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Barcelona: the culture of revolt

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
Michael Eaude who has just written a book on the history and culture of Barcelona, a city at the centre of the Spanish Revolution, spoke to Socialist Worker
Issue 2010
A building in Barcelona by the architect Gaudi
A building in Barcelona by the architect Gaudi

Could you tell us something about why Barcelona has a distinctive culture within Spain?

This is a big question but basically Catalonia is a nation within the Spanish state. In the Middle Ages, as the Kingdom of Aragon, it was an imperial power in the Mediterranean and even ruled Athens for 70 years in the 14th century.

After the union of the Spanish state in 1492, the power of Catalonia was progressively reduced. For instance, Catalans were forbidden to trade with the Americas for nearly 300 years.

In 1714, at the end of what is known as the War of the Spanish Succession, the British reneged on their promises to Catalonia and allowed the Spanish state to conquer Barcelona after a ten-week siege.

This defeat led to the banning of all Catalan institutions and the Catalan language being forbidden. The university was closed down and all official business had to be conducted in Castilian Spanish.

That’s history, though. In modern times?

The 19th century saw a Catalan cultural renaissance. This looked back to the glories of the Middle Ages, but was also a capitalist revolution. Catalonia was the most advanced part of Spain and nationalism developed as a response to the decrepit, backward, central Spanish state.

To put it crudely, by the end of the 19th century lots of the new Catalan industrialists had made fortunes out of the slave trade and textiles, but had no political power.

So they poured their political frustration and cash into the incredible architecture that has made Barcelona today a world tourist city.

How important was the slave trade to the growth of the city?

Marx said that slavery was the most important source of capital accumulation leading to the industrial revolution in Europe. This can be seen particularly sharply in the case of Catalonia.

For instance, Eusebi Guell, the patron of the architect Gaudi inherited a huge fortune from his father, who had left Catalonia as a young man to make a fortune in Cuba.

Guell’s father succeeded, growing sugar and tobacco on plantations worked by slaves. This money set up textile and engineering factories back in Catalonia.

Eusebi could grow up cultured, highly educated and a patron of the arts. He paid for many of Gaudi’s highly expensive houses.

It’s very expensive to build curvy art nouveau houses—much cheaper to just put up square ones. Eusebi’s father turned slave labour into cash which he turned into art.

The founder of the white rum company, Faustino Bacardí, was a member of another Catalan family that went to Cuba and made its money out of sugar and slaves. They haven’t changed much, as they are heavily involved in the Miami-based anti-Castro movement.

So is Catalan nationalism just a reactionary force?

No, the people who financed the art and architecture of the Catalan renaissance were capitalists, and most of them ended up supporting Franco in the civil war. It was natural enough – the working class took their property away in the 1936 revolution and Franco said he’d get it back for them.

However, Catalan nationalism has considerable popular roots. Indeed, the upper classes after 1714 stopped talking Catalan. It was the peasantry and working class who kept the language and culture alive.

The national question in Catalonia combined very sharply with the class question. With the industrial revolution, starting in the 1830s, a working class developed in conditions just as bad as those Frederick Engels described in Manchester.

Some of the early factories were burnt. Unlike Britain or Germany with their huge social democratic movements, Catalonia’s industry produced fewer profits, which meant there was little basis for reformism. The working class was organised by anarchists from about 1880 onwards.

The first general strike in Barcelona was in 1855 and there was a very high level of class struggle right through to the civil war. In any strike, workers had to arm themselves against the bosses’ assassination squads. Whole neighbourhoods were no-go areas for the police.

Are there signs of this history in Barcelona today?

To a small degree. For instance, the straight roads carved through the Old City were to allow cavalry charges. Police could only pursue demonstrators with difficulty through twisting alleys.

In the 1860s, the whole Eixample or City Extension was laid out on a grid system, for several reasons, but partly to facilitate police and commercial movement.

When the revolution erupted on 19 July 1936, the army was able to move with relative ease through the Eixample. It was only in the Old City that effective barricades could be mounted.

Apart from this, is there any trace of this pre-civil war anarchist culture in Barcelona today?

Residually, I think there is, in that anarchist ideas are predominant in the anti-capitalist movement. Lots of people today will tell you they’re anarchist, when they just mean they’re not pro-capitalist.

In fact, the anarchist theory of revolution was decisively disproved in 1936 Barcelona.

Three days after the anarchists had taken the city in mass struggle against the army, a meeting took place between the anarchist leaders and Lluis Companys, the president of Catalonia’s government. The anarchists refused to accept the power that Companys felt obliged to offer them.

In a famous phrase, the anarchist intellectual Abad de Santillan said, “We did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us and we did not want it when we could exercise it ourselves only at the expense of others.”

Five months later, the anarchists were politically beheaded when four of their leaders became ministers in the Madrid capitalist government, and in May 1937 the same Companys’ police in alliance with the Communist Party, defeated the anarchists on the streets.

So, Franco’s civil war victory struck an axe through the neck of Barcelona’s pre-war radical culture?

Yes, Franco saw Catalonia as suffering from the three capital sins of atheism, separatism and anarchism, and for 40 years imposed a reign of terror.

Any fascist dictatorship destroys the working class movement – its aim is precisely to liquidate the working class vanguard on behalf of the bourgeoisie, which Franco and Hitler did.

What are your thoughts on the buildings of Barcelona?

Barcelona is full of beautiful buildings by Gaudi and his contemporaries. Gaudi is very interesting. He was an ultra-right wing Christian. If he’d lived, he’d have been a Franco supporter during the civil war, like Salvador Dali.

But artistically, Gaudi was a revolutionary. He integrated artistic disciplines—ceramics, marquetry, architecture, sculpture… you name it. His Casa Mila, in the centre of Barcelona’s Eixample on the Passeig de Gracia, which is like Barcelona’s Regent Street, is a shimmering, undulating wall of light.

Right in the middle of solid, square industrialists’ blocks, Gaudi set down a huge building without a square line in it. He was imitating nature, he said. The ruling class hated it.

Pablo Picasso hated Gaudi too, but that was because he only saw his religious fundamentalism and not his artistic daring.

Picasso also lived in Barcelona, didn’t he?

Picasso is the most famous artist of the 20th century and he was formed in Barcelona, from when he arrived there in 1895 with his parents to when he left for Paris about seven years later.

Barcelona was tremendously important to him. He learned Catalan and spoke it to his lifelong Catalan friends. He learned to paint there. He loved wandering the dirty, vibrant city.

He was an anarchist sympathiser in his youth, supported Catalan independence all his life and became a member of the Communist Party for the last 30 years of his life.

There’s a great book by John Berger called Success and Failure of Picasso, which explains Picasso’s genius through what Berger calls the compression of Spain’s history. By this he means something similar to what Trotsky, more formally and rigorously called the theory of combined and uneven development.

Berger explains how the particular combination of a backward Spain, an industrialised Catalonia, a mass anarchist movement and a renascent Catalan nationalism allowed someone like Picasso to live at the same time in touch with a feudal Spain and in an industrial society.

Barcelona is widely puffed up as a a city of culture and a model other cities to follow. What truth is there in that?

Lord Richard Rogers says the London Olympics should follow the Barcelona Olympics and use it to regenerate old industrial sites. Well, some of that happened, but the main thing the Olympics did was promote speculative building and new roads.

Far from being the “sustainable” city that Rogers and the Barcelona council claims, it’s a place dominated by noise and pollution, where young people have hardly any permanent jobs and cannot afford to buy or rent housing. Londoners should look beyond the hype and avoid the Barcelona Olympic example.

The harsh truth is that the development of the tourist city and the self-promotional bombast that pours out of the city council has ignored the city’s poor.

Post-Franco Barcelona has been tourism-oriented and business-oriented. The Spanish group of the International Socialist Tendency, En Lucha, has published a magnificent commemorative poster of the Spanish Civil War with famous words from George Orwell’s homage to revolution.

Buy it and help us take forward the Barcelona tradition of revolution that Orwell so admired.

Michael Eaude is the author of Barcelona, the city that re-invented itself (Five Leaves Press), which is available at Bookmarks. Go to


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