frontline 13


Jose Ramon Castaños Ex-leader of ETA in the 70's and now a member of the leadership council of Zutik looks at the development of the national question in the Basque Country.

Euskal Herria (the “Basque homeland”) is situated between the Bay of Biscay and the western Pyrenees. It consists of 20,000 km2 in both Spain and France. Half of this territory is in Navarre , 7,200 km2 in Euskadi and 2,800 km2 in the French Basque provinces. Its total population is 3,000,000 - 2,300,000 in Euskadi, 500,000 in Navarre and the rest in the French Basque country.

The Basque homeland is one of the most ancient in Europe and its language, Euskera, predates Indo-European languages. Its origin is uncertain, not being related to any other known language. There are 700,000 Euskera speakers, a quarter of the total Basque population. The language has often been on the brink of extinction , but thanks to the resolute support of the Basque Government it has recovered and become a language of culture, used in literature and in the universities.

Euskadi is one of the most economically developed areas of the Spanish state. Its economy is mostly centred on industry. Its GNP is 42,492 million euros (105% of the European average), and its GNP per capita totaled 24,925 euros in the year 2000. Euskadi has the highest income per annum in Spain (12,847 euros). Unemployment is 7.2% and 100% of children attend school up to the age of 18.

The political division of the Basque lands has always existed throughout history, with the exception of the short period of the kingdom of Navarre, ruled by Sancho the Great a thousand years ago. Modern Basque historiography blames the monarchy of Navarre for failing to integrate the particularities of the local legal system. Its desire to assert the King's authority over the Basque Fueros (see below) drove some local governments to voluntarily sign agreements adhering to the kingdom of Castile, and to be incorporated into the modern Spanish state when all the kingdoms of Spain were unified in 1512.

The Basque legal and institutional system: the Fueros.

The Basque Fueros were a system of public and private law that regulated both internal administrative and political policies and the external relationship with the Spanish monarchy. The result was something very close to a modern idea of a federal system, with full authority over the territory administered and shared authority over delegated powers. The origin of the Fueros was in customary law and the first historical reference to the Juntas Generales de Bizkaia (a real organ of self-government) is in 1307. The first written law of the Fuero (Fuero Viejo) dates from 1452. Some years later, in 1512, a new organism regulating trade and navigation (the Consulado de Bilbao) was founded, which regulated economic development up to the eighteenth century. In 1526 the Fuero was modernised and took on the form it would keep until its abolition after the second Carlist war in 1872 (1).

The basic institutions of this Fuero system were the Concejos or Juntas Vecinales (assemblies of a town's inhabitants). They chose their representatives to the Juntas Generales who met in Gernika. This town is the symbol of Basque freedom, which is why which it was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by the Luftwaffe. These Juntas nominated a Government Comission which coexisted with the figure of the Corregidor (a mayor, representative of the monarch's power) who was entitled to exercise justice but had little power of enforcement due to the prohibition on troops entering Fueros-ruled territories.

The Basque lands had their own fiscal system -the Spanish monarchy was not allowed to collect taxes – and customs barriers with Castile. They also had their own distinct legal system, - all Basque citizens had the rights reserved to nobles in the rest of the Spanish state; and a defence system consisting of its own militia - the Spanish army did not have the right to enter Basque territories or call on their citizens for military duty.

The Basque Fueros were integrated into the political and economic system of the monarchy as an "agreement between equals ", between the King and the Juntas Generales. The Spanish monarchs were not accepted as such , but acknowledged as lords of Biscay only after swearing “the oath of the Fueros” in Gernika. Spanish laws were not applicable if they went against traditional Basque laws. This relatively independent system within the kingdom of "several Spains" was unique and worked very well for more than 500 years.

Conflicts with the monarchy

The basis of the monarchy’s respect of the Basque Fueros lay in the economic function of the Basque seaports. Spanish trade with Flanders, England, the north of France and Germany had to go through Basque ports. Castilian cities, exporting wool and importing textile manufactures, depended on them. New techniques of ocean navigation were developed for whaling off Newfoundland, and shipbuilding and fish salting industries grew up. Treaties between the Consulado de Bilbao and manufacturing cities such as Bruges and Antwerp consolidated the Basque country’s position on the trade routes for wool and textiles. The conquest of America and the subsequent consolidation of a Spanish empire created strong demand for ocean-going ships, for arms production to maintain a conquering army and for goods to supply the new overseas cities, laying the foundations of a fairly developed trade-based economy: steel and iron production, shipyards...

Conflicts with the monarchy that occurred during this long period were scarce but intense and always settled in favour of the Basque Fuero. The Spanish annals record three: "la rebelion de la sal" (the salt uprising ) in 1631-34, against the King's intention to collect a tax; "la machinada" (from Matxin, its leader), a rebellion in 1718 against the King's project of moving Basque custom posts from the frontier with Castile to the seaports; and a rebellion in 1804 (named "zamakolada" after its leader Zamakola), against plans to impose compulsory national service.

The Basque bourgeoisie and the Spanish unitary state.

The industrial revolution in some northern European countries (England, France, Low Countries...) created an untenable situation for the Basque economy. The internal customs, useful in the past, now became a hindrance to Basque merchandise, while the opening of the maritime ports to the foreign trade of European competitors threatened domestic iron and shipbuilding industries. The only solution was to move the interior customs to the coast so as to close the Spanish market to European products and open up a large protected home market to Basque industry. This meant the abolition of one of the most important aspects of the Fuero. The bourgeoisie was determined to enact this measure, even though it served the centralising interests of the Spanish monarchy. However this measure was not enough on its own to protect Basque industry from the challenges of the modern world. In order not to be left behind a large mass of capital was needed to finance generalised industrialisation. The Basque bourgeoisie had previously managed to accumulate capital but they couldn’t finance everything. A large amount of capital was required to transform forges into modern iron and steel industries, equip the shipyards to build steamships, and move from small workshops to modern factories. This involved lifting the Fuero prohibition on the export of pure iron, which was plentiful in the Basque mountains.

By the middle of the 19th century, modernisation demanded a profound reform of the Fueros, both internally - the political organisation of the economy and society - and externally - the relationship of the Basque territories with the new liberal state. However, two solutions were possible: update the Fueros to reconcile Basque identity with modernity (a federal solution which was unsuccessfully tried under the First Spanish Republic in 1873-4); or follow the French model of a unitary state, abolishing local particularities and homogenising cultural and linguistic values around the idea of a Spanish nation.

Nationalist historiography strongly criticises the role played by the Basque bourgeoisie in consolidating a unitary Spanish state. I think there are plenty of reasons for that, but some of these criticisms - now widely accepted in Euskadi - seem to be unhistorical. One in particular claimed that the historical function of the Basque bourgeoisie during the crisis of the Fuero regime should have been to consolidate a unified national state, as its European predecessors did. However, this political option was not viable since the Basque society of that time did not fulfill the basic requirements to become an independent nation. There was indeed a subjective factor: a national consciousness expressed in several armed rebellions in defence of the Fueros. And there were some material resources to start from (primitive accumulation of capital, some industrial and commercial infrastructures, some raw materials). But the new capitalist expansion needed large and well-protected markets and the Basque government alone could not guarantee this. The Basque homeland's limited territories and insufficient population ruled out this possibility.

The "historical mistakes" of the Basque bourgeoisie were different: instead of choosing a middle way between national independence and a Spanish unitary state - a way offered by Republican federalism after the first Carlist war – they preferred an alliance with the conservative regime and the restoration of the monarchy, even becoming "national" in the Spanish sense of the term. The fact that its leaders refused to build "their" nation within a multinational state, democratic and respectful of Basque culture, language, identity and self-governing institutions deeply influenced the subsequent history of the Basque country.

Social change and the transformation of Basque national identity during the expansion of Basque capitalism

The period of consolidation of Basque capitalism occurred in two stages, from the abolition of the fueros between 1834 and 1876 to the crisis of 1917 at the end of World War 1. The process was similar to that of other European nations. In 1855 with exclusively Basque capital the Altos Hornos de Bizkaia Foundry was established, followed by imposing heavy duties on the import of European steel. In 1857 the Banco de Bilbao bank was founded, and a large railway network was begun. A few years later the Banco de Vizcaya and the Comercio banks were founded. They have recently merged with the Banco de Bilbao to form the BBVA bank. From 1876 to 1878 the last vestiges of the Fuero Regime were dissolved. All except one - the tax regime and the 'Economic Agreement' with the central state, which was particularly important to the Basque bourgeoisie. Through it they got the public capital needed to finance major infrastructures, (ports, railways, etc). The second wave of expansion saw the establishment of the Bilbao stock exchange, the University of Commerce and the Engineering School. The surplus from Basque mines was exported to Britain. New shipyards and electrical companies were created. The Basque bourgeoisie reinvested its profits in a large and diverse textile industry, markedly different from Spanish capital, which invested in property speculation.

This rapid industrialisation produced the same social changes in Euskadi as it did in the rest of the world: a shift from agriculture to industry, an exodus from the countryside into the cities, a new social class, the urban proletariat. However there were particular aspects that would influence the “Basque question”. The massive emigration of Basques to Latin America, brought about by the famines of the 18th century, created a labour shortage. As a result, much of the excess population of the Spanish countryside migrated to the Basque country. Today 40% of the urban population of Bilbao is of first or second generation Spanish origin.

This double migration brought about a radical change in the cultural, linguistic and national identity of the Basque nation. It reinforced the process of assimilation into the Spanish state. The generalisation of education took place in the official language, Spanish, to the detriment of Euskera, which began to be persecuted and marginalised. All cultural, educational and literary activity and the press were in Spanish, which became the language of progress, in science and the arts, in public administration, in industrial relations, and in everyday life. Without political institutions to protect the language, culture and identity of the Basques, the process of assimilation was so successful that the Basque bourgeoisie and intellectuals felt ashamed to be Basque. All literary work of Basque intellectuals from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century was conducted in Spanish, even though these intellectuals were Basque speakers. The policies of the Spanish state made the Basques foreigners in their own land.

Socialism and nationalism, the enduring legacy of two national projects in collision.

Both political movements were founded at around the same time, the socialist in 1886 and the nationalist in 1890. Their identities are clear from their names: the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español, (PSOE) and the nationalist Partido Nacionalista Vasco, (PNV). The socialist movement reacted against the exploitation and poverty of workers. The nationalist movement resisted the progressive loss of Basque political institutions and national identity. Both found a common enemy in the Spanish state and the established right wing political movements in the Basque country (the Monarchists and Carlists). However, instead of allying or cooperating , they defended ideologies that split Basque society between two opposed and irreconcilable national projects.

The leaders of Basque socialism where mainly of Spanish origin. They brought their national identity and anti-Basque prejudices to the nascent socialist and trade union movements, built in the furnace of the of the insurrections and general strikes of 1905, 1917, 1934 and 1936. Their base was strongest amongst the Spanish immigrants to Euskadi. This contributed to making the socialist movement a closed community, hostile to Basque nationalism. Instead of applying democratic socialist principles to the Basque question and respecting the national identity and the politics of the host nation, the leadership preached modernism, democracy and internationalism in a Spanish framework . Those liberal intellectuals who were drawn to the Socialist Party opposed the ideology of Basque nationalism, without proposing their own alternative. They just borrowed the main themes of Spanish nationalism: one nation, Spain; one unified state, (more or less federal according to circumstances); one single united working class, (Spanish, naturally) and one single centralised Spanish party, as a “guarantee” of solidarity between peoples.

This attitude, in the period of national emergency that Basque society lived through during the 20th century, could only produce an equally closed and antagonistic nationalism. Which is exactly what happened. The Basque nationalist programme has always been far less radical than its rhetoric. The fundamental demand was never "the reunification of the Basque nation as an independent state", (this would only come with the creation of ETA). They made more conservative demands, such as the recognition of Basque nationality, the re-establishment of the authority of the Fueros in the modern form of a Basque Parliament and government, and finally the granting of the same status as Spanish to the Basque language, Euskera.

The rhetoric that accompanied these demands was far more radical and socially exclusive. It created two points of conflict with socialist ideas. Firstly the creation of a separate national identity reflected in the slogan "Euskadi is the common and exclusive motherland of the Basques". Secondly by countering socialist ideas with the "social doctrine of the Church”.

Without the support of a ruling class, or of intellectuals able to defend the Basque cause in a liberal and modern fashion, Basque nationalism had to rely on the peasants, artisans and small landholders. The church, (priests, Jesuits and other religious orders) occupied the role of “organic intellectuals”. In other national movements this role was filled by the bourgeoisie, the universities, the arts, science and culture. That is why Basque nationalism took on a markedly fundamentalist and conservative profile until the middle of the 20th century,

On the other hand, devoid of any state that could guarantee the viability of the nation, they had to become a 'nation-party'. This implied organising the “national community” in all fields. Politically, at all levels of administration, from the smallest council up to the Basque government. Among workers, through the mutual societies and the founding in 1910 of a nationalist union, Basque Workers’ Solidarity, (ELA-STV). Through employers’ associations and Chambers of Commerce. And by alternative education networks, the Iskastolas, to learn Euskera. and all manner of cultural, sporting and recreational activities.

The fight for leadership between these two poles in Basque society was attenuated by necessary alliances against the successive dictatorships of the Spanish right wing during the 20th century - the Pact of San Sebastian of 1930 for the proclamation of the Second Republic, the alliance against fascism during the Civil War, and the struggle against Franco's dictatorship. Socialist support for Basque autonomy during the Civil War, and collaboration with the exiled Basque government, enabled cross-party links that broke down each side's previous mutually exclusive ideology.

A century after the founding of the PNV, the Basque national project has succeeded in becoming the dominant ideology, defeating its historical antagonist, the Spanish nationalist project of a culturally homogenous and politically centralised state. The consolidation of the institutions of self government, (the 1978 Statute of Autonomy ), has finally forced the powerful Basque industrial and financial elite into becoming what it did not wish to be in the past, a national class in the Basque sense of the term.

ETA's project: a new left for a new nation.

ETA was founded under the Franco regime (1959) with the aim of promoting a radical new synthesis between social and national demands. Its founding coincided both with the national liberation movements in Indochina, Algeria and Cuba and with a change in leadership in Basque politics and culture in the post-war period. Furthermore, the dictatorship’s persecution did not distinguish between the indigenous Basque population and Spanish immigrant workers. This reinforced ties between these groups. They identified with the only national identity being persecuted, Basque identity.

This trend was reinforced by the discredit of Spanish nationalism, under whose banner the dictatorship had been established and the Civil War launched. This produced a movement toward social integration that tended to overcome the conflicting identities of the previous period. All that was missing was a new national discourse to create a new collective identity. ETA filled this role, contributing decisively to the rebirth of a new nationalism and a new left.

Its contribution can be summarised by two main ideas.

1. The expression of national demands, (the Basque language, territorial and national unification), as a revolutionary movement of national liberation which would also end social inequality and class society. From that point onwards the concept of national independence became forever linked to socialism.

2. A new revolutionary subject, the Basque working people, now defined as all those living and working in Euskadi, regardless of origin or national identity.

The first of these ideas broke forever with the old, false identification of Basque nationalism with the bourgeoisie and of socialism with Spain. This created a new political synthesis between nationalism and the left. Nationalism broke from the heritage of Romanticism and its ethnic definition of the nation, replacing this with a new definition, republican and based on citizenship, more democratic and respectful of the multiple identities that coexist within complex societies.

These two ideas summarise the thinking of the new generations of Basques that grew up in the struggle against Franco. Perhaps that is why those of us that took part in the tumultuous process in which they were formed, (the Fifth and Sixth Assemblies of ETA between 1967 and 1970), could not begin to imagine the influence they would have on the evolution of Basque politics and society. Nonetheless the intense diffusion of these ideas by the political movements organised around ETA, (the abertzale or radical nationalist left), marked a change in the ideological and political evolution of the workers’ movement, of nationalism and the left.

The motor for change was the introduction of national demands into the platform of workers’ struggles. This was successful to the point that that the Basque workers’ movement distinguished itself by a succession of general strikes against the dictatorship, against the 'permanent state of emergency', for political amnesty and national self-determination. The fight for the dissolution of repressive bodies and the release of political prisoners was forever linked with the demand for recognition of Basque sovereignty.

The central role of this powerful working-class movement confirmed in practice the political theories developed by the ETA conferences. So much so that the central arguments of both the PNV and the PSOE changed. The first dropped its ethnic definition of nationality and adopted the republican and citizenship-based definition. The PSOE changed its name in the Basque country from 'Spanish Socialist' to 'Basque Socialist', accepted the Basque culture and identity, and adopted for a time the demands for national self-determination and the unification of the Basque lands.

The Basque nation within Spanish democracy and the European perspective.

The Spanish constitution of 1978 did not bring about the desired democracy. The reform pact between the Francoist administration and state apparatus and the Spanish left included a veto on national aspirations of the Basques, who unlike the Catalans, were deliberately excluded from the constitutional consensus. As a result, a centralist constitution was pushed through. It reaffirmed Spanish nationality, the unity of the state, and the right of the army to intervene in 'defence of national territory'. Consequently, 68% of Basque voters rejected the constitution in the referendum.

During subsequent negotiations on the 'Statue of Autonomy', the armed forces imposed the political division of the Basque lands, thus creating the confrontation between Navarre and Euskadi, with the consent and collaboration of socialists and communists. The degree of frustration that resulted from this reached hitherto unseen levels, to the point of giving the militaristic shift by ETA to high intensity terrorism a legitimacy that it could not find in the ethics of the left or in its ideology and cultural heritage. The imbalance between the degree of aggression and the intensity of the response must be measured within the framework of the autonomy that has been obtained. The 1,204 victims of ETA, the 48 victims of state terrorism, the more than 3,000 political prisoners and exiles who have gone through Spanish jails demand a political justification.

The balance-sheet of Basque autonomy is somewhat contradictory. The Statute of Autonomy fell short of the self-rule that Basque nationalism demanded. However the political pressure exerted succeeded in securing a level of self-government that was far in advance of what the Spanish state wanted to concede. It was also the greatest autonomy that the Basques have ever enjoyed.

The Statute of Autonomy has consolidated national institutions, (Parliament and government), which enjoy exclusive powers in such matters as health, education, culture, law enforcement, welfare, fiscal policy and budget autonomy. All of these are important but if we had to choose to highlight one it would be fiscal autonomy, along with the 'Economic Agreement', and the canon system, (a pact between the Central government and the Basque parliament by which the Basque government pays the state for those areas of public administration outwith its remit). This has meant that he coffers of the Basque exchequer are always full, as the canon is invariably 6.2% of Basque GNP. This frees up a lot of capital, used to maintain the best public services in Spain, create a Basque public sector in energy, transport and communication, and modernise the production infrastructure, so as to make it competitive in the world market, (40% of Basque industrial output is exported). If the Statute of Autonomy does not satisfy the national aspirations of the majority it is for other reasons. Among the most important are:

1. The areas of government that the Spanish state maintains under its control (in particular employment law and the justice system).

2. Because the creation of united political institutions between Euskadi and Navarre is blocked.

3. Because Basque representation in European institutions is prevented.

4. Finally, because the final decision on competence, the sovereignty to decide, lies not with the Basque people but with the Spanish parliament.

These four demands now form the new political fault line in the Basque conflict with the Spanish state. They were formulated during the 'Estella Pact' (or the Lizarra-Garazi Pact) in 1998, between all political and social forces representing the majority of Basque society. These included the PNV, ETA, Batasuna, EA, IU and Zutik, the majority unions and the most representative social movements. This broad democratic alliance dissolved in 2001 because ETA broke its truce (by returning to political assassination as a way of applying pressure). Nonetheless, its main demands have been put to the Spanish state by the Basque government in the 'Ibarretxe Plan'. The socialist victories in Catalunya and Madrid open up new perspectives for this proposed democratic reform, a plan to install a system of shared national sovereignty between the peoples of Spain. However, that chapter is yet to be written.

Bilbao, 10th of April 2004


1) Carlism was a movement that arose in the 19th century in support of a pretender to the Spanish throne. Its main support was in Euskadi and Navarre. It raised three rebellions between the 1830s and the 1870s. Carlism remained a force up until the 1936-39 Civil War, when its partisans took Franco’s side.

Index of political organisations and percentages of support: