Intellectually, Catalanism departs from the unsuccessful attempts to establish a federal state in Spain in the context of the First Republic. Valentí Almirall and other intellectuals that participated in this process set up a new political ideology in the 19th century, to restore self-government, as well as to obtain recognition for the Catalan language. These demands were summarized in the so-called Bases de Manresa in 1892.
The framework for their national demands diverges as well. While some restrict them to Catalonia-proper, others claim to seek for the acknowledgment of the political personality of the so-called Catalan Countries, the Catalan-speaking territories as a whole. Such claims, which can be seen as a form of Pan-nationalism, can be read in official documents of CIU, ERC and CUP . Besides Catalonia, the main Catalan-speaking regions have their own nationalist parties and coalitions thereof which support, at some degree, the demands for the building of a national personality for the Catalan Countries: BNV in the Valencian Community, Bloc Nacional i d'Esquerres, PSM and UM in the Balearic Islands.
The Catalan parties have translated such demands for the Catalan Countries into facts with different intensities. In the case of CIU, regardless what stated in some official documents, arguably the issue does not count among the main items of their agenda. Nevertheless, the federation has enjoyed a long term collaboration with BNV, UM and PSM. In contrast, ERC has taken some more substantial steps towards that direction by expanding the party to Roussillon, Balearic Islands and Valencian Community (as ERPV).
Between 878 and 988 CE, the area became a hotbed of Frankish-Muslim conflict. However, as the Frankish monarchy and the Caliphate of Córdoba weakened during the 11th century, the resulting impasse allowed for a process of consolidation throughout the region's many earldoms, resulting in their combination into the County of Barcelona, which became the embryo of today's Catalonia. By 1070, Ramon Berenguer I, Count of Barcelona, had subordinated other Catalan Counts and intransigent nobles as vassals. His action brought peace to a turbulent feudal system and sowed the seeds of Catalan identity.
According to several scholars, the term "Catalan" and "Catalonia" emerged near the end of the 11th century and appeared in the Usatges of 1150. Two factors fostered this identity: stable institutions and cultural prosperity. While the temporary lack of foreign invasions contributed to Catalonia's stability, it was not a main cause. Rather, it provided a site for sociopolitical development. For example, after the County of Barcelona merged with the Kingdom of Aragón, to create the Crown of Aragon in 1137 through a dynastic union, the system was designed to mutually check both the king's and nobility's powers, while the small but growing numbers of free citizens and bourgeoisie would tactically take sides with the king in order to diminish typically feudal institutions.
By 1150, the king approved a series of pacts, called the Usatges, which "explicitly acknowledged legal equality between burghers…and nobility" (Woolard 17). In addition, the Catalan-Aragonese gentry established the Corts, a representative body, comprised of nobles, bishops and abbots that counterbalanced the King's authority. By the end of the 13th century, "the monarch needed the consent of the Corts to approve laws or collect revenue" (McRoberts 10). Soon after, the Corts elected a standing body called the Diputació del General or the Generalitat, which included the rising high bourgeoisie. The first Catalan constitutions were promulgated by the Corts of Barcelona in 1283, following the Roman tradition of the Codex.
In the 13th century, King James I of Aragon conquered Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Subsequent conquests expanded into the Mediterranean, reaching Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Naples and Greece, so by 1350 the Crown of Aragon "presided over the one of the most extensive and powerful mercantile empires of the Mediterranean during this period" (Woolard 16). Catalonia's economic success formed a powerful merchant class, which wielded the Corts as its political weapon. It also produced a smaller middle class, or menestralia, that was "composed of artisans, shopkeepers and workshop owners" (McRoberts 11).
Over the 13th and 14th centuries, these merchants accrued so much wealth and political sway that placed a significant check on the Aragonese crown. By the 15th century the Aragonese monarch "was not considered legitimate until he had sworn to respect the basic law of the land in the presence of the Corts" (Balcells 9). This balance of power is a classic example of pactisme, or contractualism, which seems to be a defining feature of the Catalan political culture.
Along with political and economic success, Catalan culture flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. During this period, the Catalan vernacular gradually replaced Latin as the language of culture and government. Scholars rewrote everything from ancient Visigothic law to religious sermons in Catalan (Woolard 14). Wealthy citizens bolstered Catalan's literary appeal through poetry contests and history pageants dubbed the Jocs Florals, or "Floral Games." As the kingdom expanded southeast into Valencia and the Mediterranean, Catalan followed.
The medieval heyday of Catalan culture would not last, however. After a bout of famine and plague hit Catalonia in the mid-14th century, the population dropped from 50,000 to 20,000 (McRoberts 13). This exacerbated feudal tensions, sparking serf revolts in rural areas and political impasses in Barcelona. Financial issues and the burden of multiple dependencies abroad further strained the region.
In 1410, the Aragonese king died without leaving an heir to the throne. Finding no legitimate alternative, leaders of the realms composing the Crown of Aragon agreed by means of the Compromise of Caspe that the vacant throne should go to the Castilian Ferdinand I, as he was among the nearest relatives of the recently extinguished House of Barcelona through a maternal line. The new dynasty began to assert the authority of the Crown, leading to a perception among the nobility that their traditional privileges associated with their position in society where at risk. From 1458 to 1479, civil wars between King John II and local chieftains engulfed Catalonia.
During the conflict, John II, on the face of French aggression in the Pyrenees "had his heir Ferdinand married to Isabella of Castile, the heiress to the Castilian throne, in a bid to find outside allies" (Balcells 11). Their dynastic union, which came to be known as the Catholic Monarchs, marked the de facto unification of the Kingdom of Spain. At that point, however, de jure both the Castile and the Crown of Aragon remained distinct territories, each keeping its own traditional institutions, Parliaments and laws. This was a common practice at this time in Western Europe as the concept of sovereignty laid in the monarch.
With the dawn of the Age of Discoveries, led by the Crown of Castile, the importance of the Aragonese possesions in the Mediterranean became drastically reduced and, along the rise of barbary pirates predating commerce in the Mediterranean, the theater of European power shifted from the Mediterranean basin to the Atlantic Ocean. These political and economic restrictions impacted all segments of society. Also, because of the locally bred social conflicts, Catalonia squandered in one century most of what it had gained in political rights between 1070 and 1410.
Nevertheless, early political, economic and cultural advances gave Catalonia "a mode of organization and an awareness of its own identity which might in some ways be described as national, though the idea of popular or national sovereignty did not yet exist" (Balcells 9). Other scholars like Kenneth McRoberts and Katheryn Woolard hold similar views. Both support Pierre Vilar, who contends that in 13th and 14th centuries "the Catalan principality was perhaps the European country to which it would be the least inexact or risky to use such seemingly anachronistic terms as political and economic imperialism or ‘nation-state’" (McRoberts 13). In other words, an array of political and cultural forces laid the foundations of Catalan "national" identity.
Llobera agrees with this opinion, saying, "By the mid-thirteenth century, the first solid manifestations of national consciousness can be observed." Indeed, 13th and 14th century Catalonia did exhibit features of a nation-state. The role of Catalan Counts, the Corts, Mediterranean rule and economic prosperity support this thesis. But as Vilar points out, these analogies are only true if we acknowledge that a 14th century nation-state is anachronistic. In other words, those living in Catalonia before latter day nationalism possessed something like a collective identity on which this was to be based, but this does not automatically equate to the modern concept of nation, neither in Catalonia nor elsewhere in similar circumstances during the Middle Age.
The Corts and the rest of the autochthonous legal and politic organization was finally terminated in 1716 as a result of the Spanish War of Succession. The local population mostly took side and provided troops and resources for Archduke Charles, the pretender who was arguably to maintain the legal status quo. His utter defeat meant the legal and politic termination of the autonomous parliaments in the Crown of Aragon, as the Nueva Planta Decrees were passed and the King Philip V of Spain of the new House of Bourbon sealed the transformation of Spain from a de facto unified realm into a de jure centralized state.
The Renaixença (Renaissance) was a cultural, historical and literary movement that pursued in the wake of European Romanticism the recovery of the own language and literature. As time went by, and particularly immediately after the fiasco of the Revolution of 1868 (led by the Catalan general Juan Prim), the movement acquired a clear political character, directed to the attainment of self-government for Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish liberal state.
Like most Romantic currents, the Renaixença gave historical analysis a central role. History, in fact, was an integral part of Catalonia's "rebirth." Texts on Catalonia's history—inspired by the Romantic philosophy of history—laid the foundations of a Catalanist movement. Works like Valentí Almirall's Lo Catalanisme, Victor Balaguer's Historia de Cataluña y de la Corona de Aragón and Prat de la Riba's La nacionalitat catalana used history as evidence for Catalonia's nationhood. According to Elie Kedourie, such claims were common in 19th century nationalist discourse because "the ‘past’ is used to explain the ‘present,’ to give it meaning and legitimacy. The ‘past’ reveals one's identity, and history determines one's role in the drama of human development and progress" (36). Publications of histories thus "explained" why the Catalans constituted a nation instead of a Spanish region or coastal province.
At the heart of many of works of the Renaixença lay a powerful idea: the Volk. Indeed, the concept of Volk (pl. Völker) played a vital role in mainstream Catalan Romantic nationalism. It has its origins in the writings of German Romantics like Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and, most notably, Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder was one of the first intellectuals to reject Enlightenment thought by proposing an alternative philosophy of history. An integral part of his thought was particularlism—that is—the belief that a person "cannot define himself except in terms of a particular religion, a specific language, a communal pattern of feeling" (xix). Any group sharing these cultural particularities constituted a Volk. Beyond this, argued Herder, each Volk has a spirit (geist), one that could not mix with others because it was unnatural and unauthentic. In his introduction to Herderian thought, Frank. E. Manuel describes the Volk as follows: "[w]hen Herder analyzed the creation of a genius he considered it as an expression of the Volk spirit [Volksgeist]: a man could not think freely in all possible forms and languages—he was born to one only. If a man tried to assimilate what was not his natural Volk spirit, he would never be able to give utterance to a harmonious song, for its bastard quality would obtrude", (xx).
Put another way, Herder viewed every Volk as an organism manifested in a "national character," which was determined by its physical surroundings, historical environment and ordained by God. This last point is crucial in understanding the Volk as an organism. Like many Christians, Herder believed that each individual had a soul, that is, a divine essence. But Herder took this idea a step further by applying it to Völker. To him, each Volk had a "soul—an individuality or personality of its own—and suggested that this was expressed through what might be called culture" (Penrose and May 170). Clearly, this line of thought would appeal to an oppressed people with a strong collective consciousness. What made it more potent was its resonance amongst nationalist groups in regions that held autonomy in the Middle Ages, such as the diverse peoples living in the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The Herderian or Romantic stress on group particularity, historical analysis and the incompatibility of different Völker did not bode well for large multi-ethnic states. The idea that a particular Volk cannot "mix" with another undergirded many of the philosophies that developed into full-fledged nationalist movements. Catalonia was no exception. The concept of Volk entered Catalan intellectual circles in the 1830s, stemming from the emphasis on the region's medieval history and philology. It first appeared in the writings of Joan Cortada, Marti d’Eixalà and his discipline, Francesc-Xavier Llorens i Barba, intellectuals who reinvigorated the literature on the Catalan national character. Inspired by the ideas of Herder, Savigny and the entire Scottish School of Common Sense, they asked why the Catalans were different from other Spaniards—especially the Castilians (Conversi 1997: 15) For example, Cortada wanted to determine why, despite its poor natural environment, Catalonia was so much more successful than other parts of Spain. In a series of generalizations, he concluded that the "Catalans have succeeded in developing a strong sense of resolution and constancy over the centuries. Another feature of their character was the fact that they were hardworking people" (Llobera 1983: 342). D’Eixalà and Llorens held a similar understanding of the Catalan national character. They held that that two characteristics particular to Catalans were common sense (seny) and industriousness. To them, "the traditional Catalan seny was a manifestation of the Volksgeist," one which made Catalans essentially different from Castilians (Llobera 2004: 75).
The early works on the Catalan Volk would remain on paper long before they entered politics. This is because the Catalan bourgeoisie had not yet abandoned the hope of spearheading the Spanish state (Conversi 1997: 14). Indeed, in the 1830s, the Renaixença was still embryonic and the industrial class still thought that it could at least control the Spanish economy. Notions of Catalonia's uniqueness mattered little to a group that believed it could integrate and lead the entire country. But this all changed around 1880. After decades of discrimination from Spanish elites, Catalan industrialists buried their dream of leading Spain. As Vilar observes: "It is only because, in its acquisition of the Spanish market, the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie did not succeed either in securing the state apparatus or identifying its interests with those of the whole of Spain, in influential opinion, that Catalonia, this little "fatherland," finally became the 'national' focal point", (1980: 551)
This switch of allegiance was particularly easy because the idea of a Catalan nation had already matured into a corpus of texts about the region's "uniqueness" and Volksgeist. Inspired by these works of Romantic nationalism, the Catalan economic elite became conscious of "the growing dissimilitude between the Catalonia's social structure and that of the rest of the nation" (Vilar 1963: 101). Consequently, Romantic nationalism (and the Volk) expanded beyond its philosophical bounds into the political arena.
In the last third of the 19th century, Catalanism was formulating its own doctrinal foundations, not only among the progressive ranks but also in the conservative, and at the same time it started to establish the first political programmes (e.g. Bases de Manresa, 1892), and to generate a wide cultural and association movement of a clearly vindicatory character.
In 1898, Spain lost its last colonial possessions in Cuba and the Philippines, a fact that not only involved an important crisis of confidence, but also gave an impulse to political Catalanism. The first modern political party in Catalonia and Spain was the Lliga Regionalista. Founded in 1901, it formed a coalition in 1907 with other Catalanist forces (from Carlism to Federalists), grouped in the so-called Solidaritat Catalana, and won the elections with the regionalist programme that Enric Prat de la Riba had formulated in his manifesto La nacionalitat catalana (1906).
The 18th century Spanish economy depended mostly on agriculture. The social structure stayed hierarchical, if not feudal, while the Roman Catholic Church and Bourbon monarchs wrestled for internal supremacy. Into the 19th century, Spain remained politically and culturally isolated from the rest of Europe. As England, Germany and France tinkered with coal-fed factories, steam engines and new philosophies, Spanish rulers found itself increasingly at odds with the Church, its colonies and haunted by past glories.
Unlike in the rest of Spain, the Industrial Revolution made some progress in Catalonia, whose pro-industry middle class strived to mechanize everything, from textiles and crafts to wineries. Industrialization and trade went hand in hand with the proto-nationalist Renaixença cultural movement, which, annoyed with the shortcomings of the Royal court in Madrid, began to fashion an alternative, and that was Catalan identity.
To finance their cultural project, a locally bred proto-nationalist intelligentsia sought patronage and protection from Barcelona's industrial barons. This relationship played a decisive role in the development of Catalanism. On the one hand, intellectuals sought to renew Catalan identity as a response to Spain's overall backwardness. They wanted to distance themselves from the Spanish problems by creating a new ontology rooted in Catalan culture, language and worldview. On the other hand, those same intellectuals avoided demands for separation. They knew that their patrons would want Catalan nationalism to include Spain for two reasons:
As Woolard notes, the economic interests in Madrid and the budding Catalan industrialists converged during the 18th century, resulting in cooperation between. For the nationalist literati, this meant that Catalanism could promote a national identity, but it had to function within Spain.
Furthermore, Barcelona's industrial elite wanted Catalonia to stay part of Spain since Catalonia's industrial markets relied on consumption from other Spanish regions which, little by little, started to join some sort of development. In fact, part of the industrialists’ desire to remain part of Spain was their desire for protectionism, hegemony in domestic markets and the push to "influence Madrid's political choices by intervening in central Spanish affairs" (Conversi 1997: 18-20), thus, it made no economic sense to promote any secession from Spain. To the contrary, Catalonia's prominent industrialists acted as the Spanish leading economic heads. As Stanley Payne observes: "The modern Catalan élite had played a major role in what there was of economic industrialization in the nineteenth century, and had tended to view Catalonia not as the antagonist but to some degree the leader of a freer, more prosperous Spain" (482). Barcelona's bourgeois industrialists even claimed that protectionism and leadership served the interests of the "‘national market’ or of ‘developing the national economy’ (national meaning Spanish here) " (Balcells 19). The inclusion of Spain was instrumental to Catalonia's success, meaning that industrialists would not tolerate any secessionist movement. Claiming for independence would have assured nothing but weak markets, an internal enemy and strengthened anarchist movements. And hence, though manufacturers funded the Renaixença— and Catalan nationalism — they demanded that Catalonia stayed part of Spain to ensure economic stability.
This federalist-like lobbying had not worked at first, nor did it succeed until the late 1880s. Finally, in 1889, the pro-industrialist Lliga Regionalista managed to save the particular Catalan Civil Code after an liberal attempt to homogenize the Spanish legal structures (Conversi 1997: 20). Two years later, they coaxed Madrid into passing protectionist measures, which reinvigorated pro-Spanish attitudes among manufacturers. Then, they also took great profits from Spain's neutrality in World War I, which allowed them to export to both sides, and the Spanish expansion in Morocco, which Catalan industrialists encouraged since it was to become a fast growing market for them. Also, by early 20th century, Catalan businessmen had managed to gain control of the most profitable commerce between Spain and its American colonies and ex-colonies, namely Cuba and Puerto Rico.
This nationalist-industrialist accord is a classic example of inclusionary Catalanism. Nationalists might have hoped for an independent Catalonia but their patrons needed access to markets and protectionism. As a result, nationalists could propagate the Catalan identity provided that it coincided with the industrialists’ pro-Spanish stance. Because the Lliga Regionalista de Catalunya endorsed this compromise, it dominated Catalan politics after the turn of the century. Payne notes: "The main Catalanist party, the bourgeois Lliga, never sought separatism but rather a more discrete and distinctive place for a self-governing Catalonia within a more reformist and progressive Spain. The Lliga's leaders ran their 1916 electoral campaign under the slogan ‘Per l’Espanya Gran’ (For the Great Spain)" (482). The Lliga had tempered the nationalist position to one of inclusionary nationalism. It allowed Catalanism to flourish, but demanded that it promote federalism within Spain, and not separation from it. Any deviation from this delicate balance would have enraged those pro-Catalan and Spanish-identifying industrialists. Ultimately, this prevented any moves towards separation while strengthening Catalonia's "federal" rights after the Mancomunitat de Catalunya took power in 1914.
During the first part of the 20th century, the main nationalist party was the right-wing Lliga Regionalista, headed by Francesc Cambó. For the nationalists, the main achievement in this period was the Mancomunitat de Catalunya a grouping of the four Catalan provinces, with limited administrative power. This institution was abolished during the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera.
In 1931, the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party won the elections in Catalonia, advocating a Catalan Republic federated with Spain. Under pressure from the Spanish government, the leader of ERC, Francesc Macià i Llussà, accepted an autonomous Catalan government instead, which recovered the historical name of Generalitat de Catalunya.
A dramatically short period of restoration of democratic and cultural normality was interrupted at its outset by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The autonomous government was abolished in 1939, after the victory of the Francoist troops. During the last stages of the war, when the Republican side was on the verge of defeat, Catalan president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, rhetorically declared Catalan independence, even though it never materialized due to objections within Catalonia and, eventually, by the Second Spanish Republic defeat.
Right after the war, Companys, along with thousands of Spanish Republicans, sought cover in France exiled but because of the, by that time, mutual sympathy between Franco's government and Nazi Germany, he was captured after the Fall of France in 1940 and handed to Spanish authorities, which sentenced him to death. Several political or cultural Catalan movements operated underground during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted until 1975. A president of the Catalan government was still designed and operated symbolically in exile.
Companys's successor in exile, Josep Tarradellas, kept away from Spain until Franco's death in 1975. When he came back in 1977 the government of Catalonia -the Generalitat- was restored again. Following the approval of the Spanish constitution in 1978, a Statute of Autonomy was promulgated and approved in referendum. Catalonia was organized as an Autonomous Community, and in 1980 Jordi Pujol, from the conservative nationalist party Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, was elected president and ruled the autonomous government for 23 consecutive years.
In contrast, there is no significant political autonomy, nor recognition of the language in the historical Catalan territories belonging to France (Roussillon, in French département of Pyrénées-Orientales).
Currently, the main political parties which define themselves as being Catalan nationalists are Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Unió Democràtica de Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. These parties obtained 45.58% of the votes in the 2006 election. Within these parties, there is much divergence of opinion. More radical elements are only content with the establishment of a separate Catalan state. In contrast, more moderate elements do not necessarily identify with the belief that protection of Catalan identity is incompatible within Spain. Others vote for these parties simply as a protest and do not necessarily identify with the overall party platform (for example, some people may vote for ERC because they are simply tired of CiU, even though though do not actually desire a leftist Catalan republic).
In 2006, a referendum was held on amending the 1979 Catalan Statute of Autonomy to further expand the authority of the Catalan government. It was approved by 73.24% of the census, and became effective as of August 9, 2006. However, the turnout of 48.84% represented an unprecedented high abstention in Catalonia's democratic history. This has been cited both as a symptom of having large sectors in the average populace disengaged or at odds with the politics of identity in Catalonia, and, alternatively, as a symptom of fatigue among Catalan nationalists who would like to see bolder steps towards political autonomy or independence. In this regard, both Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan independentist center-left) and Partido Popular (Spanish center-right) campaigned against having the 2006 Statute of Autonomy passed: the former considered it too little, the latter too much.