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The ‘May Days’ of 1937 in Barcelona


From Revolutionary History magazine, Vol.1 No.2, Summer 1988. Used by permission.


This article first appeared in the January 1988 issue of La Verité and is translated by John Archer.

Every workers’ revolution in the twentieth century bears the characteristic mark that a situation of duality of power appears at its beginning. This is between the old organs of the state, whether rejuvenated or not, which have generally passed into the control of a government of ‘conciliators’ with the first phase, and the organs of the mass movement, organisations of struggle which have become the organs of a new power.

Our readers will know the analyses which Trotsky made on this matter in the History of the Russian Revolution, about the duality of power created by the first revolution in February 1917, between the old state, with the Provisional Government at its head, and the new workers’ state in the process of formation, that of the Soviets.

The appearance of the duality of power marks only the beginning of the struggle between them, the struggle which ends in the victory of either the revolution or the counter-revolution, through the victory of one power or the other. Study of the revolutions in the period since October 1917 reveals the decisive role of the general staffs on the side of the revolution, of their party, of the party which fights for the victory of the new power. That party has neither provoked nor engineered the revolution, any more than it can stop it, without joining the counter-revolution. The authority of the party may be widely recognised, even by a majority of the masses, but it enables it only to act as a brake on an offensive which may be premature or isolated – this was the case of the July Days of 1917 in Petrograd – or, on the contrary, to clear the way for the final assault, by helping the masses to overcome the obstacles on their road to power. This is the case of the insurrection of October 1917 in Russia.

What has been called the ‘May Days of 1937’ in Barcelona are an event of this kind, independently of the fact that the event took place within one of the two opposing camps in the course of a civil war, the Spanish Civil War. In fact, the duality of powers began in July 1936, with the victorious counter-stroke of the workers in a number of large cities, including Barcelona, against the military coup d’etat of General Franco.

In May 1937 it was the Popular Front government of the Generalidad of Catalonia – under the pressure of the Stalinists in the PSUC – which took the counter-offensive. It tried to seize a telephone exchange, which was in the hands of the militia of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The latter resisted, arms in hand, and the workers in Barcelona replied to the attempt by a general strike. Several days of street fighting followed in the Catalan capital.

The supporters and agents of Stalin speak of a ‘Fascist putsch’. Other elements in the Popular Front speak of a ‘tragic misunderstanding’. The Trotskyists agree on the general significance of what happened, but are divided in their appreciation of the incident itself. Trotsky believed that victory was possible and that, therefore, we have here an ‘October’ which failed, because there was no revolutionary leadership which wanted to fight to win. His comrade, the Italian Blasco (Pietro Tresso), regarded the event as ‘July Days’ ending badly for lack of a firm leadership, which could have prevented the retreat from turning into a rout.

In this month of May 1937, the atmosphere was tense. In the last days of April there had been violent incidents at Molins de Llobregat, where a PSUC leader was killed. Eight CNT militants were killed at Puigcerda in the course of an attack by armed police to recover control of the frontier for the government. On 1 May the government prohibited street demonstrations, which might provoke the outburst of workers’ anger which it feared, or might give to that anger the means to bring them together to hit back.

At the Telephonica

The explosion came on 3 May. That afternoon the Barcelona police chief, an active member of the PSUC named Eusebio Rodriguez Salas, presented himself in front of the central telephone exchange, the Telephonica, in the Square of Catalonia in Barcelona. The exchange belonged to the American Telegraph and Telephone Company; it had been seized during the revolutionary days, and was under the control of a committee and of members of the CNT militia. It is located in the heart of the Catalan capital, and what happened to it came to be a symbol for the fate of the revolution and the workers’ positions. The initiative by Rodriguez did not get a green light from the government, which had not been consulted, but it had the approval of the government’s public order adviser, who, as everyone knew, was completely devoted to the PSUC.

The police chiefs escort got into the building by surprise and disarmed the militiamen whom it caught unawares on the ground floor. The militiamen on the upper floors were warned and began to resist this unexpected attack and to fire on the attackers. Two senior police officers, members of the CNT named Asens and Eroles, were warned at once and rushed to the Telephonica to stop the shooting. They did their utmost to convince their comrades not to keep up their resistance, which, they said, would only make things worse. In response to their persuasion, the militiamen agreed to vacate the Telephonica, which remained in the hands of the police.

But the peace-making efforts of the two mediators were in vain. The sound of shots had alerted the people of Barcelona, who were in a state of extreme tension and were, in fact, expecting some move to be made, if not by the government, at any rate by the extremists of the PSUC. The news of the attack on the Telephonica spread like a trail of gunpowder. The workers went on strike in order to paralyse the advance of the counter-revolution. They erected barricades to prevent the government’s forces of repression from moving freely around. The branches of the CNT at its base, particularly its ‘defence committees’ were also there, and their members were armed.

George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia, bears witness to having experienced the early hours of these ‘Days’ as acts of aggression against the working people of Barcelona, carried out by those whom he calls by their old name, the ‘Civil Guard’, former policemen who had been integrated into the new police forces which their chiefs were now throwing into attacks on the workers’ barricades in Barcelona. The Barcelona workers were led by the elements organised in the ‘control patrols’ – the last vestiges of the workers’ militias for maintaining order in the rear – and by the defence committees. They counter-attacked and came out of the workers’ districts. The battle raged in the centre of the city against the forces of order, which had their headquarters in the Karl Marx barracks of the PSUC. Their spearhead, directed towards the Ramblas, was located in the Hotel Colon, in Square of Catalonia, at the top end of the Ramblas.

Several victorious attacks were directed against the police strong-points in the Exhibition Palace and the American cinema. The Anarchists even found some tanks, which enabled them to break the encirclement of the workers’ fighting nuclei.

The leaders of the CNT maintained their policy of pacification, while at the same time they defended the militants, who, they said, were the victims of an act of aggression and of provocation. The same evening, 3 May, there was a meeting of the leaders of the CNT, the POUM and their youth organisations. One of the POUM leaders, Gorkin, declared:

Either we place ourselves at the head of this movement to destroy the enemy within, or the movement will collapse, and this enemy will destroy us.

No one denies that the situation was favourable for liquidating the undertaking and the forces of the PSUC. However, despite the enthusiasm of its youth section (Young Libertarians), the CNT maintained its waiting stance of ‘protestation’, and the POUM did not want to be isolated from it.

The fighting continued on 4 May, with sudden silences following brutal outbursts. La Batalla, the newspaper of the POUM, spoke of ‘the provocations with which the counter-revolution is testing the pulse of the ability of the working masses to resist’ and ‘the preparations for a thorough-going attack on the conquests of the revolution’. The article goes on:

But the counter-attack by the proletariat could not be more powerful. Thousands of workers have taken to the streets, arms in hand. Factories, workshops and shops have ceased work. The barricades have gone up again in every part of the city. The majority of places in Catalonia have copied the gesture of its capital. The working class is strong and will know how to crush every effort by the counter-revolution. We must live on the alert, rifle in hand. We must maintain the magnificent spirit of resistance and of struggle, which guarantees our victory. We must prevent counter-revolution from raising its head again.

The POUM journal also demanded that Rodriguez Salas be dismissed, that the decrees be annulled, that ‘public order be in the hands of the working class’ and that a workers’ revolutionary junta be formed, with the creation of ‘committees to defend the revolution in every quarter, every place and every workplace’.

All the evidence goes to show that in this article we have a policy made up on the spot. Victor Alba, the historian of the POUM, assures us that this is not what the POUM wanted to do, but only what it could do, bearing in mind that it was determined not to cut itself off from the CNT! Indeed, the leader of the CNT, Garcia Oliver, appealed on the radio for a ceasefire; he called on people not to speak any more about ‘provocations’ or to ‘go on about the dead’.

Companys, the president of the Generalidad, called for calm. He denounced the initiative of Rodriguez Salas, but he demanded that the workers must leave the streets and return to their homes before peace could be restored. The regional committee of the CNT, between two attacks by the forces of order on its premises, called for a truce and for calm. All the personalities of the ‘left’ of the Popular Front rushed to its help on the radio.

State terror

On 5 May the forces of order mounted what was nothing less than a terrorist attack. Armed groups of men in uniform arrested the Italian Anarchist, Berneri, who criticised the policy of class collaboration of his Anarchist comrades with the Popular Front. His dead body was found the next day. But, during this time, the CNT was working with the UGT (the reformist trade union federation) to issue a joint appeal for work to be resumed, explaining that the cessation of industry in ‘these moments of anti-Fascist war is equivalent to collaborating with the common enemy by weakening ourselves’.

The Friends of Durutti, an organisation of dissident Anarchists, who had opposed the absorption of the militias into the army, issued an appeal for the formation of a ‘revolutionary junta’ to include the POUM. It criticised the leaders of the CNT who called for a ceasefire, and demanded that the ‘provocateurs’ be executed. Every leading organ of the CNT repudiated this declaration and the organisation which issued it, in extremely violent terms. Barcelona was vibrating with rumours. The 29th Division, commanded by the Anarchist Jover, and the 26th, under the POUMist Rovira, were forbidden to march on the capital. In fact these commanders had thought of doing so, but were dissuaded by their organisations. Leaders of the JCI (Jeunesses Communistes Internationalistes) and the committee for defence in north Barcelona organised a column, based on officer-cadets from the military academy, to seize the central headquarters of the PSUC and of the Generalidad. It was the POUM leader, Andres Nin, who put a stop to this operation. British warships were anchoring in the roadstead.

Federica Montseny, the Minister for Health in the Popular Front government at Valencia, which was headed by Largo Caballero, protested against the fact that all the ceasefire negotiations took it for granted that the Telephonica had been taken over by the forces of order. The UGT in Catalonia decided to exclude from its ranks all those members of the POUM who did not expressly repudiate their comrades who were taking part in the insurrection!

The death of another minister, a member of the PSUC and of the UGT, named Antonio Sese, who was shot by unknown murderers as he was going to take up his appointment, perhaps gave the central government a pretext for taking public order out of the hands of the Catalan Generalidad. From that time onwards, public order was entrusted to General Pozas, a professional soldier, former head of the Civil Guard, who appears to have been linked to the PSUC by connections of a hardly political nature. There was total confusion. Both the arrival of troops sent by the Valencia government and a possible foreign intervention were expected. The new government included none of the PSUC people who had played a role in the provocation.

On 6 May the body of Berneri was found; he had been well and truly assassinated. The workers who followed the CNT were disorientated by the disorder and confusion, as well as by the appeals from their leaders. They began to desert the barricades in large numbers. The POUM, in its own way, buried the movement, with comments about ‘these three magnificent days’ and ‘this tremendous experience’. It put on record that it had been with the masses in the streets at the beginning, and observed that ‘under the repeated injunctions of their leaders, the masses have begun to withdraw from the struggle’. Yet it presented the result as being largely positive:

Beyond any doubt it [the proletariat] has won a great, partial victory. It has defeated the counter-revolutionary provocation. It has won the dismissal of all those who were directly responsible for the provocation. It has struck a serious blow at the bourgeoisie and reformism. It could have won more, much more, if those in the leadership of the organisations which stand at the head of the working class of Catalonia could have risen to the level of the masses.

On 7 May the police took over the abandoned barricades, which were to be demolished amid great publicity by girls belonging to the PSUC. The trams began to run again. Two hundred militants were freed from jail. Shots were fired at the car of Federica Montseny, the Anarchist minister. The issue of La Batalla for 8 May once again urged a return to work. At the same time, the local committee of the POUM in Barcelona sharply criticised the executive of its party, which it accused of having ‘capitulated’ in the course of those days, in the face of the counter-revolution, under the pressure of the conciliatory leaders of the CNT.

Little by little we are now uncovering the long list of revolutionary militants with whom the specialised groups in the service of Stalin settled their accounts in the course of these ‘days’ – Berneri and his friend Barbieri, Alfredo Martinez, the leader of the Libertarian Youth, and the German Trotskyist Freund, known as Moulin, who was the link between the small group of Trotskyists and the Friends of Durutti – and ‘disappeared’. This was only the beginning of the repression.

POUM nonsense

There can be no doubt that La Batalla was publishing complete nonsense on 6 May, when it presented the May Days as having turned out positively. These days were the first stage in the unfolding of a counterrevolution, the first victims of which, a few weeks later, were to be the POUM itself and, in particular, its principal leader, the old revolutionary, Andres Nin.

How can this mistaken appreciation be explained if we consider the extraordinary strength which the huge movement of the working class of Barcelona had revealed a few days, indeed a few hours, earlier?

The fresh memory of that movement hovers over the discussion which opened within the POUM in the following days, in preparation for a congress which the Stalinist repression prevented from ever being held.

We have little information about the attitude of the right wing in the POUM, apart from an editorial of 15 May in its Valencia newspaper, El Communista. This condemned the workers in Barcelona and even the leaders of the POUM on the grounds that ‘one cannot swim against the stream with impunity’ and denounced, ‘after the provocateurs’, ‘those who played their game and cleared the ground in front of them’. We also know that the POUM organisation in Sabadell issued a manifesto condemning the action of the workers in Barcelona, and that Luis Portel, a member of its executive, judged the attitude of the leadership during these May Days to have been ‘adventuristic’.

The thesis of the executive was drafted by Nin. He drew a parallel with the ‘July Days’:

In July 1917 the workers in the Russian capital took to the streets arms in hand, rising up against the policies of the democrat, Kerensky. The Bolshevik Party considered this movement to be ill-timed and dangerous. None the less, the Bolsheviks played an active part in it, placed themselves at its head, led it and guided it in such a way as to prevent it from becoming a disaster for the revolutionary proletariat.

Nin started from the provocation by the forces of the police. He declared that the workers had defended the interests of the proletariat in the streets. As to the policy of his party, he wrote:

If it had all depended on us to start things off, we would not have given the order for insurrection. The moment was not favourable for a decisive action, But the revolutionary workers, rightly indignant at the provocation of which they were the victims, flung themselves into battle, and we could not leave them to their fate. To act otherwise would have been an unpardonable betrayal.

Nin declared that the activity of the POUM aimed at ‘canalising a movement which, because it was spontaneous, had many chaotic aspects, and to avoid its transforming itself into a fruitless putsch, which would have fatal consequences for the proletariat. It was necessary to provide limited slogans for the movement.’

A third position, that of J. Rebull and of Cell 72, reproaches the leadership of the POUM for having ‘run after the events’ and having ‘once again waited on the opinion of the opportunist elements in the confederal leadership’. Their counter-theses declared:

The first results of the workers’ insurrections are a defeat for the working class and a new victory for the pseudo-democratic bourgeoisie.

Trotsky’s verdict

Trotsky devoted a number of writings to the Spanish Revolution and several times discussed the May Days. He conceded to the defenders of the policies of the POUM that there was a superficial resemblance between the movement of the masses before the July Days in Petrograd and that of May 1937 in Barcelona. However, he was concerned in particular to emphasise the deep differences between the two – according to him, the essential differences lay in the fact that in 1937 the Spanish masses had a more serious experience of their revolution than those had in Russia in 1917. Trotsky wrote:

In Spain, the May events took place not after four months, but after six years of revolution. The masses of the whole country have had a gigantic experience. A long time ago they lost the illusions of 1931, as well as the warmed-over illusions of the Popular Front. Again and again they have shown to every part of the country that they were ready to go through to the end. If the Catalan proletariat had seized power in May 1937 – as it had really seized it in July 1936 – they would have found support throughout all of Spain. The bourgeois-Stalinist reaction would not even have found two regiments with which to crush the Catalan workers. In the territory occupied by Franco not only the workers but also the peasants would have turned toward the Catalan proletariat, would have isolated the Fascist army and brought about its irresistible disintegration. It is doubtful whether under these conditions any foreign government would have risked throwing its regiments onto the burning soil of Spain. Intervention would have become materially impossible, or at least extremely dangerous.
Naturally, in every insurrection, there is an element of uncertainty and risk. But the subsequent course of events has proved that even in the case of defeat the situation of the Spanish workers would have been incomparably more favourable than now, to say nothing of the fact that the revolutionary party would have assured its future (L Trotsky, A test of ideas and individuals through the Spanish experience, The Spanish Revolution 1931-1939, New York, l973, p278-279)

In Trotsky’s opinion, it was a revolutionary party which was lacking in May 1937. This is the reason for his ferocious criticism, not merely of the Anarchists but also of the policies of the POUM, and what he calls its ‘indecision, its equivocations, its hesitations and its lack of a clear programme’, which prevented it from providing for the masses ‘the revolutionary leadership without which victory was not possible’.

Perhaps a little more light can be shed on Trotsky’s position on the insurrection, which failed in May 1937 for lack of a revolutionary party, and on his divergences with his comrade Blasco, which were never expressed in writing in a direct debate, if we look back to his preface to Volume Three of the Russian edition of his works, which we know under the title The Lessons of October.

There we find that Trotsky directed precisely the same criticisms against what he called the ‘right wing’ of the Bolshevik Party, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who opposed the insurrection which Lenin proposed, as those which he directed against the POUM in 1937 or the German Communist Party at the time of its failed insurrection in 1923:

A party which has been carrying on revolutionary agitation for a long time, tearing the proletariat little by little from the influence of the conciliators, and which, once it is lifted to the height of events by the confidence of the proletariat, begins to hesitate, to look for midday at two o’clock, to turn its back and to tack about, paralyses the activity of the masses, provokes disappointment and disorganisation among them and leads the revolution to defeat ...

He analysed the position of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’, who advanced against Lenin in April 1917 the old formula of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which they counterposed to that of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the struggle for Soviet power:

Their method ... consisted in exerting on the leading bourgeoisie a pressure which did not go outside the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime. If this policy had been victorious, the development of the revolution would have proceeded outside our part y, and we would have, in the end, had an insurrection of the masses of workers and peasants which was not led by the party, in other words, July Days on a vast scale, that is, a catastrophe.

It seems to us that this formula permits conclusions to be drawn about the May Days by settling at least the ambiguities which may have survived in the historic debate about the analogies with the Russian Revolution. About these ambiguities, Trotsky himself took pleasure in emphasising that he himself had not introduced them, though he was often blamed for doing so, and he made clear that, for his part, he had been very deeply convinced that ‘Spain was not Russia’, a conclusion which did not in the slightest justify the policy which led to catastrophe.

Pierre Broué


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