May Riots

During the Spanish Civil War the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT), the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and the Worker's Party (POUM) played an important role in running Barcelona. This brought them into conflict with other left-wing groups in the city including the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the Communist Party (PCE).

On the 3rd May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police, ordered the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard to take over the Telephone Exchange, which had been operated by the CNT since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Members of the CNT in the Telephone Exchange were armed and refused to give up the building. Members of the CNT, FAI and POUM became convinced that this was the start of an attack on them by the UGT, PSUC and the PCE and that night barricades were built all over the city.

Fighting broke out on the 4th May. Later that day the anarchist ministers, Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, arrived in Barcelona and attempted to negotiate a ceasefire. When this proved to be unsuccessful, Juan Negrin, Vicente Uribe and Jesus Hernández called on Francisco Largo Caballero to use government troops to takeover the city. Largo Caballero also came under pressure from Luis Companys not to take this action, fearing that this would breach Catalan autonomy.

On 6th May death squads assassinated a number of prominent anarchists in their homes. The following day over 6,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia and gradually took control of Barcelona. It is estimated that about 400 people were killed during what became known as the May Riots. During this crackdown Ethel MacDonald assisted the escape of anarchists wanted by the Communist secret police. As a result she became known as the "Scots Scarlet Pimpernel".

Bob Smillie was arrested by police under the control of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). David Murray, the Independent Labour Party representative in Spain, later recalled: "Unfortunately, young Smillie was arrested at the exact time of the crisis in the Valencia government, and no definite steps could be taken to have him released during the period of flux." As Daniel Gray, the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008), has pointed out: "It was clear that Smillie had become a victim of the government's POUM clampdown."

Smillie was charged with carrying "materials of war" (two discharged grenades intended as war souvenirs). He was taken to a prison in Valencia where he talked himself into a further, more serious charge of "rebellion against the authorities". POUM lobbied for the release of Smillie. So did James Maxton, Fenner Brockway, and other leaders of the Independent Labour Party.

The authorities in Valencia refused to release Bob Smillie. On 4th June 1937 Smillie began complaining of stomach pains. He was eventually diagnosed with appendicitis. He was taken to hospital but was not operated on because of "ward congestion". On 12th June he was finally examined by a doctor, who came to the conclusion that "owing to congestion in his lower abdomen, he could not be operated upon". Bob Smillie died later that day from peritonitis.

Rumours began to circulate that he had died following a beating in his prison cell. Ethel MacDonald now began writing newspaper articles and making radio broadcasts claiming that Smillie had been executed by the secret police. Eventually she was arrested by the authorities. MacDonald later told the Glasgow Evening Times: "My arrest was typical of the attitude of the Communist Party... Assault Guards and officials of the Public Order entered the house in which I lived late one night. Without any explanation they commenced to go through thoroughly every room and every cupboard in the house. After having discovered that which to them was sufficient to hang me - revolutionary literature etc."

These events in Barcelona severely damaged the Popular Front government. Communist members of the Cabinet were highly critical of the way Francisco Largo Caballero handled the May Riots. President Manuel Azaña agreed and on 17th May he asked Juan Negrin to form a new government. Negrin was a communist sympathizer and from this date Joseph Stalin obtained more control over the policies of the Republican government

Negrin's government now attempted to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Republican Army. At first the Anarcho-Syndicalists resisted and attempted to retain hegemony over their units. This proved impossible when the government made the decision to only pay and supply militias that subjected themselves to unified command and structure.

Primary Sources

(1) Ethel MacDonald, The Barcelona Bulletin (5th May, 1937)

The trouble broke out on Monday afternoon. The civil guards seized the telephone building by force. As the move was quite unexpected, they succeeded in disarming the militiamen in charge there, and so gaining control. All during the night there was firing in the street, and we had a good view from the hotel windows. As the day (Tuesday) wore on the firing became terrific: the police were firing from their building further up the street, and from nearby houses, and the CNT were replying from their HQ, from the balconies and from the roof. The noise is terrible, and already there have been many killed and wounded.

(2) Ethel MacDonald, News From Spain (1937)

There is no doubt that the magnificent struggle of the Spanish workers challenges the entire theory and historical interpretation of parliamentary socialism. The civil war is a living proof of the futility and worthlessness of parliamentary democracy as a medium of social change. It clearly demonstrates that there is but one way, the way of direct action. And that but one class can make the change - the working class. Social democracy has lived too long. It is said Spain has killed it. And now it is merely necessary that the corrupted body be burned.

The struggle in Spain is maintained by the Anarchists and without the Anarchists the war would have been lost for the workers before this. And it is because of this fact that the Socialists, and those who call themselves Socialists, refuse to have anything to do with the Spanish Revolution. It is true that those persons organise collections for the poor children of Madrid who have lost their parents as the result of barbarous bombardments, and it is true that those persons are collecting clothes and food and dispatching them to Madrid. But that is all. The Spanish conflict is regarded as a case for charity, something on the same footing as the poor of the Salvation Army. This is typical of the social democrats. It exposes them clearly as petty bourgeoisie with hearts that beat warmly for the poor starving children of Madrid. But speak to them about the revolution and they gooseflesh all over. To them revolution is illegal and unlawful, and as good law abiding citizens and subjects, they refuse to have any association with it. That is the treachery that is perpetrated on the working-class by those individuals and parties. They claim to be socialists and with that label attached to them they seduce the working-class.

(3) The Inprecor (3rd May, 1937)

The police, led by the Prefect of Police in person, occupied the central telephone exchange in the afternoon of May 3rd. The police were shot at while discharging their duty. This was the signal for the provocateurs to begin shooting affrays all over the city.

(4) Ethel MacDonald, interview that appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times (1937)

My arrest was typical of the attitude of the Communist Party. In Scotland the group to which I am attached has always been in complete opposition to the Communist Party. In opposing their propaganda we have always had to face and deal with their fundamental ignorance and brutality. In Spain, their approach is the same. Assault Guards and officials of the Public Order entered the house in which I lived late one night. Without any explanation they commenced to go through thoroughly every room and every cupboard in the house. After having discovered that which to them was sufficient to hang me - revolutionary literature etc. - they demanded to see my passport. On this being shown they informed me that I was in Spain illegally, although I entered Spain quite legally.

(5) Ethel MacDonald, interview that appeared in The Sunday Mail (1937)

The spirit of the comrades in prison is good. Persecution and imprisonment of revolutionists is not something new to Spain. Even persecution by so-called Communists is not new. The treatment meted out to the revolutionists in Russia today beggars description. That can be expected from the present regime in the Socialist fatherland. But that in Spain, whilst their comrades and brothers are struggling at the fronts against the fascist enemy, revolutionists should be arrested on such a scale is a scandal that brings discredit on all those who permit such to take place without making protest. Revolution should mean the end of prisons, not the changing of the guard.

(6) The Manchester Guardian (5th May 1937)

Reports reaching Perpignan, on the Franco-Spanish frontier, state that there was an Anarchist rising in Barcelona yesterday. At least 100 people are reported to have been killed, and by the afternoon the hospitals were filled with wounded.

Telephone communication with Barcelona is cut and the Franco-Spanish frontier is closed, and it is therefore difficult to obtain accurate information. A passenger who arrived at Perpignan yesterday evening by 'plane from Barcelona stated that the Government had regained control of the centre of the city after fierce fighting, but that the Anarchists held the suburbs and the outlying districts. The Government hoped to gain complete control to-day.

The Catalan authorities have installed machine-guns at strategic points in the city, and tanks have also been brought into use. The President of Catalonia, Senor Companys, is understood to have appealed for troops from the Aragon front to deal with the situation.

On the other hand, it is reported that Socialist, Communist, and Anarchist leaders have held a meeting to reach a settlement of the conflict. Representatives of the two big labour organisations, the U.G.T. (Socialist-Communist) and the C.N.T. (Anarchist), broadcast appeals while the fighting was going on calling on their supporters to cease fire and to keep calm.

A warning to the population to stay indoors was also broadcast, apparently by the Government, and this broadcast ended with the words "These streams of blood must cease to flow.'

The Anarchists are nominally supporters of the Catalan Government and have, in fact, two seats in the Cabinet. Their ability to collaborate is not strong, however, and they are constantly in dispute with the Socialists and Communists in the Government.

Tension between the authorities and the Anarchists has been acute for some days. The disorders began when the Generalitat (the Catalan Government) ordered the Anarchists to give up any arms they possessed. They refused, and the Generalitat sent police reinforcements to places where the Anarchists were in control.

Some Anarchists installed themselves in the tall telephone building, and it was round this that the most serious fighting took place. At first several Anarchists were made prisoners in the building, but later the police are said to have been beaten off. Then the Anarchists made a large-scale attack on all policemen found in the streets and chased them into the suburbs at the point of the revolver.

An alternative explanation of the cause of the rising is given by the passenger who arrived at Perpignan. He said that the Valencia Government recently proposed the nomination of a general to command the Catalan forces, but the Anarchists refused to accept the appointment. The Valencia Government insisted and fighting broke out.

The French Consulate, states Reuter, is understood to have been cut off by the rioters, and the Consul had to send an appeal for help to a French vessel in the port.

The reported rising in Barcelona is not an isolated instance of disagreement between the Anarchists and the other supporters of the Catalan Government. The Anarchists are also in revolt in the town of Puigcerda, two miles from the French border, to the north-west of Barcelona. The trouble there fol- lowed a recent incident in which Antonio Martin, head of the Puigcerda Anarchists, was killed.

The Valencia Government, it appears, asked the Catalan Government that the situation should be got under control, and the Generalitat accordingly sent 400 carabiniers and Civil Guards to occupy strategic points round Puigcerda. They also cut the bridge on the road between Puigcerda and a neighbouring town to prevent the arrival of Anarchist reinforcements.

The Anarchists are described as being well armed and determined not to submit to discipline from the Catalan Government, and have erected barbed-wire entanglements and dug trenches round Puigcerda to prevent an attack.

(7) John Langdon-Davies, Daily Chronicle (8th May, 1937)

This has not been an Anarchist uprising. It is a frustrated putsch of the "Trotskyist" P.O.U.M., working through their controlled organizations, "Friends of Durruti" and Liberation Youth. The tragedy began on Monday afternoon when the Government sent armed police into the Telephone Building, to disarm the workers there, mostly C.N.T. men. Grave irregularities in the service had been a scandal for some time.

A large crowd gathered in the Plaza de Catalunya outside, while the C.N.T. Men resisted, retreating floor by floor to the top of the building. The incident was very obscure, but word went round that the Government was out against the Anarchists. The streets filled with armed men. By nightfall every workers' centre and Government building was barricaded, and at ten o'clock the first volleys were fired and the first ambulances began ringing their way through the streets. By dawn all Barcelona was under fire.

As the day wore on and the dead mounted to over a hundred, one could make a guess at what was happening. The Anarchist C.N.T. and Socialist U.G.T. were not technically "out in the street". So long as they remained behind the barricades they were merely watchfully waiting, an attitude which included the right to shoot at anything armed in the open street the general bursts were invariably aggravated by pacos - hidden solitary men, usually Fascists, shooting from roof-tops at nothing in particular, but doing all they could to add to the general panic.

By Wednesday evening, however, it began to be clear who was behind the revolt. All the walls had been plastered with an inflammatory poster calling for an immediate revolution and for the shooting of Republican and Socialist leaders. It was signed by the "Friends of Durruti". On Thursday morning the Anarchist daily denied all knowledge or sympathy with it, but La Batalla, the P.O.U.M. paper, reprinted the document with the highest praise. Barcelona, the first city of Spain, was plunged into bloodshed by agents provocateurs using this subversive organization.

(8) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (11th May, 1937)

Thousands of loudspeakers, set up in every public place in the towns and villages of Republican Spain, in the trenches all along the battlefront of the Republic, brought the message of the Communist Party at this fateful hour, straight to the soldiers and the struggling people of this hard-pressed hard-fighting Republic.

The speakers were Valdes, former Councillor of Public Works in the Catalan government, Uribe, Minister of Agriculture in the government of Spain, Diaz, Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, Pasionaria, and Hemandez, Minister of Education.

Then, as now, in the forefront of everything stand the Fascist menace to Bilbao and Catalonia.

There is a specially dangerous feature about the situation in Catalonia. We know now that the German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to "prepare" the notorious 'Congress of the Fourth International', had one big task. It was this:

They were - in co-operation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were "unable to exercise naval control on the Catalan coasts effectively" because of "the disorder prevailing in Barcelona", and were, therefore, "unable to do otherwise" than land forces in Barcelona.

In other words, what was being prepared was a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines quite openly on the Catalan coasts, declaring that they were doing so "in order to preserve order".

That was the aim. Probably that is still the aim. The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organisation known as the POUM.

The POUM, acting in cooperation with well-known criminal elements, and with certain other deluded persons in the anarchist organisations, planned, organised and led the attack in the rearguard, accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front at Bilbao.

In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a Fascist cause against the People's Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.

Copies of La Batalla, issued on and after 2 May, and the leaflets issued by the POUM before and during the killings in Barcelona, set down the position in cold print.

In the plainest terms the POUM declares it is the enemy of the People's Government. In the plainest terms it calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely, against the government of the People's Front and the anti-fascist fighters.

900 dead and 2,500 wounded is the figure officially given by Diaz as the total in terms of human slaughter of the POUM attack in Barcelona.

It was not, by any means, Diaz pointed out, the first of such attacks. Why was it, for instance, that at the moment of the big Italian drive at Guadalajara, the Trotskyists and their deluded anarchist friends attempted a similar rising in another district? Why was it that the same thing happened two months before at the time of the heavy Fascist attack at Jarama, when, while Spaniards and Englishmen, and honest anti-fascists of every nation in Europe, were being killed holding Arganda Bridge the Trotskyist swine suddenly produced their arms 200 kilometres from the front, and attacked in the rear?

(9) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (17th May, 1937)

Tomorrow the antifascist forces of the Republic will start rounding up all those scores of concealed weapons which ought to be at the front and are not.

The decree ordering this action affects the whole of the Republic. It is, however, in Catalonia that its effects are likely to be the most interesting and important.

With it, the struggle to "put Catalonia on a war footing", which has been going on for months and was resisted with open violence by the POUM and its friends in the first week of May, enters a new phase.

This weekend may well be a turning-point. If the decree is successfully carried out it means:

First: That the groups led by the POUM who rose against the government last week will lose their main source of strength, namely, their arms.

Second: That, as a result of this, their ability to hamper by terrorism the efforts of the antifascist workers to get the war factories on to a satisfactory basis will be sharply reduced.

Third: That the arms at present hidden will be available for use on the front, where they are badly needed.

Fourth: That in future those who steal arms from the front or steal arms in transit to the front will be liable to immediate arrest and trial as ally of the fascist enemy.

Included in the weapons which have to be turned in are rifles, carbines, machine-guns, machine-pistols, trench mortars, field guns, armoured cars, hand-grenades, and all other sorts of bombs.

The list gives you an idea of the sort of armaments accumulated by the Fascist conspirators and brought into the open for the first time last week.

(10) Helen Lennox, letter to Ethel MacDonald's mother (July 1937)

The Secret Service operating today in Spain comes by night and its victims are never seen again. Bob Smillie they didn't dare to bump off openly, but he may have suffered more because of that. Your Ethel certainly believes his death was intended. She prophesied it before his death took place, and said he would not be allowed out of the country with the knowledge he had. What worries me more than anything is that Ethel has already been ill and would be easy prey for anyone trying to make her death appear natural.

(11) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

Smillie's death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal. I know that in the middle of a huge and bloody war it is no use making too much fuss over an individual death... But what angers one about a death like this is its utter pointlessness.

(12) Georges Kopp, statement in 1938.

The doctor states that Bob Smillie had the skin and the flesh of his skin perforated by a powerful kick delivered by a foot shod in the nailed boot; the intestines were partly hanging outside. Another blow had severed the left side connection between the jaw and the skull and the former was merely hanging on the right side. Bob died about 30 minutes after reaching the hospital.

(13) Daniel Gray, Homage to Caledonia (2008)

Suspicions over the death of Bob Smillie were expressed in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, first published in April 1938, in which he referred to Smillie as "perhaps the best of the bunch" among the ILP contingent. Orwell felt he had died "an evil and meaningless death... like a neglected animal" and was sceptical in the extreme as to what caused it, writing "perhaps the appendicitis story was true... [but] people so tough as that do not usually die of appendicitis if they are properly looked after." Orwell's take on proceedings was written before the release of the ILP's official report into Smillie's death, which, to an extent justified his comments. Rather than offering an alternative explanation for the death, Orwell's words stood to reinforce the ILP's official line: Smillie had been the victim of a tragic case of neglect.

That official line was reached following extensive investigatory work by David Murray, who took statements from inmates, medical staff and wardens in the Model Prison, as well as from patients, nurses and doctors at the provincial hospital. He also interviewed the Military Fiscal and staff at the Office of Public Safety, the Ministry of justice and the SIM. With his journalistic background shining through, Murray even carried out interviews at the mortuary and the cemetery where Smillie was interned. His report was completed in February 1938, and published in the New Leader newspaper on 11th March.

Reflecting the position that David Murray had taken from the outset, it held that Smillie had been arrested not for political reasons but for failing to carry a discharge certificate with him when attempting to leave Spain. However republican authorities had sought to establish whether Smillie had played a part in routs agitation, prolonging his stay in prison and belatedly adding a political element to his incarceration. The report made it clear that Smillie was perfectly innocent of any wrongdoing and suggested that had he lived, he would have been released. The report concluded: " We consider that Bob Smillie's death was due to great carelessness on the part of the responsible authorities which amounted to criminal negligence."

Interestingly, an earlier version of Murray's findings, included in a July 1937 letter to John McNair, included "intent" as a possible motive for the neglect shown to Smillie when his illness had become serious. After hearing evidence, Murray was confident that there had been no deliberate delay in treating Smillie. "There was", he wrote, "no secret about the manner of his arrest, his place of imprisonment, the type of illness, the location of the hospital and the place of the burial."

Questions still hang over the probity of this conclusion. It has been suggested that Murray removed the `intent' part of the argument so as to avoid reigniting tensions on the republican left while the civil war was still being fought. He had been the man closest to the case, and in later years he consistently maintained that there was no sense in the argument that the Spanish would want to kill the young grandson of a titan of the trade union movement.

(14) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign antifascist press, but, as usual only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were "stabbing the Spanish Government in the back" and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves - but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received samething that they regard as a provocation.

In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided 'uncontrollables'. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was 'Franco's Fifth Column' - a 'Trotskyist' organization working in league with the Fascists.

(15) Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty (1992)

Early in May 1937 news reached the front of the fighting in the streets of Barcelona between supporters of the POUM aided by some Anarchists, on the one hand, and Government forces on the other. The POUM, who had always been hostile to unity, talked of "beginning the struggle for working-class power."

The news of the fighting was greeted with incredulity consternation and then extreme anger by the International Brigaders. No supporters of the Popular Front Government could conceive of raising the slogan of "socialist revolution" when that Government was fighting for its life against international fascism, the power of whose war-machine was a harsh reality a couple of hundred yards across no-man's-land. The anger in the Brigade against those who fought the Republic in the rear was sharpened by reports of weapons, even tanks, being kept from the front and hidden for treacherous purposes.

(16) Ilya Ehrenburg, Izvestia, on the May Riots (3rd November, 1937)

I must express the sense of shame which I now feel as a man. The same day that the fascists are busy shooting the women of Asturias, there appeared in the French paper a protest against injustice. But these people did not protest against the butchers of Asturias but rather against the republic who dares to detain fascists and provocateurs of the POUM.

(17) Tom Murray, Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)

Prospects for the future of the Republic were quite good as a sort of a liberal progressive administration. Nobody could call it anything other than that. It wasn't a Government of Socialists. The Republican Government was a Government more or less of Liberals, with Socialists and supporting Communists and so on. And the terrible crime of the P.O.U.M. in my view was that they tried to foster the idea that this was a revolutionary war. It wasn't a revolutionary war. It never had any signs of a revolutionary war. The people of Spain were not revolutionary in the sense of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They were people concerned to expel the Italians and the Germans from their territory, which was a revolt against an invasion by foreigners into their territory, a foreign invasion which was sponsored by the handful of generals led by Franco. I think it was a great tragedy that at a certain period in the struggle there was fighting behind the lines, instigated in my view by those who believed that it was a revolutionary struggle. And this has got to be clearly understood: it wasn't a revolutionary struggle. It had none of the elements of a revolutionary struggle. It was a struggle for the expulsion of foreign invaders. But the lack of unity ensuing created a terrible handicap.