LM Archives
  11:30 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

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 position.

Mythical past

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

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk