Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Basque Question - Matxinada by Eoin Ó Broin

The politics of the Basque Country and the historical struggle by many of its people for independence has long been one of my interests. In my PhD, for example, I carried out an in-depth analysis of the political/economic relations between the Spanish and French parts of the historic Basque Country. This degree of interest in Basque affairs is highly unusual since it's an issue that is little reported and even less written about in the English speaking world, and certainly not widely understood. While there is clearly more written and reported in Spain and Latin America, much is superficial, if not reactionary, and frequently uninformed and highly distorted. As in much discussion of Irish politics in the past, with the Basque Country it is very easy to be drawn into a simplistic and ultimately worthless argument over whether you support “terrorist violence” or not, leaving the detail, nuances and underlying trends of Basque history untouched. As Julio Medem found with his excellent documentary La pelota vasca: la piel contra la piedra (The Basque Ball: Skin against Stone), there is very little space in Spain which allows for any discussion of Basque nationalism without its defenders being tainted as ETA supporters, however much you try to be “objective” and “balanced”. In my six years in Madrid I had many discussions/arguments about Basque society and was rarely less than shocked by the abuse that was directed towards almost all aspects of Basque life, whether it be its history, people, culture or language, never mind its politics (although not its cuisine!). In my opinion, therefore, any book which attempts to discuss and open up debate in an informed and helpful manner is well worthwhile and to be praised. It's only with such debate that understanding and even conflict resolution will ever be achieved.

This is a review of a book written by my friend Eoin Ó Broin. The review was published on The Blanket website. The book was first published in English in 2003 and a year later in Spanish.

Eoin Ó Broin
Matxinada - Basque Nationalism and Radical Basque Youth Movements, Left Republican Books, 2003.

Matxinada - Historia del movimiento juvenil radical vasco, Txalaparta (traducción: Ander Larunbe Anderson), 2004.

Anyone living in West Belfast is only too well aware of the groups of young radical Basques who are seen wandering up and down the Falls Road. However, I suspect that few, including many Sinn Féin activists and leaders, have little more than a superficial understanding of Basque politics and nationalism. This, of course, shouldn't stop Irish republicans expressing solidarity with the historic Basque struggle for independence and socialism. Yet, true and effective international solidarity requires more than knee-jerk support. If we really do back the right of Basques to secede from the Spanish and French states and create a country of their own, then information, knowledge and understanding are a prerequisite. Eoin Ó Broin's book provides just that.

If understanding is superficial, it is perhaps not surprising. Almost nothing is written in English about the Basque Country, its people and their long struggle for independence, with media coverage limited to sound-bites around the latest terrorist killing, bomb or anti-ETA demonstration. Moreover, political sympathisers often make facile comparisons between Ireland and the Basque Country. Such coverage and representations merely obfuscate the complex and specific nature of Basque politics and history, especially when viewed from a left nationalist perspective, and the many differences between the political situations in Ireland and the Basque Country.

The author has immersed himself in lengthy visits, discussion, activism and reading in and about the Basque Country. This immersion in Basque life and his detailed, almost obsessive, research and clear empathy with all things Basque, especially its politics and its youth, shines throughout the book. Ranging widely from the personal, the historic and through to the specific political events of recent years, Eoin Ó Broin presents a highly accessible, readable, extremely well informed and fluent account of the rich complexity of Basque politics and life. For this alone the author deserves huge credit.

Those who attended the recent launch of the book in Belfast will know that the introduction to Matxinada (the Basque word can be loosely translated as rebellion) is a fine piece of writing by itself, with its almost seamless flow of the author's personal and moving reminisces through to the primary focus of the book itself - "a general historical account of the development and interplay of Spanish, French and Basque nationalisms, to give the reader a political context in which to place contemporary developments."

In addition, there is a detailed exploration of radical Basque youth movements and organisations, a key and refreshing aspect of the Basque independence movement more generally. We can clearly learn much from the innovative, challenging and independent politics and activities of Basque youth, which predated much of the more publicised anti-capitalist/globalisation movements in many parts of the world. At a time of rampant, neo-liberal and global consumerism, and the suffocating impact it has had on popular politics and culture, the non-conformist, anti-establishment and confrontational nature of radical Basque youth is vital and heartening.

Matxinada is written from a clear ideological perspective. As a Sinn Féin councillor, activist and editor of Left Republican Review in Belfast, the author has officially represented his party for a number of years in meetings and conferences with Batasuna (and its predecessors Euskal Herritarrok and Herri Batasuna), with the youth organisation Segi (and its predecessors Jarrai and Haika) and other left nationalist groups such as the left nationalist trade union LAB. However, this does not mean that he has written a bland defence or apology for what many would see as "terrorism". On the contrary, the author rightly places left nationalist politics and struggle of the Basque people in its long historic context and its continuing conflict with the relentless, and at times murderous, attacks by the Spanish and French nationalist states. The nature and consequences of ETA activity are not glossed over, but contextualised in an informed and proper manner. Moreover, the seemingly ever-changing nature of political development within Batasuna is presented and the use of armed struggle by ETA is discussed.

If there is one failing of the book it is the absence of a detailed and critical discussion of the recent political strategy of Batasuna and the left nationalist movement more generally. While the author usefully plots changes in political tactics and the various crises that Batasuna has faced, he draws back from a necessary and critical engagement with the strategic means, approaches and development of Basque left nationalist politics. Perhaps this is not the book for such discussion, but the political strategy of left nationalism in the Basque Country can be viewed as inconsistent, if not contradictory at times, disingenuous, overly dependent on militaristic thinking, dogmatic, naively optimistic and inward-looking. The following are just some examples.

• The political gains achieved in 1998 and 1999 after the Lizarra-Garazi Declaration and the ETA ceasefire seem to have been far too readily squandered, whatever the lack of positive response by the Spanish government, pointing to a heavy imbalance in the relative weight given to military and political tactics within the left nationalist movement.

• The key political attitude of Batasuna to participation in Spanish elections changes, apparently with next to no debate either internally or externally, creating confusion among its support.

• Geographical political priorities within the Basque Country seem inconsistent in principle, with most practical emphasis placed on the Basque Autonomous Community, leaving Iparralde (the northern part in the French state) and Navarra of secondary importance.

• The strategic and stated policy of Batasuna that the democratic wishes of the majority of the whole of the Basque electorate would be accepted in a referendum on independence doesn't seem credible given, as would seem likely at present, that it would not be won, nor accepted by left nationalists.

• The speed at which Batasuna denounces the political initiatives of the PNV (the conservative nationalist party which has always been in power in the territorially-limited Basque parliament) seems short-sighted when the PNV has clearly moved far from its earlier more accommodating stance towards the Spanish government. A further example is the left nationalist movement's recent crude dismissal of proposals put forward by subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, having first been welcomed by Batasuna but then ignominiously dismissed by ETA.

• Some of the actions of ETA's armed struggle would seem misconceived, even to some of the most hardline of supporters.

In general, a strange and disconcerting lack of coherent political development and leadership seems to run through much of Batasuna's politics, an issue which deserves much wider discussion not just in Matxinada but within Basque left nationalism itself.

Despite these criticisms, which perhaps do indeed belong to another book, I could not recommend Matxinada more strongly. Even by its own long history the Basque Country, its people and their struggle for independence and socialism are presently at a particularly low ebb, with almost every aspect of Basque life under direct attack from the Spanish government. These attacks are far from limited to those within the left nationalist movement, but range right across Basque society, including anyone speaking euskera or standing up even in the mildest of ways for Basque autonomy and cultural rights. The banning of the political party Batasuna and the youth organisation Segi, the closing-down of the highly successful and popular Basque language newspaper Egunkaria, the use of torture against suspected "terrorists" such as the editor of Egunkaria, and the introduction of harsh undemocratic and draconian laws designed to stop any form of alternative political activity and public demonstrations contrary to that dictated by Madrid. These are just some of the actions of the rabidly right-wing Partido Popular government in Madrid led by José María Aznar.

It is almost thirty years since the death of Franco and the start of the Spanish state's transition from dictatorship to "democracy". Yet, it is clear that a reactionary Spanish nationalism is alive and kicking in Aznar's hands. The Basques deserve all the solidarity and understanding they can receive. This book helps that cause immensely.

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