The barricade fighting that flared up from May 3rd to May 7th in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia marked one of the most important turning points of the Spanish Revolution.
Before May the governments of Catalonia and of Valencia had been generally considered the most radical the world had seen since the days of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath in Hungary and Bavaria. In the July, 1936, days, in answer to the attacks of Franco, the workers, in effect, had speedily taken over economic and political direction of the country while organizing their militia to fight Fascism.
Out of sheer magnanimity the workers’ organizations of Spain did not attempt to exclude Republican bourgeois organizations from participation in the government. Neither did they take any steps to build Soviets on the Russian model as a step to the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary, gradually the government assumed the form it had before the July upheaval, the anti-Fascist committees being voluntarily dissolved in favor of the governments of Companys and Azana. This action was taken not because the bourgeois radicals were strong enough to win such consideration, indeed, most of them had disappeared in the troubled July days. Rather, was it because the labor organizations had deliberately limited their own aspirations and demands to this halfway point.
What was first established in July, 1936, was an emergency government with an overwhelming domination of workers’ representatives. The factories were collectivized by the unions. The old employers, those who were not in flight or reactionary, were given part of the direction of the enterprise or kept on as technical advisers. A fund was established for the payment of debts which might include compensation for the former owners, especially where the capital was of foreign origin.
Despite these concessions voluntarily granted, the Spanish workers labored under the belief that they had created a genuine workers’ revolutionary government which could be induced gradually, and without the harsh necessity of a new upheaval, to usher a full form of Socialism into Spain. With such a belief the Anarchists abandoned the essence of their program and entered into the government; the Syndicalists talked of being able now to construct a new society; even the Workers Party of Marxists Unification (the P.O.U.M.) nourished similar fantasies.
The May Days toppled these “castles in Spain” to the ground. Within a few hours once more the workers’ neighborhood became a seething hive of activity. Masses of men grouped behind barricades, thousands of them armed with rifles, revolvers and hand grenades, challenge all passers by and wait tensely for a threatened attack. Barricades sprang up everywhere, six or eight to a street, hundreds throughout the city, barricades made of paving blocks and sandbags hastily thrown together to the height of five feet, powerful barriers that guard all important corners and block the streets. All Catalonia is paralyzed with a general strike. In the center of the city firing continues steadily for several days. Ambulances rush hither and thither, the only vehicles allowed to pass except for the cars of the AnarchoŞSyndicalist (C.N.T. F.A.I.) and the P.O.U.M. organizations.
At night, Barcelona goes dead, all the lights are out except for some distinct bulb here and there casting a faint yellow gleam upon the empty streets now grimly patrolled. The Control Patrol, which apparently had been dissolved by the government in March, is resurrected in the crisis. The Patrolmen, armed with subİmachine guns go from barricade to barricade, investigating every house and rooftop to ferret out any surprise the enemy might try to spring. In the workers’ locales no one sleeps and Food is rationed out by the women who elect to stand with their husbands in the fight.
In the center of the city each organization has barricaded itself. In front of the “Casa CNT”, the home of the National Confederation of Labor, situated on Via Duruntti, there is heavy firing in all directions. A car brings six men into this street. It is fired upon by the police and members of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (the P.S.U.C.), who are together in this battle. The six rush out holding their hands high. All are shotdown and for fifteen minutes afterward they lie sprawling in their blood in the street. Streams of lead continue to pour into them until their skulls are shot wide open and their brains spill into the street. Their bodies are ripped from top to bottom. Only then is the ambulance allowed into the street to remove the remains.
The fire is hottest in the Las Ramblas section. The police occupy the building next to the P.O.U.M headquarters. The British contingent of the P.O.U.M., on leave from the front at the moment, have strategically seized the high building opposite the P.O.U.M. to guard its entrance and from there they pour their fire into the ranks of the police holding the “Mocha Cafe” across the way. Some workers advance to the very doors of the police retreat and throw hand grenades that wreck the place, leaving the police crouching in the rear.
News arrives that C.N.T.-P.O.U.M. soldiers are leaving the Aragon front to protect their comrades in Barcelona and that thousands are already on the way. Into the harbor there steam the heavy Spanish cruiser Jaime I and two destroyers. The huge guns of the British and French Navy are also levelled against the city. On the otherside, the fortress of Montjuic is taken by the Anarchists; the cannon are trained on the Generality Building, one shot, I am informed, is actually fired that lands behind the railroad station.
Here, then, are the May Days. The most radical government that capitalist democracy has ever experimented with is firing at the workers who created it, the workers are declaring war against a State in which their own delegates are seated as ministers! No wonder the reports of these events can be distorted and their meaning misunderstood.
In the general press the May Days have been pictured as a wild uprising of uncontrolled Anarchists (F.A.I.) mingled with treacherous Trotskyists (P.O.U.M.) behind whom lurk the sinister figures of the “Fifth Column” of Franco. The Spainish Embassy to France, inspired by Alvarez del Vayo and Luis Arquistain, actually stated that those behind the barricades flew monarchist flags in the streets. Such a complete fabrication can do no service to the Spanish Republic but rather falsely advertises to the world that Fascism is so strong in Barcelona, the heart of industrial Spain, that it can openly show its colors supported by the workers.
But before we denounce the barricade fighters as Fascists we should consider the fact that it was these very people, the Anarcho-Syndicalists under Durutti and Ascaso and the POUMites under Maurin who had been the first to disarm the Fascists in Barcelona and to drive their troops out of Catalonia. In July the P.O.U.M. was the most important Marxist Party in Catalonia, the Stalinists being a secondary factor.
None the less, Pravda, the Russian Communist paper, has seen fit to agree with the Spanish Ambassador and has affirmed: “The power which carried forward the counter revolutionary putsch in Barcelona was above all, the Trotskyist organization, the POUM which was wholly linked up to the secret agents of Fascism and with the ‘Fifth Column.’ On the side of the Trotskyists stood the so-called ‘Control Patrols,’ that is to say, groups of all sorts of bandits who now for a long time have operated in the streets of Barcelona and on the roads of Catalonia as robbers and murderers….The attempt of a Trotskyist Fascist putsch in Barcelona is absolutely no accident. Beyond a doubt it was organized under the directives of Franco and of the German and Italian marauders….The putsch of the Trotskyist agency of Spanish and German Fascism in Barcelona was dictated by the German General Staff in order to frighten the bourgeois circles of England and of France with the spectre of ‘Anarchy’ in Spain.”
Any objective person present in Barcelona during the barricade fighting of May 3rd to May 7th would surely have to give an entirely different statement of the situation. He would have to declare as the first inescapable fact that the events were precipitated not by uncontrolled Anarchists or POUMists but by the action of the Director of Public Security, Rodriguez Salas, in charge of the Catalan police, who, following a preconceived plan and carrying out the orders of the Minister of the Interior, Auguade, had broken into the Telephone Central in the center of the city, to take possession of it.
It should be remembered that, like all public enterprises, not only in Catalonia but throughout all Spain, the telephone centrals had been taken over by the trade unions and controlled by them according to the Decree of Collectivization of October 24th, 1936. A delegate of the Catalan Generality was at the head of the control committee of the workers. This arrangement was in accord with the laws of the country.
The seizure of the Telephonique was, then, of enormous significance to the entire working class of Barcelona, effecting not only the C.N.T. members who were in the majority on the control board, but also the Socialist trade union center ( U.G.T.). It was, in fact, an attack against the entire trade union movement and illegally challenged the whole idea of collectivization.
If the police could violate the laws of Catalonia and seize the most important center of communications by force, what could stop them from raiding all the factories? The reaction of the working class, therefore, was immediate and violent. Spontaneously and at once, throughout the entire city, all the workers, whether of the C.N.T. or of the U.G.T. came into the streets in a universal general strike, although not a single organization, neither C.N.T., F.A.I., P.O.U.M., nor P.S.U.C. had issued the call for them to do so.
In the train of this general strike barricades sprang up everywhere. Although only a minority, several tens of thousands of armed men manned the barricades. Yet the large crowds that gathered around them clamoring for action left no doubt that the overwhelming mass of workers were wholeheartedly behind the vanguard and were only awaiting the orders of their respective organizations to march forward. These orders never came. Not from the P.O.U.M. nor from the Anarcho-Syndicalists, nor from any other source. Franco’s “Fifth Column” never would have acted so hesitantly.
What was behind the illegal seizure of the telephone central by the forces of the Catalan police? The essence of the matter was very well put by the prominent leaders of the PSUC in a huge meeting reported in Las Noticias of Barcelona on June second. Said the leaders of the Socialist-Stalinist forces at this meeting: Two lines of policy found themselves opposed on May Day, the line of the P.S.U.C., which wanted to place the war before the social revolution, and the line of the Anarchists which placed the social revolution before all. Two forces existed creating a sort of dual government. One was official. The other was secret, carrying out violence in the streets and chaos in the economy, sabotaging the economic reserve forces of the country.
This secret “government” was in possession of eighty thousand rifles, three thousand machine guns, several hundreds of thousands of hand-bombs, also mortars and some tanks. Two programs of economic reconstruction were also in clash, one, the Socialist-Stalinist, that declared that the unions must subordinate themselves to the State which alone should deal with the property of the community, and the other, the Anarcho-Syndicalist, that the unions should become a special privileged group….
The May Days were an expression of the fact that the dual power which has been established in Catalonia and in Spain after the July 1936 days is creating an intolerable situation, capable of solving none of the burning problems that face Leftist Spain. The dilemma must be resolved either in one direction or another. Either the Spanish and Catalonian State is to be controlled by the regular government in favor of capitalist development, or the workers will take over the full power and establish their own forms of fighting and of governing. The present confused situation stems directly from this dual power.
Let us examine, for instance, the economic situation in the rear. The war had brought with it a great dislocation of industry, due to war needs and the blockade around Spain by the Fascist, Democratic and Soviet countries. Present conditions called for a great intensification of labor. Spain could not take a holiday even on May first. One the other hand, the wages of the workers are exceedingly low and the cost of living has rocketed, many items of consumption being very hard to get. The government makes no real effort to curb speculation or to ration out the foodstuffs on an equalitarian basis. There has been no clear declaration that the factories belong to the workers. On the contrary, the government has refused so to declare.
In October, 1936, the government decreed compensation for former proprietors ousted of their property. In February, 1937, it declared illegal the collectivization of dairies. In May it rejected the decision of the Council of Economy which recommended that the collectivized firms be registered so as to protect the products of those firms exported abroad and now impounded in the courts of England, France and Belgium under suits brought by the former owners of the plants.
Regarding the rumors which are constantly circulated that Catalonia, under Anarchist influence, sabotages war production, Commissioner Marivilles assured me that Catalonia had strained the energies of its workers to the limit for the war. About 125,000 men were engaged in war production, night and day, making use of the small diversified industries located in Catalonia with remarkable ingenuity in order to turn out cartridges, guns, shells, torpedoes, aviation motors, powder, tanks, machine gun parts, trucks, etc. Besides, Catalonia takes care of about 350,000 refugees from other parts of Spain, not to mention the immense supplies sent to the front. Catalonians are directly in charge of a front of almost 250 miles covered by 60,000 men and have supplied 25,000 more soldiers to Madrid. It is because of these achievements that the Anarcho-Syndicalists feel proud of their work and believe they can reconstruct Spain without any further need of capitalists.
The existent dual power in which the syndicalist control the factories but not the state, a situation brought on in part by the Syndicalist refusal to take over political power, has brought on further conflict. The Syndicalists run each industry separately without sufficient regard for coordination and thus considerable chaos is created, as for example, in the textile industry in Catalonia. Under such circumstances no real planning, no real centralized control, is possible. The opportunists in control of the State use this defect to try to take the factories out of the hands of the unions, and, with the slogans of municipalization and nationalization of industry, to put the plants in the hands of the government. Feeling the State not their own, the workers resist its encroachment, thus continuing the disorganized situation and virtually strengthening the forces opposed to them.
The military situation presents a similar confused aspect. By the time of the May Days the civil war had gone on for ten whole months with a cost of at least 500,000 lives. Malaga had fallen owing to treachery of the officers and despite the most heroic efforts of the masses, the People’s Front Government had not stopped the menace to Bilbao which was in deadly peril, nor had it been able to remove the threat to Mardid. What was worse, the Loyalists seemed absolutely incapable of taking the offensive although by now the Spanish people knew that they had the stronger force and had organized a real army capable of defeating Franco. On the Aragon front, nearest to Catalonia and dominated by Anarcho-Syndicalist-P.O.U.M. troops, a stalemate had developed because all the supplies collected by the Minister of War had been shipped to other fronts where the Communists-Socialists controlled.
At first the revolutionary elements had been very willing to ship all arms to the most active front. But when the new Valencia government began to remove the workers from posts of leadership in the army and turn over the control to the professional officers, many of them former friends of Franco, and to dissolve the workers’ committees in the army and navy, when the C.N.T.-F.A.I.-P.O.U.M. saw dissolved their own police force, the Patrol Controls, which had been created and legalized during the July days, and in their stead professional police, well armed and disciplined kept in the rear by the tens of thousands instead of being sent to the front, then the workers began to believe that this slogan “All Arms to the Front” was not very honestly meant and refused to disarm while other elements who they considered their class enemies were arming in the rear.
That this fear was not unreal was demonstrated by the May Days themselves. We give a free translation of the reported as to the rest of Catalonia outside of Barcelona as given in the democratic paper La Depeche de Toulouse (France): “The dissolution of the ‘wild’ groups is proceeding especially at Tarragona. This region fell into the hands of armed bands controlling cannon, machine guns, rifles and bombs. It found serious resistance at Tortosa and Gandesa after Valencia and Castillon forces arrived. At Tarragona public forces got one tank, 1,700 rifles, some thousands of bombs from insurgents. The next day they went after Reus and got eight tons of materials of which 6,000 bombs were included. With these arms they armed the carbineros of the province of Tarragona, the National Guard, the aviation forces and a cavalry regiment at Reus.”
Thus the existence of the dual power, on the one hand, thwarts the need for the centralization of the armed forces, since the Syndicalists do not fight to control the State which constitutes that instrument which alone can form an army powerful enough to defeat Franco and to guarantee the victory of the Revolution. On the other hand, the Socialist-Stalinist-Republican forces attempting to centralize the army are not sympathetic to the revolutionary victory of the workers. The Syndicalists want workers’ rule without dictatorship; the others want dictatorship without workers’ rule. The P.O.U.M. is the only organization in Spain which wants the dictatorship of the proletariat at the present time.
Naturally the P.O.U.M. is the first to receive the hard blows designed to prevent the realization of the proletarian rule.Concurrently, because they would not go the limit but stopped halfway at a dual power, the unions now find themselves being gradually ousted out of direct control of the government which they had thought was theirs. And the old regime was strengthened, the very regime which has already bred two reactionary revolts.
As has happened many times in the past, the State forces, in order to maintain a “general” democracy and to prevent the dictatorship of the proletariat, have been compelled to act in a dictatorial manner themselves, actually violating their own laws.
It has been mentioned in the reports concerning the barricades of May 3rd to May 7th in barcelona that this was a violent attempt on the part of a minority to take power. According to my observations of the events, the situation was quite the opposite, the policy of the P.O.U.M. and of the Anarcho-Syndicalists being exceedingly moderate. Let me take, for example, the actions of the P.O.U.M. during those days, Monday to Friday, the first week in May.
At first all it did was to call for the resignation of Rodriguez Sala. It is true that on Tuesday it did call for the creation of “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”, but on Thursday it was already calling on the workers to return to work. At no time did it issue the call for the resignation of the capitalist ministers in the government (a slogan which Lenin used in similar circumstances in 1917). At no time did it criticise the actions of the Anarcho-Syndicalists and their refusal to lead the masses of Workers into offensive action. The P.O.U.M. did not even call for the dissolution and disarmament of the special State police and the reconstitution of the authority of the workers’ Patrol Controls.
One thousand P.O.U.M. soldiers that had marched from the front to Barcelona were instructed at the half way point to go back to the trenches. It is true that the workers could not have held the power, had they tried to seize it, in May, but it is also true that no real effort was made by P.O.U.M to capitalize the situation so as to prepare for the seizure of power by the workers later on.
Or let me take the role of the Anarcho-Syndicalists. It is clear that they could have taken the power during the May Days. So great was the support given them by the workers that the police and the P.S.U.C. forces were completely bottled up in small quarters and could not even hold the center of the city. However, the C.N.T.-F.A.I. made no effort to raise positive demands even to improve their position. They voluntarily relinquished the Telephone Central. They refused to march on the center of the city, keeping the workers in the suburbs.
When, as was reported to me by a high functionary, the government after hearing the cannon shot fired from Montjuic, telephoned Garcia Oliver that it was ready to yield the power to the opposition, Oliver did not even report that matter to his committee. When the Libertarian Youth demanded that some of the arms be turned over to them, the older Anarchist group refused their request on the ground that they might push events too far. The C.N.T. F.A.I. rejected the demands of the P.O.U.M. for joint Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and instead told the workers to go back to work and end the fight.
All during the time the government was firing on the C.N.T.-F.A.I. workers, their syndicalist ministers remained in the Catalonian and Valencian cabinets, thus, themselves sharing responsibility for the provocative events! The C.N.T. expelled the Friends of Durutti from their ranks and reinforced their appeals to give up the struggle when the workers refused to obey orders to take down the barricades. Sections of the Anarchists, under the inspiration of the Friends of Durutti, had also called for a workers’ rule and the end of the capitalist regime. Later on, when the Right Wing Socialist, Negrin, was to take office under the new government, the C.N.T. was to pass a motion declaring that it would support that government in its fight against Fascism and so legalized its own expulsion in the eyes of the masses.
The fact of the matter is there is no Bolshevik organization as yet in Spain that can be compared with the old Russian party under Lenin. In the May events the masses proved themselves far in advance of all of their organizations. This is one of the greatest lessons to be learned and one of the most serious signs of what the future holds in store for Spain.