Your Anarchist Stroll Through Barcelona

You don’t have to hold my hand. Drift through these streets like a dog, if you want, disheveled and exhausted, or waft in and out of the space like the smell of paprika escaping from a copper pot in some grandmother’s kitchen, the smell following you down these winding blocks. Allow yourself some mental space to imagine anarchists as hordes of gothic figures blowing down avenues, bat-bearing teenagers with gas masks and blood dripping down their fists, but remind yourself that this is, in truth, your right brain’s delusion. If you sit tight and behave, all you’ll encounter is slices of words on walls; age-old cadavers, horses and rusty rifles long swept away by time; and no unyielding dust to accumulate underneath your fingernails (this isn’t an archaeologist's dig). Stick your hands in your pockets, or stuff your armpits with them, but the day is going to get stuffy and hot, and you should be warned about personal slime.

Run give your name to Nick Lloyd; he’ll check it off in his little Moleskine notebook. Nick is from Manchester, England, but he’s lived in Barcelona for over twenty years, leads Civil War tours, and has just published a book about the city’s anarchist geography, so that should reassure you. It’s nine a.m., dawn by Barcelona standards, and you’re standing on Plaça de Catalunya, the large square at the heart of the historic center. Boutiques are slowly opening; tourists are beginning to populate the streets, eager to start their shopping days early. Nick is drinking coffee from a paper cup with a plastic top. It might feel like over-indulging, but do lean back into the comfort of a guide. Immerse yourself in your true tourist self, relishing in the plastic smell of souvenirs and the giddy self-consciousness of taking a selfie with your brand new selfie stick. This is not your city, but you can pretend. Walk with elegance and style. Smile. Nod. Don’t turn your neck around in the leash.

Take a moment, now, to pretend you’re George Orwell. Inhabit his silky, foreign skin. You arrive in the city in December, 1936, wearing your English bourgeois outfit, to fight as a volunteer in the anarchist brigade. Suddenly, you feel yourself engulfed in a new world:

 

[In the streets] the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. [...] Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers [...] Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers' shops were Anarchist notices [...]  solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves.

 

You think you’re stuck in an idealist’s fantasy. The city has morphed into a red and black dream, the colors of the anarchist trade union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), their huge flags hanging from every window. All shops have been collectivized. Rough, working-class clothing is the only accepted form of dress—as you realize, uncomfortably, noting your incongruity. Social hierarchies have been abolished, and all members of society are to behave as perfect equals. Your assessment is easy and natural: The conflict that has been presented to the rest of the world as a duel between democracy and fascism is, in fact, an anarchist revolution.

Now would be a good time to bite your nails. You might choose to answer your mother’s text, check Facebook statuses, upload your selfie, and remind yourself that at least you’re not a Spanish worker in the 1930s. For Spanish workers in the 1930s, anarchism is a sisterhood, a brotherhood. When the state fails to offer workers proper state education, the anarchists set up cultural centers to offer unofficial teaching. When the urban elite backs an unregulated, capital-driven economic system, the CNT takes to the streets to defend workers’ rights. When a consistently brutal police harasses the so-called ‘criminal class,’ anarchists respond by giving rifles to teenagers, turning the streets into a video-game-like maze of paramilitary traps. They write political pamphlets. They open worker cooperatives, vegetarian restaurants, and popular canteens that allow families to put food on the dinner table. A spider web with no concentric pattern, the CNT becomes the invisible tie that binds the working class together and gives each of its 1.5 million members the right to an identity.

 

Now, I’m going to tell you right away, if at any point you get lost, or feel like throwing up, please let me know, because I’ll want to include that in here. We haven’t come across the smell of raw meat yet, human flesh decomposing in the midday heat with a throng of flies buzzing around as if they were leaking out of bullet holes along with blood and pus, but that’s exactly how the tour starts. On the square, a flock of pigeons erupts into movement, making a racket as they flap their wings. You jump, but Nick forces you into an entirely different time frame: It’s the evening of July 18th, 1936 (five months before Orwell’s arrival), and the smell of gunpowder still pervades the air. On Plaça de Catalunya dead Franco horses and amateur anarchist fighters lie scattered side by side, anonymous. Barcelona is Spain’s only modern, industrial city and today, you discover, it has become a city at war. The anarchists have allied with their visceral enemy, the police; emerged from their hiding places early in the morning to confront the troops that tried to invade the city; stormed the army barracks by the old port; and won. This is General Franco’s first defeat in the history of the Civil War. The Barcelona anarchists have proved their military valor, their Spanish manliness, and their commitment to defend the Republic—for which they still refuse to vote—against a backward, fascist military coup. Lluís Companys, the President of Catalonia, hands over the keys of government to these new “masters of the city and of Catalonia.”

This is absurd, you’ll cry, because anarchists don’t want control. Any authority and hierarchy is a masked form of domination and exploitation! Good point, but perhaps next time you could raise your hand. Throw out your chewing gum, at least. (It’s not necessary for you to show off. This isn’t a competition.) But the anarchists, yes, ultimately chose war over disorganized revolution. They aligned with the united left parties’ Popular Front government, agreeing to share power with bourgeois republicans. Fast-forward to one year later—yes, I see your hand—and that same government, under communist influence, would declare the anarchist movement illegal, subsequently arresting, torturing, and executing any suspected member. Orwell was forced to flee, with his wife, the republicans he had come to fight for.

Have a sip of water, if you were prudent enough to bring some with you. Don’t give in to the temptation of checking your phone. Nick, in his Manchester accent, is your only god. Latch onto him. If you keep your attention focused long enough, until your goggle eyes grow dry and silence drops inside your mouth, coating your teeth and gums like tar, Nick’s words might begin to wriggle their way into the sinewy fibers of your brain. Nick, now, is reading some Orwell passages aloud, showing pictures on his iPad as you walk through tourist-invaded arteries, but you know that if you close your eyes in the midst of the city’s narrow, gothic streets, your feet will stop to moan. Press your palm against the walls and they sweat ice, like medieval stones do. This is where they burned convents, tell yourself. The anarchists looted churches and displayed ancient relics in the open, for everyone to see that bones are just bones and there is nothing holy about putrefaction. On Plaça del Pi they smashed the ornate rose window, turning it into a gaping hole, stinking of darkness.

Nick, in the meantime, is still walking you around like a well-trained herd. A few tokens of history remain engraved in the city’s bones. On Plaça Sant Felip Neri, you visit the remains of an orphanage bombed during the war by Mussolini’s Italy. In the holes left over by the shelling you can imagine fitting the tiny heads of a hundred ghost children, aligning them one after the other. Somewhere else, on a stone bench, Nick shows you a couple of bullet holes from the battle on July 18th, 1936, but there is no commemorative plaque and the only thing that adorns it is some drunkenly scribbled graffiti. Nick mentions the mass graves that are still being unearthed today, and sometimes buried anew in the silent land of Spanish taboos. He doesn’t lead you to the Barcelona Civil War museum, because there is none. On Plaça de Catalunya, the once-glorious communist party HQ, you discover, bedecked with the faces of Lenin and Stalin, is now the city’s largest Apple store.

 

America!you cry, as if this were your home. You have reached the end of the tour, and in your bones you feel yourself plunging deep into your yearning for memorabilia, a desire to stop, to possess, to master the fear of letting this one day—an entire day!—perish unnoticed. It is useless to fight this primal urge. Open your map, and find La rosa de foc. (This is Barcelona. Of course there’s an anarchist bookstore.) It’s not a dank cave but a small shop where they sell Civil-War-era posters; books with titles such as Guide of Natural Medicine: Natural Treatments; black T-shirts with obscure anarchist slogans; and a documentary called The Fourth World War(whose back cover does not mention when the third one might have taken place). In their window they proudly displayAgainst Democracy, a pamphlet written by the Coordinated Anarchist Groups collective, which presents, right after the introduction, a Photoshopped picture of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty devoured by flames in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s hard to know what Orwell would say to this—after all, he didn’t grow up in a civilization of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Coffees—but they do sell his Homage to Catalonia here, in Spanish and Catalan translations.

Present yourself as an American, and the two middle-aged men who work there will love you. Juan has the grumpy attitude of a disillusioned idealist: He’s the let-me-sit-in-my-chair, I’d-rather-stare-at-you-behind-my-desk-than-chit-chat kind of guy. Antonio is skinny and smiles a lot. An intellectual who’s studied sociology, journalism, social anthropology and linguistics, he likes to blabber excitedly about American cinéma d’auteur. (If you nod and smile sufficiently you’ll avoid the Spanish grammar obstacles and your own sixth-art incompetence.) They’re like an old couple, the two of them. You can imagine them rehashing the same arguments: Remember that time when you got us arrested? and I never said that participatory economics would be a sustainable alternative to capitalism, you’re distorting my wordsor You’re always complaining about old people stuck in their ways but you’re getting old yourself, douchebag. I’ll let you figure out who could have said what.

When Juan offers you a copy of a special edition of Solidaridad Obrera (Worker Solidarity), the CNT’s newspaper—and Antonio jokes: “You probably shouldn’t take that on the plane back with you!”—you know they are both eager to share, with an American, their thoughts on American society.

“It’s funny, because the US is really a country of contradictions,” Antonio begins. “You have Chomsky, whom we even sell here, but then you have all those conservatives… And all those people with guns!” he exclaims, his face a mix of dismay and confusion, as if he could never conceive of such a situation in Spain.

Juan, solemnly, nods.

“You also have small demonstrations, with cardboard signs that you hold up like this, in your hand, no? There’ll be a tiny group of people and they’ll just walk around in circles, right?”

Before you can comment on this colorful vision of politics, Juan has resumed talking:

“Here, in Spain, we have huge demonstrations. Thousands of people in the street.” He indicates outside with a wave of the hand. “These streets, here, filled with people. And what’s the purpose?”

He shrugs.

“Well, you’d hope it would have some kind of effect, wouldn’t you? It’s a matter of hope, at least,” you might try to say.

But Juan is gloomy and leans back in his chair.

“Whether here or there, it doesn’t serve any purpose,” he declares.

Antonio intervenes, amused. He points to his friend.

“He’s an anarchistwithouthope,” he says, a large smile on his face.

Exit the bookstore with the newspaper in your backpack. Still drunk on revolutionary adrenaline, you’d be inclined to look around for hooded aggressors, rifle-bearing adolescents and barricade-building enthusiasts, but on this contemporary Plaça de Catalunya, where people are busy staring into shop windows and letting their ice cream melt all over their hands, instead of anarchists, what you can’t help but notice is the pigeons. You don’t know if George Orwell noticed the pigeons. Were there pigeons at that time? They gather in flocks but they seem always to stray a bit to the side, individually, as if moved by some internal gear-shifting device. They look up at you and cock their heads, asking you a question that they can’t formulate and that they know you couldn’t answer anyway.

“You might want to cover your heads,” Nick had warned you suddenly, earlier in the morning, when you’d reached the edge of the square.

Here’s a new kind of danger, you’d thought. You’d almost crouched for protection. But the only projectiles you could see were on the ground: they formed a carpet of perfectly round, little white mounds of poop.

“This is the shit tree,” Nick explained, in his perfect English accent.

You look up and it’s true: like a dream, the pigeons never went away. It’s disappointing, almost. Shooting off when touched, the pigeons know how to congregate, time after time, stubbornly, like meaty rubber bands. They hide among the branches and wait for you to arrive. Imagine them grinning as you pass underneath. If you’re sufficiently paranoid, you won’t need to look up. You’ll trust that, in Barcelona, even the pigeons have learned the trick: Close one eye, aim, and try to hit your target in the face—barely hopeful but consumed by the creative urge to capture someone, break open a hole, leave a mark.