A Lesson from History: The 1931 Barcelona Rent Strike

The Barcelona Rent Strike not only reduced rent costs for working class families, but also was an education in self-organization for thousands of workers. It, along with other struggles in the 1930s, created an organized working class that in 1936 made the most successful attempt yet to overthrow capitalism and create libertarian communism.

In the 15 years leading up to the rent strike, Barcelona\’s population had increased by 62%. The city was one of the fastest growing in Europe. Inflation was running rampant but wages had not risen. There had been rent increases of up to 150%. Only 2,200 units of public housing had been built. Barcelona was in the midst of a huge housing crisis as shanty towns grew around the city.

In January 1931, Solidaridad Obrera, the anarchist union CNT\’s paper, published an article calling for action around the housing crisis. The CNT wanted to widen the union into a real participatory social movement. They knew that only via mass organization, participation and struggle could the foundations be laid so that people would acquire the skills to construct a new society.

In April the CNT construction workers set up the Economic Defense Commission (EDC) to study the expense corresponding to each worker for wages earned in relation to rents. On May 1st the EDC presented its first basic demand, that there should be a 40% cut in rents. They also demanded that bosses hire 15% more workers to ease unemployment and that food prices would be agreed and local defense groups would weed out speculators.

After the publication of these demands workers re-installed an evicted family on May 4th. The EDC sought to encourage this action by holding meetings in working class areas of Barcelona and the surrounding towns. Large numbers of women attended and got involved as it was usually left to them to pay the bills and rent. Mass leafleting took place and a huge rally was advertised. On 23rd June an evicted family was re-housed by the local people in Hospitalet and this caused great discussion in that part of the city.

The mass rally on July 5th declared the demands of the campaign to be (1) that in July the security deposit should be taken by landlords for rent; (2) from then on rent would only be paid at 40% of the previous rate; (3) that the unemployed should not have to pay rent. If the landlords refused to take the reduced rent then they would get nothing as a rent strike was recommended.

The EDC claimed that there were 45,000 strikers in July growing to 100,000 in August. Every working class building or area became organized. The authorities did not have enough guards to prevent evicted families from being re-entered onto property.

From the end of July onwards the repression of the strikers grew, with the Chamber of Catalonia (i.e. Chamber of Commerce) ordering the arrest of all organizers. The EDC rally scheduled for July 27th was banned.

In early August the EDC began to publish a series of articles exposing landlord tax-fraud, pointing out how there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. In turn the state arrested 53 members of the CNT. This led to a riot inside the prison and a general strike outside. By October, the EDC were forced to go underground after the CNT was heavily fined for not turning over the names of those involved.

The strike was ending, however it never entirely ended in many districts. What successfully broke it was the practice of arresting tenants when they returned to their homes.

It took major repression by the state to end the strike but a valuable journey had begun. For many young people this was the first time they had been exposed to the ideas of anarchism and direct action. They would go on to join the CNT and become the revolutionaries of 1936. The rent strike was the beginning of many campaigns which established anarchist ideas and practices in the communities. People were exposed to playing a vital part in fighting their own oppression. All illusions in the Republican government were quickly shattered.

The lessons of mass action and self organization would later be put to use by the people who went on to make history in 1936. When the fascist coup happened in 1936 in Spain, the left there and in other countries called for the state to put down the fascists. The more radical Marxist groups called upon the state to \’arm the workers\’ (earlier the same demand was heard when the fascists took power in both Italy and Germany). Yet the anarchists of the CNT got out onto the streets, took the arms for themselves and immediately began to defeat the fascists.

Why did this happen? Anarchism has a proud tradition of self-activity and mass participation. The anarchists in Spain did not cry out for the state to put down the fascists. In 1936 tens of thousands of anarchists were ready to seize arms and fight the fascists. No leaders, no calls on the state, just people who knew what to do and went out and did it. This self-organization was in part the legacy of the Barcelona rent strike of 1931.

Reprinted with permission from Workers Solidarity Movement, PO Box 1528, Dublin 8, Ireland