Barcelona Workers' Rebellion

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Barcelona Workers' Rebellion

Spain 1909


La Semana Trágica, or the Tragic Week, was a momentous episode in Spanish labor history. In 1909 a general strike was called to protest the sending of conscripted troops to Morocco. This erupted into a week-long insurgency remembered as la Semana Trágica. The largely spontaneous violence that followed ended in violent repression. Tortures of anarchists in the fortress of Montjuïc and the execution of Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, an internationally celebrated advocate of rational education, led to worldwide protests and the resignation of the conservative government of Antonio Maura in Madrid. These events also led to a congress of Spanish trade unionists at Seville in 1910, which founded the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) (National Confederation of Labor).


  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium, its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 begins. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in São Tomé and Principe.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.

Event and Its Context


In 1898 Spain took on Morocco as a protectorate after losing the last of its overseas colonies, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. After a general strike in 1902, the Law of Jurisdictions gave military authorities the power to try civilians in military courts. At this time the working class in Catalonia was under the sway of the Radical Party of Alejandro Lerroux y García. His primary goal was reviving the Republican movement, not proletarian revolution. The unions were too weak to challenge the Republicans. Many unions had disbanded or were paper organizations, although their leaders retained contact with each other in the years following the general strike.

By 1907 Barcelona's labor movement recovered sufficiently to hold a local congress. In June a commission composed of metallurgical workers, typesetters, bakers, painters, and store clerks gathered in the union headquarters of the store clerks to lay plans for a municipal federation. The federation, called Solidaridad Obrera (Worker Solidarity), was founded on 3 August and two months later began publishing a newspaper by the same name. The new organization grew slowly and managed to capture the interest of workers outside the city. A year later, in September 1908, the union expanded into a regional federation that included 112 labor syndicates throughout Catalonia with a membership of 25,000 workers.

Radical leaders viewed Solidaridad Obrera as a competitor for working-class support. However, Solidaridad Obrera was a "bread-and-butter" union, dedicated to collective bargaining and meeting immediate demands. Furthermore, the union was politically neutral and claimed that it was not under the "tutelage of any political party or … either of the two branches of socialism."

Despite these declarations, the labor federation became a battleground between the socialists and anarchists. The socialists were intent on bringing Solidaridad Obrera into the socialist-dominated Unión General de Trabajo, the socialist national labor federation (UGT). The anarcho-syndicalists in the union were divided between moderates, who wanted the labor movement to expand via anarchist principles, and militants, who wanted to push the federation towards explicit anarchist goals, that is, expropriation of factories and farms, insurrection, and social revolution.

Military Call-up Sparks Resentment

On 11 July 1909 the Maura ministry announced a call-up of military reserves for active duty in Morocco. Firefights between Moroccan Riff tribesmen and Spanish troops resulted in numerous Spanish casualties. Maura's call-up produced anger among the working class in Barcelona, the main port of embarkation for Morocco. The call-up was especially difficult on the families of Catalan workers who could not afford to lose their only breadwinner to combat. The mobilization created further resentment by the working class and poor because well-off men could avoid service by paying a fee of 1,500 pesetas.

Anarchist militants associated with the revolutionary newspaper Tierra y Libertad wanted to turn the strike into an insurrection. The authorities quickly arrested the protesters for inciting crowds to attack the police stations and removed them from the scene almost as soon as the strike began. The socialists, by contrast, fearful of "anarchist turmoil," tried to confine the strike to an antiwar protest.

Two anarchists, José Rodríguez Romero and Miguel Villalobos Morena, organized the Central Committee for a strike on a Saturday night. On Monday morning, strike delegations appeared at the factory gates to greet the workers. Fearing retribution against their properties, the employers closed down the factories.

Spontaneous Uprising Begins

The events surprised everyone. During the week of 26 July, Barcelona experienced a largely spontaneous uprising that received little guidance from the union or Radical leaders. The anarchist historian Anselmo Lorenzo wrote, "What is happening here is amazing. A social revolution has broken out in Barcelona and it has been started by the people. No one instigated it. No one has led it. Neither the Liberals nor Catalan Nationalists, nor Republicans, nor Socialists, nor Anarchists."

The actions of the regional authorities caused the strike to escalated into an insurrection. Historian Benjamin Martin noted, "Civil Governor Osorio y Gallardo had originally proposed letting the protest run its course under close police supervision, but he was overruled by his superior, Juan de la Cierva, Minister of Interior, a rigid law-and-order advocate, who declared martial law under the authority of the commanding general of the military region." According to Juan Benet, "Its declaration aggravated the situation for Luis de Santiago, Captain General of Catalonia, who lacked sufficient military forces owing to the departure of part of his troops for Morocco and the fear of fraternization of the soldiers with the people who were hailing them."

Many soldiers began to fraternize with the protesters and passively observed the depredations of the rebellious throngs. Anarchist, philosopher, and author Murray Bookchin wrote, "The crowds roaming the main street were careful to distinguish between police and soldiers. The latter were wooed with cheers and antiwar appeals whenever they appeared; the police stations, on the other hand, were attacked with ferocity." The crowds blew up the railroad lines leading into the city and temporarily isolated the garrisons from the city. The crowds put up barricades and distributed weapons. Women joined in the revolt, often participating in the actual fighting.

The anarchists anticipated that the uprising would spread outside Catalonia to other anarchist enclaves including Gijón, La Felguera, and La Coruña, and other radical hotspots such as Asturias and Andalusia. Lack of communication between the Barcelona anarchists and the rest of Spain, however, worked to the advantage of the government, which misrepresented the uprising as an exclusively autonomous movement. Thus, the non-Catalan working class and peasantry made no attempt to extend the uprising.

Participants and observers variously viewed the uprising as a protest, insurrection, or revolution. The socialists saw the uprising as an antiwar protest, the anarchists as a social revolution, and the Republicans as a blow against the monarchy. Today, the Tragic Week is most commonly counted as an anticlericalist movement.

Before the week was over, 40 religious schools and churches, convents, and welfare centers were put to the torch together with 12 parish churches, less than half of the city's church buildings. Bookchin postulated that the "widespread damage to clerical institutions was instigated by the Radical politicians who were eager to divert the workers from revolutionary paths into well-grooved anticlerical channels." Author and historian Joan Connelly Ullman agreed and noted that the leaders of Leroux's Radical party sought to defuse the situation by directing rebellious elements into anticlerical activities such as burning and pillaging church buildings.

Rebellion Crushed

Troop reinforcements arrived on 28 July and quickly and severely put down the insurrection. It had lasted one week, from 26 July to 1 August, one day short of a planned national strike by the UGT. Nine policemen and soldiers died and an additional 125 sustained injuries; 104 civilians were killed and 216 wounded. More than 2,500 persons were imprisoned, of whom 1,725 were indicted. Seventeen received death sentences, but only five, including Francisco Ferrer, the anarchist and rational educator, were executed.

Solidaridad Obrera did not organize or officially sponsor the strike, but its headquarters was sequestered by the authorities for having instigated a revolution in league with the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and international freemasonry. Union offices and all nonsecular schools and Republican centers were closed down, numerous publications were suspended, and large numbers of labor and political activists were exiled or left Spain to avoid imprisonment.

The excessive harshness with which the rebellion was suppressed stirred considerable disapproval among many of the country's leading political figures. The decision to make an example of Ferrer sent shock waves throughout Spain and the rest of the world. Although Ferrer was previously little known outside of the international anarchist movement, his execution ignited worldwide indignation, similar to that generated by the Haymarket Affair several decades earlier and the Sacco-Vanzetti affair several decades later.


Normalcy returned with the lifting of the martial law and other restrictions following the replacement of the Maura regime by a government headed by Liberal Segismundo Moret. Those convicted of misdeeds during the Tragic Week were granted amnesty, and Solidaridad Obrera was permitted to resume its activities.

Because many of the key figures and activists in Solidaridad Obrera had fled Barcelona to avoid persecution, the anarchists' representation increased markedly, though not to the point of complete hegemony. The Tragic Week, moreover, gave added impetus to the process of radicalization among labor militants and strengthened their reliance on direct action tactics rather than on the more peaceful tactics of collective bargaining and labor relations. For employers, the Tragic Week confirmed their resolve not to seek peaceful coexistence with unions but to brandish the clenched fist with even more severity than before.

Martin noted, "The congress Solidaridad Obrera originally planned for September 1909 finally took place October 30 to November 1 of the following year. By an overwhelming margin the delegates voted to constitute a national body, and the newly formed center held its founding congress in Barcelona during September 1911." Indicative of the influence of French syndicalism, the group initially adopted the name General Confederation of Labor (CGT) but then later changed to the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor, CNT). The founding membership was 140 affiliated locals representing more than 26,000 members.

With increasing militant anarchist influence, the pluralism that had been the distinguishing hallmark of Solidaridad Obrera was abandoned as prejudicial to the practice and implementation of direct action. The organization abandoned support for a minimum wage and sponsorship of cooperatives and mutual benefit societies.

Though the official trade union vocabulary was permeated with anarchist jargon, as before, "bread-and-butter" trade unionists were the largest component of the new organization. As a union, the organization required a pragmatic approach to organizing. Thus, anarchists engaged in the day-to-day struggle for trade union demands, and apolitical workers generally acquiesced in the adoption of anarcho-syndicalist policies.

Key Players

Ferrer y Guardia, Francisco (1859-1909): Rationalist educator and founder of the Modern School movement who was opposed to state and religious education, Ferrer supported numerous anarchist causes. He was executed as instigator of the Tragic Week in 1909.

Lerroux y García, Alejandro (1864-1949): Journalist, republican anticlericalist and founder of Spain's Radical Party, Lerroux y García was founder of the periodical El Radical. In 1910 he adopted a moderate Republican stance and was appointed governmental deputy in Barcelona by a coalition of Republicans and socialists.

Maura, Antonio (1853-1925): Maura was a lawyer and Conservative prime minister. Before the 1898 crisis, Maura adopted a position of censorship against the practices of the Restoration and formulated a policy intended to avoid the proletarian revolutionary process by instituting a "revolution from above." After the 1909 Tragic Week of Barcelona, Maura was forced to resign.

See also: General Strike, Catalonia.



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—Evan Daniel