Insurrection: The Bloody Events of May 1937 in Barcelona [Book review]

Anarchists often look at the explosion of possibilities in the Spanish revolution of July 1936, but this book studies the revolt which tried to preserve those gains. Insurrection is the third part of the ‘Hunger and violence in revolutionary Barcelona’ quartet. [note1]

Guillamón makes his position clear: ‘there is no fathoming the May Events of 1937 unless unless one appreciates that Barcelona’s revolutionary workers were not fighting for a bourgeois republic, nor for a democratic state. The barrio revolutionary committees, which had grown out of the defense committees’ victory over a mutinous army and a fascist coup attempt, were fighting for social revolution and for a new world IN A CLASS WAR. They fought to bring about the destruction of the state by replacing it in every one of its functions, expropriating factories and properties from the bourgeoisie, raising an army of volunteer militia members, taking charge of the political, social, and economic management of a city with more than a million inhabitants. And this is something that nationalist, social democratic, fascist, reformist, leftist, rightist, or Stalinist historiography can neither stomach nor contemplate.’ [p297]

To talk about committees might sound a bit dull, talking that could be left to people who enjoy that sort of thing. But this is how people were being fed, work organised and militias organised: ‘The barrio-level revolutionary committees were the actual social movement that, in its everyday practice, replaced all the functions of the state. By their very existence, these embodied the social revolution in progress.’ [p262] This explains why the republican opponents of the revolution attacked the committees (sabotaging supply of food to the working class in the process): ‘The [PSUC, see note 2] slogan “More bread and fewer commitees” was turning into the dismal reality of “Neither bread nor committees”.’ [p106].

But looking at this story of workers against politicians (and politicians against workers) we have to recognise that there were ‘anarchist politicians’ who aided the reconstruction of the republican state: ‘Spanish anarcho-syndicalism’s top leaders thought of themselves as skilled negotiators and were manipulated like puppets’ [p279] One theme of the book is how the CNT could contain the contradictory perspectives of revolution and collaboration without being torn apart. 

It’s an intensely political book but Guillamón is keen to distinguish his interpretation from the facts he has dug out. And he has done plenty of digging. See the reports of the Argentinean anarchist Jacobo Prince who ‘originally described the situation as “an attack of collective madness,” but later delved somewhat deeper and explained “at the root of it all is the fact that our people, at the grassroots, feel let down, that the gains of the revolution are slipping from their grasp […] we are being persecuted in the old ways. And so they reacted violently.”’ [p152] Or the archival documents that show it was not simply the Stalinists who wanted to destroy the CNT: ‘Companys and the Generalidad government had repeatedly insisted that the Air Force bomb the main CNT buildings in Barcelona. Such insistence shows that the Generalidad and PSUC were prepared to go to any lengths, ABSOLUTELY ANY LENGTHS, just to destroy the revolutionaries within the CNT ranks.’ [p347] [note 3]

The appendices contain contemporary reports and testimonies of participants. But they also shed some light on the human cost of the revolt, from the murder by the Stalinists of Camillo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri to the painstaking identification of ten of the twelve victims of the Karl Marx Barracks Massacre. I would recommend reading this after Ready for Revolution but, if you can’t, start by reading the glossary. This gives a clear view of the organisations, protagonists and ideas involved. Let me just quote part of the entry for ‘uncontrollables’: ‘In the eyes of many, the revolutionary process had gone too far. The first step toward bringing it to heel was to curb it so that it would go no further. The time to wrest back lost ground would come after that. Which is where the new notion of “revolutionary order” came from: it meant nothing less than stopping the revolution from embedding itself and looking upon “revolutionary gains” as a new and finished order in need of protection from uncontrollable/ revolutionaries, from maverick criminality, from the expropriated bourgeoisie, and from fascism. The success of the label “uncontrollable” was rooted in this very ambiguity, in the incorporation and confounding of two separate meanings: the criminal and the revolutionary.’ [p417-8]

Insurrection is a vital contribution to Spanish Civil War history. It’s also a critical examination of what revolutions do and what they need. ‘The revolution is made, not by the party and not by the vanguard, but by the proletariat, even though a proletarian revolution will inevitably fail unless there is an organization capable of defending the proletariat’s revolutionary program’. [p295]

Insurrection: The Bloody Events of May 1937 in Barcelona by Agustín Guillamón. Translated by Paul Sharkey. 450 pages. AK Press & the Kate Sharpley Library, 2020. ISBN 9781849353601


1, Part one, Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933-1938 was published in English in 2014. The others (The Bread War; and The Repression Targetting the CNT and Revolutionaries (1937-1938) are not translated. See also The Friends of Durruti Group (1996)

2, PSUC, Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia. A merger of Socialist and Communist parties under Communist control.

3, Incidentally disproving Orwell’s gloomy prediction in Homage to Catalonia (start of chapter XI) that ‘Future historians will have nothing to go on except a mass of accusations and party propaganda.’ Those governments like their paperwork.