Walking the CNT’s Streets (or a Tour of Spanish Civil War Barcelona)


Last week we went into Barcelona and went on a Spanish Civil War walking tour organized by Nick Lloyd and Catherine Howley. It’s been reviewed in the Guardian and other places. In many ways, it has been the best thing we’ve done in Spain: by turns educational, provocative, and emotional.

The tour took place almost entirely along Las Ramblas and in the Gothic quarter. It started in Plaça de Catalunya, which serves as the center of the historic city. It is where some of the fiercest fighting in Barcelona took place. There was a pitched battle there between the people of Barcelona and the fascists in the opening hours of the war. And there was another battle with the liberals and the Stalinists on one side and the anarchists and POUM (anti-Stalinist/Trotskyist Marxist-Leninists) on the other side during the May Days of 1937, when the liberals and the Stalinists colluded to crush the anarchist revolution that had erupted in Barcelona with the advent of the war.

The Spanish Civil War is an immensely complicated topic. It was simultaneously a war that saw a (sometimes) united front of anti-fascists on one side against the combined might of Spanish and Italian fascists and the Nazis on the other. It offers one of the few examples of genuine self-management by the working classes in contemporary history. And it provides an object lesson in the ways in which liberals aligned with capital are usually more afraid of the flowering of actual working class power than the rise of totalitarianism. The US government, for instance, refused to support the Spanish Republic but then was just fine with doing business with the Francoist regime after the end of the war.

I know a fair amount about the war for a few different reasons. The first is that, most simply, I have long aligned myself with the form of direct democratic political practice commonly called anarchism. Anarchism is a political philosophy frequently maligned and misunderstood. It doesn’t mean no government or chaos. It means no state and no concentrated capitalist corporate hierarchies. In the place of a corporation or a centralized nation state it offers the self-managed workplace or the self-managed neighborhood, cooperating in connection with other such self-managed entities.

It is often described as utopian or unrealistic. This is a claim that is both ahistorical and ignorant of current political affairs. It is ahistorical because the nation state and large centralized economic power are both fairly recent developments. As numerous historians have documented, and the anthropologist David Graeber and the archeologist David Wengrow recently wrote about eloquently in The Dawn of Everything, human beings have organized ourselves in lots of different ways throughout our history. In many of these instances the type of organization has been something that could be described as relatively horizontal–an equal sharing of political decision making across all members of society–and largely self-managed, the people nearest to the consequences of the decisions being those with most involved in making them.

It is ignorant of current political affairs because there are presently two mass movements that have been engaged in long-term experiments in horizontal self-management over the last decades. The people of Rojava in Syria and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico have sustained organizations that look quite anarchist, and have been heavily influenced by anarchism, for many years now. They are inspiring examples of the kind of different world that might be possible.

The other reasons why I have a level of knowledge about the war are by turns personal and literary. They are personal because for many years I was friends with Federico Arcos. I met him in 2005 at the centenary of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago and visited him often until his death in 2015. Federico was a member of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the historic anarchist union in Spain, for almost 80 years. He grew up in Barcelona, fought in the war when it broke out, and was then involved in the guerilla movement against Franco until 1953 when he emigrated to Canada.

During the time I knew him, Federico shared with me many stories about the war. And stories are the other reason why I know something about it. Several of the great literary figures of the twentieth century were involved in it, primarily on the anti-fascist side. Two of the most famous were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell.

Hemingway was in Spain for part of it. For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during the war. Orwell was also involved in the war. He fought in a militia organized by the POUM. His book Homage to Catalonia is an account of his time in Spain, the power of the anarchist revolution, how it was betrayed by liberals and Stalinists, and how that betrayal is tied to the ultimate victory of the fascists.

The tour is largely centered on Orwell’s experience of the war. This makes sense because the tour is clearly for tourists and Orwell’s account of his time in Spain is one of the most famous and sympathetic to the people of Barcelona (Hemmingway being a Stalinist).

There’s something about walking the streets of a place while thinking about its history that makes the history seem less abstract and more profound. In this case, the space made me understand how much of the action of the Spanish Revolution war took place in a small area of Barcelona. Near or on Las Ramblas the Stalinists and the POUM both had their headquarters. The telephone exchange that the CNT controlled during the opening months of the war was there as well (the battle for control of the telephone exchange was at the heart of the conflict in May 1937).

The tour also helped me to understand the contemporary politics of Spanish anarchism better. In the late 1970s, after Spain became a Republic again, the CNT split into two wings. One group became the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) and the other kept the historic name. The split was over the question of whether not the union would participate in government run works councils and sign contracts with employers or not. The CGT opted to be allow contracts while the CNT committed themselves to what sometimes gets called “pure” syndicalism. They believe direct action is the only way to build workers power.

This split actually began during the course of the war. It emerged between those who decided to compromise and participate in the government as part of a general, and temporary, anti-fascist front and those who felt that any such participation would ultimately undermine the CNT’s revolutionary objectives (which it arguably did). I hadn’t really understood the origins of the split before.

I also hadn’t really understood the extent of the Left’s violence against the Catholic church–which our tour guide, Catherine, more properly framed as the violence by peasants and workers. Apparently, in the opening weeks of the war something like 7,000 priests were killed. Nor was this violence entirely limited to the workers and peasants. Franco also ordered the murders of at least 11 in the Basque country.

The violence didn’t primarily come from the Left. All-and-all, during the war, the forces aligned with the workers and peasants or the Left were responsible for the deaths of about 50,000 deaths: 7,000 priests and another 43,000 bosses, right-wing gun thugs, and the like. This came about in a context where right-wing gun thugs and the military had been killing, often in broad daylight, and brutally repressing union members and anyone who demanded any kind of social reform for decades.

And the violence from workers and peasants was dwarfed by the violence by the Right. During the war, forces aligned with Franco were responsible for around 250,000 extrajudicial murders. In many cases they would go into a village and simply round up and shoot anyone suspected of Leftist sympathies. After their victory they are estimated to have killed as many as a million more–making Spain the country, following Cambodia, with the second highest number of unmarked graves in the world.

While the violence of Right doesn’t excuse the violence of the Left, it certainly should put it in perspective. And perhaps it might serve as a reminder of the disproportionate violence between the Right and Left in the United States today. Conservatives love to decry the violence of left-wing and human rights protests. However, as the events of January 6, 2021 testify, movements aligned with the Right are responsbile for the vast majority of political violence in the country.

The tour ended with a visit to a church that perhaps demonstrates the ways in which the Right will twist incidents of violence to serve their own political ends. The Plaça de Sant Felipe Neri was the site of a Nazi bombing in 1938 that killed 38 children who had taken shelter in the church located there. The church survived but with significant shrapnel damage on the outside.

During the Franco regime the story was told that the damage to the church was because it was a place where workers and peasants had engaged in the mass executions of Catholic clergy. In other words, a place that was the site of significant fascist violence against civilian children–a strategy of intentional terror meant to subjugate the population–was turned into a place for fascists to further their propaganda that the Left was principally responsible for the violence of the war. The real violence of the Right was erased and replaced by the imagined violence of Left. It is a pattern that seems to continue to be present in today’s political discourse.

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