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1936, the revolution of those without a name

The events of July 18, 19 and 20, 1936 constitute one of the most over-interpreted events in our history and at the same time, more than eighty years later, they continue to be tremendously unknown.

Originally published by Autonomies.

Remembering a revolution in spain, 1936 (A translation of a short commemorative-reflective text by Marc Dalmau, in El Salto Diario 18/07/2020) …

The events of July 18, 19 and 20, 1936 constitute one of the most over-interpreted events in our history and at the same time, more than eighty years later, they continue to be tremendously unknown.

It is worth reviewing the scope of what the English historian Chris Ealham called one of the most atypical revolutionary festivals in contemporary Europe. Still today, however, far from being aware of the revolutionary capacity of our ancestors – many times, even the existence of any revolution worthy of the name has been denied – it seems that it always has to be foreign historians who remind us of the originality and insurrectional power of what Enzensberger baptized, “the short summer of anarchy”. But, what is it that characterised those events so that they are described as atypical?

Beyond the Civil War and a forty-year fascist dictatorship hiding the significance of the revolutionary onslaught, and beyond the biased readings of one side and the other — including the internal contradictions on the republican side —, the inherent and structural originality of the social revolution of 1936 is that it was an insurrection carried out from the base, by the people of the most humble neighborhoods in the entire city of Barcelona. It was the people who had nothing – and nothing to lose – who stopped the military coup d’état inch by inch, street by street, practically unarmed and with the sole collaboration of the assault guards of the Generalitat of Catalonia and the neutrality of the Civil Guard, who at that moment did not intervene.

It was the people who had nothing, those who paraphrasing Garcia Oliver, “had no name, those who had no pride, those who were a mass”, who mostly enlisted as volunteers in the militias to go fight fascism in Saragossa. It was the people who had nothing, especially women, who collectivized nearly 70% of the factories in Barcelona (the electricity, the water and gas companies, textile, wood, the port, food, transport or metallurgy), as well as a good part of the economy (trade, food distribution, barber shops, cultural groups and spaces, schools, the communication’s media, farmland, swimming pools and recreational places …). During those months, for the first and perhaps only time in history, those who had nothing, but dignity, had everything.

But the revolution was not only economic. On a political, social and cultural scale, self-management became widespread. In Barcelona, the revolt established a new social geography, fleetingly coordinated by the Administración Popular Urbana, an effort at a self-managed confederal city government of which very little is known, a kind of open council that only coordinated and administered and did not govern and which submitted itself to existing neighborhood committees — autonomous institutions, territorialised and closer to reality — where popular sovereignty truly resided. It is true that the experiment lasted very little, from that July until just the spring of 1937, and that not everything was perfect, but surely this also responded precisely to the fact that those who carried the revolutionary impulse forward were members of the most impoverished and, in general, the least-skilled population.

During that period, the republican forces of the more moderate sectors reorganised themselves and with the help of Stalinism, they took back the reins and undid that revolutionary order. Only to later lose the war.

Thus, unlike many of the contemporary revolutions of the 20th century, that of our house was a revolution made from below, practically without leaders, thanks to the high level of self-organisation of the proletarian classes. Now, another important consideration to reflect on the events from the present is that those practices were not the chance events of a single day.

Rather, they were the result of a slowly prepared, inter-generational community articulation, produced through the development of an alternative to official socialisation, a culture of resistance and mutual aid implemented over a period of many decades by the labour movement in the proletarian neighborhoods of the city. July 19, 1936 was only an epiphenomenon, an extraordinary event that was the culmination of a long cycle of protest made up of a multitude of small, everyday gestures.

In fact, the coup d’état could be interpreted as a response to the intense antagonistic impulse generated by the social struggles of the proletariat throughout the decades of the 1920s and 1930s: the Civil War as a process of creative destruction to completely subdue proletarian resistance. From this point of view, the dictatorship would suppose an authoritarian disciplinary process that allowed the ruling classes to establish the bases of capitalism and the productive model of the current state under the blows of developmentalism. The erasure of memory was the mechanism that legitimized the process.

As George Orwell stated, “whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past.” We must do everything possible so that here and now, that it is again those who have the least, those who have nothing, those without names, who adopt emancipatory practices and promote a true and daily social transformation.

This piece was originally published in Catalan in La Directa.



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