The May events

On Saturday, May 1, 19371, there was no May Day demonstration in Barcelona. The Generalidad had announced that this was a day to be worked for the sake of war production, although the real reason was fear of a confrontation between the different labor organizations following heightened tension in several comarcas and localities around Catalonia. That Saturday too the Generalidad council met to look into the worrying public order situation in Catalonia. The council endorsed the effectiveness displayed over the previous few weeks by its councilors for internal security and defense, agreeing to pass a vote of confidence in their ability to resolve outstanding2 public order business.

As the council meeting concluded, there was a meeting of a panel made up of the councilors for defense3 and internal security and the premier, for the purpose of looking into public order issues4. It seems hard to believe that the initiative to seize the Telephone Exchange could have been a personal decision by the councilor for security, Artemi Aiguadé. It is more likely that the decision would have been made by the panel which met after the council meeting on May 1st5, or resulted from the incident on Sunday May 2nd, when a telephone conversation between Companys and Azaña (who happened to be in Barcelona) was crassly interrupted by CNT militants. Of course, if the operation failed, the security councilor would carry the full political responsibility. By a stroke of luck, on Monday May 3rd, Companys happened to be on a visit to Benicarló for a meeting with Largo Caballero, conveniently enabling him to dissociate himself from the initial incidents. Be that as it may, Companys' political action, with his blinkered, incomprehensible refusal to dismiss Artemio Aiguadé and Rodriguez Salas6, as the CNT had insisted right from May 3rd, was one of the most significant triggers of the armed clashes in the ensuing days.

On Monday May 3, 1937, three truck loads of heavily armed Assault Guards, drew up outside the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluña. They were led by Rodriguez Salas, UGT militant and dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist, the officer commanding the public order commissariat in Barcelona. Ever since July 19, the Exchange had been commandeered by the CNT. The sore point was control of telephone links, border controls and the control patrols: since January, the Generalidad republican government and the masses of the CNT had clashed several times over these. It was an inevitable struggle between the republican state apparatus, which was insisting upon complete recovery of all of "its" proper prerogatives, and the CNT membership's defense of the "gains" of July 19, 1936.

Rodriguez Salas attempted to take control of the Telephone Exchange. The CNT militants on the lower floors, caught by surprise, let themselves be disarmed: but on the upper floors dogged resistance was organized, thanks to a machine-gun strategically positioned on the top floor. The news spread like wildfire. Barricades were thrown up immediately all over the city. We can speak of a spontaneous backlash from the Barcelona working class, if we regard as such the initiative shown by the middle ranking cadres of the CNT7, as well as the fact that there already existed significant militant organization among the CNT rank and file, in the shape of the district defense committees and the control patrols8. Similarly, we can speak of a spontaneous backlash, if we bear it in mind that at no time did an order go out from the CNT leadership, or from the leadership of any other party, before mobilization occurred and barricades were thrown up all around the city.

Nor had anyone issued the call for a general strike, which was the product of class instinct. This was ground ripe for the action that offered itself to the Friends of Durruti. They managed to attend immediately to what the circumstances required. Whilst the workers fought with weapons in hand, they strove to lead them and provide them with a revolutionary objective. But they soon discovered their limitations. They criticized the CNT's leaders, whom they labeled traitors in their May 8 Manifesto, but they were unable to overrule the order to quit the barricades. Nor did they consider supplanting the CNT leadership. They did nothing to see to it that their slogan about establishing a Revolutionary Junta was implemented. They knew that their criticisms of the anarcho-syndicalist leadership would not be enough to wrest control of the CNT organization from it.

On the other hand, the Group was newborn, lacking experience and lacking in prestige with the CNT masses. ItsIdeashad not managed to permeate the rank and file membership thoroughly.

Wallowing in this situation of powerlessness, they received a note from the POUM Executive Committee, requesting an authorized delegation from the Group to meet them9. Jaime Balius, Pablo Ruiz, Eleuterio Roig and Martin were selected10. At 7:00 P.M. on May 4 they met in the Principal Palace in the Ramblas with Gorkin, Nin and Andrade11. Jointly, they scrutinized the situation, and reached the unanimous conclusion that, in view of the CNT12 and FAI leaderships' opposition to a revolutionary uprising, it was doomed to failure13. It was agreed that an orderly withdrawal of the combatants was required, and that the latter should hold on to their weapons14. And that this withdrawal should take place once the opposing forces had abandoned their positions. And that assurances were needed that there would be no crack-down on the fighters on the barricades. The next day, the top leaders and officers of the CNT made a further radio broadcast, calling for the fighting to cease. By now the grassroots militants had stopped joking about the "firefighters" of the CNT-FAI and about the Guards kissing Garcia Oliver.

On Wednesday May 5, the Friends of Durruti distributed around the barricades the celebrated handbill that made them famous: it read as follows:

CNT-FAI. "Friends of Durruti" Group: Workers! A Revolutionary Junta. Shoot the culprits. Disarm the armed corps. Socialize the economy. Disband the political parties which have turned on the working class. We must not surrender the streets. The revolution before all else. We salute our comrades from the POUM who fraternized with us on the streets. Long live the Social Revolution! Down with the counterrevolution!

This handbill was printed at gun-point on the night of May 4-5, 1937, in a print shop in the Barrio Chino15. The improvisation and the Group's lack of infrastructure were obvious. The text had been drafted after that meeting with the POUM Executive Committee at 7:00 P.M. on May 4, by which time the Group and the POUM had agreed upon a defensive withdrawal with no surrender of weapons, and insisting upon assurances that there would be no repression. The handbill, endorsed by the POUM, and reprinted in issue No. 235 of La Batalla (on May 6) was not backed by any plan of action and was merely a statement of intent and an appeal to the CNT masses' spontaneity to press ahead with their activities against the encroachments of the counterrevolution. In point of fact, everything hinged upon the decision that the CNT leadership would make. It was absurd and laughable to believe that the CNT masses, in spite of their initial inhibitions, or criticisms, would not follow the leaders of July 19. Only if the CNT leadership were to be supplanted by a revolutionary leadership was there any chance, albeit very slim chance, of the masses' abiding by the revolutionary watchwords and plan of action of a new leadership. But neither the Group nor the POUM made any attempt to unseat the CNT leadership: nor had they drawn up any plan of action. In practice, both pursued a policy of compliance with the CNT leadership's decisions. The POUM's Executive Committee rejected José Rebull's plan to capture the Generalidad and the buildings still holding out in the city center, on the grounds that this was a political matter, not a military one16.

Also on May 5 there was a meeting between the POUM Local Committee in Barcelona and the Friends of Durruti - a meeting which the POUMists described as negative17, because:

They [The Friends of Durruti] are unwilling to work directly upon CNT ranks to unseat the leadership, wishing only to influence the movement, with no more responsibility than that.

In the handbill they issued on May 5, the Friends of Durruti suggested concerned action with the POUM. As their immediate objective and to direct the revolution, they proposed that a Revolutionary Junta be established. But once that watchword had gone out, they did nothing to put it into effect. They were barricade fighters, rather than organizers. The suggestion of concerted CNT-FAI-POUM action was nothing more than a salute to the militants from other organizations who had fought alongside them on the barricades. The printed word of the handbill never progressed as far as a hard and fast agreement. They did virtually nothing to unseat the CNT leadership and wrest away control of the CNT masses which repeatedly turned a deaf ear to orders to quit the fighting in the streets. They failed to exploit, organize or issue specific instructions to those Group members who were members of the Control Patrols. They issued no orders to Máximo Franco, a Group member and delegate of the Rojinegra Column, which, along with the POUM division commanded by Rovira, had left the front line in order to intervene in the fighting in Barcelona. Both Josep Rovira and Máximo Franco were persuaded to return to the front by Isgleas, Abad de Santillán and Molina - that is, by the CNT personnel who gave the orders in the Generalidad's Defense Department. The Friends of Durruti trusted entirely to the creativity and instincts of the masses. There was not even the merest hint of coordination between the various members of the Group: instead everyone did as he pleased, wherever he thought he must or wherever seemed best to him. They failed to counter the action of the CNT leaders who toured the barricades to argue with and persuade the grassroots militants to quit the barricades.

And the CNT masses, bewildered by the appeals from their leaders (the very same leaders as on July 19!) eventually chose to give up the fight, even though, to begin with, they defied the CNT leadership's appeals for concord and for the fighting to cease for the sake of antifascist unity. On Tuesday May 6th, as a gesture of good will and to restore peace to the city, the militants of the CNT withdrew from the Telephone Exchange building where the fighting had begun: it was immediately occupied by the security forces and UGT members took up the work stations. When anarchist leaders protested, the Generalidad's response was that "it was a matter of a fait accompli" and the CNT leaders chose not to broadcast this further "treachery," lest it inflame passions.

The Friends of Durruti Group was at no time a serious impediment to the CNT's policy of antifascist unity. At most they were an opposition critical of the CNT and FAI leaderships, and above all, an irksome and unwelcome reminder that the policy of collaboration with the machinery of the State was a betrayal of anarcho-syndicalist principles and ideology.

Distribution of the handbill around the barricades was no easy undertaking, risking the suspicions of many militants and even braving physical18 retaliation.

We know of one meeting between Balius and Josep Rebull, the secretary of the POUM's Cell 72, during the May events. A meeting which, given the numerical slightness of both organizations, had no practical effect. The Friends of Durruti declined Josep Rebull's suggestion that they issue a joint Manifesto19.

The Manifesto which the Group distributed on May 8th20, in which they reviewed the May events, was printed on the presses of La Batalla . The Group, having been denounced by the CNT as a band of provocateurs, had no presses on which to print it. A POUM militian by the name of Paradell, a leader of the Shop assistants' union, upon discovering the problem facing the Friends of Durruti Group, raised the matter with Josep Rebull, the administrator of the POUM newspaper, and the latter, honoring his basic duty of revolutionary solidarity, and without consultation with any higher party authority, offered the use of his presses to the Friends of Durruti Group21.

In the Manifesto, the Friends of Durruti linked the seizure of the Telephone Exchange with earlier provocations. They named the Esquerra Republicana, the PSUC, and the Generalidad's armed agencies as responsible for having triggered the May events. The Friends of Durruti asserted the revolutionary character of July 1936 (and argued that it was not just opposition to a fascist uprising) and of May 1937 (which was not simply aimed at a change of government):

Our Group which was on the street, on the barricades, defending the proletariat's gains, calls for the total triumph of the social revolution. We cannot countenance the fiction, and the counterrevolutionary fact, whereby a new government is formed with the same parties, but with different representatives.

The Friends of Durruti countered the parliamentary compromises which they labeled as deceit with their revolutionary program, as set out in that handbill distributed on May 5th:

Our Group demands the immediate establishment of a revolutionary junta, the shooting of the guilty ones, the disarming of the armed corps, the socialization of the economy and the disbanding of all the political parties which turned on the working class.

The Friends of Durruti Group had no hesitation in arguing that the battle had been won by the workers and, that being so, they had to do away once and for all with a Generalidad that signified nothing. The Group leveled a charge of treason against the CNT's committees and leaders who had brought the victorious workers' uprising to a standstill:

The Generalidad stands for nothing. Its continued existence bolsters the counterrevolution. We workers have carried the day. It defies belief that the CNT's committees should have acted with such timidity that they ventured to order a 'cease-fire' and indeed forced a return to work when we stood on the very threshold of total victory. No account was taken of the provenance of the attack no heed paid to the true meaning of the present events. Such conduct has to be described as treason to the revolution which no one ought to commit or encourage in the name of anything. And we know how to categorize the noxious work carried out by Solidaridad Obrera and the CNT's most prominent militants."

The description "treason" was repeated in a reference to the CNT Regional Committee's disavowal of the Friends of Durruti, and to the transfer of responsibilities for security and defense (not those under Generalidad control, but the ones under CNT control) to the central government in Valencia:

The treason is on a monumental scale. The two essential guarantees of the working class, security and defense, are offered to our enemies on a platter.

The Manifesto closed with a short self-criticism of some tactical shortcomings during the May events, and an optimistic look to the future - one which the immediate tide of repression unleashed on May 28 would show to be vain and insubstantial. May 1937 did not end in stalemate, but was a heavy defeat for the proletariat.

For all of the mythology surrounding the events of May 1937, the fact is that it represented a very chaotic, confused22 situation, characterized by every one of the sides involved in the fighting developing an enthusiasm for negotiations. May 1937 was not at all a revolutionary insurrection, but began as a defense of "trade union ownership" established in July 1936. What triggered the fighting was the storming of the Telephone Exchange by Generalidad security troops. And that move was part and parcel of the Companys's government's ongoing intent to recover, bit by bit, the powers which the "irregular" situation of a workers' uprising in July 19 had momentarily had wrested from it. The recent successes scored in Puigcerdá and throughout the Cerdaña paved the way for a definitive move in Barcelona and right across Catalonia. It is obvious that Companys felt that he had the backing of Comorera (PSUC) and Antonov-Ovseenko (the Soviet consul) with whom he had worked very closely and to great effect since December, when the POUM had been dropped from the Generalidad government. Stalinist policy coincided with Companys's aims: the undermining and side-lining of revolutionary forces, that is, of the POUM and the CNT, were Soviet aims that could only be encompassed if the bourgeois Generalidad government could be strengthened. The protracted crisis opened up in the Generalidad government following the CNT's refusal to accept the March 4, 1937 decree disbanding the Control Patrols, was resolved with violence (after several instances of armed skirmishing in Vilanesa, La Fatarella, Cullera (Valencia), Bellver, and at Roldan Cortada's funeral, etc.) in the attack upon the Telephone Exchange and in the bloody events of May in Barcelona. Stultifying shortsightedness, unshakable fidelity to antifascist unity and the extent of the main anarcho-syndicalist leaders' (from Peiró to Federica Montseny, from Abad de Santillán to Garcia Oliver, from Marianet to Valerio Mas) collaboration with the republican government, were not negligible factors, nor had the Generalidad government and Soviet agents overlooked them. They could also count upon an asinine saintliness, as was amply demonstrated during the May events.

As far as the actions of the Friends of Durruti Group during the May events are concerned, a misleading mythologization of its role on the barricades and its handbill23 would also be out of place. As we have stated already, the Friends of Durruti did not, at any time, intend to unseat the CNT leadership, but contented themselves to the utterance of scathing criticisms of its leaders and their policy of treason towards the revolution. Maybe they were unable to do anything else, given their numbers and the slightness of their influence upon the CNT's mass following. But we should single out their involvement in the street-fighting24, their ascendancy on several barricades on the Ramblas, especially ones opposite their headquarters25, and their involvement in the fighting in Sants, La Torrassa and Sallent. Naturally, their attempts to offer a lead and some minimal political demands in the handbill of May 5, 1937 deserve to be emphasized. Distribution of that handbill was no easy undertaking and cost several Group members their lives. In the distribution of it around the barricades, they could depend upon help from CNT militants. Among the activities during the May events worth mentioning, we should not forget the call, issued by Balius from a barricade located at the junction of the Ramblas and the Calle Hospital, for all of Europe's workers to show solidarity with the Spanish revolution26. Upon receiving reports that a Column of Assault Guards was on its way from Valencia to put down the revolt, the Friends of Durruti responded by trying to marshal an anarchist column to head it off. But this never got beyond the planning stages, in that it was not taken up by the CNT militants who set about abandoning their barricades.

Finally, we ought to single out, from a political point or view, the agreement reached with the POUM that an appeal should be issued to the workers that they should seek, before quitting the barricades, assurances that there would be no retaliation: and above all pointing out that retention of arms - which ought never to be surrendered - constituted the best guarantee of all.

From a theoretical angle, the Friends of Durruti's role was much more outstanding after the May events when they set about publishing their newspaper, which borrowed its name from the paper published by Marat during the French Revolution: The People's Friend.