Barcelona, 3 May 1937, three o’clock in the afternoon – three lorry loads of police and Republican Assault Guards force their way into the central telephone exchange, beginning what became known as the “May Events”.
Commonly presented as a civil war within the civil war, the May Events marked the end of a revolutionary process that began ten months previously as a response to the fascist military uprising.
The telephone exchange in the centre of the city was a symbol of workers’ power. Run by the anarchist CNT union federation, its workers could control communications between Barcelona and the Republican government in Valencia.
It was an intolerable situation for a state that aimed to restore bourgeois order in the rearguard, and wanted to present the civil war as one between democracy and fascism.
The decision to assault the telephone exchange had been taken by Rodriguez Salas, the Catalan police chief and Communist Party member.
But it has to be seen as part of wider strategy of tension and provocation that the Stalinists had pursued over the preceding months. These had included widespread attempts to undermine the revolution.
When the police arrived, workers at the telephone exchange rapidly positioned a machine gun in the building and a stalemate ensued.
Out in the streets, as the news of the attack spread, a general strike against the assault was soon under way and thousands of armed workers threw up barricades all over the city.
Months of attacks on the revolution had provoked this reaction.
Over the next few days the city shook to the sound of gunfire and explosions, with nearly 300 killed in the fighting. Similar events took place elsewhere in Catalonia.
In the front line of the fighting were the CNT. The revolutionary socialist Poum joined them on the barricades.
Supporters of the Popular Front – Communists and Catalan nationalists – desperately defended government buildings and their headquarters.
Striking workers held the upper hand and most observers agree that it would have been relatively easy to take over the few buildings still in government hands.
This is what the Poum argued with the CNT should be done. But the anarchist leaders were not prepared to take this stance.
The CNT was committed to a policy of collaboration with the Popular Front government, and was desperate to end the struggle that appeared to endanger anti-fascist unity.
They appealed over the radio for the workers to lay down their arms and go back to work. The effect of these calls was widespread confusion and demoralisation.
Gradually the barricades were abandoned. The Poum, fearing its isolation, felt compelled to follow the anarchist workers.
Both the Poum and CNT leaderships even claimed the workers had secured an important victory in resisting a Stalinist–led provocation.
Pro-government forces, despite giving assurances that they would also withdraw, strengthened their positions and went on the offensive, storming many workers’ centres and making hundreds of arrests.
On the evening of Friday 8 May, 5,000 well armed soldiers arrived from Valencia. Order had been restored.
Could the outcome have been otherwise? Certainly the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky – who was in Mexico – thought so, as did the radical anarchist group The Friends of Durruti and some members of the Poum.
All argued that power should have been seized in Barcelona and that the Popular Front’s counter-revolution could have been stopped in its tracks.
Trotsky believed the masses could have easily taken power in the whole Republican zone. But, given the massive forces at the disposal of the government, this is by no means certain.
Nevertheless, by retreating, the most militant sections of the workers’ movement had lost a golden opportunity to inflict an important defeat on the counter-revolution now well underway in Republican Spain.
As one Poum leader would put it at the end at the war, the May Events were not just a “provocation”, but “the definitive solution of the contradiction that had arisen in July 1936 in favour of the counter-revolution”.
Widespread repression was now unleashed on the last vestiges of the revolution and against the most militant sections of the left.
Andy Durgan’s new book The Spanish Civil War will be published by Palgrave in June