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Photo by Suzannah Larke
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A CGT rally.
Anarchy. What does it bring to mind? Squatters occupying empty houses? Violence? A green Mohawk, piercings and combat boots?
For some, the word brings to mind Barcelona and with good reason, because the city has deep anarchist roots. This ideology of abolishing government, which at one time dominated the city, is still alive in Barcelona’s counter-culture, but has been virtually forgotten by most of the rest of local society.
In the Thirties, in Spain, anarchy was not a controversial indefinable flag waved by the young and alternative, but a set of respectable political ideals to which many people subscribed. The organisation that formally represented anarchy (and still does) was the CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo), and this powerful organisation had a huge membership throughout Spain. In Catalunya alone, in 1931, some 400,000 people belonged, many of them blue-collar workers.
The anarchists and the CNT made a huge contribution during the Spanish Civil War to the side of the Republic, and are remembered as being brave fighters on the front. George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia (1938), “In Catalonia for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries.”
A present-day Barcelona ‘eco-anarchist’, Dídac S. Costa, agrees with Orwell. “The CNT is the central body of a certain type of anarchism, syndicated anarchy, which historically had the most overall power in Spain and perhaps too, internationally, because of what they accomplished in the Thirties,” he told Metropolitan.
The Thirties were the glory days for anarchy in Barcelona. However, after Franco’s victory in the Civil War, anarchy and its followers were all but exterminated or driven into exile, a defeat from which the movement never quite recovered. The history of anarchy in Barcelona is a complex one, which could be one reason why so much of it has been forgotten by the majority of people here.
“It is impossible to understand Barcelona without understanding its anarchist past,” Mateo Rello told Metropolitan. Rello is the editor for the anarchist newspaper Solidaridad Oberera, or ‘El Soli’ as anarchists call it. The paper, which represents the CNT, was founded in 1907 and has been bringing anarchist news to Barcelona for over a hundred years. Like the other approximately 1,000 volunteers working for the CNT in Barcelona, Rello is a volunteer with a day job. Because the CNT is completely independent it does not take money from the Spanish government and is funded privately.
As such, it’s a wonder how the CNT manages to keep its doors open in these tough financial times. “It’s not easy,” Rello said. “We hold many events to raise funds; but it’s difficult.” Besides a host of gatherings, talks, presentations and classes each month, the CNT also has a bookshop, Llibreria La Rosa de Foc, on Carrer Joaquín Costa in the Raval.
Although the CNT does not share information about its membership, Rello estimated that about 7,000 people are registered as CNT anarchists throughout Spain. That’s not too many considering what membership used to be. The CNT is still often associated with violence in people’s minds, and because of this many in Barcelona are uninterested in the CNT, or have a negative impression of it.
The other problem has been internal bickering between the CNT and its offshoot the Confederación General de Trabajo (CGT). The CNT represents a more ‘pure’ anarchist viewpoint, while the CGT has more supporters nationally (15,000) but breaks some key anarchy rules by participating in political elections. CNT members maintain it’s contradictory to participate in government if you are an anarchist. The two groups have been arguing since they split 30 years ago. Rello and others hope that steps can be taken to heal old wounds between the two groups and that positive collaboration is on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the CNT continues to try and educate people about the history of anarchy in Spain, and host a series of diverse social and special interest events. For instance, last March the CNT offered lectures on anarchic-feminism with topics such as ‘Women in the Workplace’, ‘Violence Against Women’, ‘Self Defence’ and ‘Liberal Perspectives on Prostitution’. On May 1st, the CNT held an event in La Cotxeres de Sants to celebrate the day of the worker, one of the most important holidays on the CNT calendar.
The CNT continues to fight, as it always has, for the rights of the worker, particularly those who are displaced or ignored in society. It is no surprise, therefore, that among the CNT’s hot issues these days are immigration (specifically getting work visas for immigrants), the EU’s Plan Bolonia, which mandates educational reforms across Europe and organising boycotts against big businesses such as Mercadona.
The CNT was the leading representative force of anarchy in Spain in the 20th century, but some would say it’s a has-been, not up to date with the current anarchist movement. Dídac Costa is not a member of the CNT, but he is an anarchist, and is currently writing a book on how to create bartering networks. Costa and others are building a community that supports regional agriculture, communal living, uses a currency separate from the international banking system and, at the same time, is ecologically responsible. Describing his group, which is called EcoSeny, Costa said: “There is liberty and equality at the same time, which is the basis of anarchism.”
Another place that Costa is excited to see anarchism is on the internet. There may be no finer example of anarchy in action. Still too vast to control, the internet is a place where equality, freedom of expression and self-governance exist. When it comes to modern anarchy in the city, Costa also mentioned ateneus (alternative social centres) in Barcelona, which are active in education and social outreach, such as Rosa de Foc (not the CNT bookshop) in Gràcia.
The anarchy that exists in Barcelona today is nothing like what Orwell witnessed, but it is still a present and dynamic force in the city. Over the years, anarchy as an applied ideology has metamorphosed and divided, adopting different labels and causes along the way. What has persevered is the core spirit: the concept that human beings are able to decide what is best for them without government interference.
Radical? Yes, it is. But at one time this idea was a real possibility in Barcelona, a revolutionary fact, and while it may never be adopted again as it was in the Thirties, anarchism is a part of the city’s history and is too important to be forgotten.
Ateneus for Anarchy: Rosa de Foc—www.ateneurosadefoc.org
Books on anarchy in Barcelona:
La CNT en la revolución española, by José Peirats. In English at www.katesharpleylibrary.net.
Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
Anarchist Book Shops:
Llibreria La Rosa de Foc, Joaquin Costa 34
Ciutat Invisible, Riego 35; http://laciutatinvisible.org/cooperativa