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Living conditions in barcelona
Communist struggle for power
Rising temperatures the last weeks of april

An Evaluation Of The Causes Of The Barcelona May Days 1937 According To Contemporary Commentators And Later Historians

An Evaluation Of The Causes Of The Barcelona May Days 1937  According To Contemporary Commentators And Later Historians Reading Time
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On the 3 May 1937 police patrols attempted to seize the anarchist-controlled Telefonica building in the center of Barcelona. This event was the preface to days of street fighting and rioting, which soon after became known as the Barcelona May Days. The causes of this civil war within the Spanish Civil War are many. Blame cannot be placed on the shoulders of one single political party, although this was exactly what the different factions of the Popular Front attempted to do after the clashes during the first weeks of May.


The Barcelona May Days were significant not only on a regional but also on a domestic level, as they affected the whole course of the Spanish Civil War. The riots marked the end of two eras, that of Socialist Prime Minister Largo Caballero and also the era of revolution. Following the Barcelona May Days, the Republican side ceased to believe that revolution was a means to win the war, but fought with the principle “First, the war, then the revolution”. The events of May 1937 also marked decreased anarchist influence throughout the whole country, but especially in the region of Catalonia. Catalonia’s elements of independent decision-making were abolished and the central government moved from Valencia to Barcelona to better control Catalonia.


The causes of the Barcelona May Days remain to this day a controversial issue, with various different sources and interpretations. A common view, mainly adapted by the CNT/FAI and the POUM, is to blame solely the Spanish Communist party’s struggle for power. This, as well as Communist claims of “fascist plots”, which threatened to eliminate the UGT or the PSUC, are one-sided and false. The Barcelona May Days had several causes, in which no doubt mutual distrust of opposing parties within the Popular Front was one of the greatest. However, the riots were caused by a series of events, of which the most important will be examined in this investigation.


The Barcelona May Days are an issue that truly divided the already splintering left wing. They were recorded, at the time, by eyewitnesses such as the German Alexander Souchy , who belonged to the CNT and political leaders like Andrés Nin, leader of the POUM, who commented on the Barcelona May Days in his speech “The May Days in Barcelona” . All parties brought out a clear view of the causes of the May Days, which best suited themselves. In this investigation, the different views of the causes of the Barcelona May Days, according to contemporary commentators and later historians will be evaluated.


“The May Days were the direct and immediate consequence of a monstrous provocation by the PSUC.”Andrés Nin’s bold statement aptly demonstrates the extent of the distrust amongst the various parties of the left wing. The statement may be compared to that of the Communists: “It was a premeditated act, an act from which concrete results were desired - ... to subject the UGT to violence, to eliminate the PSUC from the political life of the country”. Although the Barcelona May Days were the factor of several causes, it was the competition amongst the various factions that truly sparked the workers to rise to the barricades on 3 May. This distrust could be seen in various acts carried out by both sides, such as murders of prominent party figures, like Roldán Cortada and Antonio Martín. Disagreements also broke out in the regional government, where especially the issue of bread shortages was used by both sides to disfavour the opposing parties. The issue of ideological conflict must also be remembered when dealing with the disunity of the left wing. The question of when to carry out the revolution and collectivization of agriculture and industry was equally under debate with the Popular Front as with the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia in 1917.


Short-term events that truly sparked the Barcelona May Days are the several actions of the Communist party along with the central government of Valencia in their campaign against the POUM and the CNT/FAI. These actions were aimed at diminishing regional power in Catalonia by acts such as abolishing the People’s Courts in Catalonia. Another issue that caused the anarchists to leave the Generalidad was the status of the Worker’s Patrols of Control. It is also claimed by various historians, that the bloody conflicts could have been avoided had the Generalidad realized the gravity of the situation and accepted anarchist pleas of dismissing the ministers involved in ordering the seizure of the Telefónica building.

Living conditions in barcelona

Bread shortages

The rivalry between the various parties of the Popular Front extends to the era before the Spanish Civil War. Especially the CNT and the UGT were old enemies, besides the fact that they in many ways resembled one another. The rivalry of the CNT and the UGT lay in times before the civil war and was characterized by competition for popularity among workers. The unity of the Popular Front was one of opposing a common enemy, not fighting for a common cause. It was therefore easy for political parties to disagree and blame one another for the causes of long-term problems, such as the bread shortages, which were one of the factors that led to the riots in May. With the change of the head of the Ministry of Food, both the CNT and the PSUC saw a chance to accuse each other’s ministers of incompetence and increased food shortages. However, the bread shortages had several causes, including increased immigration and the large population density of Barcelona. The Catalan Ministry of Food had been headed by the CNT Minister Juan José Domenech until December 1936, when a new Catalan government was created and the PSUC minister Juan Comorera came to head the Ministry of Food. The actions of Domenech, such as a planned internal trade monopoly for the control of prices, were countered by Comorera. Conflicts between the UGT and the CNT over how to carry out the provisioning of food had already led to price increases and shortages of staple food products, especially bread6 . However, the actions of Comorera only increased the shortages, Souchy claims and continue by stating: “Comorera’s aim was to break the power of the unions.”This was certainly the case, as Graham also points out that “... [Comorera’s actions] had more to do with eroding the political power of the CNT than it did with economic deregulation per se.”


The causes of the bread shortages, however, were largely due to the increased population of Barcelona as compared to local policies of either Domenech or Comorera. After the beginning of the Civil War in 1936, Barcelona’s population had increased by 300 000 to 350 000 due to immigrants. The area of Catalonia was densely populated and its wartime economy was focused on steel production, as it was the main area of Republican war equipment production. Previously to the Civil War, a large part of Catalan wheat had been bought from abroad, but now the Republican government was more concerned in dodging the Non-Intervention Committee and attempting to buy war material from abroad. In February of 1937, Domenech had to order the rationing of food, as the situation was becoming impossible for the population. However, there was no adequate system of rationing, and the more densely populated areas of Barcelona did not receive their due amount of staple food products. The political situation heated with street demonstrations directed against the food shortages, the largest one occurring on 14 April. The CNT and POUM sought to give a political flavour to these demonstrations and direct them against the PSUC; however, the demonstrations were mainly headed by women’s organizations.


The bread shortages contributed to the tense atmosphere preceding the May Days in many ways. Firstly, the food shortages greatly damaged the life of ordinary families in Barcelona. The increase in prices was felt especially by the poorest families, and those who had lost members in the course of the Civil War. Queuing became a whole day activity for families. The bread shortages became an issue that was easily grasped by the people, and was therefore exploited by various parties. Parties used the shortages as a tool to increase their own popularity and decrease that of opposing parties. Comorera was especially blamed by both the CNT and the POUM for the brutal police forces used to break the bread quees. Comorera was also blamed for misusing “his immense power… to sabotage production and then blame the CNT”. In the issue of the bread shortages, the CNT and POUM had more to say against Comorera, however, both Comorera’s and Domenech’s actions were blamed and criticized and both were separately accused of having the sole responsibility of causing the bread shortages.

Inflation, speculation and increasing wages

Other economic problems Barcelona was facing at the time were inflation and speculation. The value of the Spanish peseta was falling, from 16 to the US dollar in 1932 to 37 to a US dollar in 1937 . Even though Catalonia was the “chief economic center of Spain”, especially of Republican Spain, industries were not progressing. Even in the war industry “workers’ wages failed to keep up with inflation”. All of this combined with the bread shortages led to a difficult situation for workers, where speculation about the future of food and wages was of large concern.

Communist struggle for power

Foreign impact stalin’s influence

The campaign of the PSUC, the Communists, and the central government of Valencia against the regional power of anarchism and Marxism, in name against the CNT/FAI and the POUM, certainly existed. The PSUC and the Spanish Communist party were at the time closely knitted together: “Catalan socialists and communists were already almost indistinguishable in the PSUC”. The Barcelona May Days cannot, however, be described as a planned event of the Communists to uproot anarchist and Marxist influence in Catalonia. The May Days were more a result of a series of actions against the CNT/FAI and the POUM, rather a “dust-up”, as George Orwell put it. Of course, many of these actions were countered by the CNT/FAI and the POUM, however, the campaign of the Communists was much more efficiently organized. The actions of the CNT/FAI and the POUM were rather those of individual members of the party, unlike the organized cheka terror of the Communists. The campaign of the Communists included Stalinist methods, for the Communists had succeeded in becoming prominent in the central administration through which NKVD cheka terror was carried out. What upset the Communists and Stalin, through his officer Orlov, was the Marxist strength, independent of Moscow that lay in the youth, in parties such as the POUM and the Friends of Durruti. Stalin, although sending aid to the Republican government, also expected Soviet methods to be enforced. “Stalin rejected co-operation with rival far-left groupings”, and proceeded by ordering the same purification of the party as the Soviet Union had experienced in Stalin’s various purges. Certainly Stalin’s influence in the Communist Party of Spain led to the extreme measures in the rivalries amongst the parties in of the Popular Front. Stalin’s fears were not, however, only examples of his paranoia. The prominent anarchist, Buenaventura Durruti, as well as many others belonging to the FAI denounced Soviet aid: “To us it means nothing that there is a Soviet Union somewhere in the world, for the sake of whose peace and tranquility the workers of Germany and China were sacrificed to fascist barbarians by Stalin.” What should be noted, however, was that the POUM were not, Trotskyites, as was often claimed by Communists in justifying their actions against the POUM, but Nin had broken out with Trotsky. The plan of the Communists in the gradual enforcement of their power was to first strengthen the Generalidad, then allow for central government to take over the Generalidad. This was to be achieved by gradually eroding the power of the CNT/FAI and the POUM, through stricter legislation restricting regional decision-making as well as through propaganda promoting the Communist party.

Diminishment of regional power

On a regional level in Catalonia, these methods were efficiently used. It was especially in Catalonia that the elements the Communists didn’t agree with flourished, as was seen especially in the case of the People’s Courts. The People’s Courts were regional courts of law and justice, which served as a means for regional revolutionary leaders to control Catalonia and were disbanded by the central government in an attempt to nationalize the justice system. This gradual eroding of local power and decision-making upset especially the CNT, which enjoyed popular support in the region of Catalonia. Also the attempted abolishment of the Worker’s Patrols of Control further heated the already tense situation.


The Worker’s Patrols of Control were revolutionary patrols of ordinary workers whose aim was to protect themselves and the city of fascist troops. However, “the majority of the members of these Patrols are members of the CNT”, and were thus seen as a possible threat by the central government and the Communists. It was only in Catalonia that the Patrols continued operating, as in the rest of the major Republican cities, such as Valencia and Madrid, the Patrols had been disbanded and there was a united police force in which party membership wasn’t allowed. The Generalidad thus ordered on 12 March for workers’ patrols to hand over arms. This was unacceptable to the workers and the CNT leadership, leading to the CNT resigning from cabinet 27 March, one day after Companys’s lieutenant Tarradellas ordered that members of Patrols were not to belong to any party. Companys, nevertheless, was able to compile a new cabinet by 16 April with the same parties represented, only now the Minister of Supply, CNT’s Domenech was replaced by UGT’s Comorera. The workers still refused to hand in their arms, and the newspaper of the POUM, La Batalla, claimed that: “ The only guarantee of the working class is its own army”. What La Batalla was referring to was the vulnerability of the working class in defending itself against the crackdowns ordered by the Minister of the Interior, Ayguadé as well as against fascist troops. In the last weeks of April these crackdowns led to the disarmament of 300 belonging to Workers’ Patrols .


Souchy sees the prohibition and disarming of the Patrols as the UGT “widening the gulf that kept the proletariat separated”. In many ways this was the case, as the official police patrols, approved by the Generalidad, were widely under the control of the UGT and the PSUC. The UGT and PSUC were supported by “middle-class commercial and white-collar sectors... in search of protection in a hostile, apparently anarchist-dominated political environment.” Many in fact joined the PSUC not out of supporting left ideals but because they “wanted protection against the anarchists”. It thus suited the UGT and the PSUC to appear as a protective force with a united police corps. Thomas points out, however, that Tarradellas’s wish of unifying the police patrols under an apolitical leadership and disbanding the Worker’s Patrols was not completely pointless in the name of local security: “José Asense, the anarchist chief of the control patrols, had arrested and killed innumerable people without cause and still terrified Barcelona”. Despite José Asense, it is still obvious that the disarming of the Worker’s Patrols of Control was one step more in the progress of clasping the left wing under the central leadership of the Communist party.

Rising temperatures the last weeks of april

Murders of cortada and martín

The assassinations of head party figures had been taking place already before the May 1937. It was the murders of the prominent PSUC member Cortada and the anarchist mayor, Martín that directly influenced the May Days. The murder of Roldán Cortada, committed on 25 April, was never solved, and even though CNT leaders immediately called for an investigation into the murder, the Communists portrayed the CNT as guilty. The accusations caused the Guardia Civil, operating under the orders of the PSUC and Ayguadé, to open fire against CNT officers returning from Puigcerda. In this clash, the anarchist mayor of Puigcerda, Antonio Martín, along with seven other anarchists, was killed. It is important to notice that not only was the murder of Martín related to recent political tensions, but also older clashes involving Martín’s and the CNT’s control over the border region of Puigcerda, which the Valencian government came to head only recently. Martín was all in all a controversial figure seen as “as much an eccentric as a smuggler” but also “respected as one of the best”. Certainly these two murders stirred tension in Barcelona, yet the funeral of Cortada truly sparked action. It became a “demonstration of a clearly counter-revolutionary character”, and “a demonstration of state power in the form of a long march past of armed police and troops.”  The forceful reaction with which the murder was received in Communist circles has led many to believe that Cortada’s murder was actually a Communist plot to “justify a police action in anarchist quarters.” This view is supported by the evidence that Cortada had recently shown apprehension towards PSUC policies. The murder was, nonetheless, used well by the PSUC in demonstrating its strength against the possibility of an uprising. This demonstration of strength was especially important for the PSUC as Catalonia was still dominated by the CNT.

Preventing the inevitable

It is claimed that the May Days could have been easily prevented. “Demanding the direct dismissal of Rodríguez Salas and Aiguadé, who were directly responsible for the provocation”, Nin points out that had the demands of the CNT/FAI and the POUM been met in this issue, the workers would not have risen to the barricades. The anarchists and the POUM claimed directly after the May Days crisis “the action of Rodríguez Salas and Ayguadé of sending guards [in an attempt to seize the Telephone Exchange Building], was not legal”. This claim was never countered by the Communist officials or the central government, which leads to assumptions of its truthfulness. Whether the dismissals of Rodríguez Salas and Ayguadé would truly have kept the workers from armed conflict is questionable. There was previously even an attempt at containing what was to become the May Days, as following the murders of Cortada and Martín, the air of Barcelona became increasingly tense and 1 May demonstrations were banned all over Catalonia for the fear of riots and violence. In the case of Rodríguez Salas and Ayguadé, even though both were to a large extent responsible for most of the recent police terror, including the disarmament of Workers’ Patrols of Control as well as the order to arrest anarchists for the murder of Roldán Cortada, the situation was so prone to erupt, that two dismissals could not have made such a difference. The workers were already situated on the barricades, willing to fight each other for many more reasons than the recent actions of Rodriguéz Salas and Ayguadé. On 5 May, Companys presented a new provisional government to which Ayguadé did not belong. The situation, however, had already got to the point that this did not make much difference for the workers rioting on the streets.

Fascist plots

The blame of causing the Barcelona May Days was also attempted to place on Franco, or rather; Franco tried to take glory for the disunity of his enemies. In a letter by Germany’s ambassador in Spain it is claimed: “As for the disorders in Barcelona, Franco informed me that the street fighting had been started by his agents.” This claim, however, is simply proof of Franco’s opportunist characteristics. As it has been examined, the May Days had several long and short-term causes, of which the rivalry between the various parties is the greatest. That Franco could have caused this with agents in one or many of the parties seems highly unlikely. What is more probable, is that Franco attempted to gain the glory for the mistakes of his enemies, and thus present himself in a more favourable light to his sponsor, Hitler’s Germany.

The final order

What were the motives of Rodríguez Salas in ordering the seizure of the CNT-controlled Telefónica building in the center of Barcelona? The actions of Rodríguez Salas were seen by the anarchists and poumistas  as an evident attempt to decrease the local power of the CNT. The Telefónica building was symbolic in many ways, and therefore touched many personally. The Telefónica had been seized in the July Days and was “a concrete instance of the dual power”. This power, however, was misused by the CNT. The central government had for some time already suspected that the CNT tapped its calls, and was given assurance of it when the President of the Republican State, Azaña, attempted to call Companys on 2 May. Azaña was then informed by an operator “the lines should be used for more important purposes than a talk between the two presidents”. The central government as well as the Communists had never liked the idea of their plans being out in the open, especially to a party that was seen as one of their largest rival, the CNT. The order to seize the Telefónica building, however, was probably just one more action of the Communists in diminishing the power of the CNT. This can be seen from the fact that Rodríguez Salas had to telephone for aid in overtaking the building, as he and the police patrols faced unexpected opposition from the CNT workers within the telephone building.


Workers rose to the barricades in Barcelona on 3 May 1937 due to one single spark, the attempted seizure of the Telefónica building, but with several other causes in mind. The causes for the Barcelona May Days, however, ran on two levels. On the one hand there were the workers of Barcelona, who had their own motives for rising to the barricades, on the other were the several political parties involved in the matter.


For the workers, it was a case of living their daily lives. This was aggravated by the bread shortages, the increased immigration, inflation and the uncertainty of future wages. Depending on the political stance of the worker, answers were looked to from political parties, who were more than willing to provide them. The tense atmosphere was created not only by the poor economic conditions, but by the various attempts of different political parties to blame solely one side for causing these conditions.


On the other level ran the motives of political powers. The May Days were never a planned uprising by a single party, rather the May Days can be characterized as the sum of a series of events, including both politically planned actions by parties as well as immediate incidents. The Communist party’s struggle for power is an example of planned actions to erode elements of local decisionmaking in Catalonia. The disbanding of the People’s Courts and the Worker’s Patrols of Control are both examples of this, as well as the final order made by PSUC’s Ayguadé to overtake the Telefónica building. The more sudden events include the murders of Cortada and Martín, out of which Cortada’s murder is controversial, as some evidence actually refers more to its planned nature.


On the political level even sudden incidents, and those due to other than directly political reasons, were exploited by political powers. The murder of Cortada became a demonstration of state power, while the bread shortages were used to blame both Domenech and Comorera of inadequacy. The inevitableness of the May Days is quite obvious, since the atmosphere contributing to the uprising had persisted for a long time and could have been prevented only months before. To a great extent the Barcelona May Days were a sudden uprising by the workers, independent of political powers, yet it was exactly political powers who, by their defamation of each other, had caused the situation.


Carr, Raymond. The Spanish Tragedy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.


Cattell, David T. Communism and the Spanish Civil War. University of California Press, 1955.


Edit. Dolgoff, Sam. The Anarchist Collectives: Worker’s Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution 1936-1939. Quebec: Black Rose Books, 1974.


Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Morrow, Felix. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain. New York: Pathfinder press, 1974.


Newell, Peter E. Buenaventura Durruti, 1971. Available from World Wide Web [21.09.2006]:


Nin, Andrés. The May Days in Barcelona. Available from World Wide Web [21.09.2006]:


Souchy, Agustin. The Tragic Week in May: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Available from World Wide Web [21.09.2006]:


Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977.


Weisbord, Albert. Analysis of the Days of May 4-7 Inclusive in Barcelona. Available from World Wide Web [21.09.2006]:


The various parties involved in the barcelona may days

  • Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) - The National Confederation of Work, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union was founded in 1910. Was banned as a political party during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. Believed in direct action as well as collectivization. Joined the Popular Front in 1936, despite believing in an anarchist apolitical government.
  • Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) - The Iberic Anarchist Federation was founded during the Prime de Rivera era, when the CNT was banned. It contained the more radical elements of the CNT and took stronger direct action than the CNT.
  • Partido Communista de España (PCE) - The
  • Partido Obrero de Unificaión Marxista (POUM) - The Working Party of Marxist Unification, the POUM, was a small, revolutionary party founded in 1935 that believed in seizing political party. Headed by Andrés Nin.
  • Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) - The Socialist Party of Spain was actually more reformist than socialist, and became known during the Civil War for promoting liberal policies.
  • Partido Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) - The Socialist Unification Party of Catalonia was a merge of the Catalonian Socialist and Communist Parties. It was influenced greatly by the PCE.
  • Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) - The General Union of Workers was a socialist trade union with a milder political program than that of the CNT.