Class War in Barcelona: "Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Barcelona, 1898–1937" by Chris Ealham [Review]

Anarchism is more than just the idea of stateless socialism, and the movement is always shaped by the environment where it grows. In Anarchism and the City, Ealham’s focus is not personalities or philosophies, but anarchist activity and how it connected to working class life. He covers the context it evolved and operated in, including the ideas and actions of ruling class.

This is an academic book, so you get the language of the specialist: “Consistent with the culture of working class resistance to the spatial logic of bourgeois control in the city and betraying signs of earlier protest repertoires, those deemed responsible for the military coup were punished through the destruction of their property.” (p185) Thankfully, it’s not incomprehensible, and even gets poetic at times: “L’Opinió [left-wing Republican paper] printed a section entitled ‘The Robbery of the Day’ in which minor non-violent thefts were described sensationally as if the streets were teeming with blood-crazed felons.” (p151)

You get some great stories about what the anarchists (and workers) did, from the CNT Public Services Union tunnelling into the Model Jail in the December 1933 insurrection (p136) to the revolutionary recycling of 1936: “In one barri the local church was converted into a cinema. Elsewhere, confession boxes were used as newspaper kiosks, market stalls and bus shelters…” (p187)

Ealham doesn’t just say what happened, but why. He records the actions and ideas of the powerful, but he’s especially strong on the connection between the anarchists and the working class communities they lived in. This is the key to the book. The strength of the CNT was not in the numbers at conferences, but the numbers it could call on on the streets:

One of the great paradoxes of the CNT was that, despite its huge membership in the city, the number of union activists was relatively small. … Besides their higher degree of class consciousness – activists were commonly known as ‘the ones with ideas’ (los con ideas) – there was nothing in their dress, lifestyle, behaviour, experiences, speech or place of residence to set them apart from the rest of the workers and, whether at a public meeting, a paper sale, in the factory or the cafe, activists could convey and disseminate ideas in a way that workers found both convincing and understandable.” (p41-2) And the tactics they used were connected to working-class life too: “CNT tactics like boycotts, demonstrations and strikes built on neighbourhood sociability: union assemblies mirrored working-class street culture, and the reciprocal solidarity of the barris was concretised and given organisational expression by the support afforded to confederated unions.” (p36)

This is an epic contribution to the history of anarchism and like the best history books leaves you wanting more (even if you don’t agree with all of Ealham’s perspectives). Today’s anarchist activists (from syndicalists to insurrectionaries) will find some fascinating stories here. But more importantly, they will find food for thought about where were are, where we want to be, and how we get there. If you have a new world in your heart, read this and start asking who’s going to help you build it.

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Barcelona, 1898–1937 by Chris Ealham
AK Press, 2010. $20 / £17. ISBN 9781849350129
First published in 2005 by Routledge as Class, culture and conflict in Barcelona 1898-1937