Jordi Casassas

Interviewed September 14, 2017 for Catalunya Barcelona docuseries.

Good morning, could you star telling us your name and when and where you were born?

I’m Jordi Casassas i Yimbert, I was born in Barcelona the year 1948.

Could you tell us a bit about your job?

Yes, I’m the dean of contemporary history in the University of Barcelona and currently I am the president of the ‘Ateneu Barcelonès’.

Besides, I’m a member of the ‘Institut d’Estudis Catalans’, a permanent member of the ‘Institut d’Estudis Catalans’ in the section of history and archeology.

The idea is to talk about the history of the ateneus. From what we’ve read, we believe that ateneus are a key component to anarchism and collectivism took so much strength in the city of Barcelona. According to the Ateneu Enciclopedic Popular, ateneus were created based on some bourgeoise clubs and, between 1877 and 1914, 75 ateneus appeared. Could you tell us about the origins of the ateneus of Barcelona and who were the people responsible to starting them up?

In Barcelona, the Ateneus took a bit longer to appear than in other Spanish cities because Barcelona was a very socially conflictive area.

That made that this liberal associationism from the XIX century, which is a current not only from here but rather European, very French and Mediterranean.

Some places they are called ateneus, in other clubs, the clubs.

They appeared in the middle of the XIX century in Barcelona, mainly as an effort from the local bourgeoise.

This bourgeoisie gathered at first with ludic intentions.

Then, bit by bit, cultural activities were added, based on the reading of foreign press, based on the creation of some important libraries – not many, but some very important libraries – and then, slowly, conferences were introduced.

The target of these conferences was to open up the cities to what was going on in the world.

The scientific advances, they were very interested in them, the literary movements, geographical conferences regarding the colonial conquest of the world…

All this sort of topics and, slowly, also professional topics: law, medicine… because there’s all sorts, so to say, in this bourgeoisie. It’s economical but also a professional bourgeoisie, the great professionals.

That, mainly, would be the origin of these ateneus that stop being a place to play cards, hold Carnival or Sunday balls; these ludic spaces, to become more cultural-oriented spaces.

Slowly, the importance of the ludic space loses strength and it is won by the cultural one.

Among these ateneus, the one that will become very important is the one where we are right now: the ‘Ateneu Barcelonés, which will end up being the most important one.

Are they liberal people? Yes, they are conservatives, liberals basically, but there’s a bit of everything.

Bit by bit begins to enters this ateneus a middle class, not that bourgeoisie but rather a middle class with different ideologies and sensitivities, which will be what will give these ateneus, despite them being bourgeoisie, a certain ideologic transversality.

In other words: the fact that it isn’t allowed to talk about politics so that they don’t come down to blows, basically.

A different matter are the popular ateneus.

The popular and worker’s ateneus are born from those, we could say, utopic socialist currents.

What they do is attempt to improve the human condition.

Improve it in the sense of education, in the sense of free currents of thought and, above all, to counter what they call the church pressure, the superstitions, a number of things.

So, these ateneus, like the Ateneu Enciclopedic Popular later, are ateneus that, in a way or the other, wanted to consolidate a better well-being for their affiliates and the working class and blue-collar workers in general

But also for the freeing of the individual, the idea of the freeing of mankind.

Another idea that needs to be kept in mind is that these ateneus are not only from Barcelona.

These ateneus extend all around Catalonia, especially the coastal and precoastal Catalonia, the Catalonia of trade, of modern agriculture and industry.

They extend everywhere, smaller cities but also villages. There appears, in the villages, a dichotomy: the ateneu of the poor and the ateneu of the rich, the one of the bourgeoisie and the one of the poor.

Then, finally, the anarchist currents from the XIX century, which also stems from the utopic socialism, will find in the ateneus, or the more alternative ones, a chance for political and public debate.

So, [a chance] for ideological and cultural education of the working class, with the idea that the working class is very exploited and lives with such brutal working hours and regimes that they have no time to educate themselves.

Then, what needs to be done is persuade the workers that instead of going to the pub they go to these ateneus and begin to learn to read, but to read properly, not only read but rather read critically.

So that there appears a class consciousness. These would be, we could say, the degrees of ateneus which aren’t a phenomenon of Barcelona, but rather a very important Catalan phenomenon.

Which services did these ateneus offer?

Usually, they had a coffee shop, a bar, a meeting place, and that meeting place was the first way to enter, so to speak.

Then, having a reading room, that is, a small library – this depends, of course, of the antiquity and the resources of the ateneu, and its importance – and, especially, a place where to debate and read newspapers, collectively reading the newspapers for people who didn’t have enough money to even buy a newspaper.

Then there were night-time lessons. In these night-time lessons they used to, when people already knew how to read and write, teach about commerce, math applied to commercial activity, statistics, etc.

Practical classes, so to speak.


In the book “Culture and Conflict in Barcelona from 1898 to 1937” by Chris Ealham he writes the following about the hiking clubs from ateneus: hiking, very in line… In what way were the libertarian anarchist movements and unions like CNT related to the ateneus?

There was a usage of the chance that the ateneus represented by the CNT later, by anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in general.

Like I said before, this is a current that is very usable by the assembly part that this anarcho-syndicalism had.

Because ateneus represented a space for debate and, in that sense, fit very well with the idea of ateneism.

The thing is that these are not CNT ateneus usually, but rather popular ateneus in which there are CNT people but also federal republicans, there’s different sorts of people who live together because they have a common motive, reaching the common classes.

Then, I wouldn’t say that there is the anarchist ateneism, even though there’s some anarchist ateneism, but rather that popular ateneism is a bit more perpendicular.

Regarding hiking, there are few ateneus that can allow themselves to have a hiking section because it is expensive.

It’s expensive to maintain it but it is also expensive to go out.

So, going back to nature is consubstantial with anarchism. But the practice of this hiking came from the hiking clubs rather than atheneism.

This hiking clubs, which usually had a bourgeoisie origin, became more popular.

In time, it gained in popularity.

The more important one was the ‘Centre Excursionista de Catalunya’, but later hiking clubs sprung in most towns.

Associationism is, in Catalonia, a very important differentiating trait. It is, we could say, the basis of the democratic behavior of society.

Because associationism, both bourgeoisie and popular, ends up becoming the first debating school, the first democratic practice school.

In this sense, it isn’t only anarchist associationism what bolsters hiking, but it is rather a progressive transformation from the originally bourgeoisie and romantic hiking, the discovery of nature and also the discovery of ruins, national landmarks, the really important places, the truly Catalan landscapes.

All this romantic discovery is a discovery that transforms and begins affecting the ateneist associationism.

What was the ‘Dinamita Cerebral’?

The ‘Dinamita Cerebral’?

Just now, I don’t…

Well, let’s see, the ‘dinamita cerebral’ is…

‘Dinamita cerebral’ is that you instill in the brain of people revolutionary ideas, these ideas spread and end up exploding.

Then, it creates an image of dynamite, dynamite as a revolutionary symbol and brain because it is made out of ideas.

Could you tell us a bit about the importance of ateneus having libraries?

Yes, it is very important because, let’s see, in Barcelona there’s, historically, the conventual libraries, religious, libraries that begin to fall apart as the state seizes convents. But then there’s the old library in the university.

That university library is a library that, in Barcelona, is very scarce. Very scarce and outdated.

So these libraries from ateneus, since they correspond to the interests of the middle class and the great professional bourgeoisie, people who have international contacts, are up to date.

The most important one is the library of the Ateneu Barcelonés, with its between 300 and 400 thousand titles.

It’s a library – not now, of course, because nowadays universities have changed a lot – that until the 20s of the XX century was the foremost library in Catalonia.

You’ve mentioned before that the ateneus had a very important role regarding education. Which is the connection with the ‘Escola Moderna’ of Francesc Ferrer i Guardia and the rationalist schools?

The Ferrer i Guardia school, the modern school, is a school inspired in the French rationalist currents that sets up in Barcelona and that had few students, it wasn’t a school of great masses of students.

What it did have was a connection with the anarchist world, among others. This connection with the anarchist world was based not only in the diffusion of ideas, but also with the editing of books: rationalist books, evolutionist books, anarchist books, socialist books in general.

The modern school also had a press annexed to the school.

So it follows that, from the core of the modern school, came educated people who connected and these ideas took hold on them, and then they would work in the world of the popular ateneus.

Then, the relationship, both through individuals and through publications, was a real influence.

Especially until the first world war, so to speak, until the years of the first world war.

In what way did the ateneus reinforce the neighborhood spirit and consciousness?

Well, the ateneus were a center of many classes, but especially these popular ateneus were a neighborhood center.

It was a pole of attraction, and were also… for exemple, the major festivity.

The popular ateneu had the people’s side of the major festivity.

While the lords balls in casinos or bourgeoisie were basically restricted for this higher class, so to speak.

But the others [popular ones] weren’t, they were a source of attraction.

Not only in the major festivity, but also it was a place to go daily. It was a place where you could go after work to meet with people, to debate, to read, to take some night classes on whatever was offered.

So it is a true source of attraction and gathering in the neighborhood.

In what way did the aristocracy and the clergy see the popular ateneus?

That’s like everything.

They saw it warily, and saw it…

Well, at first they saw it as something beneath their notice, not worth taking into account, something of the low classes.

Slowly, as these ateneus begin to represent a way of becoming aware and so, there’s a prevention.

And the maximum proof of these prevention is that with the dictatorships they are banned.

They are seized, banned and eradicated. They must have accomplished some function if they wanted to destroy them so badly, it is the maximum proof.

Parties like the Lliga Regionalista or the Partido Republicano Radical, did they try to somehow influence or politized the ateneus?

Alejandro Lerroux’ “Partit Republicà Radical” influenced in some ateneus and, above all, what it did was create a network of what he didn’t call Ateneus but ‘Casas del Pueblo’.

Then, these ‘Casas del Pueblo’ filled the role that we’ve mentioned before: a company store, a different levels education center, meeting place, festive space, those gatherings were held there.

Regarding the ‘Lliga’, people who were very prominent in the ‘Lliga’ was part of this ‘Ateneu Barcelonès’.

It occupied, even, the presidency, etc.

The thing is that all the ateneus had the imposition, by statute, to ban talking about politics and religion.

If their statues didn’t include that, the civil governor didn’t allow them.

Another issue is that all that was talked about was politics and religion, actually, but that’s another matter.

What does this mean? It means that, in this ateneus with this rule, appears a, so to say, greater degree of tolerance than in the average of society.

In the ateneu, any cultural proposal – within a limit – can be presented, a book to comment, anything.

Then, there’s no hard ideological line in the ateneu. Not even in the topmost bourgeoisie ateneu, the ‘Ateneu Barcelonès’.

The thing is that this bourgeoisie ateneu becomes more democratic. As society becomes more democratic, the body of partners does so too, and that’s determined by social pressure.

What was the role of the ateneus in order to assemble collective demonstrations?

Let’s see, there are many kinds of collective demonstrations.

In the bourgeoisie ateneus they organized many of these demonstrations.

For example, they helped with the protests against the fiscal policies.

They helped in the protests against the attempt of the central state to finish the particular Catalan civil right, etc.

At certain moments, they did mobilize on some issue, some movement from outside the ateneu, from outside the city.

Then, the popular ateneus, being the spaces of influx and gathering of the popular secotrs became places of coordination of the social demonstrations.

Then, they are very present because when the directors or presidents, however they are called, of these ateneus begin to not take part of the demonstrations, the members themselves oust the directive.

That is, the members need to identify themselves with a directive that is by their side during the protests.

When a divergence appears, the members oust them, so to say.

How does the role of ateneus changes at the beginning of the Spanish civil war?

The Spanish civil war represents an interruption in the normal life of any society, not only the Catalan, of course.

But what is true is that, since the associative fabric was so strong, this fabric becomes, then, a tool to movilize.

Many ateneus see themselves forced to lean to one side or the other. Usually towards the CNT-FAI side, but also towards the growing communist side of the PSUC, and also the socialist one. Some will keep the discipline of the historical ‘Esquerra Republicana’, of the trade unions.

This ateneism, like everything in the citizen life, becomes politized and falls towards one of these sides.

But this is due to the exceptional circumstances of the civil war.

During this period of civil war in Barcelona, propaganda was often used a method of discredit of ideas and ways of thinking. The POUM, for example, was the victim of a campaign by the PSUC which some say came from the Stalinist pressure. Like you’ve just mentioned, some ateneus leaned towards the CNT side. Did these ateneus feel threatened or considered a threat by the PSUC?

No, let’s see…

We can’t talk about ateneus here, but rather the general situation.

The general situation caused, as it is known, in May 37 a resolving of the influence between the communist and the CNT-POUM sides.

So, people who were affiliated to the CNT-FAI and the POUM retired or some disappeared or had to subordinate to the new political hegemony, which came out of the civil war inside the civil war.

This is so in general in society and politics, so it must have been felt in the world of associations.

The thing is that this should be considered case by case, checking each individual case.

Associative and ateneistic life loses a lot of importance during the war.

It loses much importance due to this degree of pollicization, which is what actually finishes up the world of traditional ateneus.

It now becomes the political confrontation, the movilization, the life of many of them revolved around feed the forces on the frontline, etc…

And then, in a civil war like that, it’s very hard, even though it did happen, to listen to a conference or to read newspapers when paper begins to be scarce, or assist to night classes when Barcelona, for example, is bombed 118 times during the war.

It’s unthinkable to keep things as if nothing had happened.

After the civil war, you’ve mentioned that the ateneus were closed up and seized. Did they continue somehow in the exile or…?

No, the ateneus in the exile…

In the exile there were Catalan groups of different political tendencies that were maintained, and in the exile there were what were called casals, the Catalan casals.

In this ‘Casals Catalans’, the one in Havana, in Buenos Aires, in New York, etc.

These casals couldn’t stick to a political tendency but rather started gathering everyone who wanted to gather around in the exile.

Inside the country, all the popular ateneus with any strength, those ateneus from villages where there was the bourgeoisie ateneu and the popular ateneu, the bourgeoisie ones continued but the popular ones were seized and destroyed.

They lost their promoters and the owners lost ownerships even of the buildings.

This was recovered very slowly. Actually, it just started to be recovered after the transition, so there’s been an important clash against popular ateneism.

Even the ‘Ateneu Barcelonès’ was attempted to be seized by the Falange, because they wanted to purge even their library from all the titles, etc.

And thanks to some Francoist ateneu members, it was saved, they said no, that they would do it, and conducted a purge of 70.000 books that weren’t destroyed, but were locked in the basement unavailable to be checked.

So there was a control even of the bourgeoisie ateneus, the non-worker’s ateneus. But the worker’s ones were completely closed down.

What would you say is the role of ateneus nowadays?

I think it’s regaining importance.

It’s becoming important again because there’s a will from all the people who saw the seizing of the ateneus to get them back.

And to turn this ateneus in cultural and associative centers for the town, the neighborhood, the city of Barcelona, any.

So, I think it is being recovered the associative fabric that characterized the history of Catalonia from the middle of the XIX century until the civil war, of course.

It says here that you wrote a book in 1982 about Primo de Rivera. Despite the institutional repression, the ineptitude when it came to ruling, there were a series of technological strides like one of the best network reads in Europe, or the arrival of electricity to certain rural areas. Do you think this could be related to the francoist policies related to the arrival of the technocrats?

What Primo de Rivera des is consolidating, so to say, the radial network that has been maintained even with the AVE, the high-speed train with Madrid km. 0, as they say.

A network of some good roads, that were well done, but that were useless.

As an example, for Catalonia it is important to have a road from Barcelona to Madrid, by the way of Zaragoza, but that doesn’t mean at all to revitalize the country.

Then, here there were local efforts to create the true network.

The same happens with the railroads.

Then comes the creation of an only phone company with north-American technology and north-American investment, and then comes the invigoration of the electric network.

But it was an electric network that already worked.

So there is, in the dictatorship, this will…

Another thing is the creation of something that was called the ‘Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro’, which is something curiously similar to the one that Roosevelt tried to introduce after the ’29 crack in the north-American valley of, I think, Tennessee.

It is the attempt to make complete profit of the hydroelectric, hydraulic, dams, human facilities, etc. of a fluvial valley.

The only one of these that worked was the Ebro one, which still works nowadays.

Then, in this sense there is technology as an alibi for repression, as an alibi of…

No, not technology, but rather the great infrastructures.

Franco opened dams. Then, it appeared in the news of the time, the No-Do, he appeared opening dams, opening great factories, opening stuff…

It’s the way that a dictator has to magnify and to darken the hidden repression, or rather very open there exists. It was very strong in the time of Primo de Rivera and huge against Catalonia: its culture, its language, its institutions, etc during Francoism.

During an interview, we were told that the Stalinist Consul in Barcelona [Antonov Ovseenko], when the civil war started and the anarchists took power, he was surprised and said: “I don’t understand, in Saint Petersburg it took us 3 to 4 years to get the trains going. Here, in 3 or 4 days they are already perfectly working. Why is that?” Apparently, the motives given were that in the ateneus there was a training that maybe wasn’t there and a feeling of union among the workers. Could you tell us about this?

There was a part of the working class that was readier.

A sector with studies in this ateneu world but also in an institution named the ‘Escola Industrial’, where there was a training of the workers to create, let’s call it, intermediate technicians.

Not the big owner but some intermediate technicians who are, in the end, the ones that make the industrial world work.

Then this class that isn’t the working class but neither the big factory owner is what allowed the country to carry on.

And, in some cases, it is said that many of these better prepared workers were key for the economic recovery during Francoism.

They were the basis that allowed this world to work, the inspiration of which we attribute to the Opus Dei’s technocrats, but for that there was a need for human material.

This human material was far more prepared in Catalonia than in any other Spanish region.

This was the reason for the great industrial boom in the Catalan area.

Could you tell us a bit about how you lived the deeds of the 17thof august?

Well, a bit like everyone.

I, personally, learned about them almost immediately because I’m the dean of a Catalan university that takes place in the French city – well, in French land – of Prada.

I was just besides the lecturer, Josep Turull, the councilor of the presidency.

They passed him some papers telling him about it, but it was all…

Then, it is obvious that these brutal events determined the course of that week, incidentally that was the day of the inauguration. It determined the unease about what was going on in Barcelona and specifically in the ateneu, which received a lot of people who came from the street to take refuge.

They had to close the doors of the ateneu and had to manage that important moment of crisis.

Then, I condemn it, no need to mention it, like everyone else. The most radical, absolute and without holdbacks condemn.

But, there’s another part of pride, a certain pride because the citizenry of Barcelona – and Catalunya in general, but especially Barcelona and Cambrils, but we’re focusing on Barcelona now – reacted with a civility and a discipline that I would say isn’t even Mediterranean, since we’ve always had this fame of anarchy.

But here, there was an answer and then all the security, medical and hospital coordination teams worked with an efficiency and planning that could be considered exemplary.

In this sense, inside the huge pity for the victims and the ideological, moral and ethical refection in all senses, without palliatives, there’s this other side that fills with, so to say, satisfaction.

I think that, one way or another, it fills the world of a more democratic civilization with satisfaction, which I find to be an important contribution.

Imagine that it’s the 2ndof October of this year. What happened yesterday and what do you think will happen next?

That sure is a great question.

Logically, what should have happened is that yesterday the voting had taken place.

Traditional political Spanish culture is very warlike.

Then, it can react in many ways.

Buy anyway, I think that whether people can vote or not, the victory has already happened.

The 2nd the victory will have happened because there will have been a questioning to the way Spain governs, to the way Spain is democratized in general terms.

And the determination of a certain area like the Catalan of non-conformity.

Then, the bases of a historic relationship, because this isn’t just about nowadays, there’s also a historic component.

The basis of this has reached a point of making evident, for the first time in a democratic way, which is very important in the south of Europe, for the first time in a democratic way it is definitely questioned.

So it can’t be swept under the rug anymore.

And today, the 2ndof October, begins the moment to reconsider this.

Whether it is after a victory in the ballots or a defeat on the ballots or a defeat of the referendum itself without ballot boxes, the question is already brought up in a definitve way.

Repeat question about the Atheneums and the services they provide.

The ateneus answer to an European liberal movement.

That’s the original beginning.

They are clubs in which people, when they can finally give their opinions in society, when they stop being subjects and can voice their opinions, they gather just for that.

This is the general movement.

In Barcelona, this public space was very on edge due to the political and social conflict.

That made that Barcelona, despite being a very forward area, these ateneus didn’t take place until the 50s & 60s in the XIX century.

Then, this shaping of these spaces represents, basically, the gathering of the bourgeoisie.

Not of the aristocracy, but the bourgeoisie.

A bourgeoisie that, basically, is economic, it has economic interests.

With a low cultural level and that, at first, gather to play cards or hold balls for carnival or to later go to the opera together, etc.

This, bit by bit, begins to be occupied not only by these people but also by white-collar professionals: lawyers, doctors, etc.

It’s these white-collar professionals who will begin to introduce the cultural aspect, the newspapers – not locals, but general – libraries, and, slowly, the library.

That’s the origin of the first two important ateneus, the one in Reus – Centre de Lectura de Reus – and, just after, the ‘Ateneu Barcelonès’ where we are now.

Then besides this movement, of these ateneus that had, for example the Barcelonès ateneu had fencing lessons, had a billiard, had card games, etc., and starts adding culture.

Besides that, there will begin to appear in the 70s of the [XIX] century the popular ateneus.

These popular ateneus are, so to say, the reflex of the bourgeoisie ones but they have as a goal the cultural deepening of the working class.

In many occasions, even, the literacy of the working class.

Deep down, it is being able to read newspapers collectively, having a library, having some services like a company store to buy goods, having the ludic part, maybe even the chance of some hiking – not all the ateneus, but some did.

That is, to play this role and be the gravitational well for the neighborhood people.

Then, it has an element of extraordinary invigoration of social life.

Not only in Barcelona, but in most of the bourgeoisie and industrial Catalonia. Also in the agricultural area, because there are some places where the popular ateneu is the alternative to the bourgeoisie one.

Then, there’s this dichotomy between the bourgeoisie one and the popular one.

Often with deep rivalries.

For example, in towns who organized better their part of the major festivity, I mean this kind of petty rivalry.