Catalonia: Challenging the Notions of Nationalism

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere

Nationalism has been one of the determining forces of modern history. After the fall of the Ancient Empires, it represented something to be proud of: the defence of one’s citizenship, traditions, language and culture-with Hans Kohn being one of the major historians of the old nationalism. The fascist movements of the Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, caused the term to develop many negative connotations. Today, it is often related to authoritative regimes and political ideas of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is even used as an insult in some political and cultural magazines. In terms of language also, a huge effort has been made to debate differences between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, concluding that the latter contains all the good will that the former supposedly lacks.

The truth is, however, that nationalism is an evolving term with a rich history and many footnotes, depending on which type we are discussing. The many theories under which academics have been studying and defining most of the nationalist movements that there have been in contemporary history derive from the works of Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, John Breuilly and Elie Kedourie to name a few. Kedourie takes a hostile stance towards nationalism and defines it as a form of politics that is unrelated to reality. He labels it a new form of romanticism and cites Fichte and Herder as examples of intellectuals who have been seduced. In a similar way, Smith claims that nationalism is nothing but an exaggeration of history combined with mythology. Breuilly is equally critical, suggesting that nationalist leaders aim for total control of the masses. Nairn also shares the idea that nationalism is an elite movement that seeks to spread throughout the masses. Most, if not all of the 20th century scholars describe nationalism negatively.

More recently, however, writers such as Taras Kuzio, Rogers Brubaker, Will Kymlicka and Montserrat Guibernau have challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that the new nationalisms’ characteristics are too varied to fit under a single, negatively- connotated umbrella. For instance, Guibernau describes Catalan nationalism as a form of nationalism without a state, tearing apart the premise that the ideology needs a state to survive. Guibernau’s definition seems quite appropriate if we consider that most Catalans are nowadays in favour of a new state. Yet how exactly is Catalan nationalism different from other types?

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements.

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements. In this case, the masses convinced the elite to pursue a Catalan state, not the other way around. In fact, the leading political party in Catalonia for the majority of the last twenty years, CiU (Convergència i Unió), always denied the possibility of a new state. It was not until after 11th September 2012 that this idea was even considered by its then-leader, Artur Mas, after millions went out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Since then, the party has been reformed under the name JxC (Junts per Catalunya) and is now led by Carles Puigdemont. He is currently exiled in Brussels, however, due to the Spanish state prosecution of those Catalan leaders who declared independence in 2017, even though this declaration never had a legal impact on either Spanish or Catalan politics.

Another major pillar of nationalism that is challenged by Catalan nationalism is that of romanticism. While it does have its own fair dose of mythology and idolized history, these are not at this nationalism’s core. The growth of this nationalism in the past two decades -and thus the growth in the number of supporters of independence- stems mainly from economic interest, rather than from a sentimental or mythological ideology. Different studies carried out by some of the most prominent economists have revealed that Catalonia would benefit more from being a new state than from remaining as part of Spain; Catalan GDP is actually one of Europe’s highest. To many Catalans out there, independence is, in fact, a rather pragmatic matter of survival.

In 2015, a newly formed political coalition aiming for independence won the Catalan elections. In 2017, after the failed declaration of independence, the pro-independence parties formed a government once again, only this time as two separate parties: JxC and ERC. Additionally, in the 2019 Spanish General Election, the pro-independence parties won more seats in the Spanish Congress than ever before. The Spanish answer to the ever-growing support for independence has drifted between feigned dialogue (always within the limits of the Spanish Constitution) and a legal-criminal response that witnesses several of the old leaders of Catalan independentism behind bars at this time.


It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.

It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism. The more social networks’ popularity has spread among Catalans, the more supporters of independence there have been. Many arguments and reasons to support independence have been shared by Catalan activists on social networks, with effective results. Catalan nationalism also benefits from a huge pool of supporters based in academia thanks to a pacifying tone and well-researched arguments regarding the formation of a new state in Europe. The two most recent Spanish foreign ministers, Alfonso Dastis and Josep Borrell, have acknowledged that the international empathy, even sympathy, expressed towards the Catalan pro-independence movement stems, in part, from academia-related efforts to sustain Catalan claims. International attention was also drawn by the referenda of 9th November 2014 and 1st October 2017, both organized without the Spanish government’s approval and also by the terrific police charges that followed the second.

Could Catalan nationalism ultimately lead to the creation of a new Catalan state? Such an idea should not surprise anyone in Europe-over 20 new states came to be during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, while the Yes to independence leads most surveys on this issue, the Spanish state is not even considering such a possibility. While some far-right and conservative politicians (from the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) fantasize about the possibility of erasing Catalan autonomy, currently under a pro-independence government, the centre-left and left parties (PSOE, Podemos) aim for a political solution within the limits of the Spanish Constitution. This would, however, exclude the chance for a referendum like the one held in Scotland in 2014. With the Catalan pro-independence supporters gaining power in Catalonia and the two major political forces in Spain not allowing a referendum (let alone an eventual secession) for both sides, engaging in sincere dialogue will, sooner or later, be a necessity.

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere holds a PhD in Communications (Universitat Ramon Llull – URL).

Marc is Professor at Universitat International de Catalunya (UIC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Former Visiting Researcher at City University London and at the University of Copenhagen.

Marc’s research focuses on digital communication and political activism, especially massive social networks and its social-political use.

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