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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

The Neighborhood Tour

Every neighborhood in Barcelona seemed to have at least one resident historian, an old militant who collected newspaper articles and stories, flyers and posters from protests, to add to old archival materials and the memoirs of earlier generations. The veterans of the revolution and the long resistance against Franco were dying off, the gentrification of the city left no reminders of past struggles even as the new urban architecture facilitated greater social control. The surveillance cameras, the wider streets, the buildings without balconies, the enclosed parks, the dumpsters without wheels—these were all direct responses to us anarchists and rebels and our history of riots and sabotage, yet each change erased both the memory and the possibility of fighting. In Spain the isolation of the present was even more marked than in other democracies, because for the government to have legitimacy everyone had to accept the alibi of a disconnect between the fascist regime and the democratic one. That also required people not to connect present resistance with past resistance, because a continuity of resistance also suggested a continuity of oppression. Thus for the anarchists, for the survivors of fascism who have never stopped fighting, it was vital for the new generation to learn their history. Here and everywhere, history is a means of survival.

In Raval there were quite a few people who set themselves the task of documenting the long history of the struggle and keeping these memories alive. One older man gave walking tours of the neighborhood every year, on the anniversary of La Semana Tragica, the Tragic Week, when the people of Catalunya launched a general strike to protest a war against Morocco, and were brutally repressed, resulting in the artillery bombardment of several working class neighborhoods and the execution of several people, including the anarchist educator Francesc Ferrer i Guardia.

A newspaper for Ciutat Vella, Barcelona's old town, typically with articles in three or four different languages, focusing on neighborhood struggles, culture, and history.

A newspaper for Ciutat Vella, Barcelona's old town, typically with articles in three or four different languages, focusing on neighborhood struggles, culture, and history.

On Nou de la Rambla 12, a new hotel for the tourists stands where the Ateneu Llibertari Faros used to be, an important social center used by several anarchist groups over the years. At number 40 on the same street stood the police commissary which was assaulted on 28 July, 1909, during La Semana Tragica. In heavy fighting which left several workers and several police dead, the strikers stormed the commissary to free arrested comrades and seize weapons. They also defended barricades from police assault and attacked the nearby office of a military veterans organization that was mobilizing to help put down the strike. Josefa Prieto, the madame of a bordello and an important figure in the neighborhood, played a leading role in mobilizing people for the fighting. Raval is still the neighborhood of the putas and they have often been at the forefront in the present fight against gentrification, even though there are fewer connections these days between them and the anarchists.

Farther up, towards carrer de l’Hospital, at Junta de Comerç 19, was the office of Solidaridad Obrera. In 1910, the CNT was created here, to provide an anarcho-syndicalist organization for all of Spain and unite workers across the peninsula. This was largely in response to the official story that La Semana Tragica was a specifically Catalan nationalist uprising that had nothing to do with the rest of Spain. And just next door, at number 17, was the last home of Teresa Claramont, a libertarian fighter from Sabadell, who struggled against capitalism her entire life, for which she was imprisoned in Montjuic in 1893 and later deported to London.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few buildings with the same occupants then as now is the church building on Ronda de Sant Pau. A large seminary, it was one of the 55 Catholic buildings burned in 1909 as the people expressed their rage against the participation of the Church hierarchy in their daily oppression. Like most other burnt church buildings, it was rebuilt on an even larger scale. Just down the street, where today there’s a school, were the offices of Germinal, an anarchist group that published Tierra y Libertad.

In between Reina Amalia and Ronda de Sant Pau, just below our squat, there’s a park where the city’s prison used to be. In 1904 Modelo was inaugurated and Cárcel Amalia was turned into the women’s prison, though executions continued to happen here. The only reason there’s a park here now is because in 1936 Mujeres Libres, the anarcha-feminist group, got together with the construction syndicate and started tearing the thing down, without waiting for any kind of decree, and without waiting for the CNT leadership to agree or for the congress to pass a resolution.

Reina Amalia

And at the bottom of Ronda de Sant Pau, at the intersection with Parallel, was a site for one of the most important barricades in 1909, 1936, and the other major strikes and insurrections in the first decades of the century. In 1936, the Wood Syndicate built and held this barricade. When the fascists tried to launch their coup, a detachment of troops marched down Parallel, trying to get to the port and relieve other soldiers there. They were blocked by this barricade, and the workers fought tooth and nail to turn them away. If they had lost and the fascist soldiers had made it to the port, it would have been much more difficult for the workers in Catalunya to defeat the fascist coup and launch their revolution.

On the other side of Parallel, there’s a store called Bazar Regalo. It used to be the bar Tranquilidad, and it was an important anarchist hangout. Here the younger generation of anarchists in the CNT, like Durruti, Oliver, and Ascaso, won a long-running debate and decided to embark upon a new strategic course: going all the way for the revolution. Rather than engaging in petty politics and debating with liberals, they would start the pistolero phase of the movement, carrying out expropriations and seizing arms to supply the struggle and prepare for the insurrection. The tourguide opines that it was two currents in the anarchist movement that made the revolution possible in 1936: the young militants who were armed and prepared to fight the police and military in the streets, and the older anarchists who had long been creating alternatives and studying how to organize society themselves. “That’s why,” the neighborhood historian tells us proudly, “the revolution here was the only revolution where you had the trams running the next day. Because they already knew how to organize the whole society.”

And just a little farther down on Parallel the power company building still stands. This used to be Barcelona’s power plant, owned by a Canadian company. La Canadiense strike of January 1919 was a major episode in international labor history. The electricity workers with the CNT, with great social support, walked off the job and left the city mostly without electricity for three months. Our guide said it was the first strike to actually win the eight hour workday, spurring a number of similar victories in other countries—workers in Paris followed some months later; however in 1905 and 1906, workers in Bialystok and other parts of Poland had already won the eight hour workday, supported by bombthrowing anarchists who often assassinated repressive bosses and police.

At the end of the tour, after pointing out the place where the Barcelona delegation to the First International met in 1870, our tour guide thanks us and brings us back to the park where the alternative festival of the neighborhood is starting to pick up. Banners flutter in the air, a pirate radio station makes a live broadcast, and volunteers stand around a huge pot of paella, stirring it slowly over the fire.