spanish state but would be allowed in a Catalan Republic, agreed to by other parties and the majority of the population.


For example, do we need an army? If you ask the population in Catalonia, they would tell you that we don’t and that we don’t need to be in NATO either. The social debate in Catalonia is very developed, because of our history, our experience of the Francoist army, to take just one example. Of course, there are some interest groups that are now working on the idea of building a Catalan army, but they represent only half to one per cent of the movement for independence.


Or again, do you believe that migrants should be prevented from accessing the public health system? Nobody in Catalonia believes that! Yet this is happening in Spain.


Other examples include the cooperative system. Catalonia has 150,000 workers in cooperatives, with over 10,000 cooperatives based here, active and successful in many fields. For example, SomEnergia, which provides renewable energy across all of Spain, is based in Catalonia. Hence, the idea of building a mixed economic system based on a very strong public sector is possible in Catalonia. Energy, for example, would be in public hands, there would be a free market for companies working on technology in advanced fields — not substituting for what the state can do but making the things that the state cannot — and a social economy based on the cooperative system.


This economy would be capitalist in form, but it would be very distant from other economic systems in Europe. This is a struggle we can win in Catalonia.


Arthur Mas and PDeCAT, with their idea of Catalonia as a Mediterranean Denmark or Austria, wouldn’t agree with that…


No, and that’s why we have to prepare for different battles. The first battle is for the referendum against the Spanish state and for a “Yes” vote — for independence for our people. The second is for the content of the constitutional process opened up by independence — it must be determined by the social majority, by the popular classes.


These battles demand different majorities, and therefore the CUP cannot stay isolated thinking “no one is more anti-capitalist and more pro-independence than us, so we will go it alone.” The opportunity is there. Perhaps an interview with you next year would be around the question of the opportunity that the massive social movement for Catalan independence presented to the CUP, what came out of it and how we confronted our own internal contradictions, particularly around the question of defending JxSí and its decision to hold the referendum.


The Spanish and European contexts


Is there a synergy between the Catalan and Basque national struggles?


Well, there is a synergy among all struggles for national self-determination in Europe. For example, it is good for us that [Scottish premier] Nicola Sturgeon has announced that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence.[16] If Scottish nationalism had had success in the last referendum, we would already be independent. It would have been a mirror for Spain and the whole of Europe: a people without a state can have a referendum, win independence and start creating its new state.


The situation with the Basque country is different to that of Catalonia. Despite historical differences in strategy there has always been a strong relation between the Catalan and Basque movements because both have for many years suffered — but to different degrees — from the Spanish state and its strategies.


However, the biggest problem that the Basque movement faces is the bourgeoisie of the Basque country. Of course, both Basques and Catalans have nationalist bourgeoisies, with their economy, their national consciousness and their language and culture that they defend. But the Basque Country has a special status within Spain while Catalonia does not: constitutionally Catalonia is the same as, say, [the autonomous community of] Murcia.


Over the last 20 years the Spanish state has not seen any need to support the Catalan bourgeois and has let it decline. All savings and credit unions, which once formed a very strong regional financial network for the Catalan bourgeoisie, have disappeared from Catalonia. For example, all investment by the state goes to Madrid or to the south — we have the same railway lines as 100 years ago. Many things that workers wouldn’t normally care about, but the bourgeoisie does, have been disregarded by the decision-making centres of the Spanish state.


Now, seeing their social and political support bases and activists demonstrating for independence, this bourgeoisie has no other alternative but to say: “Let’s take this decision to be independent, otherwise in 20 years we will be the same as the bourgeoisie of Murcia”, namely with an economy fuelled by speculation and with no real productive capacity. The Catalan bourgeoisie has seen an end to their cooperation with the Spanish state, provoked by the actions of that state.


The Basque country is the opposite. Because of the economic compact between the Basque Country and the Spanish state, the Basque government collects taxes and then makes an agreement every year as to how much they will transfer for Spanish state purposes (for the armed forces, counter-terrorism etc). That gives them a lot of bargaining power. Hence the companies of the Basque country are not based in Madrid, they stay in the Basque country, because their taxes pay for services there, acting as an economic multiplier. In Catalonia, taxes go to Madrid for the building of the Spanish state, as has been the case for more than 200 years.


Spanish nationalism, because it is based on the repression of other national rights, cannot function without creating an external or internal enemy. For fifty years ETA[17] was the internal enemy, but it no longer presents any threat. They looked for the foreign enemy, as was the case with Aznar and the war in Iraq, but had no success. So the new enemy must be the Catalans. They know they are becoming a minority here. Neither Citizens nor the PP control a single Catalan municipality out of 947. They know they are losing politically in Catalonia, yet still feel they are economically strong enough to keep Catalonia inside the Spanish state and are not afraid of the Catalan bourgeoisie.


The CUP is opposed to the European Union. How does it envisage the creation of a replacement?


We are for strong European solidarity and an agreed common political architecture, but not for the European Union (EU) that currently exists. We do not believe it can be reformed as it is. So, we are for building up a new federal or confederal democratic system based on the sovereignty of people and not of the markets.


However, although the debate exists this is not a very popular question in Catalonia. We are the only party that defends saying “No” to the EU, but we use this stance to advance the critical debate in Catalonia about it.


We know this debate is hard to win because of our history. Catalonia is situated in the corner of Spain, bordering Europe, always having dictatorships and military coups and looking towards Europe as an horizon of freedom. This concept is deeply rooted in our people’s outlook. They confuse European culture and politics with the EU. The forty years of the Franco dictatorship were 40 years of isolation from Europe — culturally, economically, politically, democratically. So the feeling of being European even more than Spanish is deep inside people’s consciousness. That’s why it is very hard to win on this issue.


The problem is that the battle to destroy the actually existing EU is being won by extreme right, which is interpreting the feelings of the working class on this question better than the left. “Better” in a very populist way, but they are putting this radical debate on the table and leftists are proving unable to do that in Europe.


We are doing this here right now, but we have no extreme right in Catalonia. Nonetheless, the debate is difficult because you always have to explain that your opposition to the EU is not on the same basis as the far right’s. So orientation to the EU isn’t — and can’t be — our lead banner.

7 d'agost de 2017