“People’s Houses” and the Second International

23 June, 2020 · History

Few elements of working class history are still as present among workers today as the memory of the “Casas del Pueblo” (People’s Houses) of the Second International in Spain. They were the largest experience of organization of militant groups of the time, but above all, they represented a massive effort of workers’ training and discussion. In them were born the two founding groups of the Third International in Spain and the largest section of the Spanish Communist Left. Studying them, we discover the true face of what the Second International was in a country where most of the unions were aligned with anarchism while breaking some myths about the PSOE in the time of Pablo Iglesias.

Antonio García Queijido

The “Casas del Pueblo” were born from the initiative of Antonio García Queijido. García Queijido was one of the few militants who participated in the birth of the first three Internationals. Typographer, head of the left wing of the PSOE, opposed to the “junction” with republicanism, an internationalist during the war, founder and briefly general secretary of the UGT, he would become the first general secretary of the unified PCE under the leadership of the Communist International in 1922. Although the current historiography remembers him above all as “the Marxist” to the left of Pablo Iglesias and as director of “The New Age” (La Nueva Era), the only relevant theoretical magazine that the International produced in Spain, in reality García Queijido was above all an organizer and a “crowd educator” according to Morato’s expression. Having been one of the founders and leaders of the “Asociación del Arte de Imprimir“, a co-operative of printers from which the internationalist movement in Spain would emerge, always maintained a strong co-operative activism following the guidelines of the Council of the First International. From there and from his first-hand knowledge of the first Belgian “Maisons du Peuple” (Houses of the People), the Spanish movement was born.

On September 5, 1897, García Queijido called a formal meeting of twelve workers’ organizations. They participate from the Montepio Obrero -represented by Morato in the meeting- to the association of waiters, as well as the Partido Obrero itself represented by Pablo Iglesias. García Queijido gave them, according to the minutes, “extensive explanations about the project, highlighting the magnificent results that the Casas del Pueblo are giving in the different countries where they already exist”. Official historians have always tried to portray “the houses” as a container of trade unions, but that was neither the idea of their promoter nor the reality until many years later. The official name of what was founded at that meeting is already significant: “Aglomeración Cooperativa Madrileña Casa del Pueblo”. As pointed out by one of the few studies published on the movement:

The intention was therefore very clear: to found a workers’ cooperative that, in imitation mainly of those operating in Belgium, such as those in Brussels or Ghent’s “Vooruit”, would promote socialist action and the growth of the number of militants, first in Madrid and then in the rest of Spain, creating a network of cooperatives and, through them, a network of People’s Houses throughout the country.

People House of Madrid. The “Café”.

The statutes of the “agglomeration” stressed that its objective was: “To provide those interested in it with charitable assistance, instruction and anything that would contribute to raising their intellectual and moral level or to improving their material condition” and its source of financing the co-operative activities, both in consumption and production. The dream expressed in the first plan: to meet the food, clothing, heating, lighting and medical needs of the workers through cooperative efforts while “the House” was established as a publishing house, printing house, library and school for the workers and their families.

The funding for the implementation of the project was established through 200 shares of the workers’ organizations, each of 250 pesetas. It was more or less the pay of 100 working days. It was not an overwhelming effort for the organizations, it would be the equivalent today of putting in a contribution of about 3,200 euros. But even though Montepio and the Party made contributions, most of the unions stood aside and it seems that not even 50 shares were obtained. Garcia Queijido tried to overcome the situation by directly mobilizing the workers, whose contributions were set at 25 pesetas, the daily wage for ten days of work. This new strategy, skipping the organizations, was much more successful: 12,000 workers became shareholders. After this first capitalization, in 1899 he asked the Centro Obrero de Madrid – which was on Calle de la Bolsa – to allow the cooperative to use its ground floor to open in the form of consumer cooperatives, a grocery store and a café, and as the joint effort of these, a workers’ library. They opened in a hurry on March 18 – the 28th anniversary of the Paris Commune. And the “agglomeration” began to generate the statutory income of 5 pesetas for its shareholders that same year. After moving from the Workers’ Center to Relatores Street, the two organizations merged and cooperative activity grew. The cooperative then became “Cooperativa Socialista Madrileña” with 83 organizations and 21,000 members. Under it, the growing strength of the “El Trabajo” bricklayer’s society, which in 1906 ended up forcing the Centro Obrero to buy a building and reform it. This building, the palace of the Marquis of Béjar, would finally become the Casa del Pueblo on Piamonte Street, inaugurated in 1908.

The many fronts of the People’ s Houses

Library of the People’s House. Madrid.

The People’s Houses were first and foremost common spaces of what was then the class party, a mixture of workers’ societies, trade unions, parties with parliamentary aspirations, cultural groups, educational groups and cooperatives. Like all public spaces, the mere existence of the People’s Houses affirmed a certain power. In a single space the entire “conscious labor movement” met and shared conversations and activities, discussed the press and prepared struggles. Tomas Meabe defined them as “our physical base of socialist propaganda”. But the political strengthening of the working class found in the people’ houses many more tools at its disposal than space itself, however much it helped to foster spontaneous coordination or to confront atomization. This is where the typical party of the Second International found its true function of class orientation and leadership, where national discussions first arose – one of which led in 1920 to the simultaneous transformation of the Socialist Youth into the Spanish section of the Communist International, for example.

But these discussions were having an immediate impact because the People’ s Houses were bustling with life in a way that the “People’s University” or the most active cultural center could not aspire to. The “conscious worker” was collectively discovering the capacity of his class through his whole militant activity. This activity was not limited to participating in struggles and reflection, but was fed by the mutualization of whatever could be mutualized and the organization of work cooperatives for whatever had to be produced. We will highlight two axes in this other part of militant life – knowledge and health – to then move on to the new modes of socialization – the café, relations between the sexes, small daily ceremonies, cultural and propaganda excursions… – which tried to express the communist morality that was emerging.

Living knowledge

Socialist activists building the People’s House of Turón (Asturias) in the 10’s on their day off.

From the first moments, libraries appeared, some of them with a “circulating section”, that is, books on loan that the workers could take home. This was a novelty in a Spain where there were only public libraries in the big cities and the few that existed either exaggerated how unwelcome were workers or prevented them from entering directly (as the Spanish National Library still does today). Socialist literature, of course, prevailed. And through Zugazagoitia we discovered that within it there were quite a few “anonymous translations” – not very good ones, we presume – of the great French, Italian and German authors of the Second International. The libraries were the center of a life of their own: teachers dedicated to literacy, Esperanto groups that taught the new neutral language which promised to render publications from all over the world accessible… In general the library served as an attraction and base for all kinds of educational activities. For adults in many cases, but when possible also for the children of workers. In Villareal (Badajoz), the People’ s House school had 300 students, Sama and Turón – in the Asturian mining valleys – had 250 and 200 students respectively, and another 200 in Chamartín de la Rosa in Madrid. The school of the Casa de Mieres is still active today… as a public school.

The assembly halls were theaters prepared for large partisan rallies that were also used for theatrical performances, music and movies. The one in Madrid, the largest, had room for 4,000 people, the one in Vigo for 2,000, Palma and Salamanca for 1,000, Gallarta and Tarazona (La Mancha) for 800, Oviedo and Mieres for 500… Specialized groups, such as the “Socialist Artistic Association of the House of the People of Madrid”, moved by a reflection close to the best of the Arts & Crafts movement, were in charge of energizing the spaces and encouraging the formation of theater groups and choral societies such as the one in Madrid or Bilbao, which was the first to publish a songbook of the workers’ movement.

Conquering Health

Circulating library of Gijón’s People’ s House.

The creation since 1903 of consumer cooperatives alongside production cooperatives – a movement that began in Manlleu and Bilbao – was soon followed by the mutualization of Health. This was probably the priority of many of the People’ s Houses of the time, since doctors’ offices, medical centers and even surgery rooms appeared in many cases almost immediately after the creation of insurance for sick leave. These insurances did not cover casualties resulting from private brawls -although they did cover injuries suffered from police repression- or alcoholism. They covered the whole family, forming, although it is forgotten today, the first network of gynecological and childbirth assistance in Spain. Healthcare was accompanied by mutual pharmaceutical companies that organized dispensaries in their own offices or agreed on prices with pharmacists. For the first time, mutualism meant that workers had access to something a little like a health system and in many cases simply to healthcare.

It was aligned with a whole range of activities that emerged spontaneously from the needs of workers when they first accessed basic scientific knowledge: healthy diets with products guaranteed by the consumer cooperative, a culture of moderate alcohol consumption – the café vs. the pub – the first conferences and programmes concerning sexual health and contraception

The whole is extraordinarily coherent: healthcare and lifestyle changes go hand in hand. Authors of the time already point out that among socialist workers hygiene norms are kept, alcoholism is significantly lower and mortality rates decrease.

(To be continued…)

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