2. Mapping the working-class city

This chapter explores the emergence of working-class space in the city. This rival, ‘other’ city, which was violently opposed by the elites as a mortal danger to bourgeois Barcelona, was nevertheless a direct creation of the capitalist city that established new conditions of sociability for hundreds of thousands of workers in the proletarian barris. For the city’s workers, the barris were a total social environment: they were spaces of contestation and hope,1 the starting point for resistance against the bourgeois city, a subversive struggle that earned Barcelona notoriety as the revolutionary capital of Spain and as a ‘red’ city of international repute. Before exploring the layers of culture, practice and organisation that allowed for the reproduction of proletarian Barcelona during the years before the Republic, it is first necessary to map out the various coordinates of the increasingly uniform socio-urban context in the barris, since it was these that produced the series of cultural frames through which workers made sense of the urban world and which, in turn, exerted a profound influence on the collective and political identity of the city’s labour movement.2

As we saw in Chapter 1, from the last part of the nineteenth century urban industrial expansion resulted in a process of bifurcation, as class divisions became embedded in the cityscape. By the start of the twentieth century, a number of clearly defined proletarian neighbourhoods had emerged, such as Poblenou, the ‘Catalan Manchester’, the Raval, Poble Sec, Sants and Barceloneta.3 There were differences within the city of the proletariat. The Raval, a waterfront district with many recruiting places for casual labour, was home to a picaresque proletariat of sailors, dockers and itinerant workers, and it exuded a pronounced bohemian and marginal ambience, far different to the annexed industrial villages of Sants and Gràcia. Similarly, there were contrasts between the rapidly developed periphery of the city, which was very much a product of the postwar industrial development, and the older barris, which retained a higher degree of social diversity, the most extreme case being the old village of Gràcia, a neighbourhood in which better-paid or skilled workers resided in close proximity to members of the middle and even upper classes. Yet by the late 1920s Gràcia was a rare exception among the city’s barris, as the growing trend was for workers to live alongside other workers in or close to centres of industry in socially homogeneous and segregated districts, and there were few contacts between workers and employers outside the workplace.4

The 1920s saw the expansion of a second ring of proletarian districts, principally l’Hospitalet to the south and Santa Coloma, Sant Andreu and Sant Adrià del Besòs in the north. In these peripheral areas, new neighbourhoods appeared almost overnight. For instance, the contiguous La Torrassa and Collblanc districts, the most northerly neighbourhoods of l’Hospitalet, experienced a population increase of 456 percent in the 1920s caused by the arrival of around 20,000 economic migrants from southern Spain.5

In all the newly developed barris, the urbanisation process was totally uncoordinated, and collective urban services failed to keep pace with the expanded population. In essence, the new barris lacked centrality: the city, understood in terms of an urban infrastructure of cultural, educational, medical facilities and public housing, simply did not exist. Many streets were without pavements and lighting; drainage, water and electricity were luxuries.6 Housing was no better: some crudely constructed dwellings lacked basic foundations and collapsed during inclement weather. Although the local authorities recognised the ‘health risks’ in these rapidly developed areas, the Catalan-speaking urban elite that dominated municipal politics was far removed from the realities facing the migrant labourers crammed into the barris and lacked the political will to improve their lot.7

Even though the proletarian city was not a monolith, it would be wrong to draw too sharp a distinction between urban conditions in the rapidly developed outer ring of barris and the older working-class districts. Given the underdevelopment of the local state, the symptoms of the urban crisis were registered throughout the working-class city and, whether in the tenement slums of the Raval and Barceloneta, in the sprawling peripheral areas like the cases barates, in the jerry-built housing of Santa Coloma or in the barracas scattered across the city, workers experienced a low social wage and the under-provision of collective services, such as hospitals and schools.8 In fact, despite the growth in whitecollar employment after World War One, it is possible to point to a growing convergence in working-class lifestyles and a relatively homogenised proletarian experience. Indeed, the expression of the barris in the 1920s heralded the consolidation of an overarching structure of material coercion that touched upon the everyday lives of most of Barcelona’s 330,000 workers.

As far as its socio-professional status was concerned, by the end of the 1920s the working class was predominantly un- or semi-skilled, with few bargaining resources. Like many other large port cities, Barcelona had long offered numerous opportunities for casual labourers on the docks. In addition, the two biggest and oldest industries in the city—textiles and construction—relied heavily on unskilled and casual hands.9 Over time, these characteristics were reproduced among the workforce in newer sectors of the local economy, such as the metal and transport industries, which employed large numbers of ‘sweated’ semi- and unskilled workers. The trend towards deskilling received a new impetus with the advent of the so-called ‘second industrial revolution’ during and after World War One, which created a ‘new’ or mass working class from the legions of unskilled economic migrants from the south of Spain and the ‘proletarianisation’ of skilled workers, who were unable to resist technological advances, particularly due to the favourable political conditions offered by Primo’s dictatorship. By the end of the 1920s, therefore, many of the occupational factors that previously separated the skilled worker or the artisan from the unskilled had been eroded.10

A further element within the common context of working-class life was the danger of industrial accidents. The limited profit margins of the city’s industry discussed in Chapter 1 instilled a cavalier attitude among employers towards workplace safety, and Barcelona province topped the Spanish league table for industrial accidents every year between 1900 and 1936.11 Even among traditionally ‘aristocratic’ sectors of the workforce, like the printers, or in the city’s most advanced workshops, such as the Girona metal works, working conditions and safety records were abysmal. However, it was the largely unregulated construction sector, the main source of employment for unskilled migrants, which claimed the highest number of accidents.12 So great were the dangers of industrial injury that La Vanguardia, a conservative newspaper with no reputation for concern for workers’ welfare, sometimes denounced factory conditions.13 Despite the danger of injury, workers were utterly unprotected, without social welfare, accident insurance or sickness benefits. Labour therefore offered very few certainties, other than those of hard work and paltry wages in dangerous and degrading circumstances.

The generalised working-class experience of inequality and discrimination can similarly be charted in the consumption sphere, where workers saw their wages devoured by rampant inflation. As we saw in Chapter 1, during the years between the two World Exhibitions, landlords systematically exploited housing shortages to increase rents and, with home ownership the preserve of a minority of skilled and white-collar workers, nearly 97 percent of all workers were at the mercy of the private rented sector.14 The burden of rent payments was even greater for migrant workers, since they normally spent most of their savings on the journey to Barcelona and could seldom afford a deposit for a flat. Meanwhile, the unskilled, the low-paid and those in irregular employment (which is to say most migrant workers) had difficulties making regular rent payments, and evictions were ‘very frequent’.15 The cost of food presented a further set of strains for most of the city’s workers. Although food prices had soared across Spain after the 1898 crisis, inflation was greatest in Barcelona, and the cost of meat in the city was higher than in most north European cities, where workers enjoyed higher wages. This situation was compounded by the ‘subsistence crisis’ (crisis de subsistencias) during World War One, which saw the cost of living increase by 50 percent in the barris between 1914 and 1919.16 With growing public concern across Spain at the rising cost of living, even the elitist Restoration politicians finally conceded that the economic distress that had long shaped everyday life for the working class required legislative action. Typically, however, the anti-inflationary measures implemented by the authorities were contradictory: there was no action against the deviant culture that prevailed among those sections of the commercial class that cheated consumers by doctoring weights and adulterating foodstuffs, and prices soared throughout the 1920s as shopkeepers and traders profited from the crisis de subsistencias.17

In the light of this everyday structure of material coercion, even those workers in regular employment encountered financial difficulties. By the end of the 1920s, a childless working couple could barely generate a significant surplus.18 With female wages far inferior to those of men, a short period of unemployment would have plunged the couple into what moralists described as the ‘sunken classes’. It is not surprising, therefore, that most workers bore few of the outward signs of ‘respectability’ associated with the skilled working class, with many workers relying on the many pawn and secondhand clothing shops that thrived in the Raval. Moreover, the working-class family economy was so precarious that it depended on contributions from all family members. Consequently, since employers were free to ignore the social legislation that outlawed child labour, generation after generation of working-class children were robbed of their innocence by economic compulsion, and throughout the 1910s and 1920s it was the norm for young boys to start work between the ages of 8 and 10, whereupon they were used as a cheap source of ‘sweated’ unskilled labour and subjected to brutal forms of discipline by foremen and employers.19

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Figure 2.1 A fairly typical workingclass family, probably of migrant origin
Source: L’Avenç Archive

2.1 Proletarian urbanism

For all the poverty that prevailed in the barris, and notwithstanding elite denunciations of disorderliness, the proletarian city did have an order: it was a rough, aggressive and increasingly assertive order, a complex social organisation moulded by dense social networks and reciprocal forms of solidarity, what Raymond Williams termed the ‘mutuality of the oppressed’.20 This collective reciprocity was the fundamental structure in the barris: it offered workers a degree of stability and security and fostered integrative relationships, offsetting the material disadvantages of everyday life.21 Conversely, because mutual aid could be withdrawn from those judged to be in defiance of communal norms, reciprocity could also operate as a means of coercion.22

The working-class family structure played a central role in the development of these reciprocal practices, forming the hub of a series of overlapping social structures and community networks through which workers responded to the material problems of everyday life ‘from below’.23 In a certain sense, the ‘family economy’ was embedded in a form of collective reciprocity rooted on kinship. Yet reciprocity also flowed through and across families; an example of this was the manner in which families were bound together through the practice of selecting ‘godparents’ (compadres) for newly born children from among neighbours and friends. Although, as one worker pointed out, this was an informal relationship (‘there was no involvement of the Church or the local authorities’), this arrangement provided ‘an everlasting family tie’ with people from a similar social background who, most importantly of all, were always willing and ready to offer material help in times of need.24 If a family encountered privations, neighbours routinely offered assistance, whether providing meals or taking in the children of the family concerned.25 In addition, neighbours organised community-based childcare systems so as to allow local residents to maximise their earning potential.26 This communal reciprocity compensated for the deficient social wage. As one worker explained:

In those days there was no unemployment benefit, no sickness benefit or anything like that. Whenever someone was taken sick, the first thing a neighbour with a little spare cash did was to leave it on the table…. There were no papers to be signed, no shaking of hands. ‘Let me have it back once you’re back at work’. And it was repaid, peseta by peseta, when he was working again. It was a matter of principle, a moral obligation.27

The scale and flow of neighbourhood reciprocity is best understood in terms of the exceptional degree of sociability in the barris. Unlike many other large European cities, where factories were increasingly located in industrial zones that were distant from residential spaces, Barcelona’s spatial-industrial development was such that, right up to the 1930s, the factory remained the key organising force in many barris in which life occurred within an intimate social geography. Not only did workers tend to live near to factories, the majority of the city’s workers travelled to and from work on foot.28

Sociability was further conditioned by the symptoms of the urban crisis, such as the city’s overcrowded and appalling housing stock, which served as a brake on the privatisation of everyday life and prevented the erection of barriers between the private and public sphere.29 Throughout the barris, diverse loci for working-class sociability were established in collective spaces in which people entered into a high degree of face-to-face contact. The most important of these were the streets, which were largely free of cars and were generally viewed as an extension of the proletarian home, all the more during the summer months, when large parts of neighbourhood life were conducted there. The other most significant spaces of working-class socialisation were neighbourhood cafes and bars, which acquired the status of the living rooms of the poor. There were then numerous opportunities for individual workers to discuss their experiences—both individual and collective with other workers, whether on the way to work or during leisure time.

Reciprocity, and indeed sociability, also depended upon ‘serial’ or ‘chain’ migration, a pattern of settlement that shaped the growth of working-class Barcelona during the years between the two Exhibitions and that saw migrants from the same town or province cluster in specific neighbourhoods, streets and even tenement blocks.30 These networks, based on kinship and pre-existing loyalties from the migrant’s place of origin, were of inestimable assistance to newcomers in their search for work and accommodation, enabling them to become grounded in the city very quickly.31

Despite the undoubted importance of these pre-existing social networks for migrants, they did not present a barrier to the emergence of working-class identity and consciousness.32 Indeed, the proletarian city was essentially democratic: none of the barris in which the migrants resided were ghettoised, and there were numerous opportunities for newly arrived workers to interact with migrants from other regions and with Catalan workers, whether in the streets and tenements of the barris or in the workplace. Furthermore, while many migrants may often have ended up in the worst jobs in the city, the relatively uniform socio-material context and the limited opportunity structure that conditioned working-class life ensured that the experiences and the lot of migrant workers were not that different from those of the rest of the working class. This relatively high degree of ‘class connectedness’ fostered a nascent consciousness of class that overlaid all other identities.33

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Figure 2.2 United in the workplace: workers at the ‘El Aguilar’ beer factory pose for the camera
Source: Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular

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Figure 2.3 Class hierarchies in the street
Source: Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular

Consciousness formation was very complex, molecular and dynamic, whereby individual and collective experiences of the social and spatial orders were accumulated and refined through a process of reflexive engagement. In this way, the practical, sensuous experiences of material realities and the everyday struggle to survive within a determinate space were converted by workers into a series of collective cultural frames of reference.34 The result was a communal reservoir of class-based experiential knowledge, a refraction of everyday urban practices, the product of the sharp learning curve of everyday oppression and exploitation. This was, then, a situated form of local consciousness: a social knowledge of power relations within a specific locale, a vision of the world embedded in a specific time and place, constructed on the ground, from below.35 In its most elementary form, this sense of class was more emotional than political: it represented a powerful sense of local identity, an esprit de quartier, stemming from the extensive bonds of affection generated by the supportive rituals, solidarities and direct social relationships of neighbourhood life. It was in essence a defensive culture, a radical celebration of the local group and the integrity of its lived environment predicated on the assumption that everyday life was constructed in favour of ‘them’ to the detriment of ‘us’.36

Even if this localised culture was cognisant of class differences, in practical terms it rarely engendered more than an untheorised dissatisfaction with the ‘system’ and should not therefore be confused with class or revolutionary consciousness.37 Nevertheless, the culture of the barris was central to reproducing and extending a collective sense of identity among workers, a nascent sense of class that was preserved in and propagated through a series of social practices, modes of behaviour and communication and that provided valuable raw material for the labour movement. It was a relatively autonomous form of culture, enabling workers to comprehend the social world in which they lived; it sustained the web of communal attitudes, values, shared ideological formulations and egalitarian norms, which Paul Willis described as ‘alternative maps of social reality’.38

Moreover, this culture of solidarity penetrated elite ideology: it sponsored class responses—workers’ reciprocity being just one example—to collective problems; it was the world view of a propertyless class that had little if any respect for the property of others and that advocated an alternative and distinctly anti-capitalist form of proletarian urbanism: housing was seen in terms of social need, not profit, while the streets were perceived as an extension of the home and were to be used as their occupants desired, whether for leisure, for solidarity or for protest.39

One such spatial practice legitimated by this culture was street trade, a form of proletarian ‘self-help’ and one element in a larger informal economy.40 In the main, street trade was the preserve of newly unemployed workers and the wives of the low-paid, who invested the few savings they could muster in a small amount of merchandise, which they sold on the streets near established shopping areas and markets in what was the humble commerce of the needy designed to make their poverty a little more bearable.41 This, combined with the fact that the street traders had no overheads and could undercut market traders and shopkeepers, meant that in areas such as the Raval, the cases barates and La Torrassa, they were enormously popular with working-class consumers, and their commerce became an integral part of local consumption patterns.42

Other aspects of this proletarian urbanism clashed frontally with the juridico-spatial logic of the state and capitalism. An early example of this was the 1835 ‘La Bonaplata riot’, which saw workers threatened by new technology destroy the plant that endangered their jobs. In the absence of any institutional channels through which workers could express their grievances, these direct action protests had a clear political dimension—they were the pursuit of politics by other means. Thus workers were fully apprised of the important role played by the control of space in social protests, and the streets were used for a broad range of protest functions: they could be occupied in order to express popular demands to the authorities, as in the case of demonstrations; they could be used to identify social transgressors, as occurred during protests at the homes of unpopular shopkeepers or landlords; or, more emphatically, the streets could be used to subvert bourgeois power, as witnessed in acts of public defiance. The ongoing political disenfranchisement of the working class ensured that ‘traditional’ forms of street protest retained considerable attraction for workers right into the twentieth century.

There was a strong material justification for the endurance of this direct action protest culture. In the light of the precarious existence facing much of the urban working class, any deterioration in economic conditions might elicit a violent response. Thus, in 1903, when the local council imposed new taxes on foodstuffs entering the city, impoverished female street vendors rioted, smashing the shop windows of wealthier traders.43 Often, these direct action protests were combined with some kind of self-help strategy. For instance, throughout the nineteenth century, in both rural and urban Spain, there was a popular tradition of forced requisitioning of foodstuffs, a type of mobilisation that gave notice to the authorities of the economic problems facing the lower classes and that provided participants with much needed comestibles. This form of redistribution of wealth from below was revived during the economic crisis after the 1898 ‘Disaster’ and again during the hyperinflation of World War One, when it was common for mass raids, frequently by women, to be launched on shops and vehicles transporting foodstuffs.44

There was also a vast constellation of individual and small group illegality, including pilfering and petty depredations in workplaces, eating without paying in restaurants and the seizure of foodstuffs from country estates.45 While much of this illegality was the preserve of poorly paid or unemployed workers, there is evidence that some of it was perpetrated by gangs of young workers, a number of whom had apparently rejected the work ethic in favour of an alternative lifestyle outside the law; their activities sometimes extended to more modern and organised practices, such as armed robbery.46

This ‘economic’ or ‘social crime’, which has often been defined by criminologists as ‘victimless crime’, was validated by a working-class culture that provided ample justification for law breaking in order to make ends meet. Such attitudes received a new impetus after World War One, when the more respectable working-class culture of the artisan gave way to a rougher proletarian culture. Thereafter, illegal practices were increasingly accepted within the moral code of the fluctuating but invariably large swathe of the local working class that eked out an existence on subsistence wages. In normative terms, low-paid workers presumably had few problems in justifying the appropriation of the property of their employers as a ‘perk’ or as a compensation for poor pay; similarly, the frequent armed robberies directed at tax and rent collectors were unlikely to concern workers. Moreover, since the working class was essentially a propertyless class, these illegal practices rarely impacted upon other workers.47

There are other ways in which this illegality reaffirmed the socio-spatial independence of the working class. Illegality drove a sharp wedge between the working class and commercial sectors, such as shopkeepers, market traders and small farmers, who lived in relatively close proximity to the working class and whose property was the target of this illegality.48 The urban middle classes were bitterly opposed to proletarian street practices.

In particular, shopkeepers and market traders felt threatened by street trade, which they regarded as a mortal threat to their business. Yet it would be difficult to argue that street trade was the root cause of the tensions between the working and middle classes, which can be traced back to rocketing inflation after 1898 and during and after World War One. The readiness of the commercial middle class to profit from inflation—or at least the perception that this took place to the detriment of the urban working class—doubtless left many workers feeling little sympathy for those who were inconvenienced by either street trade or illegality.

Street practices similarly sealed the separation of the working class from the state and its laws and from those entrusted with their enforcement. Such a divergence was largely inevitable, for the preservation of the urban status quo was one of the objective functions of the state, and several of the urban self-help strategies violated the judicial order. Other practices, meanwhile, such as street trade, although not necessarily illegal, were periodically criminalised by the authorities. Moreover, the fact that street trade was repressed only after vociferous campaigns by the commercial middle class made it easy for many workers to conclude that the laws, like the police who defended them, were anything but neutral and that they were motivated by the concerns of the moneyed classes and enforced to the detriment of the interests of the dispossessed. Consequently, the vox populi held that the state, the law and the police were alien to the moral order of the barris, a perception that was left unchallenged by the inactivity of the authorities in the realm of public welfare.49

Popular opposition to the state was most commonly witnessed in terms of resistance to the police, which was popularly viewed as the vanguard of state power on the streets. Anti-police feelings flowed ineluctably from the institutional role of the police as the regulators of social space and their responsibility for structuring everyday life in the capitalist city. One of the most important police functions, for example, was the ‘modification’ and ‘management’ of working-class behaviour in the streets, especially when workers were not subject to the time discipline of the factory. In addition to repressing ‘unlicensed’ street vendors, the police might be called upon to confront women protesting at food prices, groups of unemployed workers discussing the job situation, or teenage street gangs. Police repression affected working-class life irrespective of gender, place of origin and age. Young workers, whose socialisation occurred through play in the streets, routinely came into conflict with the police. As far as many migrant workers were concerned, their previous experiences of the security forces would have been largely limited to the Guardia Civil, a force that was widely viewed by landless labourers as an army of occupation. Their subsequent experiences of policing were unlikely to alter these perceptions: for many migrants, their first encounter with the Barcelona constabulary often came on the outskirts of the city, where agents greeted the buses bringing labourers from the south to ensure that all newcomers to the city paid a council-administered tax.50 Since many migrants could not afford the tax and therefore did not register with the municipal authorities, they had a firm aversion to all contact with the police.51

The external danger represented by the police inspired an extensive anti-police culture and practice in the barris. Fed by the collective memory of police repression and transmitted by a strong oral tradition, this was a highly inclusive culture, uniting young and old, migrant and non-migrant, male and female alike, and affirming a profound sense of community identity. Even working-class street gangs, whose activities sometimes bordered on anti-communitarian behaviour, were regarded as ‘inside’ the community and were unlikely to be betrayed to the authorities.52 Anti-police culture also delineated the limits of community through the identification of ‘outsiders’; there is evidence, for example, that policemen (and their children) residing in the barris were ostracised and excluded from community life.53 Equally, because auxiliary paramilitary groups that emerged through class struggle, such as the Sometent, were heavily involved in the repression of popular illegality, ‘outsider’ status was conferred upon its members, who were seen as part of an array of forces rallied against the working class.54 Finally, fears of community disapproval and/or physical sanctions doubtless dissuaded those who might have cooperated with the police from doing so.

More than anything, however, popular anti-police culture was a culture of action; it championed the rights of ‘we’, the community, to determine the way in which the streets were to be used; it was a struggle for neighbourhood self-reliance, self-governance and freedom from external authority; a defence of a set of popular urban practices revolving around personal face-to-face ties against the bureaucratic agencies of social control and authority (the police and the courts) and impersonal market forces. Drawing on long traditions of direct action mobilisations, it was an aggressive culture that justified the use of all possible means to resist the efforts of the security forces to regulate life in the barris. This resulted in a perpetual battle for the streets between the urban dispossessed and ‘the coppers’ (la bòfid), as the police were pejoratively known.55 This struggle was notably protracted in areas with large groups of street traders and unemployed, where even low-key police activity could result in the formation of large, hostile groups that readily disrupted police activities, preventing arrests, physically assaulting the police and, when possible, divesting them of their arms.56 Anti-police practices relied heavily upon community solidarity: successful anti-police actions were celebrated as a sign of neighbourhood strength and reinforced the sense of local identity. Overall, then, the struggle with the police had a galvanising effect on working-class districts, making them more cohesive, resilient and independent, so that by the end of the 1920s, many barris were akin to small republics: organised from below and without rank or privilege, they constituted a largely autonomous socio-cultural urban order; they were relatively free spaces, virtually impenetrable to the police, in which the authority and power of the state were weak.57

We thus see that, notwithstanding the tendencies towards domination and spatial militarism, in the course of their everyday life the excluded were still able to create cultural, ethical, psychological, social and physical spaces of contestation, spaces that, as we will see, provided the bedrock for a powerful working-class resistance to capitalism and the state. Yet for the widespread hostility felt towards the ‘system’ to be converted into a more enduring and transforming resistance, this existing (local) culture had to be distilled and imbued with more universal concerns, which required the organisation of a proletarian public sphere.

2.2 The anarchist-inspired workers’ public sphere

From the 1860s onwards, it is possible to trace a libertarian communist tradition in Barcelona as anarchists, and later anarcho-syndicalists, were at the forefront of attempts to create new political, social and cultural spaces within civil society. The prestige of anarchism was helped by the fact that its social-democratic rival was weak, especially after 1899, when the UGT (Union General de Trabajadores or General Workers’ Union), the socialist trade union formed in Barcelona in 1888, moved its executive to Madrid.

Thereafter, the city’s workers tended to view social democracy as a distant movement with an ideology that was largely irrelevant to their concerns, and the anarchists were relatively free to consolidate a space for themselves in the workers’ movement, although periodic state repression meant that this was by no means a linear development.58

The main vehicle for anarchist practice was the grupo de afinidad (affinity group), which consisted of between four and twenty members who were bound together by personal affinity and mutual loyalty. Committed to raising consciousness and structuring everyday life according to libertarian principles, the grupistas prized the attributes of individual rebellion and heroism, generating a culture of resistance to the work ethic and the daily rituals of capitalist society. While the more scholarly affinity groups might meet at a theatre or bookshop, others pursued a bohemian existence in cafes and bars, defying economic imperatives as far as possible and mixing with ‘outsider’ milieu and excluded groups, such as gypsies.59 The aim was generally the same: the cultivation of ‘cerebral dynamite’,60 a rebellious spirit reflected in the names of grupos like Los Desheredados (The Disinherited), Los Indomables (The Uncontrollables) and Els Fills de Puta (The Bastards). Although their cell structure and esprit de corps afforded a high degree of protection from police infiltration, by the 1890s traditional anarchism based exclusively on small groups of devotees had reached an impasse owing to a mixture of state terror and the isolation of most grupos, which usually operated in extra-industrial locations and had few if any points of connection with the wider community of workers.

In response to this situation, from the turn of the century some anarchists drew inspiration from French anarcho-syndicalism, an ideology that appealed to class motifs and that prioritised the importance of the proletariat as a force for social transformation.

Anarcho-syndicalism promised a new urban rhythm: in the short term, it advocated a struggle for ‘the three eights’ (los tres ochos): an eight-hour working day, eight hours for sleep and eight free hours for leisure, entertainment and education; however, this was a stage on the journey towards the ultimate objective: the destruction of capitalism and the state and the birth of a classless society. This aggressive trade unionism was recognised by the dispossessed as a suitable expression of their everyday needs and desires.

Inevitably, anarcho-syndicalism entered into conflict with bourgeois ‘class egoism’ and state power, resulting in a cycle of mobilisation and repression. In February 1902, a series of partial economic strikes culminated in Barcelona’s first general strike of the twentieth century, to which the authorities responded with militarism: martial law was declared, and hundreds of labour leaders were jailed, while street fighting between pickets and the army left seventeen dead and forty-four injured. Yet the determination of workers to improve their living conditions guaranteed that union organisation not only survived the employer-state offensive but emerged strengthened. In 1907 Solidaridad Obrera (Worker’s Solidarity) was created, a city-wide union federation that laid the foundation for the CNT, a new national grouping formed in Barcelona in 1910. Through organised in national, regional and local committees operating across a series of distinct spatial scales, the CNT wanted to coordinate change at national level through a range of actions rooted in the social networks of the barris. Indeed, many of its unions shared premises with community groups and were part of the infrastructure of neighbourhood life.61 The CNT was a decentralised, loosely structured body, a model that, its animators hoped, would militate against bureaucratic tendencies and better enable it to stand up to repression. Similar fears of bureaucratic conservatism saw the CNT disavow all strike funds and arbitration, preferring instead to prosecute strikes on the basis of organised reciprocity, whereby unions came to the help of striking unions, and through ‘direct action’ tactics, such as ‘active picketing’, which entailed sabotage and violence against those ‘scabs’ (esquirols) who refused to heed union orders.

The direct action protest culture of the anarcho-syndicalists fitted within the traditions of popular protest in a city in which street fighting with the police and barricade construction were all inscribed in the history of urban protest from the nineteenth century. Part of the CNT’s appeal stemmed from its readiness to erect a militant organisation around these rich and rebellious working-class cultural traditions. In this way, CNT tactics like boycotts, demonstrations and strikes built on neighbourhood sociability: union assemblies mirrored working-class street culture, and the reciprocal solidarity of the barris was concretised and given organisational expression by the support afforded to confederated unions. Equally, the independent spirit of the barris was reflected in revolutionary syndicalism and its rejection of any integration within bourgeois or state political structures. On the other hand, the exclusionary tendencies of the barris, such as the sanctions of ostracism imposed on those who defied communal values, were now extended to ‘scabs’. In this way, the independent traditions of the barris helped to define the modus operandi of the CNT, and although the rise of union organisation brought with it a more ‘modern’ and disciplined culture of protest, the anarcho-syndicalists developed a broad ‘repertoire of collective action’, which accommodated many of the ‘self-help’ strategies that had evolved in the barris.62 Firm believers in the spontaneous selfexpression of the masses, and in strict opposition to the socialists, who maintained a sharp distinction between the revolutionary and the ‘criminal’, the libertarians emphasised the inalienable right of the poor and the needy to secure their existence, ‘the right to life’, by whatever means they saw fit, whether legal or illegal. They also encouraged popular illegality, such as eating without paying in restaurants, an activity that became very popular with the unemployed and strikers.63 At the same time, the CNT sought to refine popular urban protests: whereas the largely spontaneous street mobilisations brought temporary control of the streets, the CNT desired a more permanent control of the public sphere and a revolutionary transformation of space.

Nevertheless, the streets remained an important focus for protest and insurrection. As Solidaridad Obrera explained, ‘the revolution will have the street as its theatre and the people as protagonist’.64 The anarcho-syndicalists were therefore happy to articulate the myriad tensions and energies that developed outside the workplace, establishing new fronts in the struggle against oppression and new spaces of resistance. And this was made more likely by the reluctance of employers to reach an accord with the unions and by the under-development of institutional mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of labour disputes, which meant that strikes frequently spilled out of the factories and onto the streets, where the tactically flexible anarcho-syndicalists combined their ‘modern’ modes of mobilisation with ‘traditional’ protest forms. For instance, the CNT supported consumption protests, demanding cuts in rents and food prices as well as providing armed escorts for groups of working-class women who requisitioned food from shops.65

This commingling of ‘modern’ and more ‘traditional’ protest cultures became a recurring feature of urban struggle and electrified conflicts in the city. An illustration of this came during the 1902 general strike, when an industrial stoppage was followed by collective attacks on bakeries and markets by groups of workers who requisitioned foodstuffs. In addition, full vent was given to popular hostility towards the police, who came under attack from groups of workers trying to liberate pickets. Later, when the security forces moved in to the barris to quell street protests, the community rallied to repel them, bombarding the police and Guardia Civil with missiles, which rained down on them from the balconies of flats.66 This same hostility towards the police was witnessed during the 1909 general strike, which began as a ‘modern’ protest organised by the unions, who then lost control of a mobilisation that culminated in a riot far more ‘traditional’ in flavour than the 1902 general strike. Prior to the rioting, crowds had gathered on the streets chanting ‘death to the police’ before setting off to attack and loot the homes of several policemen. There were also reports of isolated protests at the homes of employers and landlords.67 This collective custom of taking grievances to the homes of individuals perceived to have transgressed communal norms has its origins in pre-modern times and highlights the confluence of distinct protest cultures. Meanwhile, the transformation of the 1909 strike into a full-scale urban insurrection was accompanied by a brief essay in proletarian urbanism: workers reshaped the built environment, barricaded streets and organised the destruction of vast amounts of Church property.

The combination of ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ modes of struggle was particularly evident with regard to unemployed protests, in the course of which organised demonstrations easily ended in violence, rioting and looting. The unemployed also favoured popular traditions of touring workshops en masse in search of work, a practice that carried with it a strong element of intimidation, particularly when large numbers were involved, and that frequently resulted in clashes with the police. This violence is best understood not as a collective descent into barbarism or a function of ignorance but as the outcome of the everyday conflict between desire and the absence of means. In other words, with neither a political voice nor any channels through which popular grievances could be addressed, the unemployed made politics by other means, ‘collective bargaining by riot’ to cite Eric Hobsbawm’s famous expression.68

Besides building upon popular practices, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT also borrowed from the vibrant collective identity of the barris and the rich and diverse cultural frames of reference of the local working class. It did this by affirming the direct experiences of many workers in the peculiar set of historical, social, political and cultural circumstances in Restoration Barcelona: the connivance of politicians with the economic elites; the readiness of local politicians such as Cambó and Pich i Pon to use their influence to enhance their own financial interests; the decades of political stasis; the untrammelled inflation and unchecked exploitation by shopkeepers, landlords and employers; the sacrifices made by workers for the state in terms of military conscription, especially during times of war; the dearth of public services and welfare provision; the experience of the state exclusively in terms of police and army repression; the curfews and martial law that affected the freedom of movement of all workers in the city; the complicity of the authorities with a reactionary Church; the refusal of the authorities to offer meaningful legal protection for workers and the complicity of officialdom in the violence of the Sometent or the Libres, which did not always differentiate between those who were active in the unions and those who were not;69 and the closure of the reformist path and the absence of any real prospect of legal or peaceful change.

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Figure 2.4 Barcelona skyline, July 1909, as Church buildings burn across the city.
Source: Francesc Bonamusa, Pere Gabriel, Josep Lluís Martin Ramos and Josep Termes, História Gràfica del Moviment Obrer a Catalunya, Barcelona, 1989, pp. 172– 73

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Figure 2.5 Members of the community grouped around a barricade in the Raval, July 1909
Source: Francesc Bonamusa, Pere Gabriel, Josep Lluís Martin Ramos and Josep Termes, Història Gràfica del Moviment Obrer a Catalunya, Barcelona, 1989, p. 169

Demonstrating the degree to which everyday social and material experiences shape class and urban struggles,70 the ‘stocks of knowledge’ accrued in the barris favoured the expansion of a specifically anarchist counter-culture: because the experience of the repressive state was undiluted by social welfare initiatives, most workers had little desire for a political campaign to conquer the state—rather, the state was seen as a mortal enemy that had to be crushed. The alienation inspired by years of political corruption provided a context for anarchist anti-politicism, and the widespread view that politics could not resolve the everyday problems facing workers made direct action attractive; the resistance of employers to any loosening of their authority in the workplace lent credibility to claims that working-class needs could not be satisfied by local capitalism and that revolutionary trade unionism was the only salvation for the masses, who had to trust in their own autonomous struggle to destroy the vast repressive coalition that structured everyday life against them; and the experiences of the clergy, especially the ‘despotism of the teachers’71 in Church schools, generated a body of latent anti-clerical sentiment. Anarchism offered workers a degree of moral superiority alongside a bourgeois class that was widely perceived as ‘criminal’. A profound sense of ‘we’ emerged around these cultural frames and shaped collective action, providing a positive awareness of potential allies along with a negative awareness of enemies. In sum, capitalist oppression, state repression, clerical tyranny and the immiserisation of the proletariat were more than simply abstractions propounded by ideologues. They were experienced on a daily basis by workers, and this lived experience confirmed the central tenets of libertarian ideology: that the law and the police were not neutral entities but the tools of the state and propertied classes to structure everyday life in favour of capital; that the state was the main barrier to change, which, if it was to come, could not come gradually or legally through reform but instead demanded violent action by the dispossessed.

While the world vision advanced by the CNT was rooted in the experience of a social group in a specific time and space, for the Confederation to achieve its revolutionary goals the essentially local identity of the barris had to be refined into a more mature and radical working-class culture. To a certain extent, this occurred in the course of CNT struggles for common interests and goals. More formally, anarcho-syndicalist ideology provided a language of class that brought new meaning to lived experiences and social practices in the barris, making it possible for existing cultural frames to be overlaid with universal symbols. In this way, as we will see, the CNT was able to anchor its mobilisations on community strengths and grievances while appealing more generally to the working class as a whole on the basis of class allegiance.

It was no surprise that the CNT quickly became embroiled in a violent struggle with the state and employers. Shortly after its birth, the Confederation was driven underground, only to surface during World War One on a wave of militancy, buoyed up by the political crisis of the Restoration state and by wartime industrial growth, which laid the basis for a more united working-class practice. During 1918–19, the CNT became the lodestar of the dispossessed, its national membership doubling from 345,000 to 715,000; in the Barcelona area alone, the CNT claimed a membership of over 250,000, making the Catalan capital one of the most, if not the most, unionised cities in Europe. Such was the growing power of the CNT that its unions began to impose a degree of restraint over the city’s otherwise rapacious industrialists and, in some cases, for the first time, win strikes.

This upturn in the fortunes of the CNT was made possible by the adoption of a new union structure at the 1918 national congress, held in Barcelona’s Sants barri.72 Aware that the spatialised power of the recently expanded barris represented a powerful foundation for organised resistance to capital and the state, CNT strategists established grassroots comités de barriada (district committees), which were located in new union centres (sucursales) in the main working-class neighbourhoods.73 In the words of one activist, the local comités were ‘the eyes and ears of the union in any given neighbourhood’,74 the connecting point between the barris and the Barcelona local federation, which determined the orientation of the unions. While the CNT remained a national confederation of segmented community-based unions and neighbourhood groups, the new structure allowed for a more unified and powerful union at city level.

Making full use of improvements in the transport system and the growing availability of bicycles, and backed by the Barcelona CNT’s paper, Solidaridad Obrera, which played an essential auxiliary role, advertising union meetings, talks and social activities across the city, the local federation could receive feedback from, and send instructions to, the comités with great speed. This enabled the CNT to respond swiftly to events on the ground and generally mount a more sustained and coordinated opposition to capitalism.

The most famous and dramatic mobilisation of the reorganised CNT of the post-World War One era was the 1919 strike at the Ebro Irrigation and Power Company, an Anglo- Canadian concern known locally as ‘La Canadenca’. The conflict began in early 1919, when a handful of CNT white-collar workers were sacked. In reply, CNT power workers—blue- and white-collar alike—walked off the job and appealed to the local federation for solidarity, transforming a fairly insignificant conflict over union rights into a protracted struggle between a vast coalition spanning the city and state authorities and national and international capital, on the one hand, and the confederal working class in the Barcelona area, on the other. Much of the state’s repressive arsenal was mobilised; martial law was implemented, and following the militarisation of essential services, soldiers replaced strikers and up to 4,000 workers were jailed. Nevertheless, cuts in the energy supply paralysed most industries in Barcelona province for forty-four days. Amid food shortages, power cuts and torchlit army patrols at night, the Catalan capital seemed like a city at war. Finally, the authorities forced the La Canadenca management to bow to the CNT’s demands, which included pay rises, the payment of the strikers’ lost wages and a complete amnesty for pickets. In an attempt to forestall further class conflict, the government became the first in Europe to legislate the eight-hour day in industry. This triumph heralded the coming of age of the CNT—it had arrived as a major player in the industrial arena and a central reference point in working-class life.

A great strength underpinning the CNT’s collective actions was the degree of confluence between its organisational networks and those of the barris. The district committees permitted the CNT to penetrate workplaces and neighbourhoods like never before, allowing it to become enmeshed within a web of communal, kinship and reciprocal networks, on the basis of which it organised powerful mobilisations rooted in mutual aid and class solidarity.75 At the same time, the CNT bolstered pre-existing dynamics of sociability and community energy, attributing to them a new meaning and symbolism.76 The CNT advanced an alternative urban blueprint: its street politics heightened community consciousness and the spirit of local autonomy; the impenetrability and independence of the barris were also reaffirmed by the CNT’s organised hostility to policing; and its conception of participatory democracy from below solidified existing social networks.77 For the revolutionary anarchists in the CNT, direct democracy would fortify the barris, converting them into collectively run liberated zones, the raw materials for the Kropotkinian autonomous, stateless communes.

The nexus between the CNT and the barris depended greatly on its activists. One of the great paradoxes of the CNT was that, despite its huge membership in the city, the number of union activists was relatively small. The majority of cenetistas participated little in the internal life of the unions, attending union meetings rarely, if at all, and paying union contributions only sporadically. Nevertheless, the CNT had a mobilising power that was hugely disproportionate to the number of its activists.78 In part, this reflected the dynamism and selflessness of many CNT militants, who risked recriminations arrest and even death to keep the union alive. Equally important was the fact that militants, like the leaders of the organisation, were workers themselves. (Unlike in Russia, another European country with a sizeable anarchist movement, few intellectuals were attracted to the ranks of Spanish anarchism, even less so when revolutionary syndicalism grew in popularity.) Yet besides their higher degree of class consciousness—activists were commonly known as ‘the ones with ideas’ (los con ideas)—there was nothing in their dress, lifestyle, behaviour, experiences, speech or place of residence to set them apart from the rest of the workers and, whether at a public meeting, a paper sale, in the factory or the cafe, activists could convey and disseminate ideas in a way that workers found both convincing and understandable.79 Militants were frequently highly respected members of the community: they were exemplars for less or non-militant workers and the young, and neighbours often turned to cenetistas for answers to their problems. As one worker explained, ‘those of the CNT were the best…. They most understood the cause of the worker’.80 The standing of activists in the community was extremely important for an organisation like the CNT that addressed workers who were frequently illiterate and who did not have access to the radio at home. In these circumstances, the success or failure of mobilisations often hinged on activists’ ability to draw neighbours and friends into protest actions through face-to-face contacts in the streets. CNT militants also benefited from the informal culture of the barris. CNT paper sellers habitually approached acquaintances to buy their papers, and activists intervened in the frequent and fervent discussions of local events on the streets, especially during times of strike activity or social protest.81

The direct experience of cenetistas of the everyday problems facing workers allowed them to respond to collective problems with practical and viable solutions that were firmly grounded in the social fabric of the barris; as one rank-and-file militant put it, ‘they [the activists] came to feel the cause of the workers more’.82 This sensitivity to the realities of the barris, which was encouraged by CNT decentralisation, cemented the bonds between the community and the Confederation, endowing its
unions with a strong local feel and assisting it in achieving its goal of addressing ‘all the problems of everyday life’.83 From here it is possible to appreciate another of the great strengths of cenetismo: its ability to organise around occupation and address everyday material issues and problems of subsistence in the barris, such as the abaratamiento campaign against wartime inflation. Another example of this community-based trade unionism came in 1918, when the CNT formed a Sindicato de Inquilinos (Tenants’ Union), the main demands of which were a 50 percent cut in rents and an improvement in housing stock.84 A few years later, in 1922, after considerable grassroots agitation in the housing sector, the Sindicato de Inquilinos launched a rent strike, which had the full support of the Builders’ Union.85 Given workers’ limited bargaining and mobilising resources, this represented an extremely coherent protest strategy, because popular protests and forms of class struggle in defence of the general material interests of the community, what Edward Thompson famously dubbed the ‘moral economy’,86 tended to be mass mobilisations that were nourished by dense social networks. The CNT was therefore able to channel the multiple solidarities derived from daily interactions, a point well summed up by one worker, who explained: ‘People knew one another better in the neighbourhoods and, since everyone was exploited the same as the next person, there was an atmosphere of rebellion, of protest’.87 Because solidarity is greater when it can appeal to a collective identity firmly based on concrete experience, these protest actions and subsistence-related conflicts typically drew in whole neighbourhoods, which in turn emerged politicised and with their group identity strengthened. The reliance of the CNT on community networks brought enormous stability to its unions, and during times of repression, local solidarity compensated for its lack of formal organisation and minimised the dangers to protesters of police action: not only was repression dispersed across a wide network of individuals but powerful community ties, combined with collective pressures and the danger of sanctions for non-participants, such as ostracism or violence, reduced the impact of the so-called ‘free rider’ problem, whereby members of a social group might receive the general benefits of protest without experiencing the material costs of mobilisation.88 In view of this, contrary to those who have perceived social protest as the ‘politics of envy’ of the socially dislocated, we see that urban mobilisations were rooted in a fairly extensive social integration at community level. In short, the CNT was then very much a product of local space and the social relations within it: its unions made the barris feel powerful, and workers felt ownership of what they regarded as ‘our’ union.

The CNT was also very much concerned with creating the united front of all the dispossessed within a common revolutionary project. Reflecting the anarchist aim of mobilising all those who were marginalised by capital, and in sharp contradistinction to both the exclusionary culture of the bourgeoisie and to social-democratic culture, with its stress on sobriety and respectability, the Confederation attempted to attract ‘deviant’ elements. In prisons and jails, cenetistas rejected the institutional categories that labelled inmates as either ‘political’, ‘social’ or ‘common’ prisoners, dedicating time and energy to teaching other prisoners to read and write in an attempt to make revolutionary converts.89 The CNT was an integrating force in the barris, successfully incorporating a number of subgroups that might have been a brake on working-class organisation and solidarity One such case is provided by the street gangs of working-class youth, several of which were brought within the orbit of the unions.90 The CNT also successfully appealed to the many thousands of migrant workers in the city. While some of the migrants had some previous contact with the organised labour movement, many more were leaving behind a landscape of rural misery that bred resignation and despair rather than protest. Nevertheless, the CNT recognised that migrants were a potent democratising force, and it was the only body prepared to accept the newcomers for who they were and to channel their hopes and aspirations. As the hegemonic and most important labour union, the CNT became a powerful magnet for unskilled migrants. For many newcomers, the CNT provided a point of entry into the city; CNT union centres were spaces of socialisation, places where migrants received important practical help and local knowledge about employment and housing patterns in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile new environment.91 Through their exposure to the rituals and practices of the labour movement, migrants assimilated new urban values and became firmly established in the social fabric of the city.

The inclusive culture of the CNT ensured that groups like the unemployed, who might have felt excluded from the unions and who could have been susceptible to the appeal of demagogic politicians, remained within the labour movement. Not only did the unions offer the unemployed the chance of future employment, CNT centres were a safe haven for the unemployed, who often had nowhere else to go and faced police harassment on the streets.

Nor was the CNT weakened by generational divisions or by a rival youth culture. As Dolors Marin has recognised, the workers’ public sphere was based on a respect for the older generations.92 The unions drew life from the kinship networks in the barris, successfully incorporating young workers into their ranks, many of whom were frequently attracted to the unions by family members, principally fathers and brothers and other powerful male role models, such as uncles.93 In such circumstances of early politicisation, there were cases of boys as young as ten belonging to both the CNT and an anarchist group.94

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Figure 2.6 Revolutionary play: children with their barricade and flag, July 1936. Besides the clenched fists, note the youth in the centre wearing the uniform of the workers’ militia
Source: Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular

However, the mobilising strategy of the workers’ public sphere was not flawless. This is relevant in the case of women workers, whose dissident potential was not always maximised. The unions were essentially masculine spaces, and men tended to go to union meetings either alone or with their sons, leaving their partners at home.95 There were also very few female union leaders, and women were frequently underrepresented in the union membership, even in industries such as textiles, the main source of employment for working women. Instead, women workers played a secondary, supporting role within the union movement and, even when women shared the ideas of their partners, their contribution to the movement was limited to the domestic sphere, reproducing the rebellious power of their partners, children or brothers and making sacrifices in the home in order to sustain male militancy, especially when partners were in jail or on the run from the authorities.96 Certainly, the contribution of these women to the CNT was important and should not be undervalued, but it could have been greater, principally if we consider that when women participated in conflicts in the subsistence sphere, such as the abaratamiento campaign and rent struggles, they behaved with much radicalism and militancy.

Yet the CNT was just one element in Barcelona’s growing proletarian public sphere, an alternative grassroots social infrastructure comprising newspapers, cultural associations and social clubs. The other key institution was the ateneu (atheneum), a popular cultural and social centre modelled on bourgeois clubs.97 Like the CNT, the ateneus filled a genuine need in the working-class city and, between 1877 and 1914, seventy-five were formed in Barcelona. Each ateneu provided its members with a range of urban services and facilities, and some of the larger ones had a cooperative shop, offering foodstuffs at reduced prices.98 During a time when there were very few affordable forms of leisure, the ateneus organised a wide choice of leisure activities, such as theatre, choral and musical groups. Sociability and entertainment were always combined with social agitation, and the plays performed in the ateneus were normally of a radical, leftist or anti-clerical persuasion.99 Another important area of activity was the sporting and excursion clubs, which organised hiking, camping and rambling trips in the surrounding countryside and coastal areas.100 Hiking, much in keeping with the antiurban strain within anarchist ideology, became a highly popular non-commerical recreational activity that allowed workers to escape briefly into nature and leave behind the overcrowded and cramped barris, which possessed few open spaces or playing fields.101 In political terms, excursion clubs had an important propagandist function, providing workers with an opportunity to discuss ideas and writings away from repressive urban structures and return to the city with their consciousness raised. Naturist groups also went to the countryside to find freedom from the artificial conditions of urban life and attain a more balanced relationship with the natural world, away from the restrictions and conventions of the bourgeois order.

Yet the overriding objective of the ateneus was cultural empowerment. The pride of any ateneu was its lending library, which would contain a broad selection of the classics of European post-Enlightenment political and literary writing, ranging from Marx and Bakunin across to radical bourgeois writers such as Ibsen and Zola. In addition, there would be a reading room, places where groups could hold discussions, an auditorium for more formal debates and public talks, and a cafe. Reflecting the strong emphasis placed by the anarchists on pedagogy and their conviction that capitalist hegemony could be eroded through education and the cultivation of ‘cerebral dynamite’,102 the ateneus organised day schooling for working-class children and evening classes for adult workers, providing tuition in grammar and writing skills and a more general education in mathematics, literature, geography and foreign languages, as well as in more engaged subjects, such as history, sociology and political theory.

From the turn of the century, the efforts of the ateneus to meet the popular demand for education were assisted by ‘rationalist schools’, which were either union-funded or part of the ‘Modern School’ (Escola moderna) movement of Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia. In what was a radical departure from the repressive practices of clerical educationalists, the rationalist schools encouraged spontaneous expression, experimentation and a spirit of equality in the classroom, placing good-quality education within the reach of most working-class budgets.103 Consequently, the ateneus and the rationalist schools were the fulcrum of the social and cultural fabric in the barris.104

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Figure 2.7 Biology class at the l’Hospitalet Rationalist School (1928– 29 academic year). José Peirats, then a brick maker and future historian of the anarchist movement, is first from the left
Source: Gràcia Ventura Archive

Like the CNT, the ateneus and the rationalist schools rested on existing community structures and sociability. The myriad social and cultural activities of the ateneus attracted whole families and, with crèche facilities for the very young, all members of the community, irrespective of age, were able to participate.105 Because most ateneus had specific youth sections, the generational divide was breached and enduring friendships were established by adults and children under the umbrella of these institutions.106

The ateneus reinforced the spirit of autonomy of the baris; they dignified and gave meaning to the neighbourhood experience and, because they were often opened only after a huge collective sacrifice, they were a source of much local pride, encouraging a belief in the common possession of the wealth of the community.107 In general terms, then, ateneu culture reinforced class divisions, deepening the ties between the barris and the activists of both the CNT and the libertarian movement. In this way, the ateneus cemented the links between workers’ everyday aspirations and those of the movement, establishing a new frame of reference for community discontents and making it possible for existing workers’ culture to be overlaid with a more coherent ideology of protest, thereby converting the ‘spontaneous sociology’ of the barris into anarchist ideas and practice. One migrant explained this process:

I’m Andalusian and I moved to l’Hospitalet when I was nearly 10 years old. I learnt everything I know from the anarchists. I was 14 or 15 and I didn’t know how to read or write. I learnt at the night school organised by the libertarians.108

Owing to its ties with the ateneus and the rationalist schools, the CNT was able to influence an oppositional working-class culture and help to mould a relatively autonomous proletarian world view during a time when, elsewhere in Europe, the advent of new forms of mass culture, such as football and music halls, was beginning to erode and dilute socialist consciousness. In particular, the ateneus and the rationalist schools propagated an anti-clerical culture that challenged the obscurantism of Church education and the received hierarchies of state learning, thereby making an inestimable contribution to the class culture of the CNT by educating successive generations of activists and leaders, many of whom went on to write for the labour and anarchist press.109 Simultaneously, the ateneus conveyed a culture of action and mobilisation, and even when concerned with cultural activities, they still encouraged a kind of activism that could later lead to other activities and campaigns for local services. Meanwhile, during times of collective protest, the ateneus sometimes played a key supporting role, mobilising and bringing their members onto the streets for a big rally, demonstration, meeting or strike action.110

However, it is noteworthy that the patterns of gender discrimination that we witnessed earlier with regard to the CNT were replicated in the more ideological and politicised spaces of the ateneus and the anarchist groups that operated within them. Signalling the failure of alternative culture to break completely with official culture, women were frequently restricted to offering moral and material support for the masculine group, finding meeting places and offering logistical support; on excursions, women were predominantly involved in tasks of food preparation!111

Nevertheless, it is possible to conclude that by the end of World War One there was a vibrant alternative public sphere, a kind of counter-spectacle with its own values, ideas, rituals, organisations and practices, or, in Gramscian terms, a counter-hegemonic project.112 This proletarian public sphere conquered new spaces for ideas and for protest movements within urban civil society and was a direct challenge to an already weak bourgeois sphere, which, as we have seen, was bereft of institutional mechanisms such as schools through which official ideology could be conveyed. Consequently, the authorities were keen to limit or impede the expansion of this rival public sphere, and any opportunity was exploited to clamp down on this alternative educational network.113

However, following their vertiginous expansion during and after World War One, it was the unions that were regarded by the ‘men of order’ as the biggest threat to the social order. Alienated from a central state that, in the eyes of the most radical employers, had capitulated to the CNT by legalising the eight-hour day, the militant wing of the city bourgeoisie rallied to break the power of the unions. This led, in November 1919, to a three-month employer lockout of cenetistas, who faced daily harassment from the Sometent militia, which patrolled workplaces in search of union activists. Ironically, despite their vocal defence of a ‘law and order’ agenda, the eagerness of the ‘men of order’ to close off the proletarian public sphere resulted in numerous infringements of the civil rights of workers, so while workers were theoretically free to join the union of their choice, including the CNT, which was not a proscribed organisation, the Sometent frequently stopped and searched workers for CNT cards and, if found, workers could expect to be assaulted, fired and blacklisted. Similarly, the Sometent prevented CNT organisers from collecting dues from union members and supporters, illegally confiscating union money and ‘roughing up’ activists.

When these measures failed to cow the CNT, the radical wing of the Catalan bourgeoisie, which sought a military solution to industrial conflict, became more active.

During 1920–22, these militant industrialists courted Generals Arlegui and Martínez Anido, who, while serving as chief of police and civil governor, respectively, became notorious for organising the selective assassination of cenetistas. The descent into terrorism reflected the worsening structural-political crisis of the Restoration state. If, during the early phase of the Restoration, the deployment of institutional force, the ‘politics of the Mauser’ as it was known to contemporaries, could be seen as one of the strengths of the monarchical state following the structural changes brought about by World War One, the dependency of the state on violence mutated into its most glaring weakness. While violence might be efficacious insofar as it temporarily reclaimed the streets for the authorities, it could not bolster the already weak political authority of the state and served only to raise questions about the long-term survival of the Restoration and swell the ranks of the anti-monarchist opposition.

The anti-union terror of the Libres did little to shore up an already fragile urban order; rather, repression raised the stakes in the struggle for the streets. Certainly, repression could not finish with the CNT, which, in the postwar era, was able to rely on the cover provided by the durable community networks in the barris to survive the clampdown on its organisation and activists. However, the ferocity of the postwar anti-union offensive did have a profound impact on the internal balance of forces within the CNT. At the start of the repression, there were three main factions within the CNT: anarcho-syndicalists, anarchists and the ‘communist-syndicalists’, who supported the Bolshevik revolution.114

The anarcho-syndicalists predominated within the CNT National Committee. Preoccupied with issues of national union strategy and recruitment and expansion, the anarcho-syndicalists were keen to develop mass trade unions and the myriad bodies that made up the workers’ public sphere as a necessary prelude to the revolutionary transformation of society. However, this project foundered on employer intransigence, which closed off most of the channels for collective protest, lessening the attractiveness of the anarcho-syndicalist strategy within CNT circles. Moreover, as the most visible and public face of the organisation, the anarcho-syndicalists paid a very high physical price, and many of their number were either jailed or assassinated. With confederal institutions forced underground, the social context became radicalised; the arguments of militant anarchists were seemingly confirmed, while moderate voices within the CNT increasingly went unheard. Marking the start of a period known as pistolerisme (gun law), the initiative passed to the advocates of armed struggle against capital and the state.115

Organised in grupos de afinidad, the anarchist urban guerrillas favoured clandestine forms of organisation, placing great store on the values of individual or small-group violence. The grupistas fulfilled a range of tasks, forming ‘defence squads’, which provided bodyguards for prominent activists, and organising armed collections for the unions in workplaces and on the streets, a hazardous task that carried the risk of confrontation with either the official or parallel police. In return, the union committee would compensate the grupistas financially for lost working days, meeting their expenses if they had to flee the country and, if apprehended, supporting their relatives. Aware that the grupistas could emerge as an elite within the organisation or become removed from the realities of working-class life, the ‘expropriators’ were remunerated at the wage rate of a skilled worker. Adopting ever more robust and direct action tactics, the grupistas defended the right of the CNT to the streets by force of arms. The ‘action groups’ also took the ‘social war’ to the bourgeoisie, sending threatening letters (anónimas) to employers and applying lex talionis, ‘bringing justice’ (ajusticiamiento) in the parlance of the grupistas, hunting down members of the Libres and the Sometent and those industrialists and politicians who funded the repression of the CNT. (One such ‘action group’, Metalúrgico (Metallurgical), which was based in the Metalworkers’ Union, assassinated Prime Minister Dato in 1919.) Another important sphere of anarchist activity was in the comité pro-presos (prisoner support groups), which were responsible for the legal costs of militants awaiting trial for union activities, such as picketing, and for the welfare of the dependents of detained and deceased activists. By the end of 1921, spiralling repression had caused the expenditure of the prisoners’ support groups to rise exponentially. This was a dangerous situation for the CNT: with its unions starved of funds and on the brink of collapse, the Confederation’s principles of active solidarity were seriously compromised. Grupistas responded with a series of audacious armed expropriations, targeting banks and payrolls and handing over the requisitioned money to the CNT. Although these ‘men of action’ were a small minority among the anarchists, their readiness to risk their lives for the movement gave them a status within CNT circles that far exceeded their numbers.

During this period, some of the more anarchist-oriented ‘action groups’ started funding themselves through expropriations, thereby guaranteeing themselves an autonomous existence.116 This was the case with Los Solidarios (The Solidaristic), which emerged as one of the most important grupos de afinidad and to which some of the most sensational expropriations and assassinations were attributed.117 While the leading figures in Los Solidarios were Buenaventura Durruti, Francisco and Domingo Ascaso, Aurelio Fernández, Ricardo Sanz and Juan García Oliver, the ambitious range of activities undertaken by grupos of this nature required anything between ten and twenty auxiliary members, who provided vital logistical and practical support. The better-organised groups like Los Solidarios were also known to have sympathisers near the Pyrenees, whose local knowledge of mountain passes facilitated the smuggling of weapons into Spain and enabled grupistas to flee to France away from persecution.118 Similarly, in a big city like Barcelona, ‘safe houses’ would be organised to help grupistas to evade the police.

In terms of the social background of its members, Los Solidarios was typical of the new, unskilled working class that emerged during and after World War One. In 1920, the key members of the group were single males, between 19 and 25 years of age; all had experience of unskilled, casual labour, poor working conditions and job insecurity (Durruti and Fernández were mechanics, Francisco Ascaso and García Oliver waiters). Some of the group had arrived in Barcelona to work (e.g. García Oliver); others (Durruti and the Ascasos) were lured by the city’s revolutionary bohemian reputation, which was much enhanced by pistolerisme and which made the Catalan capital a strong pole of attraction for anarchists from all over the Spanish state.119 All had come into contact with the anarchist and/or union movements at an early age and, at one time or another, all had been victimised by employers for their energetic interventions in social struggles. After a bitter strike in his native León, Durruti’s militancy saw him disciplined by management and union alike: he was sacked by his employers and expelled by the UGT for committing acts of sabotage. Their everyday experience as unskilled workers with few bargaining resources and equally few prospects of gradual change doubtless shaped their practice: they abhorred politics, which they believed changed nothing, and they were intensely critical of the anarcho-syndicalist wing of the CNT and its emphasis on union mobilisation, which they regarded as little short of ‘reformist’. As self-styled ‘avengers of the people’, Los Solidarios prioritised armed struggle above all else, believing that freedom had to be fought for, gun in hand. Indeed, they had an essentially military conception of the revolution: for them, the starting point of anarchist activity was not the theoretical consciousness-raising measures that occupied so many other grupos but violent action, the ‘rebel gesture’ that would incite an insurrection.120

Although the era of pistolerisme was brought to an end by Primo de Rivera’s military coup of September 1923, it had a profound legacy, and many CNT militants, not to mention the grupistas, preserved the habit of carrying arms. Primo’s seizure of power also highlighted some of the tactical limitations of grupismo. In the prelude to the coup, the grupistas were trapped in a cycle of violence with the security forces and right-wing militia groups; this, along with the succession of armed expropriations and attacks on banks, created a widespread feeling of insecurity in elite circles, which did much to prepare an ambience that favoured the military takeover. In short, the grupistas lacked a coherent project for social and political transformation, so while they might assassinate a detested politician or an unpopular employer, the power structure survived and the deceased would quickly be replaced by new ‘enemies of the people’, possibly more repressive than their predecessors. The grupistas were fighting an essentially defensive, rearguard campaign. There was no doubting their courage when it came to confronting employer-sponsored gunmen, but they failed to develop a political strategy capable of mobilising large numbers of workers. Certainly, many workers celebrated the struggle of the grupos against ‘them’ (the Sometent, the Libres and the police), the result of which was that grupista actions were at least tolerated and would never be betrayed. In a more positive light, workers viewed the grupos as a source of local pride and strength, and the deaths of hated policemen and capitalists were viewed as acts of proletarian vengeance. Nevertheless, the struggle of the grupos was that of an armed elite, with its own unique esprit de corps and modus operandi that kept the grupistas, who probably never numbered more than 200, relatively aloof from the bulk of the working class. Consequently, not only was the relatively small number of grupistas no match for the military, they were also unable to bring large numbers of workers onto the streets to oppose Primo’s coup. Nor were the unions in a position to organise a collective response.

The employer offensive, the victimisation of militants in the workplace and the campaign of assassination on the streets had taken its toll. (During 1919–23, in addition to the hundreds who had been wounded, 189 workers, the majority of them cenetistas, had been killed in Barcelona and l’Hospitalet alone, along with twenty-one employers.121) Although CNT transport workers brought city life to a halt between May and July 1923, this stoppage was a pale imitation of the 1919 ‘La Canadenca’ strike and probably served only to convince employers of the need to finish with revolutionary syndicalism once and for all. When the coup came, therefore, the CNT could organise only a token response. Upon acceding to power, Primo gave a high degree of freedom to right-wing and reformist unions while attempting to close off much of the CNT-related proletarian public sphere. However, because this alternative workers’ sphere had become heavily embedded in the rich civil society of the barris, its eradication required a fierce repression, the scale of which exceeded Primo’s plans. Therefore, not only did many ateneus continue to function, but many exclusively anarchist ateneus were established during what was a period of tremendous cultural activism and politicisation in the barris.122 These ateneus, along with excursion and hiking groups, provided much-needed cover for activists who organised meetings in the great outdoors.123 Alternatively, activists retreated into other spheres of popular sociability, such as bars and cafes, which had been used by anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist militants as meeting places for decades.124 Therefore, despite a formal ban on the Catalan CRT (Confederación Regional del Trabajo, or Regional Labour Confederation) from November 1924, cenetistas continued to organise in the barris, preserving clandestine structures in workplaces and operating within both the legal and clandestine spaces in the barris.

An important forum for CNT activity during the dictatorship was the cooperative movement. Joan Peiró, a leading CNT strategist, encouraged cenetistas to work within workers’ consumer cooperatives, which, he believed, should be used to help fund anarcho-syndicalist cultural and propagandistic ventures.125 Typical of these initiatives was a cooperative established in Sant Adrià, a rapidly expanded working-class settlement on Barcelona’s northern outskirts. The project began when CNT activists organised a collection among the community. Once enough money had been raised to purchase the necessary building materials, members of the community and volunteer carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers constructed the building that housed the cooperative.

Consisting of a shop and bakery where members could purchase a range of goods and foodstuffs at cost price and of the same or better quality than those sold in shops and markets, the cooperative protected working-class consumers from exploitative commercial sectors.126 The cooperative also played an extensive social and cultural role in the local community: it had a library, a bar with a billiard table and a cafe, and it organised a special section for local youth as well as a host of cultural activities, evening classes, lecture programmes, plays, musical recitals and excursion clubs.127 In general terms, therefore, the cooperatives helped to preserve the proud, independent spirit of the barris and the culture of seeking practical collective solutions to the collective problems of everyday life. The cooperative also fulfilled several less overt functions, such as organising collections for imprisoned cenetistas and their families.128 Moreover, with decisions in the cooperative taking place on the basis of direct democracy, a new generation of workers was socialised in the democratic culture and practices of the CNT.129 Furthermore, even if workers were not mobilising in the streets, the associational life in the cooperatives provided an experience of self-organisation and autonomous activity.

Through their involvement in cultural associations and consumers’ cooperatives, cenetistas retained multiple connections with the barris and the nexus between the union and community therefore survived. As the dictatorship went into decline at the end of the 1920s, the changing political circumstances allowed workers to mobilise and networks of solidarity were converted into networks of resistance. These networks were strengthened by the urban-industrial growth produced by the dictator’s programme of public works in Barcelona, which had increased the potential constituency of the CNT. It was this that prompted the chief of state security, General Emilio Mola, to reflect in 1930 that ‘Barcelona was the heart of the CNT’.130 As we will see in Chapter 3 and beyond, the scene was set for a new phase in the struggle between the workers’ public sphere and the state.