Eta is not Spain's IRA
Basque nationalism is an invention, argues Andy Clarkson
The fastest growing industry in Europe, East and West, is the creation of
mythical national histories. But there's nothing mythical about Euskadi
Ta Askatasuna (Basque Liberty), better known as Eta. It killed 43 people
last year, and this year had despatched 17 by the start of June. In April,
the organisation declared war on the Expo '92 fair in Seville, which marks
the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus.
The Spanish authorities believe that Eta also poses a threat to the Olympic
Games in Barcelona, as well as the Madrid 'European City of Culture' festival.
The Basque terrorist organisation is certain to try to ruin Spanish hopes
that 1992 will be another annus mirabilis just as 1492 was.
Eta was formed by a group of Basque students in 1959 to liberate the Basque
country from a Spain presided over by the dictator, Francisco Franco. It
did not become a military organisation until the mid-sixties, when it held
up some banks. Eta killed its first Guardia Civil policeman in August 1968.
In the absence of any other form of militant resistance to the tyranny of
Franco - the Spanish Communist Party, for example, banked on the succession
of a liberal monarchy - the Basque struggle and Eta won wide popularity among
the Basque people and support from other Spanish workers.
When Franco died in 1975, support for Eta outside the Basque region ebbed
away as more democratic institutions were introduced. Yet it was during
the six years after Franco's death that Eta enjoyed widest support in Basque
society. However, once the Basque regional assembly was established in Vitoria
in 1981, the Basque business elite washed its hands of Eta. The organisation
was reduced to its hardcore supporters, who nevertheless regularly give
its political wing - Herri Batasuna (Popular Unity)--16 per cent of the vote
in regional elections.
Madrid has capitalised on Eta's marginal-
isation in the eighties by deploying death squads and signing cross-border
agreements with France to crush the remaining bands of Etarras. In
September last year, the authorities had their most significant success
when an Eta volunteer was shot dead in the Basque capital of Bilbao by the
Ertzantza, the regional Basque police force.
During the sixties and seventies, Eta presented itself as a left-wing, even
Marxist, organisation and looked to the political tradition set by Che Guevara.
Nowadays it has dropped most of that rhetoric and has gone back to its roots.
Eta has, however, maintained its links with the Irish republican movement.
Although there are superficial similarities between Eta and the IRA, the
two movements have nothing fundamental in common. The IRA, like the PLO
and the Tamil Tigers, represent oppressed peoples fighting back against
the oppressor. Eta has more in common with Croatian nationalists, who have
opted for political separation as a means of maintaining a privileged economic
The Basque people are not oppressed by Spain, and never have been. In fact,
the Basque country is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain. Even under Franco,
the Basques were not treated differently from other sections of Spanish
society (though he did remove their economic privileges). Because Eta cannot
justify its existence by claiming a history of oppression, it has invented
a mythical national past - just like a number of nationalist groups which
have sprung up all over Europe, from Scotland to the Ukraine.
Like most nationalist groups, Eta claims that the Basque people have a long
history. In reality, Basque nationalism was invented in 1882 by Sabino de
Arana. It was Arana who first coined the name 'Euskadi' for the Basque country,
designed the Ikurriña (the distinctive red and green Basque
flag based on the Union Jack), and compiled the first dictionary for the
Basque language, which he called 'Euskera'. Arana founded the Basque Nationalist
Party (PNV) in 1885 to campaign for independence from Spain. By 1902, however,
Arana reduced the PNV's main objective to ensuring 'the well-being of the
Basque country under the Spanish state without infringing established legality'
(quoted in SG Payne, Basque Nationalism, p79).
Give us more
Arana's PNV became the main party of the Basque business class in the years
after the First World War - and has remained so ever since. In its ranks,
the PNV united wealthy Basque burghers and poor Basque peasants against
the thousands of Spanish workers flooding into the region to work in its
iron mines and shipyards. With Basque independence severely deprioritised,
the PNV became a priest-ridden, strike-breaking conservative force specifically
directed at keeping 'immigrant' workers in their place.
In recent years, youthful proteges of the PNV, Eta and its political wing
Herri Batasuna have also given up the idea of struggling for complete Basque
independence. Herri Batasuna leader Jose Maria Sasiein has admitted that
Eta could not win an independence referendum in the Basque country. They
have fought on against the Socialist regime of Felipe Gonzalez only to gain
more privileges for Basques within Spain - just as Arana did before them.
If a Basque nation were to be born, it would only be by default. It would
be a result of the post-Cold War unravelling of European nation states like
Spain, not of a 'national liberation struggle' among the non-oppressed peoples
of the Basque country.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992