Barcelona class war

Issue: 106

Andy Durgan

A review of Chris Ealham, Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona 1898-1937 (Routledge, 2004), £70

A plethora of books have appeared over the years on the nature and roots of anarchism in Spain, including in relation to its Barcelona stronghold. Chris Ealham’s fascinating new book is one of the most original and important. It also challenges the left-liberal consensus that underpins many historians’ work on the period. The view has become increasingly popular that workers are basically passive, manipulated by or indifferent to revolutionary groups, or that even the idea of ‘class’ as such has lost validity. In the Spanish case this is extended to a general dismissal of the revolution of 1936 as at best a utopian distraction from the need to win the war or at worst an orgy of bloodletting.

Ealham locates the city’s anarchist movement within the context of Barcelona’s working class communities, showing how shared hardship and poverty interrelated with the collective experience of struggle in both the factory and the streets. This shared ‘culture of resistance’ engendered a conscious rejection of the priorities of capitalism, be it respect for private property, police or religion, and a profound sense of solidarity. Many workers had little time for the promises of reform of the middle class republic. Established in 1931 it often treated them with contempt, and strikers were soon faced with increasing repression. ‘The Republican utopia’, as Ealham succinctly puts it, ‘thus dissolved under the acid of working class struggle’ (p100).

The anarchist-led union, the CNT, did not, like its socialist rival the UGT, just concern itself with the workplace, but intervened directly in the community, with its district committees playing a pivotal role in local protest. During the great rent strike of 1931 union members reconnected electricity to strikers’ flats or participated in avoiding evictions. Anarchist-led strikes involved whole communities in acts of solidarity such as providing for strikers’ families. The sale of anarchist newspapers further strengthened the network of activists in any locality (p42). Anarchists also played a pivotal role in proletarian sports clubs, and in the cultural and educational centres, the ateneus.

The author details the overlap between ‘illegality’ and anarchist activism. The growing numbers of unemployed developed a whole series of strategies to draw attention to their plight. Protest marches by the jobless often ended in mass expropriation from shops or the invasion of hotels and restaurants in order to eat. There were protests outside factories demanding the employment, or in some cases reinstatement, of CNT members. Recalcitrant bosses were faced with invasions of their workplaces or threats of physical violence. Parallel to these activities, the CNT’s defence committees and members of anarchist ‘affinity groups’ carried out bank raids and other forms of fundraising in order to finance the unions, which were under increasing attack from the Republican authorities. Experience of daily life in working class Barcelona ‘provided ample justification for law breaking in order to make ends meet’.

‘Moral panics’ have been a recurring reaction of the middle classes from the 19th century onwards when confronted with the rebellion of the poor. Such moral outrage was not just the preserve of bourgeois circles or the right in the 1930s, but also became common among members of the new Catalan Republican authorities and their petty bourgeois supporters. The Catalan Republicans spoke of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city as dens of vice and depravity, of crime and disease, whose inhabitants were, implicitly at least, somehow an inferior species. The more extreme commentators did not balk at using pseudo-scientific racist explanations to explain the perverse nature of much of Barcelona’s proletariat. The fact that by 1930 migrants from elsewhere in Spain formed 35 percent of the city’s population, and that workers of non-Catalan origin were prominent in the CNT, added to petty bourgeois prejudice and the authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to organise the repatriation of these ‘undesirable’ elements.

Ealham concludes that ‘having depicted this “underclass” as criminal and incapable of accepting its social responsibilities the implication was clear: the small welfare budget could be cut, for the provision of relief would merely aggravate the dependent and deviant condition of the “undeserving poor”’ (p152).

Barcelona’s poorest neighbourhoods produced the backbone of the CNT and the often-heroic affinity groups. The members of the most famous group, Nosotros, involving Durruti and others, were the instigators of the movement’s insurrectionary wing during the pre-war years and at the head of the militias when the civil war began. The CNT, in general, had few activists but ‘they had a mobilising power hugely disproportionate to [their] number’.

However, heroism and activism were not enough and Ealham shows clearly how the activities of radical anarchists, far from leading to the overthrow of capitalism, led to the destruction of union organisation and demoralisation. Between 1931 and 1936 the Barcelona CNT lost half its membership, and often-violent sectarianism towards other workers’ organisations perpetuated the highly damaging division that plagued the Spanish labour movement.

The radical anarchist groups saw revolution as a military problem, a question of force. Only a spark was necessary to start the revolutionary conflagration—a conception of revolution, of course, familiar in later guerrilla- based movements. As Ealham puts it, ‘The radicals substituted their own violence for mass union struggles’ (p131). Thus only about 50 militants took the decision of the CNT National Defence Committee to launch the abortive armed insurrection of January 1933, and they began it on a Sunday, indicative of the lack of importance given to mass mobilisation in the workplace. Despite the myths about anarchist assembly-based democracy, the influential 200 or so activists who were the mainstay of anarchist insurrectionism were ‘relatively aloof from the bulk of the working class’ and rather contemptuous of formal union structures.

Along with the elitism of the radical groups went a short-sighted rejection of politics by the majority of anarchists. This apoliticism meant in practice unstinting hostility to the workers’ parties, but an ambivalent attitude towards certain petty bourgeois leaders, such as Companys. So while most anarchists rejected any collaboration with the anti-fascist and decidedly class-based Workers Alliance, they effectively supported the Popular Front in the 1936 elections in order to secure the release of their prisoners and the restoration of legality for their unions. The same combination of sectarianism and political naivety led the CNT leadership to refuse to contemplate the creation of a new revolutionary state when civil war erupted and not to differentiate between the politics of the POUM and the counter-revolutionary politics of Stalinism. The majority of anarchist cadre accepted collaboration with the remains of the Republican state.

By centring on the relationship between anarchism and the poorest working class communities, Ealham appears to point to community rather than workplace as the basis of anarchist strength. However, the real substance of his analysis takes us beyond what at first sight appears to be an ‘autonomist’ understanding of class and social transformation. The primacy of the CNT’s powerful workplace organisation contrasted with the limitations of creating ‘liberated spaces’, in this case the working class community. The ‘men of order’ certainly regarded the organised trade union movement as the biggest threat, and police raids into poor districts were ‘directed heavily at union offices’. ‘The factory remained the key organising force’ in many working class neighbourhoods, Ealham points out. The failure of anarchist activists to generalise from this reality was at the centre of their eventual defeat. They were ‘largely concerned with power at street level and not with the creation of new structures’ (p179).

Power had to be taken, not ‘ignored’ as many anarchists, in effect, did in 1936. The consequence of this was both the eventual destruction of the world’s most important anarchist movement and the defeat of the Spanish Revolution itself.

The only problem with this book, and no fault of the author, is its price. It deserves a far wider audience than just academia, so we must hope that a cheaper edition will be forthcoming in the not too distant future. For Spanish readers a more accessible edition will be published by Alianza Editorial in April 2005.