The Barcelona May Days

Alex Bareham, Dickson College, 2011


This essay was submitted as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the self-devised focus question: “What was the cause of the internal tension between the leftist factions in the Spanish Republic and what effects did these tensions have?”

The internal tensions between the leftists within the Spanish Republic were caused by differences in ideas, political motivations, backgrounds and goals of the individual groups. Political rivalries amongst foreign volunteers and local soldiers also contributed to the tension. The Soviet Union played a role through its Stalinist influence in the government and military. These tensions would lead into what is known as the Barcelona May Days, in which tension broke into civil violence which further destabilised the fragile republic.

The largest of the internal rivalries was that between the Communists and the Anarchists. In the province of Catalonia, the Anarchists started a social revolution. This new state was a shining example of what the left was hoping to achieve. It was ‘a worker state’ (Orwell, 1938, p. 9) a symbol for many of the revolutionaries in Barcelona. “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” (Orwell, 1938, p.9). All land and businesses had become collectivised with a lot of the city being run by workers of the Anarcho-Syndicalist trade unions or C.N.T-F.A.I (The Nation Confederation of Labour/Iberian Anarchist Federation) (Orwell, 1938, Ch1).

The Anarchists believed that ‘the revolution and the war were inseparable’ (Beevor, 2006, Ch 5.). The Stalinists feared that a separate power would limit their influence. By having a state run directly by the working class instead of representation by an elite closed circle (The Popular Front) the Communists would have less control. The Communists saw the Anarchist’s revolution as a ‘betrayal’. The Communists were of the opinion that the war was to come first and the revolution to follow and by focusing their efforts on the revolution they were destabilising the war effort. This was a cover; the Communists feared a political organisation of workers acting independently of control by the Communist party. The Anarchists believed that the Communists’ ideas of revolution were a betrayal of a true proletarian society, believing that for equality to exist there could be no government or state. As Bakunin had written half a century earlier:

We, the revolutionary anarchists, are the advocates of education for all the people, of the emancipation and the widest possible expansion of social life. Therefore we are the enemies of the State and all forms of the statist principle. (Bakunin, 1873).

The Anarchists and their supporters therefore saw the actions of the Communist party as an attempt to undermine and destroy the revolution.

The conduct of the Spanish Communist Party and its subsidiary the PSUC in Catalonia during the May Days has demonstrated that these parties do not represent a mere reformist tendency in the workers' movement, but constitute the vanguard and the instrument of bourgeois counter-revolution. (Central Committee of the P.O.U.M quoted in Nin n.d.).

The Government itself was also opposed to the worker’s state in Catalonia (possibly because of its communist influence) and feared a loss of political control and government property such as the Telefónica (Telephone Building) which handled all communications in Barcelona.

The Spanish Republic was supported primarily by the Soviet Union, which in the early days of the war provided weapons and armoured vehicles. When the League of Nations created the Non-Intervention Committee it sent advisors to take positions of command within the Republic’s military and government (Beevor, 2006, Ch 3.3). It also used its support organisation, the Comintern (Communist International) to raise international volunteers (The International Brigades). The Comintern’s influence increased the power of the Spanish Communist Party (P.C.E.) to a point where it and the Soviet advisors possessed nearly limitless power within the republic. The Soviet support was vital to the republic as the rest of the international community had turned away from them and any requests the Soviets made were acknowledged for fear of losing their support. ”Soviet military advisors continued to exert pressure by saying to any Spanish officer who objected to the their plans that they ought to ask their government if Soviet assistance was still required.” (Beevor, 2006). This position disadvantaged other organisations. Many of the militia leaders had to join the P.C.E so their men would receive basic supplies and medical treatment (Beevor, 2006, Ch 3). Other organisations became cautious of the P.C.E. Groups like the P.O.U.M (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) were threatened by the primarily Stalinist P.C.E. Communist organisations outside the P.C.E were seen by the Comintern (and the International Communist Press ) as Trotskyites who were undermining the Republic using “the Fifth Column” as it was called. This sense of paranoia lead to threats of liquidation for many organisations like the P.O.U.M, which made many believe that the government were becoming closer to the fascists. (Orwell, 1938, Ch9). Anarchist theorist, Abad de Santillan, wrote “Whether Negrin won with his communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans the result would be the same for us.” This feeling was carried through many of the independent organisations in the Spanish Republic; those not part of the Popular Front. Along with such feelings, was the growing sense of paranoia that the Soviet press was producing and which was incited throughout the republic. These were the reasons for the civil violence which was the final result of these building tensions.

The cumulative effect of these building tensions was a period of civil violence known as the Barcelona May Days (third to the eighth of May 1937). The city was in a state of civil war fuelled by paranoia and rumours. Anarchist forces rapidly armed themselves “there was a general impression that the civil guards were ‘after’ the C.N.T and the working class in general” (Orwell, 1938, pp 118-121). Some of the Communists were of the idea that Anarchists and the P.O.U.M were the Fifth Column (working with the fascists). These allegations were publicised by the Comintern press.

The final straw which sparked the fighting was the attempt by Eusebio Rodríguez Salas (Commissioner General of the Police and Councillor of Public Order in the local Communist party) to seize the telephone exchange from the Anarchist C.N.T (The National Confederation of Labour) with three trucks of military police. After disarming the sentries at the door, the workers inside opened fire. Within minutes people from all over the city had rushed to arms and the fighting began (Beevor, 2006, p.284). On one side were the anarchist P.O.U.M and other workers fighting in the defence of the C.N.T and on the other side, government Civil Guards supported by the P.S.U.C (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia) fighting to restore power to the government. The dismissal of Rodríguez Salas further enraged the workers, who believed the attack on the telephone exchange occurred without orders from the government (Beevor, 2006, Pg. 295). After the fighting ended four hundred people had been killed and one thousand injured (Orwell, 1938, Ch10). These events would also later be used as part of justification to liquidate the P.O.U.M and have its members arrested (Beevor, 2006, 5.2). The Barcelona May Days also brought on an entirely new wave of propaganda and conspiracy which further widened the gaps in the already divided republic.

The tensions between the different factions of the Republic were caused by differences in political ideas amongst local and international organisations; the rapid rise in Soviet power within the Republic’s government and the sense of paranoia this created. These tensions sparked violence and lead to a civil conflict, within the continuing broader civil war, known as the May Days of Barcelona. This in-fighting and struggle for power destabilised the unity of the volunteers and the already fragile Republic. Ultimately this series of events helped lead to the Republic’s downfall.

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Annotated Bibliography

Beevor, A.B, 2006, The Battle for Spain, 1st Ed, Great Britain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
The Battle for Spain is a well detailed text of the Spanish Civil War, it covers both the soviet influences and the Barcelona May Days in some detail and its idea tend to support other sources.

Orwell, G.O, 1938, Homage to Catalonia, 3rd ed. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin Books Australia.
Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s first-hand account of the Spanish Civil war in the Catalonian region as well as his later reflections where he comments on remembering his experiences. Homage to Catalonia is one of the most commonly cited sources for information regarding the Spanish Civil War and I used it along with The Battle for Spain as one of my two major sources.


Bakunin, M. (1873), Statism and Anarchy, 1873; (translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, 1971). Accessed at 24 June, 2011.

Nin, A. (n.d.), ‘The May Days in Barcelona’, What Next?, Accessed at, 24 June, 2011.
This Website is where I found the speech made by the P.O.U.M after the events of the Barcelona May Days which I used to back up the belief that the Communist were trying to destroy the Revolution. The article seemed to be fairly trustworthy.

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