4. The proletarian city and the Second Republic

4.1 The reconstruction of the proletarian city

This chapter explores the response of the proletarian city to the new legal reality introduced after 14 April in Barcelona. As we saw in Chapter 3, the collective euphoria at the coming of the Republic was great in CNT circles.1 In many parts of Barcelona, local cenetistas played an active role in proclaiming the Republic.2 The CNT clearly imposed its political preferences on events. For example, shortly after the proclamation of the Republic, an armed group of cenetistas escorted Companys to the civil governor’s building so that he could take office.3 Solidaridad Obrera welcomed the Republic as a triumph of ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the most hallowed aspirations of freedom and justice’.4 On the day after the birth of the Republic, as a gesture of solidarity, the Barcelona CNT declared a general strike that affected all branches of industry apart from essential food and transport services. The evident goodwill of the CNT leaders towards the ERC doubtless explains Macià’s attempt to bring the CNT leader Angel Pestaña into his first government as Generalitat minister for public works.5 Since government participation was alien to CNT traditions and would almost certainly have divided the union, this came to nothing; nevertheless, a hastily convened plenum of the Catalan CRT delegated Pestaña and a colleague to liase with the Generalitat.6 At state level, the CNT National Committee announced its ‘peaceful disposition’ towards the Republic.7 Meanwhile, a joint manifesto issued by the Catalan CRT and the Barcelona local federation warned workers of the need to protect the Republic from the danger of antidemocratic military action.8 Clearly, the CNT leadership was keen to stabilise the new regime during what it regarded as a ‘new era’.9 Testifying to the vitality of the workers’ public sphere, after April 1931 the various social, cultural and economic institutions responsible for the main improvements in the lives of Barcelona’s workers during the first third of the twentieth century were reorganised. Tenants’ groups and food cooperatives flourished. In particular, the CNT emerged resurgent: its militant traditions of sacrifice, struggle and solidarity attracted thousands of expectant workers, its unions becoming a receptacle for the new working class formed under the dictatorship in the 1920s, which was, for the first time, free to establish real organisational links. Badly paid and unskilled migrant workers in the rapidly developed peripheral barris flooded into the CNT, along with many child workers, some as young as ten and with no previous experience of union organisation.10 In May 1931 alone, the Catalan CRT admitted 100,000 new members; by August, the Confederation could claim 400,000 affiliates in Catalonia, while the Barcelona CNT announced that it had encadred a staggering 58 percent of the city’s proletariat.11

In many barris, the CNT became the dominant organising structure and there was an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the organised labour movement and closely knit working-class communities. In part, this reflected the strong sense of collective optimism and feeling of triumph in the barris following the demise of the monarchy; it also stemmed from the creation of new union centres and CNT district committees.12

Thus, an alternative moral geography was established in the newly developed red belt of the city, in barris such as Sant Andreu and within the various groups of cases barates, where workers were unable to attend union offices in the city centre on a daily basis. This new, organised working-class sociability was epitomised by the expansion of the l’Hospitalet CNT, particularly the La Torrassa District Committee, where a lively, vibrant grassroots union flourished. The district committees advanced a vision of the Republic of the ghettos, a decentralised, direct form of participatory democracy that mirrored the sociability of the barris. Local union bodies also promised to improve the economic position of the barris through communal rather than individual responses to poverty, the sine qua non for the formation of a self sufficient working class economy designed to withstand the impositions of the market.

The development of ateneus was no less dramatic. Throughout the dictatorship in the 1920s, many anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had immersed themselves in cultural and educational activities. Although the illiteracy rate in 1930s Barcelona (15 percent) was well below the Spanish average (32 percent), educational facilities in the barris were inadequate: for example, in Poble Sec, in January 1931, there were school places for only 200 of the estimated 7,000 children in the district.13 Illiteracy was unevenly distributed across Barcelona and remained far higher in the barris, particularly those with large concentrations of unskilled migrants such as Barceloneta, where over 50 percent of the population was unable to read and write.14 To counter this, ateneus were established in the red belt of the city, becoming an important, and sometimes the sole, source of education. For instance, the Ateneo Cultural de Defensa Obrera (Cultural Atheneum for Workers’ Defence) formed in the Can Tunis cases barates in April 1930, organised a school for 400 local children.15 Such was the demand for their educational services that ateneus were periodically forced to find larger premises.16 One of the most important of these schools was the Escuela Natura in the Clot barri. Financed by the Textile Union, the Escuela Natura, which also organised a popular summer camp in a country house in the Pyrennean town of Puigcerdà, had around 250 pupils, including many of the children of leading cenetistas. Educated by a team of teachers under the supervision of rationalist pedagogue Juan Puig Elías, all punishments were eschewed in favour of reason.17 Besides enriching pedagogical and artistic life in the barris, the ateneus transmitted the alternative values of a rebel, anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical culture that laid the basis for contestation and protest.18

The development of the ateneus inevitably deepened connections between the anarchists and the masses in the barris, particularly the youth. This helps to explain the development of a new element in the working-class sphere of 1930s Barcelona: the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica or Iberian Anarchist Federation). Formed in Valencia in 1927 as a pan-Iberian anarchist secret society, the FAI was barely organised at state level by 1931, although its members had already established themselves in some barris.19 Since the 1920s, clandestine anarchist grupos de afinidad had become more grounded in local society and, while these remained, perforce, relatively closed groups, they increasingly drew on multiple family, community, workplace and spatial loyalties, meeting regularly in neighbourhood cooperatives, ateneus, cafes and bars.20 Perhaps the most famous of these bars was La Tranquilidad (described by one anarchist habitué as ‘the least tranquil cafe’ in the neighbourhood) on Paral.lel, where Durruti and his grupo established themselves for much of the Republic.21 Run by a former CNT militant, this bar, where non-consumption was tolerated and tap water provided for those unable to purchase drinks, was extremely popular with workers and anarchists alike as a space for discussion and debate. So, while Barcelona had long attracted anarchists from across the Spanish state and beyond, the consolidation of an exclusively anarchist network of sociability in the late 1920s and early 1930s made it possible for newly arrived anarchists to find out where grupos met and integrate themselves quickly into the city. This was timely, because the establishment of dictatorships in Italy, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba during the same years resulted in the exile of many anarchists, a large number of whom took refuge in Barcelona. Some of these anarchists, for instance Fidel Miró, a Catalan expelled from Cuba, and Sinesio García Delgado (aka Diego Abad de Santillán), a Spaniard forced out of Argentina, would become leading figures in the FAI.22

4.2 The divisions in the CNT

As the proletarian public sphere re-emerged, so too did the divisions within it. Primo de Rivera’s coup effectively neutralised the CNT’s internal divisions, quite possibly preventing a split within the union. In 1931, the largest of the factions inside the Catalan CRT was the anarcho-syndicalists, who effectively controlled the Confederation at state level and in Barcelona during the transition from monarchy to Republic. The two most prominent anarcho-syndicalists were Pestaña and Peiró, both of whom had previously been anarchist énragés.23 The anarcho-syndicalists regarded the revolution as an essentially constructive exercise that required union organisation to be perfected and stable workplace committees that would eventually assume responsibility for running the post-revolutionary economy to be created.24 Many of the anarcho-syndicalist leaders were older militants who had lived through the postwar repression of pistolerisme and dictatorship; their experience of leading the CNT during the dictablanda had apprised them of the need to navigate a path through the limited freedoms offered by capitalist society and of the importance of having friends in the democratic camp. The prioritisation by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT leadership of practical trade unionism over their ultimate revolutionary objectives inclined them towards a reformist praxis of coexistence with the Republic.

At the start of 1931 this pro-republican stance was not the source of significant political division within the CNT. The dominant feeling in CNT ranks, even among most of the ‘pure’ anarchists, was that the unions needed time to regain their former strength before advancing along the revolutionary road. Even inside the Builders’ Union, the union that had the strongest anarchist component, there was a strong feeling that the birth of the Republic had to be assisted.25 This republican intoxication extended to the most radical factions among the anarchists. El Luchador, the weekly newspaper of the Montseny family, the self-styled purveyors of anarchist propriety, praised President Macià and called on the working class to be ready to defend the Republic against monarchical restoration.26

Only a minority of anarchists were opposed to the Republic from its birth, yet this was a theoretical or strategic opposition rather than a practical one. This position can be traced to Nosotros (‘Us’; formerly Los Solidarios) grupo de afinidad, whose members feared that a stabilised republican democracy might seduce workers at the ballot box and domesticate the CNT. According to García Oliver, a prominent Nosotros member, this could be best avoided through ‘insurrectionary pendulum actions’: violent mobilisations perpetrated by small groups of activists designed to help the masses to ‘overcome the complex of fear they felt towards repressive state forces, the army and the police’. Because they were intended to provoke violence from the state and the Right, supporters of these ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ hoped that they would create a spiral of protest capable of attracting broad sections of the masses until they provided the spark for a revolutionary fire that would devour the Republic.27 Alternatively, should these insurrectionary exercises fail to produce the revolution, they would at least force the authorities to employ draconian measures, thereby impeding the institutionalisation of the proletariat within the Republic. This perspective, which was rooted in a late nineteenth century concept of anarchist insurrectionism, ignored the greater repressive capacity of the modern state. Nevertheless, this strategy was consistent with the experiences of the seasoned grupistas from the period of pistolerisme, activists who typically conflated traditional direct action with small group violence and who possessed a rather simplistic, militaristic mentality that located complex political problems in terms of relations of force. The promise of impending revolutionary action also appealed to younger activists, many of whom were captivated by the accelerated pace of political change during 1930– 31 and who were optimistic that the Republic would, sooner rather than later, suffer the same fate as the dictatorship and the monarchy.28

While Nosotros had little influence within the Confederation at the start of the Republic, it did manage to secure one of its main objectives at the CNT National Plenum held in Madrid at the end of April 1931, where it was agreed that comités de defensa confederal (confederal defence committees) should be formed. These paramilitary formations, comprised of union militants and anarchists, would be on a permanent war footing, ready to defend the CNT from aggression by either the employers or the state.29 Whereas the anarcho-syndicalists viewed the defence committees as a reserve force, capable of augmenting the struggle for trade union control of society, the radicals regarded this parallel structure as ‘the armed wing of the violent revolution’30 or, in the words of Antonio Ortiz, another Nosotros member, ‘a vanguard which had to channel [encauzar] the revolution’.31

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the radicals were spoiling for a fight with the new authorities. Nosotros, like the moderates in the CNT, had invested hope in the Republic: Durruti, frequently seen as the embodiment of intransigent anarchism, praised Macià for his ‘inherent goodness’ and his ‘purity and integrity’.32 Moreover, while the insurrectionary position adopted by Nosotros later became identified with the FAI, it is worth bearing in mind that, at the start of the Republic, Nosotros was not affiliated to the FAI and that many anarchists were critical of the vanguard role they ascribed to a small, dedicated minority, which they denounced as ‘anarcho-Bolshevism’.

Certainly, the FAI was the radical wing of the anarchist movement, but it was a heterogeneous body, consisting of a variety of groups, including pacifists, Malthusians, Esperantists, naturists, educationalists, artistic groups and theatre troupes, all of which were united only in their opposition to reformism and communism within the CNT.33 Only the dissident communists—the smallest of the three factions within the CNT— appreciated in April 1931 that conflict between the unions and the Republic was inevitable. Organised politically within the BOC (Bloc Obrer i Camperol, or Workers’ and Peasants’ Bloc), these anti-Stalinist communists voiced the concerns of a tiny minority within the working class that believed in the need for genuinely revolutionary politics and argued that exogenous socio-political forces, such as the middle-class republicans, could not be trusted. Devoid of the democratic illusions that prevailed among the CNT leadership and in anarchist circles, the bloquistas expected no benevolence from the new regime: ‘the republican government can never be on the side of the workers, nor can it be neutral. It is a bourgeois government and, as such, it must forcefully defend the bourgeoisie against the proletariat’.34 The prescience of this prophecy would soon be evident.

4.3 The ‘hot summer’ of 1931

From July throughout the summer, there was a veritable explosion of trade union conflicts in Barcelona as workers took advantage of their new-found freedoms to launch disputes that affected individual workshops and entire industries, including vital sectors of the economy, such as Barcelona docks, and the Telefónica, the main communications company in Spain. These mobilisations peaked in August, when there were forty-one strikes in Barcelona alone, including a successful stoppage of 40,000 metalworkers, who stayed out for the whole month.35 Indicative of the upsurge of militancy, two separate disputes over working practices and victimisation culminated in factory occupations.36

While the summer wave of strikes was unprecedented in the history of Catalan industrial relations, exceeding even the mobilisations that followed World War One, contrary to the conspiracy theories that prevailed in republican circles, it was neither a revolutionary attack on the state nor an attack on the Republic. Rather, to comprehend the reasons for the strikes, we need to recall that, from the advent of industrialisation in Catalonia right up until the 1930s, employers had more or less continuously enjoyed the upper hand in labour issues. Only briefly, after World War One, did the CNT manage to limit the freedom of capital before being driven underground by Primo de Rivera’s labour repressive dictatorship. Meanwhile, during 1930–31, working-class living standards deteriorated further owing to the growth of unemployment and inflation of basic foodstuffs and rents.37 As we saw in Chapter 3, the republican authorities continued to impose the same liberal economic policies that had generated enormous effervescence in the barris during previous regimes, leaving the material basis of working-class discontent intact and, moreover, allowing the cost of public transport, which had been remarkably stable between 1907 and 1931, to rise sharply during the 1930s.38 Interestingly, therefore, in July 1931 the British consul-general expressed his surprise at the restraint of the unions, given that ‘there is no doubt that there is still a good deal of underpaid labour in Barcelona’.39

Figure 4.1 Thousands of strikers and CNT supporters occupy Republic Square after a demonstration during the telephone workers’ strike, summer 1931
Source: Francesc Bonamusa, Pere Gabriel, Josep Lluís Martin Ramos and Josep Termes, Història Gràfica del Moviment Obrer a Catalunya, Barcelona, 1989, p. 255

The open, decentralised nature of the CNT and its responsiveness to rank-and-file sentiments was a key factor in the eruption of strikes. Strikes had a very simple appeal for the union grassroots—the promise of collective improvement—and many took place through the CNT but were not necessarily under the direct control of the union, as shop stewards were either simply unprepared or unable to neutralise the groundswell in favour of action.40 Strikes were then, primarily, part of a working-class campaign to recapture ground lost during a period when employers enjoyed carte blanche in the workplace.41 Thus most CNT demands revolved around ‘bread-and-butter’ issues aimed at improving working conditions by increasing wages, limiting the length of the working day and abolishing intensive forms of exploitation such as piecework and child labour. Many of these demands were longstanding ambitions of the CNT and were not designed to endanger the consolidation of the Republic. For instance, one of the most common union demands in 1931 was that employers recognise the CNT bolsa de trabajo (labour exchange), through which the Confederation hoped to reintegrate the unemployed into the workplace and limit the untrammelled right of employers to sack workers by fiat.42 In a more general sense, the CNT sought to regain the collective dignity of the proletariat, hence its demands for the reinstatement of workers victimised during the 1917 railway workers’ conflict and the 1919 ‘La Canadenca’ strike.


Figure 4.2 Workers in conversation outside their workplace during a labour dispute during the Second Republic
Source: Francesc Bonamusa, Pere Gabriel, Josep Lluís Martin Ramos and Josep Termes, Història Gràfica del Moviment Obrer a Catalunya, Barcelona, 1989, p. 259

In another sense, the explosion of strikes can be attributed to the political context. First, it was inevitable that, as the political repression of the monarchy and dictatorship ended, the accumulated desire for change would result in an increase in collective social demands. Indeed, the CNT base, which was now free to organise collectively, was keen to assert its demands and flex its collective muscles following seven years of enforced slumber. Second, republican promises to break with the past and improve upon the governments of the monarchy and the dictatorship aroused enormous expectations in the new authorities. In power, therefore, republicans faced the dilemmas of the sorcerer’s apprentice: many workers had projected their hopes for social justice onto the republican project and expected that the new authorities would, as a minimum, bring sweeping improvements in their living standards; in the best scenario, they believed that the Republic would usher in a new era of social equality. Consequently, workers believed that the Republic provided new openings for collective demands, which many expected to be either well received by the authorities or at least to be received differently.43 Thus, in the days of hope after the birth of the Republic, the climate of branch union assemblies was one of ebullience; the dominant feeling was that the time was ripe for change. In specific cases, such as the Telefónica conflict, workers went on strike to achieve objectives that some members of the first republican-socialist coalition government had committed themselves to while in opposition.44

The response of employers to the new political situation was a further factor in the strike wave. While employers spoke of the need to preserve ‘authority’ and ‘order’, their well-established practice of ignoring labour legislation survived. Early in the Republic, at a time when bourgeois pressure groups were calling on the government to repress ‘lawlessness’ without quarter, business associations flouted new laws limiting the length of the working day and the use of child labour, as well as health and safety legislation. Moreover, employers actively victimised CNT activists who demanded the implementation of the new laws. A frequent piece of advice given by employers to sacked workers was ‘Let the Republic give you work!’ or ‘Let the Republic feed you!’45 Predictably, the CNT picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the employers, embarking on a series of conflicts to ensure that industrialists complied with labour legislation. With considerable hypocrisy, therefore, business groups denounced what they charged was the CNT’s ‘systematic campaign’ of ‘blackmail’ and the ‘morbid pleasure’ that its activists derived from the ‘sport’ of striking.46

Barcelona’s tense labour relations were aggravated by the manner in which the first government of the Republic set about repressing the direct action culture of the CNT rank and file. Largo Caballero, the UGT general secretary and labour minister, exploited his office to pursue the sectarian goal of fostering the small foci of socialist trade unionism in Barcelona. He hoped to achieve this through his labour courts, the jurados mixtos, which effectively criminalised the main practices of the CNT and, in doing so, ultimately paved the way for the rupture between cenetismo and the Republic. Inspired by the corporatist traditions of the skilled sections of the Madrid working class, who favoured class collaboration over mobilisation and were prepared to submit their professional demands to arbitration, the jurados were attractive only to a small minority of better-off workers in Barcelona. In the wood sector, artisans and some self-employed workers joined the UGT47, while at La Maquinista, the city’s biggest metal works, the few well-paid skilled and office workers were ugetistas, whereas the mass of the workforce was organised in the CNT.48 Yet, overall, the jurados were singularly unsuited to Barcelona’s industrial conditions. In the first place, the industrial courts were at variance with the structure of local capitalism, which was presided over by a confrontational bourgeoisie that had historically rejected the presence of independent workplace unions and where conflicts between capital and labour tended to be open and unmediated. Second, the jurados were alien to Barcelona’s dominant working-class traditions of direct action, which, as we saw in Chapter 2, were at variance with social-democratic culture and its emphasis on deferred gratification. The ponderous and bureaucratic procedures of the industrial courts held little appeal for the predominantly unskilled workforce, for whom temporary contracts and low wages were the norm: they wanted an immediate improvement in their lot and appreciated that direct action was the most appropriate strategy for extracting concessions from an aggressive bourgeoisie.

Either oblivious to the consequences for the development of CNT-government relations or, more likely, as part of a strategy to weaken the UGT’s rival by placing it in direct opposition to the state, in the summer of 1931 Largo Caballero drove the Confederation into a corner over the question of the jurados, particularly on the docks, where a vicious union war empted. Certainly, the CNT leaders regarded Largo Caballero’s intransigence as a deliberate provocation: given his earlier connivance with Primo de Rivera in an attempt to gain an advantage over the CNT, many cenetistas could not help but conclude that he was now seeking to manipulate republican institutions for similar ends. In practical terms, meanwhile, it was impossible for the CNT to accept the jurados. CNT power had always been expressed through mobilisation: it was in the streets where activists believed that concessions were to be extracted from the employers and the state; to enter the industrial courts, which were foreign to the culture of the movement, was an unacceptable risk for CNT organisers, who had no experience of arbitration procedures. Hence, the CNT claimed that the jurados were a ‘social and judicial monstrosity [designed] to trap the proletariat’, part of a strategy from above to co-opt the movement (or its leaders) and demobilise the grassroots.49

The stance of the government towards CNT mobilisations was vividly seen in the strike at the ITT-owned Telefónica, a company whose labour practices had been roundly condemned by republicans and socialists during the final months of struggle against the monarchy. On the very first day of the Telefónica stoppage in July, the government declared the strike ‘illegal’, since the CNT had not submitted its demands to the jurados.50 According to Interior Minister Maura, the conflict was ‘political’, an accusation that is perhaps best applied to the stance of his cabinet colleague, Largo Caballero, who was keen to build up UGT strength in the telecommunications sector and who saw the dispute as an opportunity to deal a blow to the socialist unions’ main enemy in this sector.51 By outlawing CNT struggles, union conflicts were effectively politicised and converted into struggles with the state, setting the government on a collision course with the CNT and making inter-union conflict inevitable.

As CNT strikes developed outside the jurados, official discourse came to resemble that of the old monarchist authorities. The republican socialist supporters of the Madrid government described the CNT as the ‘open enemies of the new regime’ whose ‘pernicious leaders’ had embarked on a conscious offensive against the Republic. Increasingly, the authorities emphasised the actions of CNT pickets, a consensus forming around the view that cenetistas were instigating random terror on the streets. Crisol, a Madrid-based left-wing republican paper, likened CNT ‘violence’ to that of the Nazis, while El Socialista, the main PSOE daily, denounced the editorial board of Solidaridad Obrera, then controlled by moderate anarcho-syndicalists, as ‘gunmen’ (pistoleros).52 This was something of an irony, because there is strong evidence that, notwithstanding the UGT’s public celebrations of republican legality, ugetistas perpetrated a significant amount of the violence in Barcelona during the first weeks of the Republic. For instance, in early June a dispute broke out at a box factory near the port after the management had victimised some CNT organisers and replaced them with UGT members. When a CNT delegation approached the factory to protest at the sackings, ugetistas opened fired with pistols, injuring thirteen cenetistas.53 This was followed by a similar attack in Blanes, along the coast from Barcelona, which left four cenetistas wounded.54

The failure of the police to make any arrests after these acts of aggression doubtless encouraged many cenetistas to assume personal responsibility for their physical security and helps to explain the growing number of arms on the streets. A further factor here was evidence that former members of the right-wing Sindicatos Libres, including several of its gunmen, had joined the UGT. Indeed, during 1930–31, the Barcelona UGT became the rallying point for a mishmash of skilled and conservative workers, such as private security guards, pastry chefs and piano makers, all of whom were united by a virulent hatred of the CNT and its aggressive methods of class struggle. Moreover, it was in the service industries, a traditional source of Libre strength, where the Barcelona UGT enjoyed significant growth during the Republic.55

4.4 ‘Overrun by the masses’: the radicalisation of the CNT

In keeping with its wait-and-see attitude towards the Republic, the moderate anarchosyndicalist leadership was keen to ensure that relations between the CNT and the new authorities did not become too confrontational. Accordingly, as the summer became ‘hot’, the CNT leadership felt obliged to channel the frustration felt by many among the rank-and-file of the organisation at the repressive logic of the ‘republic of order’. Rather than denounce the Republic tout court, the moderates’ criticisms focused on Maura and Largo Caballero, two ministers within the republican-socialist coalition government whose ‘anti-anarchist psychological make-up’ most predisposed them against the CNT. The attack on Largo Caballero focused on his labour laws and the ‘legal violence’ of the jurados, while Maura, the son of Antonio Maura, the architect of the suppression of the 1909 uprising in Barcelona, became known as ‘el hijo de Maura’ (the son of Maura), a play on a popular expression that implied that the interior minister was of uncertain parentage. In June, the moderates began a campaign to have Maura and Largo Caballero removed from government, an initiative that was premised on the reformist assumption that the CNT could coexist happily with a Republic in which the two offending ministers did not hold cabinet positions. Largo Caballero and the rest of the government were warned that by attacking the CNT they were ‘playing with fire and it is possible that this fire will consume your plans’.56 Yet the moderates continued to hope that the government would somehow rectify its position and treat the CNT differently. Solidaridad Obrera even demanded that Maura be tried under republican law as a monarchist provocateur, while in July, when the two ministers supported the management during the Telefónica strike, the CNT denounced them as ‘lackeys of US imperialism’.57

The CNT leaders also embarked upon a rearguard struggle against the growing militancy of the grassroots of the movement, which had expected so much from the Republic. One of the main concerns of the leadership was that an endless succession of strikes could sap proletarian energies and, possibly, provoke a wave of state repression that would endanger future revolutionary developments.58 The moderates therefore hoped to regulate the flow of conflicts, proposing that only those unions with the most disadvantaged members be allowed to initiate strike actions, during which time other unions would be required to provide economic support. When possible, local union leaders intervened to prevent strikes, even accepting the intervention of the authorities, such as the civil governor, to avert strikes. The leadership also successfully persuaded both the textile and builders’ unions to postpone strikes, forestalling conflicts that would have affected up to 100,000 workers in the Barcelona area.59 Nevertheless, at the end of May 1931, the leadership conceded that the CNT had been ‘overrun by the masses’.60

As the strikes grew in number, the moderate anarcho-syndicalist leadership criticised the role of the delegados de taller (shop stewards). These activists constituted the backbone of the CNT: they rarely spoke in public, but they were highly respected figures in the factories, where they organised the unions on a daily basis, convening meetings and collecting financial contributions. Extremely sensitive to rank-and-file opinion, the delegados de taller played a decisive role in articulating working-class demands. According to the moderates, the ‘irresponsibility’ of the delegados de taller resulted in premature strikes, which had few prospects for victory, an abuse of CNT federalism and a burden on the resources of the Barcelona local federation and other unions that were obliged to provide solidarity.61

While it is incontrovertible that some strikes were indeed badly organised, the depiction of the delegados de taller as a small minority of agitators was unfair, since often the workplace organisers were pushed into conflicts by a rank-and-file impatient for an improvement in their social position. Moreover, that the Builders’ Union, the only union under the control of the radical anarchists at this time, pulled back from the brink of strike action in the summer of 1931 at the behest of the moderate-controlled CNT local federation, undermines suggestions that the strike wave was the work of the radicals. But there was no diminution in the overall level of union conflict, as strike actions inevitably spilled out into the community. For the workers directly involved, and for their relatives and neighbours, strikes were highly emotional situations: the decision to withdraw one’s labour signified sacrifice and possibly a trip to the pawnshop; it also intensified social life in the barris, increasing contact between strikers and their friends, family and neighbours. The sympathy felt for strikers fostered a new sense of community belonging, something that was encouraged by the organised solidarity of the CNT.

Consequently, entire districts became radicalised, transforming the barris from a community of itself (objective) into a community for itself (subjective). An example of this process came during the Telefónica conflict, which was acclaimed as a heroic struggle of a ‘community’ of workers standing united against a coalition of hostile external forces: North American capital, the Madrid-based state and its armed executives. For many workers in the barris, active picketing, which appeared as coercion and intimidation to outsiders, signified a necessary imposition of the collective will.62 Solidaridad Obrera encouraged ‘hospital visits’ for the ‘scabs’ that broke ‘class discipline’, printing their names and addresses.63 Pickets were so fearsome that there were reports of ‘scabs’ crossing picket lines dressed as women. Confirming the efficacy of direct action tactics, many recalcitrant employers acceded to union demands only after intense picketing, such as during the particularly violent barbers’ strike in the summer, when, following repeated attacks by pickets on salons, they agreed to wage rises and recognised the CNT and its bolsa de trabajo.64

The CNT grew during the course of the summer mobilisations, drawing in hundreds of thousands of workers who saw it as the best vehicle to pursue their day-to-day material aspirations. This underlined the extent to which CNT membership was always conditional on the ability of its unions to fight, and sometimes win, against the bourgeoisie. If the unions relented or wavered, the danger existed that concessions already won would be eroded, along with the chance to achieve future gains through direct action.

The stage was set for confrontation between the CNT and the authorities. Since the authorities were incapable of either promulgating reforms capable of placating grassroots demands or co-opting the most important community and working-class leaders in Barcelona, they were obliged to confront the strike movement. The Guardia Civil was sent to evict workers forcibly from occupied factories in Poblenou and Sants.65 In the telephone strike, Maura issued instructions that ‘energetic measures’ be deployed against strikers, while Galarza, the republican security chief, informed both police and army that any pickets found to be involved in sabotage were to be shot on sight.66 As the judicial net widened, pickets faced new persecution on the streets. Union flyers, a favoured means by which the CNT responded quickly to events and communicated with the barris, were declared ‘illegal’ on the grounds that they contained material that had not been approved by the censor, and activists who distributed or posted these news sheets were liable to arrest.67 Similarly, strikers who used verbal persuasion to encourage workers to join the stoppage were arrested for ‘threatening behaviour’. Following a clash between police and pickets in Madrid, Miss Telefónica 1931, the winner of the company’s beauty pageant, was detained, while in Barcelona a group of young children was arrested in the Raval for taunting a telephonist with chants of ‘Maria the scab’. The appearance of the asaltos on the streets during the Telefónica strike and their deployment by the authorities to guard ‘scabs’ and impose ‘lightning bans’ on union assemblies prompted violent clashes with pickets.68

Repression increased the costs and risks of CNT protests and raised the stakes in industrial conflict. One of the consequences of the struggle to defend strikes from state repression and from the violence of UGT members was the consolidation of the CNT defence committees, as pickets and activists asserted their right to self-defence. For instance, forbidden activities such as fly-posting and leafleting came to be performed by armed defence committees. Based on small, clandestine networks in the unions and the barris, these semi-formal bodies were enveloped in increasingly violent clashes with the security forces. One of the bloodiest nights was on 23 July. During 21–22 July, a CNT meeting place in Seville was subjected to artillery bombardment, and four pickets were murdered by police.69 Tension was therefore high among cenetistas in Barcelona and, in the early evening of 23 July, two asaltos were seriously wounded after they attempted to detain a group of militants outside the CNT Textile Union offices in the anarchist stronghold of Clot. Later that night, a contingent of asaltos and police raided an alleged ‘clandestine meeting’ at the Builders’ Union offices in the Raval. Doubtless fearing that the police would apply the Ley de Fugas, the activists inside the building greeted the security forces with a hail of gunfire, leading to a four-hour siege during which the Builders’ Union offices were surrounded by hundreds of policemen, asaltos and soldiers. Eventually, the grupistas surrendered to the army. Six workers died, and there were dozens of wounded on both sides.70

Figure 4.3 An artists’ view of picket sabotage in the 1931 Telephone workers’ strike
Source: Francesc Bonamusa, Pere Gabriel, Josep Lluís Martin Ramos and Josep Termes, Història Gràfica del Moviment Obrer a Catalunya, Barcelona, 1989, p. 254

The ‘republic of order’ had sufficient repressive capacity to block the initial push of the Barcelona CNT, even though at the peak of the strike wave it proved necessary to reinforce the security forces with Guardia Civil and military units. Thus, at the end of August, Civil Governor Anguera de Sojo requested that 400 members of the Guardia Civil be sent to the city.71 In September, during what was, according to Anguera de Sojo, ‘a critical time’ in which ‘we either guarantee order once and for all or suffer a setback’, a further 100 civil guards arrived.72 That same month, the Guardia Civil complement in the city was increased on two further occasions in the ongoing battle for the streets.73 As summer turned to autumn, the collective strength of the CNT was significantly undermined by repression; strikes lasted longer and were less likely to end in victory for the unions. Sensing that they had weathered the storm of protest, the employers, who felt amply protected by Civil Governor Anguera de Sojo, went on the offensive, victimising activists and sacking workers. In the metal industry, the deal brokered by the authorities at the end of August, which saw employers accept most union demands, including an end to piecework, wage rises and the establishment of an unemployment subsidy, was wrecked in the autumn as the authorities turned a blind eye to infringements of the settlement. Even La Vanguardia was moved to condemn heavy-handed employers as a danger to ‘civic peace’.74

The repression of CNT mobilisations in the summer of 1931 drove a wedge between the regime and the workers who had expected so much from it. Aggressive policing in the barris aimed at dislocating the structures that connected the CNT with working-class communities was seen to favour the same business sectors that prospered under the monarchy This was bitterly resented by many workers, who experienced republican state power on the streets as little more than the police and army, a continuation of repressive, class-based policing. This was hardly surprising when we recall that the new authorities ignored CNT demands for a far-reaching reform of the police and the dissolution of the most despised branches of the monarchist security forces: the Guardia Civil, the Sometent and the secret political police.75 Displaying extreme political subjectivity, the republicans overrated the openness of their system of governance: for many on the streets, the use of the asaltos and the invasion of barris under the cover of the Ley de Defensa de la República signified an increase in the militarisation of urban space. The contradictory efforts of Maura and Largo Caballero to change popular attitudes towards the state and authority were never likely to have much of an impact upon the views of the unskilled and underemployed sectors of the Barcelona proletariat. This was quickly acknowledged by the authorities, who appreciated the difficulties they faced in penetrating the barris and ‘the genuine lack of auxiliary elements’ who could provide much-needed intelligence.76 Meanwhile, the logic of the ‘republic of order’ was inimical to republican hopes of securing the loyalty of the masses; as repression grew, plans to stabilise the regime by establishing popular state institutions were revealed to be a chimera, a utopía in the liberal republican mindset. Indeed, the asaltos demonstrated that they could be as brutal as the monarchist police, and it was not long before their readiness to give ‘boxing lessons’ to workers made them as feared as the Guardia Civil.77 Even the right-wing La Vanguardia acknowledged that the majority of Barcelona’s inhabitants harboured a ‘general disrespect’ towards the police.78 The growing hatred of the police, who appeared as the guardians of class justice and privilege in the barris, led many workers to become alienated from the ‘republic of order’, which contrasted sharply with the ‘republic of freedom’ that they had expected. The republican utopia thus dissolved under the acid of working-class struggle.

The clash between the ‘republic of order’ and the cenetista grassroots radicalised the union rank-and-file and made the position of the quietist moderate union leadership untenable. Central to this radicalisation process were the delegados de taller, who saw their syndical ambitions frustrated by the jurados and the other fetters placed on the everyday activities of the CNT. Rather than being a panacea for proletarian ills, ‘this lamentable Republic’ bore the hallmarks of previous regimes: the republican obsession with order equalled that of the monarchist authorities;79 employers amassed the lion’s share of wealth, while workers received ‘wages of misery that impede us from satisfying the most elementary necessities’;80 and the ‘scabbing’ by ‘UGT turncoats’ was again tolerated by the authorities and justified by the PSOE daily, El Socialista, the ‘police journal’ and ‘official organ’ of the Catalan bourgeoisie.81 In the face of this hostile coalition of forces, the prospects for CNT mobilisations were reduced: in October, a union delegate complained at a plenum of the Barcelona local federation that union practices were effectively ‘useless’ because the authorities ‘don’t allow us to act at all’.82

Some historians have suggested that the FAI orchestrated a seizure of power within the CNT to oust the moderate leadership.83 Such a view is based on a serious misjudgement about the nature of the CNT, which was a ‘bottom-up’ and not a ‘topdown’ organisation: as we saw when the moderates dominated the CNT National Committee during 1931, the union ‘leadership’ was never really in a position to exert control over the rank-and-file. Moreover, given the decentralised, federalist structure of the CNT, there was no organisational apparatus to seize. Meanwhile, the FAI lacked any real organisational coherence until around 1934–35 and was in no position to ‘seize’ control of the CNT in 1931, when it had around 2,000 activists throughout Spain.84 At the start of the Republic, the FAI in Barcelona, the capital of Iberian anarchism, did not even possess a typewriter: anarchists stuck handwritten notes to the city’s walls and copied pages from pamphlets and books and circulated them for propaganda purposes.85

The displacement of the moderate anarcho-syndicalists during mid to late 1931 and the ascendancy of militant anarchists and radical anarcho-syndicalists reflected the ability of the latter to channel the disaffection of the delegados de taller with the Republic. As state repression rendered conventional mass mobilisations difficult, the radicals and armed activists from the defence committees took the initiative, advocating, and sometimes deploying ‘revolutionary violence’, which, they believed, would frighten the bourgeoisie and their republican political masters into surrender. The radicals lacked a clear programme. Some were FAI members; others, such as Durruti and his grupo, who came to be synonymous with the radicalised CNT before the civil war, were identified with the FAI, or at least what was understood publicly to be the position of the FAI. More than anything though, Durruti and Nosotros were anarchist streetfighters who advocated a programme of action that appeared to be in tune with the needs of the moment. Their origins in a similar unskilled background to many thousands of workers in Barcelona meant that they had a language through which they could tap into and express the disenchantment of the growing number of workers, including the delegados de taller, who felt defrauded by the Republic. This disillusionment was not theoretical or doctrinal: it originated not from anarchist pamphlets and newspapers but from the frustration borne from the repression of the everyday trade union practices of the CNT. Nevertheless, the repressive turn of the ‘Police Republic’ confirmed libertarian orthodoxy—that the constituted power is always an anti-proletarian force, ‘unconditionally on the side of the bourgeoisie’ and the protector of the rule of capital. Accordingly, whereas CNT leaders initially vented their fury at one or two cabinet ministers, the radicals denounced the entire political class of the ‘republic of jailed workers’, which, they charged, was comprised of politicians no different from their monarchist predecessors, or, as Solidaridad Obrera put it, ‘the same dogs with different collars’.86

The radicals took heart from the signs of mass impatience at the tempo of change after April 1931, particularly the clashes between workers and the security forces, which, they believed, were evidence that the masses were overcoming their ‘complex of fear’. All that remained was to create a spark that would inspire the workers to envelop all Spain in a huge revolutionary conflagration.87 Notwithstanding their immense revolutionary optimism, the violent guerrilla struggles advocated by the radicals in the defence committees were however, an armed politics of frustration, a symptom of the decline of the curve of social protest that began during 1930–31. These trends are more evident still when we turn our attention to the extra-industrial struggles of the unemployed.