This is a study of class cultures, repression and protest in Barcelona during the four decades of crisis that preceded the Spanish Civil War. My central concern is with the interlocking and complementary areas of space, culture, protest and repression.
Barcelona, the capital of Europe’s biggest and most enduring anarchist movement, is an ideal laboratory for the study of these phenomena. During the period under analysis, this Mediterranean city was at the centre of economic, social, cultural and political activity and conflict in Spain as the most important actors and institutions in Spanish politics (the state, the working class, the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie, the professional middle classes, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, or National Confederation of Labour) and others) vied with one another for control of the city.
My study has been inspired by the Thompsonian tradition of writing history ‘from below’, an approach that has had an enduring influence on social history inside and outside universities throughout Europe. Yet one of my central aims has been to avoid certain lacunae common to social history, such as the tendency to ignore the relationship between the changing rhythms of institutionalised high politics and the impulses of popular protest. A linked problem is the spatial absences of some social history. Writing in 1993, José Luis Oyón lamented the absence of social perspectives on the city in Spanish historiography, which he took as ‘an indicator of the infancy of urban historical research in Spain’. That same year saw the publication in Spain of a highly original, thought-provoking and remarkably undervalued study of urban insurrections in early twentieth-century Barcelona by the Geographer Pere López Sánchez, the title of which was inspired by the riots in British cities during the ‘hot’ summer of 1981. This study is intended as a contribution to the growing body of work that has rectifled the spatial myopia of earlier writing on Spain’s past. It seeks to provide a history from below in a double sense: first, a spatialised social history of the dispossessed; and second, a history from the streets that examines the problematic of the city and the sociopolitical responses it inspired from below, as well as from above.
Chapter 1 explores Barcelona’s economic, political and urban development from the middle of the nineteenth century into a highly contested space, and how this transformed the elite’s previously utopian view of the city into a dystopian nightmare. The second chapter examines the growth of a working-class city, spatially and socially delineated by Barcelona’s proletarian neighbourhoods (barris), assessing the everyday life of workers and their collective cultural, social and organisational responses to the deficiencies of the capitalist city up until the late 1920s. A key concern here is the expansion of a workers’ public sphere inspired by anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, which gave rise to the CNT, the largest revolutionary syndicalist trade union in the history of Europe. Chapter 3 details the birth and evolution of the Spanish Second Republic in Barcelona. The focus here is on the creation of a ‘republic of order’ to repress any initiatives from below to strengthen the power of the proletarian city and end the social exclusion inherited from the monarchy. This chapter is a radical rejoinder to liberal historians, who view the Second Republic through the prism of the long winter of Francoist repression, and it challenges the depiction of the Republic as a golden era of liberalism in twentieth-century Spain. The next two chapters (4 and 5) focus on the CNT during the first year of the Republic, a period that, as Antonio Elorza has observed, was ‘decisive’ for subsequent developments. Chapter 4 charts the re-emergence of the proletarian city in 1931 and the divisions between workers’ leaders over the new political context, before assessing how the industrial struggles of the CNT rank and file to improve their economic situation during 1931 led to a clash with the republican authorities, culminating in the (antirepublican) radicalisation of the trade unions in Barcelona. Chapter 5 focuses on nonindustrial working-class struggles: rent strikes, jobless conflicts and the broad gamut of unemployed street politics, including theft and shoplifting, which James Scott has aptly described as ‘small arms fire in the class war’. The radical anarchists embraced this direct action by the dispossessed, including armed robbery, and embarked upon a struggle for the streets with the republican authorities that had a profoundly radicalising impact on the CNT and contributed enormously to social and political polarisation in Barcelona. In Chapter 6, I analyse the anti-republican insurrections of 1932–33 and the split within the CNT as the radical anarchists sought to marginalise their critics inside the labour movement. This is followed by an appraisal of the ‘militarisation’ of CNT struggles as paramilitary groups became deeply involved in industrial conflicts and funded the union movement through armed expropriations and bank robberies. Hitherto, these expropriations have either been ignored by historians sympathetic to the libertarians or simply denounced by right-wing historians as proof of the essentially ‘criminal’ nature of the anarchist movement. Chapter 7 assesses the cultural struggle for hearts and minds waged in the daily press between, on the one hand, a coalition of urban elites, the authorities and their supporters, who depicted the radical CNT as a mafia-type ‘criminal’ conspiracy and, on the other hand, the radical anarchists, who inveighed against what they regarded as a ‘criminal’ socio-economic system. Since the radical position was in tune with the vox populi, they were able to preserve their influence in the barris. The latter part of this chapter explores the orientation of the CNT in the period up until the start of the Spanish Civil War. Finally, Chapter 8 examines the urban revolution in Barcelona at the start of the civil war, its political limitations, and the process whereby the revolution was contained by republicans and their Stalinist allies.