Why Barcelona Is One of the Most Inspiring Cities in the World

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Mr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT MOVEMENT, 1971 TO THE PRESENT(Stanford University Press).

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In late June 2004, I returned to my home in Albany, New York from Barcelona, a city located in the Catalonian region of Spain and immortalized by George Orwell's powerful Homage to Catalonia. First published in 1938, the book recounts Orwell's searing personal experience and political observations based on his combat role in support of the Spanish Republic against Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist uprising. Between 1936 and 1939, Franco's forces, amply assisted by Hitler and Mussolini, crushed the Republic and massacred as best they could the Spanish Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and overseas volunteers who bravely defended it. Perhaps a million Spaniards and many of the overseas participants died in this Spanish Civil War. Orwell only narrowly survived.

Homage to Catalonia begins with a particularly striking account of Republican Barcelona, aflame with working class revolutionary spirit and a determination to block the triumph of fascism. According to Orwell: "Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists. . . . Every shop and caf‚ had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized." Waiters and store employees "looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared."

In 2004, Barcelona appears quite different, at least on the surface. Bustling but non-revolutionary crowds, including many tourists, fill the streets. Commercial activity, usually under capitalist auspices, is thriving. Proletarian zeal of the kind Orwell described is not evident, nor is an impending fascist takeover. Instead, Barcelona seems home to a lively, sensual, Mediterranean, prosperous culture.

And yet, below the surface, Barcelona's egalitarian, humane values persist. Dominated by the Socialists, the city government has invested heavily in social services. As a result, Barcelona today has an excellent subway system, a first-rate, modern bus system, and numerous parks and public facilities. Across large swathes of the city stretch beautiful beaches, free and open to all.

One of the more remarkable public projects in Barcelona is Forum 2004, a giant cultural park built by the city upon the site of what was previously a run-down, dilapidated area. From May through September of this year, the Forum is playing host to cultural and artistic events structured around three core themes: cultural diversity, sustainable development, and conditions for peace. As a result, the Forum is today providing numerous modern, creative exhibits on such issues as universal health care, women's rights, human rights, education for all, and the dismantling of militarism. Large crowds mill around avant garde theatrical performances, listen calmly to debates between Palestinian and Israeli speakers, and line up at food kiosks serving a broad variety of unusual, tasty delicacies, including my favorite, brochette of seitan with nori. These events, exhibits, and eateries are expected to draw some five million visitors.

Meanwhile, the Forum's convention center has been donated to civil society groups, among them human rights, environmental, and peace organizations. I was invited to give two speeches at a large conference, "Towards a World Without Violence," located at the Forum. The conference was sponsored by the International Peace Bureau (the Nobel Prize-winning world association of peace organizations) and the Foundation for Peace (a Catalan non-governmental organization that works to promote peace culture and the peace movement). For five days--assisted by funding from the Barcelona city council, the Catalan autonomous government, and the Spanish government--the peace conferees met, gave talks on subjects ranging from military weaponry to conscientious objection, viewed films on war and peace issues, danced, and sang songs of human solidarity. It was quite extraordinary and quite a contrast to government-funded events in the United States!

Nor were the city's working class traditions forgotten. At the Forum, there was a wonderful pictorial exhibit on the history of May Day. Much of it focused on Spain's turbulent history of worker protest and leftwing political parties, but there was also a component on the Haymarket Massacre and the struggle for the eight hour day in the United States. I was particularly struck by the sense of worker ease and power when, in the midst of one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, the driver of my sightseeing bus simply stopped his vehicle alongside another bus, going in the opposite direction. Facing one another and with traffic at a standstill, the two drivers then proceeded to have a good natured chat.

On the national level, too, Spain's Socialists seem to have carved out a powerful role in Spanish politics by championing social justice and peace. Earlier this year, their critique of the Iraq War and their promise to withdraw Spanish troops from it helped them to triumph in Spain's parliamentary elections. Although hawkish pundits in the United States charged that, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid, the Socialists had simply cut and run, the fact is that they had opposed the war from the start. And the Spanish people rewarded them for their staunch antiwar stand.

Of course, neither Barcelona nor Spain is a leftwing utopia. In fact, elements of the Left criticized the building of the Forum, charging that it is a waste of money and that the entry fee is too high.

Nevertheless, sixty-five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the country seems reasonably content with a moderate Socialist program of social justice, ecological balance, and peace. Certainly, modern Barcelona is thriving. And I think George Orwell would have liked it.

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