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The Rose of Fire

"Proto "street art", Barcelona 1995.

Seny and Rauxa

Seny, or ‘common sense’ is an important word in Catalan, and many Barcelonans consider it as their principal virtue. It makes them rich and sets them apart from the rest of Spain, or at least from the Spain of dreaming Don Quixotes and creaky old grandees who regarded commerce with distaste.

Seny, however, has a counterpart: rauxa, or ‘uncontrolled passion’. While Eusebi Güell and his high-flying cronies sought Utopia in Modernisme and modernization, their mistreated workers sought theirs in Anarchism. The bourgeoisie sublimated their rauxa in Wagner, architectural excess, exotic sex (at least judging by the old bills of fare at Barcelona’s bordellos) and worse, the Anarchists expressed their rauxa by erecting barricades; Engels, in his Bakuninites in Action, noted that Barcelonans were better at erecting them than anyone. But there was seny on the Anarchist side as well; their magazine Acràcia was well written and carefully thought out.

The one thing that Barcelona's Anarchists and bourgeoisie shared was a resentment of central authority. For the city's bosses, this meant Madrid, especially after the bumbling government lost Cuba and the Philippines, both of which had been important Catalan cash cows, in 1898. For the Anarchists, authority was anyone who lorded it over the human race, be it any of the tools of the bourgeoisie (the Church, government, army or capital), all of whom made humanity evil by working from the fundamental assumption that it was inherently so.

First Strikes, and an introduction to Bakunin

The first sparks of what would become one of Europe's bitterest class struggles occurred in 1835 in Barcelona’s Bonoplata factory, an early steam-powered plant, when Luddites set it on fire. Twenty years later, when the government banned trade unions, Barcelona responded with Spain’s first general strike. But frustration grew as nothing changed: the city's industrialists enjoyed and flaunted their wealth, while the average worker in their factories, in spite of labouring 12 to 13 hours seven days a week, could hardly make enough to feed his family. School was beyond the reach of most, and children as young as eight were sent out to work. Hygiene in tenement-like flats was non-existant, and disease rife.

In October 1868, Barcelona was visited by Giuseppe Fanelli, an apostle of Bakunin. He spoke only Italian and French, but he had clippings of Bakunin’s speeches and pamphlets, and they were enough. In that same year, the Anarchist paper Solidaritat Obrera was founded, and gave meaning to the sporadic uprisings of Catalan farm labourers and workers in Poble Nou. Inspired, the Anarchists staged strikes, inevitably lost, and after each defeat became more radical.

While more fervent believers drifted into political terrorism, the actions of the peaceful-minded, politically innocent majority tended to be irrational and spontaneous. The police didn’t know how to cope, and after every political crime, they rounded up and tortured not only Anarchists but moderate trade unionists and anyone suspected of progressive ideas.

Adding to the confusion

This being Barcelona, there was the added ingredient of Catalan nationalism. The Anarchists considered it completely irrelevant, but it coloured the other, smaller workers’ parties. The Socialists, in spite of their internationalist view of the class struggle, were emotional Catalans, as were the Republicans; both groups resented the Bourbons and the Spanish state.

In addition, another powerful group were the Radicals, who were as anti-clerical as the Anarchists, while their leader Alejandro Lerroux openly fomented anti-Catalanism among workers, by equating the selfish bourgeoisie with Catalan nationalism; he found ready listeners among immigrant workers.

The Tragic Week of 1909

The Setmana Tràgica of 1909 was set off when Madrid, needing troops to fight in the Second RIf War in Morocco, informed Catalan reservists (who had already done their military service), that they would be sent to the front. As rich men could pay to be excused from the army, the burden fell disproportionately on the poor.

On 26 June a general strike against the imperialist war was called; the San José Workers' foundation in Poble Nou went up in flames, the first of 80 Catholic institutions to be destroyed in a spontaneous orgy of rauxa, tomb desecrations and street violence that had to be put down by the army from outside Barcelona after local troops refused to shoot their fellow citizens. Between 100 and 150 people were killed, and over 1700 imprisoned. Lerroux fled the country, and five 'instigators' were put to death at the Castell de Montjuïc, including Francesc Ferrer, founder of the Modern Schools.

Birth of the CNT in the Rose of Fire

After the Setmana Tràgica, Barcelona had a new Anarchist nickname: La Rose de Foc, the Rose of Fire. In 1911, the Anarchist trade union CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) was founded, and 80 per cent of Barcelona’s workers joined. The bosses tried to ban it. For them, Noucentisme architecture and its ideals of harmony and balance were Barcelona’s new fashion, and industrialists such as Güell became fond of quoting Goethe’s ‘injustice is preferable to disorder’.

The Anarchists weren’t listening. Between 1910 and 1923, 800 strikes rocked Barcelona (the most successful was the 1919 La Canadiense strike) while the bosses made a killing out of the First World War, selling goods to both sides.

Anarchists Rule OK!

Realizing that the city police alone could not keep workers down, Barcelona's manufacturers backed the dictator Primo de Rivera, who brought and made a devil’s pact with the Spanish army. It backfired; when Franco declared his coup in 1936 Barcelona’s police stayed loyal to the Generalitat and joined the CNT in the battle for the city. After much dithering, the CNT (against all their principles) joined the government.

For ten months (late 1936-37) Barcelona became the only city in history to be governed by millennial Anarchists. Some, especially a column of 3,000 volunteers under the Buenaventura Durruti acquitted themselves well in the Civil War, at least until Durruti was killed in Madrid in 1936.

Meanwhile, the majority of Anarchist concentrated on changing everything they hated about Barcelona. Unbridled individualism and the brotherhood of man were exalted over bureaucrats, bosses, politicians and priests. Many bourgeois left the country or escaped into the zones conquered by Franco; those who stuck around carefully disguised themselves as workers; wearing a tie on the streets was considered a provocation.

Shops and cafés became collectives; progressive schools were established; women’s rights and healthcare were seriously addressed for the first time in Spain, under Health Minister Federica Montseny, who was the first female minister in Europe. Servile and ceremonial forms of speech were abolished; large buildings seized by workers were given rent-free to the poorest of the poor. There were no more private cars; even one-way signs were regarded as oppressive.

Many workers were as naïve as they were idealistic, and they ignored the darker side of organized Anarchism, the patrullas de control, with its death lists and old scores to settle. Many who had volunteered to be patrullas left in disgust at the massacres of clergy, who were especially singled out for the Church’s long-standing support of the propertied classes.

The Communists retaliate, and the Bitter End

As Franco’s army made major gains across Spain in 1937, Barcelona became the theatre of a left-wing war-within-a-war. Typically, the CNT lost its hold in chaotic circumstances — George Orwell, who was there, was hardly the only one who was confused. On 3 May 1937, Communist members of the government ordered a takeover of the telephone company from the CNT. The Anarchists rose one last time, supported reluctantly by the Trotskyist POUM, built barricades and won the streets, but true to their name they didn’t follow through and take political control, and left Barcelona in a state of, well, anarchy.

It was suicide, as the Communists and army leapt forward to fill the void. In three days at least 500 people were killed and another 1,500 wounded in the bitter fighting, until the Anarchists and POUM laid down their arms for the sake of the Republic; the next day, the Republican Army and the Communists started to round them up to sort them out, once and for all, saving Franco the trouble later.

Are there Anarchists in Barcelona today? You betcha! And the best place to find them is among Spain's biggest community of squatters.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Pedro