Anarchism in 19th century Barcelona, as told by narrator Jenny Beacraft.
Anarchy boarded a locomotive in Geneva, Switzerland in 1868. Italian Giuseppi Fanelli had been sent to Spain at the request of Russian anarchist Mikhaïl Bakunin. His was a mission of recruitment for the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, with the overarching objective of unifying the working class. The timing for a worker’s revolution could not have been better. All state and regional institutions were perceived as instruments for helping the wealthier classes grow even wealthier. Schemes for improving the lives of ordinary people were rarely proposed, and rarer still, enacted. And crucially, the church had, since the land confiscations earlier in the century, abandoned them, opting instead to close ranks around the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, in order to recover some of the holdings they had forfeited. While the First International established its first chapter in Madrid, anarchism garnered much more support amongst the workers in Barcelona. And, it could be said, this was no accident. Barcelona was divided in two. The bourgeoisie on one side, and working class on the other. Events like the Exposition of 1888, as well as the proliferation of private real estate projects, were drawing unskilled laborers in droves–first from within Catalunya, and then from regions like Andalucia and Murcia. While the population grew out of control, the bourgeoisie chose to ignore the problem. There was little interest in improving the city’s infrastructure, or meeting social issues head on through the creation of a modern welfare state, already in vogue throughout Europe. It was a phenomenon anthropologist Ignasi Terrades would label, 100 years later, the ‘absentee state.’ In its place, the working class relied upon one another, living in close quarters, keenly aware that survival itself was a community-driven effort. They organized collectively, and cultural centers, Ateneus, Catalan for Atheneum, began to open up in the working-class neighborhoods. For the working class, Ateneus offered education, literacy, food, and even organized events like hiking expeditions. But above all else, the Ateneus provided cultural empowerment that was transformative, and the sense that, however bleak the outlook, they were part of a tightly-knit community, in place to protect them and their loved ones. Where syndicates, and syndicalism, throughout Spain, is synonymous with trade unions, and the right to collective bargaining, Anarcho-Syndicalism was something else. For French politician, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who’d mentored Mikhaïl Bakunin and influenced Karl Marx, anarcho-syndicalism was a necessary, two-step process that would transition a capitalist society to a freer one, absent classes and hierarchies. Unions would wrest the means of production, or labor, from the factory owners. This would lead to economic parity, self-sufficiency, and ultimately, to an enlightened society built on freedom, and individual autonomy for all. Anarchism’s foothold on Barcelona grew more pronounced at the congress of the First International in 1870, where delegates from 150 workers associations converged, along with thousands of ordinary tradesmen. During the course of the event, the Spanish chapter of the First International was reconstituted as the Spanish Regional Federation, and the structure of the organization bore more similarity to a labor union than a worker’s party. Owing to the embryonic state of the movement, and pervasive repression by authorities, many of the new organization’s actions were stymied, and those that were undertaken proved ineffectual. This inspired a more direct approach by some, a political action known as ‘Propaganda by the Deed,’ or as Mikhaïl Bakunin put it: “We must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” This gave rise to a series of high-profile bombings in Barcelona. On September 24, 1893, Catalan anarchist Paul Pallàs i Latorre set off two bombs during a military parade along the busy traffic artery named Gran Via. The intended target was Captain General of Catalunya, Arsenio Martínez-Campos Antón, who was presiding over the event. The Captain General incurred minor injuries, but a civil guard was killed, and 15 others were seriously injured. After being caught, tried, and executed, republican daily El País published a letter written by the bomber. “To General Martinez, as a soldier and as a gentleman, I respect him. But I wanted to hurt him, I wanted to undo one of the many pillars on which rests the current state of affairs in Spain. […] I want it to be clear that, in carrying out my act, I was driven by no other motive than to sacrifice my life for the benefit of my brothers…” Anarchist presses differed in their interpretations of the man’s actions. One praised him as a martyr, another labeled it the unspeakable act of a diseased brain. Weeks later, on November 7, 1893, during the second act of a production of William Tell at the Liceu Theatre, Spanish Anarchist, and friend of Paul Pallàs, Santiago Salvador Franch, threw two bombs into the orchestra pit. The bombing killed 20 people, and injured scores more. Salvador fled, and wasn’t apprehended until the following year, in the city of Saragossa. At his trial in April 1894, Salvador said: My desire was to destroy bourgeois society, to which anarchism has declared open warfare. His execution was carried out later that year, in Barcelona, by garrot, alongside five other anarchists who had been rounded up, at random, during the panic that ensued after the bombing. None of the five were acquainted with Salvador, nor had they any connection with the Liceu bombing. On June 7, 1896, an event occurred that could not so easily be drawn along class lines. As night fell on the annual Corpus Christi Procession through the Old City, a bomb exploded. Three died instantly. Another nine would die later, from injuries sustained from the blast, all of them ordinary citizens. The indiscriminate and brutal act triggered widespread outrage. Attacks on anarchist groups in the city began occurring frequently. Sensing popular support, authorities rounded up 400 people, alleged to be anarchists, revolutionaries or subversives. The suspects, among them teachers, propagandists and intellectuals, were detained in Montjuïc Castle. In what would later be called the Montjuïc Process, 87 detainees were put on trial. The judicial proceedings were conducted without legal guarantees, and evidence was largely based on statements given under torture. The decisions were handed down in April of the next year, in Madrid. Five defendants were sentenced to death. 19 received prison sentences of 10-to-20 years, and 63 were acquitted. While the Corpus Christi Bombing and Montjuïc Process put an end to the notion of “Propaganda by the Deed,” it would not close the book on Barcelona’s relationship with anarchism. The trials would shock the world, inspiring protests across Europe. And later that same year, in an act of retribution for the Montjuïc Process, an Italian anarchist would travel to Spain and shoot the Prime Minister at point-blank range. And in little more than 10 years, with continued working-class oppression by the ruling class, the budding anarchism of 19th century Barcelona would morph into a revolutionary movement, setting off a chain of events that would change the city, the nation and the world, forever.