Images of a Workers’ Barcelona

A newly-discovered archive of photos from revolutionary Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War depicts the collectives, institutions and workplaces of a society run by workers themselves.

An avenue, Via Laietana, cuts straight through the heart of Barcelona’s medieval core. Its construction began in 1879, as part of a new planned city on a grid. This Eixample, or extension, would house the grand new homes and businesses of a rising bourgeoisie, as well as the workers who were arriving from across Spain and Europe. Along its length were built the institutions of bourgeois power: the Fomento del Trabajo Nacional bosses’ organisation, the police prefecture, the concert hall, banks, hotels. At the end stood a statue of Antonio López y López, the shipping magnate whose fortune rested on slave trading.

Its construction symbolises the intense speed with which industrialisation bulldozed through old Spanish society, and the huge amount of political and cultural power it unleashed. Both can be seen in Anarchist Graphics: Photography and Social Revolution, 1936–1939, shown at the Arxiu Fotográfic de Barcelona last year. A decade after Via Laietana was completed in 1926, it was renamed Via Durruti after Buenaventura Durruti, the anarcho-syndicalist militant and militia leader shot dead in the Battle of Madrid in 1936. The former bosses’ union headquarters was now the headquarters of the anarcho-syndicalist organisation and union CNT-FAI, flying a red and black flag and housing a libertarian bookshop and newsstand on the ground floor.

The People’s Library in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona, 1936. (Credit: IISG)

The statue of Antonio López y López had been dragged from its pedestal by workers and melted down. Society had been upturned; in the words of George Orwell, late of this magazine, who arrived in the city in December 1936, ‘It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.’ Following the attempted coup led by the conservative General Franco against the Spanish Republic, libertarian socialist and anarchist groups had launched a social revolution.

Most of these anarchist graphics, produced on behalf of the CNT Propaganda and Information Office, document this process of social revolution. The department’s remit was wide-ranging: posters, newspapers, magazines, and films — any material useful for encouraging the aims of the revolution and the fight against fascism. The photographs featured in the archive were produced for anarchist and libertarian magazines and newspapers, such as Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom), which ran from 1930 until the fascist victory in 1939, and Solidaridad Obrera (Workers’ Solidarity), the CNT’s Catalan regional newspaper, first published in 1907 and still going today.

A farmers’ collective in Sant Pere Pescador, near Barcelona, 1936. (Credit: AFB)

Others, such as Umbral, emerged during the revolution, and followed in the footsteps of German leftist magazines such as Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper), utilising photomontage to provide eye-catching magazines that informed the readers and agitated for anarchist revolution. Austrian photographer Margaret Michaelis-Sachs’ ‘The Fight Against Illiteracy’, for example, contrasts working-class children of the day against the hopeful modernist new school building of the future.

Most of the archive, however, is urban photo-reportage that captures the tumultuous atmosphere of Catalonia in the period. Photographers such as Hungrarian Kati Horna documented daily life the anarcho-feminist magazine Mujeres Libres (Free Women). In one photo, citizens cluster around a CNT news kiosk, no doubt looking at the same photographs that appear in the exhibition: of soldiers drilling in the Bakunin Barracks, of textile workers bundling up clothing donations for militias on the freezing Aragon front, of piles of ecclesiastical gold and silver being dragged from churches in order to be melted down. Young workers loading up trucks with books for a people’s library; war industries trying desperately to match the firepower of the Axis-supported rebels; and reading, always, throughout the archive, people reading.

The editorial collective of Mujeres Libres in 1937. (Credit: AFB)

In fact, some of the most beguiling works in the archive are by Pérez de Rozas, a father-and-sons team who pioneered their work in bourgeois Catalan society, and continued working under the dictatorship. While working for the CNT, however, they catalogued workers’ collectives across the region. Many of the photos are immaculately arranged, with workers sat around their desks, reading and writing despatches. Others show labourers at work on their collectivised farms, or in their socialised breweries or dairies. While the militias were regarded as heroes in the fight against fascism, it’s clear from the propaganda that the world of labour was where revolution was happening.

That revolution couldn’t be sustained in the face of an international fascist onslaught. In 1939, as Franco’s forces were about to enter the city, the photographic archive of the CNT was loaded into empty rifle cases and sent by train to the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, to preserve the historical memory of their struggle. The looming threat of Nazi invasion, however, saw the archive diverted via London and then Oxford. It wasn’t until 2016 that the photographic archive was rediscovered. With it, we get a glimpse of the CNT’s own idea of what revolution might mean: a world with the working-class in the saddle.