INSURRECTION. The Bloody Events of 3 to 7 May 1937. Hunger and Violence in Revolutionary Barcelona by Agustín Guillamón — Summary. (Balance, April 2017)

Agustín Guillamón INSURECCIÓN Las sangrientas jornadas del 3 al 7 de mayo de 1937. Hambre y violencia en la Barcelona revolucionaria /INSURRECTION. The Bloody Events of 3 to 7 May 1937. Hunger and Violence in Revolutionary Barcelona (Ediciones Descontrol, Barcelona 2017, 512 pages, 15 euro)

INSURECCIÓN offers a brand new account of the Events of May 1937, one that is highly original and substantially different from that offered by academic historians thus far. Its main feature is that it is built on rigorous archival research and on interviews carried out with some of the protagonists. It is not a book of books, which is to say, the usual rehash made up of clippings and facts lifted from other books which commercial publishers habitually offer us, but a full and sometimes startling and comprehensive account of what occurred during the bloody period between 3 and 7 May, told from the vantage point of the rebels involved and on the basis of rigorous and incontrovertible documentary evidence.
It contains many previously unknown elements that will. no doubt, be re-hashed and inevitably misconstrued in the plagiaristic cut-and-paste world of academia.

As this is a cursory summary which, inevitably, lacks the freshness, complexity and richness of the full book, we urge those interested in discovering the names indicated here by initials only or who wishes to check out the sources used or familiarise himself with the overall historical process to read the book for themselves; they will in all likelihood be incredulous as a result of the information offered in this concise extract:
The Generalidad’s decrees of 4 March 1937 conjured into existence a Unified Security Corps (made up of Assault Guard and the Civil Guard), a move that heralded the imminent dissolution of the Control Patrols. These decrees triggered a reorganisation of the hibernating defence committees, the resignations of CNT councillors and a serious cabinet crisis.

At the 12 April 1937 meeting of the Barcelona Local Federation of Anarchist Groups, radicalised by the invitation both to the Libertarian Youth and the defence committees’ delegates, all CNT personnel were called upon to step down from any municipal or government position, and to form an insurrectionist committee. JMM, PR and JSC had played leading parts in that radicalisation.

On 15 April, following protracted and tough negotiations, Companys and MEV personally agreed on a way out of the crisis and the formation of a new government (with the CNT’s Aurelio Fernández joining the Generalidad cabinet).
The murder of Antonio Martín in Bellver de Cerdaña on 27 April 1937 led to a breakdown of the laboriously worked out agreement. MEV put the defence committees on alert by disclosing that a coup de main by the counter-revolutionary side was imminent. MEV lit the fuse but was opposed to an uprising, regarding one as premature and ill prepared, being lacking in appropriate aims and coordination.

The 3 May provocation (in which the Stalinist Eusebio Rodríguez Salas organised the raid on the CNT-controlled Telephone Exchange) mobilised the defence committees and within two hours they had called a revolutionary strike, taking over all the workers’ districts and erecting barricades in the city centre and at strategic points. The CNT’s higher committees (represented on this occasion by Dioniso Eroles and Josep Asens) did their best to rein in the defence committees but were overwhelmed and failed to do so.

On the morning of 4 May, JMM, secretary of the (Barcelona) Local FAI Federation, called a meeting of the Regional Committee of Catalonia, and secured the formation of a secret CNT Revolutionary Committee plus two commissions tasked with coordinating and spreading the fight in the streets, one based in the Plaza de España and the other in the city centre-Paralelo. At the same meeting, a CNT delegation headed by Santillán was appointed to negotiate some sort of an agreed resolution at the Generalidad Palace. LR had the cannons on Montjuich trained upon the Plaza de San Jaime.

The CNT was pursuing twin-track ploys: insurrection and negotiation. Companys (the Generalidad president) and Comorera (secretary of the PSUC) were pursuing only the ploy of provocation, their sole purpose being to ensure that the insurgents were wiped out, the CNT weakened to the point of extinction and a strong government formed.

On the afternoon of 4 May the armed Barcelona workers, on their barricades and ready for a fight, were not defeated by the PSUC, nor by the Esquerra, nor by the Generalidad government’s forces of Public Order. They were brought to their knees by calls for peace over the airwaves. The revolutionary attempt to devise coordination and a specific aim for the insurrection that was underway foundered. At a time when Barcelona was one big barricade, the workers in arms were defeated and humiliated by the exhortations broadcast by the CNT’s higher committees, especially by Juan García Oliver’s call to ‘kiss-and-make’.

At noon on 5 May, UGT secretary Sesé, on his way to take up his Generalidad ministerial seat, came under gunfire from the CNT Entertainments Union after his car attempted to drive through a checkpoint at a barricade. In retaliation, Companys repeatedly ordered his air force to bomb barracks and other buildings under CNT control.

The Friends of Durruti issued a leaflet attempting to establish concrete aims for the uprising: the Generalidad was to be replaced by a Revolutionary Junta, those guilty of the provocation (Rodríguez Salas and Artemi Ayguadé) were to be shot, the economy would be taken under social control, there would be fraternisation with POUM militants and so on. The higher committees immediately disowned the leaflet which had the effect of re-igniting the fighting on the barricades.

5 and 6 May marked the high tide mark of the street fighting. The CNT’s talk of truce or abandoning the barricades in obedience to radio and newspaper watchwords were exploited by the counter-revolutionary camp to consolidate their own positions; this, in turn, provoked the revolutionaries into resuming the fighting and they returned to the barricades.

By 7 May it was apparent that the uprising had failed with the workers starting to dismantle the barricades. Troops dispatched from Valencia paraded along the Diagonal and occupied the whole of the city. Over the ensuing days, the higher committees tried to cover up what had happened, bowdlerise the minutes being written up and ultimately to dodge, insofar as they could, the foreseeable Stalinist and the government crackdown on the Organisation and on the protagonists. The POUM was cast in the role of scapegoat upon which all of the blame could be loaded.

If we had to sum up May ’37 in a sentence, it would have to explain that the workers, armed, on their barricades and ready for hell or high water, were betrayed by the cease-fire calls broadcast over the airwaves: Barcelona was a revolt quashed over the airwaves.

Conclusions
The higher committees tried their hand at two approaches, allowing the formation of a CNT Revolutionary Committee, whilst simultaneously forming a delegation to negotiate with the Generalidad Palace. But they quickly dropped the insurrectionary line in favour of the trump card of cease-fire thereby guaranteeing their future as bureaucrats.

In concert, the UGT and the CNT higher committees, the Esquerra and the Generalidad government, Stalinists and nationalists together, turned the revolutionaries’ imminent (according to JMM from the FAI and Rebull from the POUM) beautiful military victory into a ghastly political defeat which paved the way for ferocious repression. They did so, together, but each in their own different way, so that each of them might play his part effectively. The Stalinists and republicans directly, on the barricades of counter-revolution. Anarcho-syndicalists and POUMists caught in the ambiguity of ‘I would but I can’t’ and ‘I am but I am no longer’; the former urging a cease-fire and abandoning of the barricades; the latter with their ‘daring’ tail-ending of the former.

Only two small organisations, the Friends of Durruti and the SBLE (Bolshevik-Leninist Section, Spain) made any attempt to avoid defeat and provide the rising with clear-cut aims. Barcelona’s essentially anarchist revolutionary proletariat, fought for revolution, even against their own organisations and leaders in a battle that was already lost back in July 1936, at the point where they allowed the state apparatus to stand and traded class struggle for collaborationism and antifascist unity.

But there are some lost battles that need fighting for the sake of future generations, their sole purpose being to put it on record who was who, flag up the side of the barricade one was manning, flag up the class dividing lines and the path to follow and the mistakes to be avoided.

Appendices
Complementing the text are ten appendices, all very different in character and purpose. Some are virtually free-standing as far as the book is concerned and might as easily have been published as monographs, such as the one given over to the killing and torture of twelve libertarians in the Marx barracks; their bodies were removed by ambulances to be dumped by the side of the road in Bellaterra. Or the murder-funeral of Berneri and Barbieri. Others are merely informative and needed to underpin the claims made in rigorous earlier investigations, such as Companys’s order for the bombing of buildings and barracks held by the CNT; the correspondence with José Quesada or the testimonies from Severino Campos and Matías Suñer regarding the existence of a secret CNT Revolutionary Committee. Finally, there are background items such as the biography of JMM, Josep Rebull’s text analysing May ’37 or the reports from Gorkin and Molins on the Local POUM Committee.

The appendices all serve the same purpose: they enrich and/or complement our knowledge of the bloody events of May ’37 from a wide range of perspectives, the aim being to offer the reader serviceable and invaluable tools for further appreciation and assessment.
There is also an unnumbered collection of illustrations showing barricades and protagonists, as well as unpublished photos of the inner apartments of the Casa CNT-FAI.

This book can be read as a stand-alone volume, albeit there is no denying that it is part of a four-volume collection given over to the revolutionary process experienced in Barcelona city 1936-1937, the final collection is as follows:

Hunger and Violence in Revolutionary Barcelona

  1. The Committees Revolution. From July to December 1936
  2. The Bread War. December 1936 to May 1937.
  3. Insurrection. The Bloody Events of 3 to 7 May 1937
  4. The Crackdown on the CNT and the revolutionaries. May to September 1937.

 

Balance, April 2017