Looking back at the Barcelona May Days

Post date: 30/04/2017

May this year marks the 80th anniversary of the ‘Barcelona May Days’ when dissident anarchist forces and those of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) clashed with the communist and socialist-backed Spanish Republican authorities on the streets of the Catalan capital. A memoir of the event takes up much of George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’, which in turn inspired the Ken Loach film ‘Land and Freedom’. Both works sided with the revolutionary POUM and anarchists.


What happened in Barcelona in May 1937 remains controversial to this day. Some say that the POUM ‘uprising’ amounted to an act of treachery against the Republic at a time when priority had to be given to the war effort. Others argue that the Republican authorities set out to crush anti-’Stalinist’ opposition and to put down the social revolution that had taken hold in the city after the defeat of Franco’s takeover in July 1936.


In this article, IBMT member and historian Tom Sibley takes the POUM and dissident anarchists to task for their behaviour.


If anyone wishes to reply to the article, or comment about specific points raised in it, send these contributions to and a selection will be published in this blog.



Eighty years ago: betrayal in Barcelona


By Tom Sibley


In July 1936, international fascism launched a war of intervention against the Spanish people. Earlier in that year the democratic forces, making up the Popular Front, were elected following a period of extreme right-wing government in which the fascists played a leading role. The Popular Front government was initially supported by the left, including many members of the powerful anarchist movement, and the centrist Republican Party. It brought forward a progressive programme aimed at democratising and modernising Spain which, at the time, was dominated by the Church, the military and the big landowners and whose industries were often controlled by foreign capital.


The Republican government’s measures to introduce land reform in order to end widespread and abject poverty in the countryside, educational expansion and change and women’s rights were anathema to the forces of the right. They were seen to be against the interests of the Church and were presented by the right as the first steps along the road to a communist society. With anti-communism as its pretext the Spanish military, led by General Franco, launched a military coup in July which was immediately supported with copious supplies of trained troops and modern weaponry by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.


Initially Franco’s forces were repulsed in most of the big cities and towns as workers’ militias and armed police loyal to the elected government came together in defence of the Republic. Madrid continued to hold firm, thanks mainly to the arrival of modern weaponry from the Soviet Union and the solidarity provided by the thousands of International Brigade volunteers organised by the international communist movement. But in other parts of the country the tide turned quickly as Italian and German forces were deployed. And the limitations of the badly organised and poorly trained militia were exposed.


In the face of overwhelming military force, in the early months of 1937 the Popular Unity movement splintered under the pressure of ultra-leftist adventurism culminating in the tragedy of the Barcelona May Day events, the 80th anniversary of which we mark on 3 May this year.


The May Day events were one of the most important turning points of the Civil War (1936-1939). In the middle of a war in which international fascism threatened to overthrow by military force a democratically elected government, the ultra-left movement, which had initially played an important part in resisting Franco’s first offensive, turned against the regional government in Catalonia and launched an insurrectionary putsch. Guns, which should have been at the disposal of forces fighting Franco, were instead turned on the state forces defending the Republic. The insurrection was instigated by dissident anarchist militias, which had a strong base in Barcelona, encouraged by the Trotskyist-influenced POUM, which since the beginning of 1937 had been actively and very publicly campaigning for the overthrow of the Popular Front government in Catalonia.


What was the subtext which led to the May uprising and put at risk the whole of the Republican movement’s attempts to withstand the fascist offensive?  The underlying catalyst was the determination of the Republican government to radically reshape the war effort following months of military setbacks. This followed widespread demands to incorporate all militia in a national popular army with a unified command.


In Catalonia the Popular Front administration, in the teeth of opposition of both POUM and the local anarchists, took measures in line with central government policies. The Government called on the local militia to surrender their arms and join the national army. It shut down the local patrol groups controlled by the anarchists and put policing into local government hands.  Catalonia’s important arms industry was nationalised and the government sought to take over the strategically vital communication centre, the Barcelona telephone exchange, which until 3 May had been controlled by an anarchist trade union committee. All of these centralising measures were taken primarily to strengthen the war effort. But they also threatened to totally undermine what the anarchist and POUMists saw as pillars of their strength, influence and control. Rather than fall in line, in the interests of boosting the anti-fascist war effort, the ultra-leftists launched an insurrection against the elected government.


The immediate spark for the insurrection was the retaking by the government of the telephone exchange. The anarchists had used their control of this facility to intercept and disrupt calls between government ministers and military leaders. This could not be tolerated in a war situation where the country was fighting for its very existence. Consequently government ministers ordered the police to take back into state control the telephone exchange. Unarmed senior police officers were met with a volley of shots and a standoff followed. But the sound of gunfire and the subsequent surrounding of the exchange by armed police officers was a signal for the anarchist militia to take to the streets, erect barricades, and bring tanks and other armed vehicles into the fray. In the fighting that ensued in which the rebels were opposed by Communist Party militia and the Republican Guards, hundreds were killed or maimed. Catalonian ministers quickly called for central government reinforcements and within a few days, encouraged by their national leadership, the local anarchists had laid down their arms.  Throughout the piece the overwhelming majority of Barcelona’s workers had taken government advice to stay at home.


Eighty years later arguments still appear from both the anti-communist left (sometimes described as the anti-Stalinist left) and the liberal right suggesting that the Barcelona events were provoked by Moscow so as to crush a nascent social revolution. Such action was necessary, the critics argue, in order to reassure Western imperialist powers, with which the Soviet Union was seeking to build an anti-Hitler front, that Republican Spain was not about to usher in communist control under Soviet tutelage. Some of the commentators also assert that by removing hopes for a fully-fledged socialist revolution the Republican government destroyed any possibility of a military victory. Given the balance of political forces both in Spain and internationally these hopes were entirely unrealistic. In this they partly reflect George Orwell’s crass and typically defeatist assessment made in late 1937 that whichever side won the civil war a fascist type regime would be installed in Spain.


What are we to make of these assessments? Firstly, there is no evidence to back assertions that the Soviets provoked the uprising, as suggested in Ken Loach’s deeply flawed film ‘Land and Freedom’. On the contrary, recently opened archive material shows that the insurrection was planned months in advance and that the dissident anarchists and POUM put their sectarian and disruptive demands above the requirements of the national struggle to defeat fascism.  


In the circumstances of 1937, to call for a full blown socialist uprising would have created deep divisions in the Republican movement, thereby guaranteeing certain and early victory for the fascist forces.


The Barcelona events were indeed an important turning point, but not as some anti-communist and liberal commentators present it. For there followed a period during which the national Popular Army was transformed into an effective fighting force. Despite the overwhelming military advantages enjoyed by the fascist enemy and the continuing arms embargo placed on Republican Spain by the Western democracies, the re-organised national army, supported by the International Brigades, was able to hold on for a further 18 months, giving space for Spain’s outstanding socialist prime minister, Juan Negrín, to negotiate for increased international assistance.


The fundamental reasons for the defeat of Spanish democracy were outside the Republic’s control. Firstly, Franco could not have prevailed without the massive military support of the fascist powers. And Spanish democracy could have survived if Britain, France and the United States had lifted the arms embargo placed on Republican Spain and put diplomatic and economic pressures on the fascist powers to stop their war of intervention.


By May 1937 it was clear to Negrín and the Communist Party, which provided the backbone to his administration, that only the centralising strategy of the Popular Front government could stop the slide to military defeat and consolidate the substantial and profoundly democratic changes it had instituted. These reforms could have rapidly moved Spain from a largely backward, medieval theocracy to an advanced social democracy. Many on the left saw such developments as important steps on the road to socialism.  



Posted on 30 April 2017

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