The Basic Situation
The economic situation is characterized by the following features:
In the first place there is a very great dislocation of economy due to war needs. Many of the industries have been closed down to make room for others with a consequent dislocation of the crafts and skills of the workers. In the war industries themselves there is every urge to increase the speed up and to work as long as possible. May 1st, for example, was dedicated to work. At the same time the workers are not clear about the fact whether they are working so hard for themselves of for new bourgeois masters since there is partly workers control but as yet stern resistance to the socialization of industry.
In the second place the consumption of the workers in Catalonia, especially in Barcelona is quite low and is steadily being reduced by the exigencies of the war. There is at times a scarcity of good bread, there is little soap, and the outlook is far from bright at the present time. Wages of the workers are exceedingly low. In the foreign exchange the pesata has fallen to new lows now being quoted as 37 to the dollar (in 1932 it was 16 and normally 6 1/2 to the dollar) at the same time the workers do not receive more than 10 to 15 pesetas a day, normally.
With the resultant increasing scarcity of food, prices are advancing and there is a steady clamor for the curbing of speculators and of profiteers in the sale of necessities of life. As yet the government has done little about it. Long lines can be seen before bread and milk stores, meat stores, etc. In this manner the whole population is being brought to a state of tension with the governments of Spain and Catalonia.
This tension is aggravated greatly by the military situation. In the first place there is the great danger of the fall of Bilbao and the sabotage of the central government in helping that city. Then there is the still dangerous situation around Madrid and the possibilities that if Bilbao falls there will be a great offensive against both Madrid and Catalonia on the Aragon front. Third, already the Spanish people have demonstrated on the front that they can pass from the defensive to the offensive but the government in spite of the clamors for a general offensive does nothing about it, evidently not wishing to beat Franco too hard since they will need his forces against the people later on when the revolution goes still farther to the left as it indubitably must. In the fourth place there is the evident sabotage of the central government on the Huesca-Aragon-Catalonian front. Soldiers have been sent to the front without any adequate equipment. They are never allowed to receive the necessary materials and reserves to advance. All the work on this front is constantly in confusion.
At the same time the government is making constant efforts to disarm the masses with the appeal ‘all arms to the front’ while at the same time it has increased the governmental forces in the rear, the carabineers, the assault guards and the Guard Civile. In these troops are to be found the forces of the petty bourgeoisie well armed and never sent to the front.
Connected with all this is the fact that the government is making every effort to incorporate the workers military forces which had been formed after the July Days of 1936 into the regular army and under the bourgeois discipline of the capitalist officers. These armed forces were of two kinds, Workers militia at the front and Workers Patrols in the rear to police the cities.
Thanks to the Socialist and Communist Parties all of the workers militia forces have been incorporated into the regular army that can be used later against the workers, with the exception of the militia in Catalonia under the POUM and other forces. Up to now they have held out and maintained their own division with their own men. The government has been forced to pay their generals and to recognize them as part of the regular army, but at the same time now the tension is growing greater and the demands of the Valencia government to completely incadrate the Catalonians into the regular army are becoming imperatively insistent.
In Barcelona and in the other cities of Catalonia, the workers patrols still existed as a dual power to the guard civile and the Assault Guards of the Generality. Recently steady pressure has been put to disarm these workers organizations, and to liquidate them. The UGT and PSUCists took their men out of the patrols, regularly clashes took place with the guards whereby the patrols were disarmed a few at a time. Before the May events the patrols actually did not function for fear of being completely disarmed but kept their weapons for the emergency that was to come.
Ever since the stiffening of the governmental front around Madrid the central government has put steady pressure to the right. In this they have been incomparably aided by the Stalinists who have denounced the POUM and such forces as the Fifth column of the Fascists and call for their extermination. In Madrid the POUM headquarters were attacked and then the move was made against the Left Wing of the FAI as well. The smallness of the POUM and the fact that it is mostly centered in Catalonia has compelled it to cling closely to the FAI and the CNT to avoid complete physical extermination.
In Catalonia the Generality has recently been increasing its pin prick provocations against the workers. Here the PSUC is not as strong as the CNT-FAI-POUM and thus the People’s Front has not the mass base that it has in Madrid. Companys in the face of the growing crisis has been forced to form his governments from the top rather than by any electoral measures. In April the old government fell and a deadlock ensued for several weeks before a new one could be selected by Companys. The deadlock consisted in the fact that the CNT-FAI forces insisted on greater representation and a program leading to greater revolutionary action (socialization of industry and of land, pressure against speculators, workers’ police etc) The PSUC-UGT forces being steadily opposed. In the end a new government was formed of the same number, thirteen, with the increase of one FAI-CNT representative. It was under this new government that the provocative events increased leading to the May Days. In Catalonia the Republican Left and the party of Etat Catalalan has become increasingly weakened and exposed as a conservative force. The compromise effected could only be a temporary one.
The government could do only one thing and that is to increase its provocations, which culminated in the events of May 4th with the seizure of the Telephonique.
The growing tension between the two sets of conflicting class forces could also be traced in the trade union field. On the side of the trade union reformists there has been steady efforts on the part of the bureaucracies to get together and form one national center fusing both CNT and UGT together. The POUM has also been in favor of this unity. The workers also from below but for other reasons than the bureaucrats and the State. On the part of the weak bourgois forces in the State it was necessary to integrate the CNT forces into the State apparatus and to bring UGT and CNT officials to work together harmoniously within the government. On the part of the workers trade union unity would mark a great step forward in the unification of the workers ranks. The mass of CNT workers would be bound to influence the mass of UGT workers from below in the places where they were in the majority (the most important industrial regions) and to appeal to UGT workers better in other places. Trade Union unity could be a force both for better control and for better mass resistance to state and capitalist control.
Before May 1st the CNT and UGT were able to get together to adopt a common document which contained several significant points. On the one hand it called for great support of the war under unified control and with discipline to the officers. On the other hand it called for a purging from the ranks of the unions of those elements that were not in accord with the aims of the document. On the third side, on the point of socialization of industries the document hemmed and hawed with statements of “in so far as,” “as much as possible under the circumstances” etc. It was clear that the CNT bureaucrats were trying hard to meet the demands of the UGT at the expense of the POUM and militant workers. The events of May 4th to May 7th were to sharply accentuate all the contradictions involved in the situation.
On May 4th under the direction of the police Chief Sala, in the early afternoon an attempt was made to seize the Telephonique which up to then had been under the control of the CNT-UGT unions jointly, with the CNT predominating. This building had been taken over by the workers in July and was of enormous importance both literally and figuratively. Literally it meant that the workers organizations controlled all telephone calls in the city of Barcelona and could set up an inspection over the government while at the same time workers organizations could have all the calls they needed to coordinate their forces in time of struggle.
But more the literal significance was the symbolic significance of the occupation and control of the workers of the Telephonique. It not only signified workers control, that was also signified in other parts of the city in other industries which had been controlled by private capitalists, but the Telephonique was preeminently a public utility, like the tramways, the rail roads and such industries. Thus the taking over of the Telephone works was a direct threat against the idea of nationalization and State capitalism, so dear to the hearts of Socialists and Stalinists. The Syndicalists and Anarchists looked on their opposition to the entire theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat which they had espoused for so long a time and which in practice they were abdicating when they entered the government.
The POUM, of course, differed from the Anarchists and the Syndicalists in their theory of workers control. Workers control to the Marxist is the first step towards the dictatorship of the proletariat where the State organs of the workers control all the industries and not the independent unions. The POUM believes in the centralization of industries, the Anarchists in federalism. None the less the POUM also understood that the occupation of the capitalist State of the Telephonique had nothing really to do with the question of Workers State or Industrial Union control over the industries, a question which will have to be fought out later, but rather with the question, bourgeois State or workers control of the industries seized by the workers in the July fighting. Under such circumstances the POUM could do nothing else but support the resistance of the revolutionary forces to this occupation.
Within a few hours after the attempt was made to seize the Telephonique a tremendous reaction took place among the workers. Without a call being issued either by UGT or CNT officially, the entire mass of workers whether UGT or CNT came out in an immense general strike that completely paralyzed the city while at the same time men and women labored feverishly to build barricades in all parts of the city. The Patrol Controls were immediately put to use. Firing began in all parts of the city. To the immense surprise of the Generality the police were not even able to hold the central parts of the city but were literally surrounded and blockaded in the quarters where they happened to be at the time. Immediately the government picked from above, fell and for a time the country was without any government whatever.
The government of Catalonia was the most Left government of any to be found in Spain. The fact that the workers were setting up barricades not against the Fascists but against this most left Peoples government supported by BSUC and Republican forces was a sign that the government was now being considered counter-revolutionary and had lost all of its progressive character before the eyes of the Barcelona proletariat. The question now before the workers for the first time was WHOSE REVOLUTION WAS IT? WHAT CLASS WAS TO LEAD THIS REVOLUTION?
This also meant that the masses were beginning to see that the front was yielding and dependent upon the solution of the problems in the rear. The continuation of the revolution and the victory in the war were being irrevocably connected despite the demagogy of the PSUCists.
The workers were firing on the State, the State the most left Peoples State of PSUCists was now firing on the workers. Side by side with the police and guards of the government were to be found members of the Socialist Communist and Left Republicans against the workers. Thus there was a struggle not only against the State but against the leaders of the UGT and People’s Front groups as well. And since the CNT leadership was also in the government, in a sense a struggle against the CNT-FAI leadership as well. This was to come out even clearer as the events developed.
The fact that the trade union leadership was part of the government which was shooting down the workers, their own members, the fact that the UGT came out against the barricades while the CNT said nothing in favor of them, the fact that none of them had called the general strike, meant that the workers in a sense were left without central direction for the most part. This resulted in the action of the masses being entirely defensive at a time when they could have swept all before them, for they held the center of the city as well as the suburbs.
The defensive character of the action could be seen in many ways. In the first place while all the workers went on strike, only the vanguard manned the barricades, generally the military committees of FAI-CNT and the POUM. In the second place, there was no effort to mobilize the forces of the proletariat for an offensive mass drive against the police but only to hem them in and to block them all around. However, as the spirit of the fight became higher and the tension reached unbearable pitch there came the final act. UGT and CNT on the 6th of May ordered their workers back to work. The POUM also in its power did the same. Only the unanimous action of all three groups were able to prevent the workers from taking the power in their hands.