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Preface to Barricades in Barcelona

by Ernest Rogers


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


To my knowledge Barricades in Barcelona is one of the only three eyewitnesses’ accounts in English of the May Days in Barcelona 1937. The other two are Augustin Souchy’s The Tragic Week in May, published by the CNT and FAI, and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

I propose to consider and crosscheck some of the evidence in these reports along with the chapter on the May Day events in Hugh Thomas’s Civil War in Spain, both the first edition, 1961, and the latest, 1977.

First the authors. Hugo Oehler was a member of the United States Trotskyists in the thirties and a leader along with Tom Stamm of the split which took place in that organisation, 1935, against the French Turn, or the entry tactic in the parties of the Second International. They were for the independence of the revolutionary organisation. He along with approximately one third of the Workers Party broke away to form the Revolutionary Workers League. It was as representative of this organisation that Oehler and his comrade Russell Blackwell, whose pen-name was Rosalio Negrete, went to Spain. Blackwell is important in this connection as he was a Spanish speaker and handled for several months before going to Spain the correspondence with and the publication of the documents of the left wing of the POUM.

Blackwell’s mode of getting there is of some interest. Refused a passport valid for travel in Spain by the US State Department, because of his record as a revolutionary – Blackwell had been national secretary of the Young Communist League in Mexico and was deported from Honduras in 1925 and Mexico in 1927 for his activities – he stowed away on a French ship bound for France, and when it was discovered he spoke only Spanish, he was deported to Spain on arriving in France.

Both he and Oehler played an active part in the May events. Blackwell was wounded slightly.

After the collapse of the uprising Blackwell went into hiding. Oehler, on attempting to leave Spain, was arrested, held incommunicado for a month and charged with ‘spying’. After protests he was released and allowed to return to the United States.

Ten months after going into hiding Blackwell was arrested. Following protests he was released and put on board a British vessel bound for Marseilles. Before it sailed he was taken off by the Stalinist secret police, kept for over two months in a dungeon and tortured. After more protests from the movement, he was tried for High Treason, found not guilty and returned to the United States.

Augustin Souchy was spokesman for the Anarchist organisations the CNT and FAI. His pamphlet, which was published by them, is important for its revelation of the attitude of the CNT/FAI leadership to the Popular Front government, all of which the author unabashedly supports.

George Orwell was a political innocent but an honest man. There were not many about at that time. His account is an invaluable and accurate report of the mood and events in Barcelona.

Hugh Thomas, now Baron Swynnerton, is a professor of history, a graduate of several universities, a recipient of the Order of Isabel la Catolic, Spain, 1986.

The printed numbers of the particular works of these authors listed would be:

For H. Oehler’s Barricades in Barcelona; several hundred.
For A. Souchy’s The Tragic Week in May; several thousand.
For G. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; his publisher records that 1,250 were printed in 1938. It was universally panned by the critics. The last copies of the 1,250 were not sold until after his death twelve years later.

H. Thomas. I am not acquainted with the number of Civil War in Spain sold, but its sales have been, right from its rapturous reception by the establishment, substantial and worldwide, running to many editions and translations.

In Hugh Thomas’s Civil War, in the first edition published in 1961, he devotes no more than five pages out of 720 to the events in Barcelona, and in the last edition 16 out of 1115. He makes an attempt to dispose of Orwell’s account in a sneering footnote, in which Homage to Catalonia is described as being more accurate about war itself than about the Spanish Civil War.

In his first edition Thomas gives a wrong impression of the role of the Anarchists, saying ‘CNT/FAI leaders did nothing to prevent the worsening of the situation’, meaning they did not try to quieten the workers. In 1937 Oehler, Orwell and Souchy knew and reported differently. By 1977 our professional historian removed that sentence and even managed, on several points, to catch up with Orwell mentioning the Bolshevik/Leninists and other left-wing groups. But he does not attain the maturity or grace to remove his undergraduate sneer at Orwell as a historian.

In both his first and latest editions Thomas quotes the boasts of the Franco fascists that they were behind the May Day events. These boasts were used by the Stalinists and their supporters throughout the world to attack and defame the revolutionary workers of Barcelona. Thomas, although he finds it necessary to report these allegations, does not mention until the latest edition, and then in a one sentence footnote, the detailed evidence, in an official report from the CNT/FAI of right wing connections of Communist officials leading back to Franco Spain. This report appears as an addendum to Souchy’s pamphlet, and is reproduced below.

Vernon Richards in his Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, a work which although written from an Anarchist standpoint is entirely critical of the Anarchist leadership, reveals that two paragraphs of the manifesto which implicated Aiguade, Minister of Internal Security, and Comorera, leader of the Communist Party of Catalonia, were deleted by the government censor when the manifesto was first published in Solidaridad Obrera, 13 June 1937. In the French edition of the pamphlet this manifesto is entirely omitted.

For Hugh Thomas the events in Barcelona are only riots leading to a change in the personnel of the bourgeois cabinet. Here are his trivial, snobbish last words in his brief chapter on the events, (he is referring to the change of premiership from Caballero to Negrin). ‘Largo’s dignified departure from the prime ministership marked the end of a whole era in Spanish politics, in terms of efficiency the change from the plasterer to the professor of physiology could only be for the best.’

Hugo Oehler’s report is in complete contrast to the glib tone of Hugh Thomas. It is that of a revolutionary worker shouting at the top of his voice of danger and opportunity for his class. His quotation from President Companys shows clearly the precarious position of the Catalonian government at the time of the uprising.

There is a revealing cross reference to be made between Barricades in Barcelona and Homage to Catalonia. Oehler says ‘next door to the POUM headquarters, was a house containing 50 Assault Guards, surrounded by workers on all sides. Not one shot was fired against the place.’ Orwell’s account (he was one of the guard at the POUM HQ) doesn’t tally with Oehler’s report. Orwell records 20 to 30 Guards, one shock trooper badly wounded, and one Civil Guard killed, but Orwell’s account does fully confirm Oehler’s estimate of the role of the POUM leaders. Kopp, who was in charge of the defence of the POUM HQ, arranged a truce with the Civil Guards in the house Oehler mentions (it was a Cafe Moka with a hotel above), Kopp explained the situation to Orwell.

‘We had to defend the POUM building if attacked, but the POUM leaders had sent instructions that we were to stand on the defensive and not open fire, if we could possibly avoid it ...’ Kopp repeated that our orders were not to fire unless we were ourselves and our building attacked. I gather, although he did not say so, that the POUM were furious at being dragged into this affair but felt that they had to stand by the CNT/FAI.

After the collapse of the uprising Kopp was imprisoned, along with other POUM workers. Orwell, wounded in the throat and equally in danger of being arrested, very courageously attempted to get him released. Kopp eventually escaped. Hugo Oehler comments in a friendly fashion on the leaflet written by Munis and distributed by the Bolshevik/Leninists, but does not mention that the small group of official Trotskyists, who had carried out the line of their International and joined the Spanish Socialist Party, had disappeared without trace.

Oehler does not give the date of the Munis leaflet. Orwell does, it was 4 May, and after quoting a sentence from it ‘Everyone to the barricades, general strike of all industries, except war industries’, makes an acute and apt comment, ‘(In other words, it merely demanded what was happening already)’. History, it has been said, is composed of lies told about events which did not happen by persons who were not there. The witnesses I have quoted, excluding Hugh Thomas, are unique in not being in that category, and as such are to be recommended to the reader.

Ernest Rogers
March 1988

Hugo Oehler: Barricades in Barcelona

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