Jump to Navigation

The ‘May Days’ in Barcelona 1937

May marks the anniversary of one of the most infamous events in the history of anarcho-syndicalism and the wider working class movement

The ‘May Days’ in Barcelona 1937 was the turning point of the Spanish Civil War and Spanish Revolution, when counter-revolutionary forces moved against the anarchists, imposing greater control over the Spanish working class and reintroducing capitalist modes of production.

Mainstream historians often remember the Spanish Civil War as a fight between a democratically elected government of Socialists and Liberals and the combined forces of fascist army generals and Catholic clergy. What is often forgotten, however, is the social revolution that shook capitalism and the Spanish state to its very foundation. The Spanish Revolution marked a high point, not only in the workers’ movement with the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo – National Confedera-tion of Labour) playing a major role in organising workers and leading armed opposition to the fascist military uprising.

Spain had been in a state of social and political flux for much of the 20th century, laying the basis for civil war. Being neutral during World War 1 Spain traded with both sides leading to the industrialisation of some regions like Catalonia. This economic boom saw the growth of the two main labour organisations, the UGT (historically linked with the Spanish Socialist Party) and the CNT.

general strikes

From 1917 there was a wave of revolutionary unrest, with a nationwide general strike in 1917 seeing unified action between the two big labour unions, with the UGT much more willing to deal with the government and to return to work. A CNT-led general strike also broke out in 1919 in Barcelona, with 100,000 workers walking off the job forcing the Spanish government to pass the world’s first eight hour day law. By 1919 CNT membership had swelled to about 755,000, roughly 10% of the active adult population, putting it far ahead of its Socialist rival.

This revolutionary activity gave way in 1923 to the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. ‘Free Unions’, originally set up by right-wing Catholics, were introduced and the UGT and CNT were suppressed. The UGT came to terms with the dictatorship and continued to operate, being promoted as a ‘responsible’ alternative to the CNT which refused to capitulate and thus faced repression from death squads recruited by the authorities and funded by the Church.

The dictatorship fell in 1931 and Spain returned to a republican system with the election of a Socialist/ Liberal alliance. The alliance didn’t last long, however, with attacks coming from insurrectionists on the left and military unrest on the right. Right wing parties won the 1933 elections and Spain entered another period of repression. At this time the Socialist Party began to move to the left with talk of the need for ‘proletarian revolution’ and ‘a workers’ government’. Meanwhile, at their Zaragoza congress, the CNT also looked ahead to the kind of world they wanted to create, a system they called ‘libertarian communism’.

the looming conflict

In February 1936 the Socialists were once again in power with the election of a Popular Front government of Socialists, Liberals and other left wing and regional nationalist parties. The Communist Party at this time was a small fringe group with little significance either in state politics or among the working class. The CNT, who had previously discouraged members from voting in elections, took only a nominal position on abstaining in return for the release of political prisoners and to prepare for the looming conflict.

On July 17th 1936 fascist military generals launched their coup. While a swift takeover was intended the nationalist forces met much resistance. The workers in Barcelona were well prepared and well armed after raids on army barracks, forcing the fascists to surrender after two days of fighting. Popular resistance spread quickly to Spain’s other major cities and anti-fascist militias were organised by each major political party and union. CNT militias fought alongside ones formed by the likes of the POUM (a small Marxist party to the left of the Socialist Party), the Communists and the UGT. The CNT militias were organised on a non-hierarchical basis. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, who fought in a POUM militia, described the set up:
The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality...In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy...They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society.

Away from the front classless models of society were also constructed. The CNT, as the largest union, now held de facto power in Catalonia and other areas. The hated Civil Guard was replaced by Workers’ Patrols; industries came under workers control; hotels like the Ritz, once playgrounds of the rich and famous, were now open to all with affordable meals (free for families of militia fighters); big estates were collectivised by rural workers; churches were gutted and their contents burnt in the streets as a show of defiance against the powerful clergy.

Whilst the working class were taking over the means of production and the militias were marching to Aragon to liberate it from the fascists, the apparatus of the state, however, was not challenged. There was set up instead a Central Anti-Fascist Militias Committee (CAMC), which had representatives not only from the CNT but also from the POUM and bourgeois Catalan political parties. Within a few months the CAMC was dissolved, the ‘Generalitat’ (the Catalan government) was reconstituted and the CNT entered the Generalitat on September 28th, 1936, taking over the Department of Food Supplies. Thus concessions by the CNT leadership towards the state had started already. Whilst workers were instituting libertarian communism the CNT’s leading lights were rubbing shoulders with Catalan nationalists and the Communist Party.

communist influence

Political manoeuvrings within the government also became apparent and the dictatorial aims of the Communists soon manifested themselves in the new order. The Communists had always been an unimportant minority in Catalonia and the rest of Spain but, by a series of clever manoeuvres, including uniting with the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), their influence increased. To the Communists the POUM, due to its Trotskyite tendency, signified a rival party that had to be eliminated. The Soviet Union strongly supported these manoeuvres. Arms and shipments of food arrived from the USSR and the Communist propaganda machine started using this support for their political purposes.

Conflicts between the CNT and UGT arose. The Workers’ Patrols who had smashed the fascists in July acted were dominated by anarchists and syndicalists. The Communists of the UGT now demanded equal representation, something they were in no way entitled to due to their insignificant number. The UGT members left the patrols and devoted their attention to winning over the police to their side. Friction arose between the police and the Workers’ Patrols which, in some places resulted in fighting with a number of dead and wounded.

The following is an example of preparations being made for a conflict against the anarchists:

On Friday March 5th 1937, a few individuals presented an order, signed by Vallejo, director of the arms factories, to the arsenal in Barcelona, to hand over to them ten armoured cars. The director of the arsenal found the document in order and delivered the cars. At the last moment doubts arose as to the authenticity of the order, and the director telephoned to Vallejo for verification. The document proved to be forged, but in the meantime the armour-ed cars had been driven away. They were followed and observed to go into the Voroschilov Barracks, belonging to the PSUC, that is, the communists.

The purpose of stealing these armoured cars would become tragically clear in May.

the may days begin

May Day 1937, the traditional day of the workers’ movement, was not celebrated in the most revolutionary city in the world. The Generalitat announced that May 1st was to be a day of work for the sake of war production. However, it was the ongoing conflicts between labour organisations that lay behind their decision. On Monday May 3rd the Communists made their decisive move. Truck-loads of assault guards drew up to the telephone exchange which, since July 19th the exchange had been controlled by the CNT, causing clashes with the Generalitat since the CNT controlled telephone links, border controls and the control patrols. The assault guards stormed the exchange taking the CNT militants on the lower floors by surprise and disarming them. On the upper floors, however, they met dogged resistance thanks to a strategically placed machine gun.

News of the attack spread like wildfire, workers threw up barricades all over the city and angry militants demanding weapons besieged union offices. The defence committees of the CNT, which had existed since the dark days of dictatorship, mobilised themselves. The POUM, also under fire from Communist attacks, took up arms at their own barricades. Orwell wrote that ‘the POUM leaders were furious at being dragged into this affair, but felt that they had got to stand by the CNT’. In other areas of Catalonia civil Guards were disarmed and PSUC offices were seized as a ‘preventive measure’. There was no firing on the first night and by the second day the workers were spreading the barricades further into the suburbs.

increasing tension

In the face of increasing tension the CNT Regional Committee sent representatives to the government to negotiate an end to the conflict. Premier, Tarradellas, and Minister of the Interior, Aiguade, were asked to remove the police in order to pacify the population. Tarradellas and Aiguade assured denied knowledge of the incident at the telephone exchange. But it was proved later that Aiguade had himself ordered the occupation. The Regional Committee asked workers to remain calm and everything would be done to compel the police to leave. But workers remained on guard, mistrustful of the apparent peace. In the solidly anarchist working class suburbs of Barcelona the police were disarmed by workers without resistance.

In the early hours of May 4th the shooting started. The police occupied the Palace of Justice and seized a number of CNT headquarters. In the face of such provocation the CNT officially called for calm in an address to the people of Barcelona:

Workers of the CNT! Workers of the UGT! Don’t be deceived by these manoeuvres. Above all else, Unity! Put down your arms. Only one slogan: We must work to beat fascism! Down with fascism!

Despite the CNT’s ‘responsibility’, PSUC agents provocateurs didn’t stop their attacks. Late in the afternoon, an exceptionally cruel and bloody incident occurred, not far from Casa CNT, headquarters of the Regional Committee. Two cars were approaching the Casa but were ordered to stop and surrender weapons at a barricade of Catalan city guards and PSUC members. As the occupants were getting out of the car they were shot down in the street.

provocation continues

As the days wore on provocation by the counter-revolutionary PSUC continued despite calls for calm from the anarchist leaders. Juan García Oliver and Federica Montseny, both well-known anarchists, and controversially ministers in the national government, called for the workers to leave the barricades and lay down their arms to preserve anti-fascist unity. A member of the POUM described what happened at a barricade in reaction to Montseny’s radio speech:

The CNT militants were so furious they pulled out their pistols and shot the radio. It sounds incredible but it happened in front of my eyes. They were absolutely furious, and yet they obeyed. They might be anarchists, but when it came to their own organisation they had tremendous discipline.

On May 6th workers began to dismantle the barricades. The PSUC immediately took advantage and seized the telephone exchange. The government, now in Valencia after fleeing fascist bombardment in Madrid, sent assault guards to maintain order in Barcelona. The revolution was now well and truly lost.
Political killings continued after the May events. For instance, on May 5th, Communists murdered the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri, a philosophy professor and exile from Italian fascism. On May 11th, the mutilated bodies of twelve young anarchists were dumped at a cemetery. Andreu Nin, the POUM leader, was arrested, tortured and finally assassinated by Communist agents and his party was outlawed.

Political manoeuvrings also continued. Caballero, the Socialist leader, was ousted and replaced with Juan Negrín who was more sympathetic to the Communists. The CNT were also banished from both the national and Catalan governments. The Communists were victorious and the counter-revolution had set in. Spain was soon riddled with Soviet secret agents. Appeals were made to Stalin for weapons that often never came. The war was now to be presented as merely a conflict between democracy and fascism in a vain hope for international support. The revolutionary militias were absorbed into a regular army and their democratic, non-hierarchical practices lost. Land was returned to the landlords and factories handed back to the bourgeoisie. The CNT were now officially enemies of the state. Even at the Battle of the Ebro, the last major Republican offensive, Com-munist death squads wandered over the battlefields executing wounded anarcho-syndicalists.

No appeal was made on a class basis to workers in other countries because the Popular Front strategy did not portray the fight as essentially a struggle for working class power. As Orwell wrote:

Once the war had been narrowed down to a ‘war for democracy’ it became impossible to make any large-scale appeal for working class aid abroad…The way in which the working class in the democratic countries could really have helped Spanish comrades was by industrial action - strikes and boycotts. No such thing ever began to happen.

Whilst victory for the revolution was never a certainty, its doom was made certain in May 1937. The inability of the workers to take the offensive against counter-revolutionary forces damned their efforts entirely. They were not helped by their so-called leaders, anarcho-politicians like Montseny and García Oliver, who made concession after concession and continually called for calm whilst revolutionary workers were butchered in the street.

However, May 1937 offers important lessons to anarcho-syndicalists and all revolutionaries. The actions of the Communists show them for what they truly are, another ruling class in waiting. The actions of the anarchist ministers also serve as proof that the politics of the state are a dead end for the working class. The state is corrupt in itself and cannot be used to bring revolution just as a thorn bush cannot produce figs. Only the actions of the workers themselves can bring about revolution and a truly libertarian communist society.

Similar articles

This article was published in Catalyst #24 (Summer 2010). You may also be interested in the following:
Mercadona workers strike in Barcelona from Catalyst #14 (Spring 2006) (3)
The Workers’ Friend - Rudolf Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint Jewish anarchist group in the East End of London from Direct Action #43 (Summer 2008) (3)
CNT vs. Ryanair from Direct action #47 (Summer 2009) (3)
Review - A Grand Cause: The hunger strike & the deportation of anarchists from Soviet Russia (by G. P. Maksimov) from Direct action #47 (Summer 2009) (3)
Spain: CNT Takes on Robber Boss from Direct Action #46 (Spring 2009) (3)
The International Workers Association from Direct Action #42 (Spring 2008) (3)
Review: A Century of Writing on the IWW from Direct Action #45 (Winter 2009) (2)
Review: Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism from Direct Action #45 (Winter 2009) (2)
Review: Chris Wood from Direct Action #45 (Winter 2009) (2)
Oil Be Damned: why global capital, state power and oil dependence is a recipe for disaster from Direct Action #45 (Winter 2009) (2)


Main menu 2

Solidarity Federation