Spartacist English edition No. 61
Against Apologists for the Treachery of the POUM, Then and Now
Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War
The Barcelona May Days of 1937 marked the high point of a decade of revolution and counterrevolution in Spain that began with the fall of the Primo de Rivera military dictatorship in 1930 and the monarchy a year later and ended with the crushing of the Republic by General Francisco Franco in 1939. The bulk of the bourgeoisie rallied behind Francoist reaction, which was backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The bourgeois Republican government included only the shadow of the bourgeoisie, a handful of left Republican politicians. But as Trotsky insisted, this “shadow” was key to subordinating the workers organizations to the capitalist order and derailing proletarian revolution.
Alongside the military conflict between Franco’s forces and the Republican militias, there raged a class conflict within the Republican camp, as the weak and fractured forces of the bourgeois state sought to rein in and suppress the armed and insurgent proletariat and the embryonic organs of power—militias, factory committees and agricultural collectives—that were created when the workers rose up to repulse Franco’s military revolt on 19 July 1936. At the center of this conflict was Barcelona, capital of the industrial heartland of Catalonia and vanguard of revolutionary Spain.
Repeated clashes between the popular-front Generalitat government in Catalonia and the largely anarcho-syndicalist workers of Barcelona came to a head on Monday, 3 May 1937. When three truckloads of hated Assault Guards, led by the Stalinist chief of police, tried to seize the Telefónica (main telephone exchange) from the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) workers who occupied and controlled that strategic communications hub, workers throughout the city poured into the streets and erected barricades. The bourgeois armed forces were rapidly routed; sailors from the naval installation fraternized with the insurgents. An eyewitness report by Lois Orr described the scene:
“Tuesday morning the armed workers dominated the greatest part of Barcelona. Montjuich fortress, which commands the port and the city with its cannon, was held by the Anarchists; Tibidabo, the port, and all the suburbs of the city where the workers live were in their control; and the government forces, except for a few isolated barricades, were completely outnumbered and were concentrated in the center of the city, the bourgeois residential area, where they could easily be closed in on from all sides as the rebels were on July 19, 1936.”
— “May Events: A Revolution Betrayed,” Information Bulletin, issued by International Bureau for the Fourth International, July 1937
Power was in the grasp of the heroic Barcelona workers. Yet by week’s end, the workers had been disarmed and their barricades dismantled—a result not of military defeat but of sabotage, confusion and defeatism sown by the workers’ misleaders. At the core of the capitalist Catalan government, as of the central government in Valencia (earlier in Madrid), were the Stalinists and Socialists (who had merged in Catalonia into the United Socialist Party [PSUC]) and the anarcho-syndicalists of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) and the CNT union federation it led. The centrist Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), itself briefly a part of the capitalist Generalitat, provided the left face for the popular-front government from without. The Stalinists were the first to enter the popular-front government and the loudest in proclaiming the inviolability of private property—they were “the fighting vanguard of the bourgeois-republican counterrevolution” (Leon Trotsky, “The Class, the Party, and the Leadership,” 20 August 1940, The Spanish Revolution [1931-39] [New York: Pathfinder, 1973]). But they could not bring down the barricades. That task was accomplished by the leaders of the CNT/FAI and the POUM, whose militants manned the barricades. The CNT leadership demanded of the workers: “Put down your arms” (quoted in Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain [New York: Pathfinder, 1974]). The POUM leadership took its cue from the CNT, as the POUM’s paper La Batalla (6 May 1937) exhorted the insurgents to “leave the streets” and “return to work” (ibid.).
“The only thing that can be said is that the masses who sought at all times to blast their way to the correct road found it beyond their strength to produce in the very fire of battle a new leadership corresponding to the demands of the revolution,” wrote Trotsky in “The Class, the Party, and the Leadership”—an article left unfinished when he was murdered in Mexico by Spanish Stalinist and Soviet GPU assassin Ramón Mercader. As the insurgent workers raged against the treachery of their CNT/FAI and POUM leaders, only the left-anarchist Friends of Durruti and the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain (SBLE) sought to drive the revolution forward. Though ultimately unable to break either organizationally or politically with the CNT/FAI, the Friends of Durruti urged the workers to fight for social revolution. The voice of revolutionary Marxism was raised only by the tiny SBLE, which declared in a leaflet:
“LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTIONARY OFFENSIVE
“No compromise. Disarmament of the National Republican Guard and the reactionary Assault Guard. This is the decisive moment. Next time it will be too late. General strike in all the industries, excepting those connected with the prosecution of the war, until the resignation of the reactionary government. Only proletarian power can assure military victory.”
— SBLE leaflet, 4 May 1937, Information Bulletin, July 1937
This was the decisive moment. Victory in Barcelona could have led to a workers and peasants Spain and set Europe aflame in revolutionary struggle on the eve of World War II. Defeat opened the way to intense repression, including the suppression of the POUM and the murder or imprisonment of its leaders. Having thus disarmed the proletariat, the popular front opened the gates to Franco’s forces and a bloody reign of rightist reaction.
Popular Front: The Question of Questions
Seven decades later, a critical assimilation of the lessons of that defeat remains as vital as ever in reforging a Trotskyist Fourth International. The essential starting point for such a review is the compilation of Trotsky’s writings, including many of those cited in this article, published in English in The Spanish Revolution. A more extensive collection appears in French in La révolution espagnole (1930-1940) (The Spanish Revolution) (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1975), Pierre Broué’s edition of Trotsky’s writings. Also invaluable is the narrative account written by Felix Morrow in the midst of the Civil War, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain. A vivid depiction of the heroism of the workers and the betrayals of their leaders, Morrow’s book is grounded in a Marxist analysis and program. Several months after the Barcelona May Days, Trotsky summarized the conflict as follows:
“Two irreconcilable programs thus confronted each other on the territory of republican Spain. On the one hand, the program of saving at any cost private property from the proletariat, and saving as far as possible democracy from Franco; on the other hand, the program of abolishing private property through the conquest of power by the proletariat. The first program expressed the interests of capitalism through the medium of the labor aristocracy, the top petty-bourgeois circles, and especially the Soviet bureaucracy. The second program translated into the language of Marxism the tendencies of the revolutionary mass movement, not fully conscious but powerful. Unfortunately for the revolution, between the handful of Bolsheviks and the revolutionary proletariat stood the counterrevolutionary wall of the Popular Front.”
— “The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning,” 17 December 1937
That there was no revolutionary party to lead the workers to victory was conditioned above all by the political capitulation of Andrés Nin and Juan Andrade, former leaders of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) who stood at the head of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in Spain in the early 1930s. Nin and Andrade threw away the accumulated capital of Spanish communism in order to pursue unprincipled blocs and maneuvers, finally fusing with the right-centrist Workers and Peasants Bloc (BOC) of Joaquín Maurín to form the POUM in 1935 and going from there into the fold of the bourgeois popular front and the capitalist Catalan government in 1936. In the course of the tumultuous struggles in Spain in the 1930s, Nin and Andrade went from being semi-revolutionary to non-revolutionary to counterrevolutionary. Their default meant that a handful of Bolsheviks were left to struggle in the fire of battle—with little in the way of experience, roots or resources—to construct anew a revolutionary vanguard nucleus on the basis of the programmatic course outlined by Trotsky.
The popular front, a coalition of bourgeois and workers parties, was the instrument for the strangulation of the Spanish Revolution. The presence of the otherwise insignificant left Republican politicians in the popular front served as a guarantor of its commitment to the maintenance of bourgeois rule, “incarnating the principles of the ‘democratic revolution,’ that is, the inviolability of private property” (ibid.). Excoriating apologists for the POUM who dismissed the question of this class-collaborationist coalition as a “small, temporary technical electoral agreement,” Trotsky stressed: “The question of questions at present is the Popular Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the Popular Front. In reality, the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” 16 July 1936).
So it remains. Innumerable books and articles have been written on the Spanish Civil War; overwhelmingly, their purpose has been to alibi the treacherous policies of the popular front that paved the way for defeat. Among the few exceptions is left-anarchist Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (London: Freedom Press, 1953), which at least offers a frank account of the betrayals of the CNT/FAI leaders. Various pseudo-Trotskyist historians offer up oh-so-erudite accounts that quote Trotsky at great length while amnestying the POUM centrists against whom Trotsky aimed his fire. Prominent among the latter are the late Pierre Broué—who was a leading member of the French Lambert group, an editor of Trotsky’s writings in French and author of several works on the Spanish Civil War—and the British Labourites of Revolutionary History, a “non-party” publication supported by a spectrum of pseudo-Trotskyist individuals and groups. Revolutionary History has published two articles by Andy Durgan, a supporter of the reformist tendency founded by the late Tony Cliff, longtime leader of the British Socialist Workers Party (“The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM,” Revolutionary History Vol. 4, No. 1/2, Winter 1991-92, and “Marxism, War and Revolution: Trotsky and the POUM,” Revolutionary History Vol. 9, No. 2, 2006).
At bottom, the reformists’ defense of Nin and the POUM comes down to the cynical worship of the accomplished fact, that the failure of the Spanish Revolution “proves” that revolution was not possible in Spain. This, in turn, is merely a reflection of their own social-democratic opposition to the fight for proletarian state power today, anywhere. Having cheered the forces of capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union and the deformed workers states of East Europe, these opportunists now take up the “death of communism” cry that the Russian Revolution proved to be, at best, a failed experiment. Thus they write off the possibility of proletarian revolution in the future and rewrite history to deny revolutionary opportunities in the past.
Our compass is the Russian October Revolution of 1917. The Spanish Revolution is an object lesson, in the negative, of the need to forge revolutionary workers parties of the Bolshevik type. Our purpose in reviewing this critical chapter in the history of the revolutionary workers movement is to educate and arm the future cadre of the Leninist vanguard that will lead the fight for new Octobers around the globe.
The Russian Revolution and the Trienio Bolchevista
The October Revolution had a tremendous impact on the workers and peasants of Spain, not least because they saw in tsarist Russia a country similar to their own. There, too, a decadent monarchy had been propped up by a state church mired in medieval obscurantism and a huge aristocratic officer corps. There, too, a large peasantry had been brutally exploited by a landowning class derived from the old feudal nobility. There, too, the urban proletariat was young, raw and combative, scarcely a generation or two removed from its peasant origins. And like tsarist Russia, Spain was a “prison house of peoples,” enforcing the national oppression of the Basque and Catalan peoples within its borders and the colonial oppression of Spanish Morocco.
Under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the multinational proletariat of Russia, rallying behind it the peasant masses, had seized state power, replacing the class dictatorship of the exploiters with a dictatorship of the proletariat organized on the basis of democratically elected councils (soviets) of workers, peasants and soldiers. The new Bolshevik-led government pulled Russia out of the interimperialist carnage of World War I and appealed to the workers of all countries to follow its example and join in fighting for world socialist revolution and a global, classless, egalitarian society.
Spain itself was in the throes of social upheaval as word of the Bolshevik victory arrived, and that news electrified the worker and peasant masses. “More than any other one factor, the Revolution was responsible for the feeling of hope—vague yet compelling—that pervaded the Catalonian masses in this era, convincing them that the advent of the workers’ society of equality and justice was no longer a dream but a possibility,” writes Gerald H. Meaker in his fascinating account of that period, The Revolutionary Left in Spain, 1914-1923 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974). “Russian fever” swept through the peasant south, particularly Andalusia, where three years of peasant uprisings were called the Trienio Bolchevista and workers in some towns proclaimed “Bolshevik-type” republics. Pro-Bolshevik meetings and rallies were common everywhere. During a weeklong strike in Valencia in 1919, streets and plazas were renamed “Lenin,” “Soviets” and “Revolución de Octubre.”
But in Spain there was no revolutionary Marxist party. The Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) claimed adherence to Marxism, but it was more akin to Russia’s Mensheviks, putting off the struggle for socialism until after the realization of a bourgeois-democratic stage and rejecting the revolutionary mobilization of the working class in favor of bourgeois parliamentarism and blocs with the “democratic” bourgeoisie. While Spain was officially neutral in World War I, the PSOE leadership backed the “democratic” imperialists, Britain and France (and their autocratic Russian ally), against Germany, which was supported by the Spanish throne. While the PSOE-led General Workers Union (UGT) predated and was substantially larger than the anarcho-syndicalist CNT at the outset of the war, the most militant layers of the working class in the industrial centers of Catalonia looked not to Marxism, but to anarchism.
Spanish anarchism was rooted in the rural peasantry and among the small-scale artisans in the urban economy, who felt threatened by industrialization. The Spanish section of the First International largely went with the anarchist Bakunin when he and Marx split in the early 1870s. By the early 20th century, a substantial working class had developed in the northern areas of Spain—centrally Asturias, Vizcaya and Catalonia. But especially in Catalonia, a center of anarchism, this was based mainly on light industry, not the sort of modern factories that concentrated thousands of industrial workers under one roof, as was typical of the Vyborg district in Russia’s St. Petersburg, a Bolshevik stronghold. In Spain, anarchism adapted to the rise of an industrial proletariat through the development of a syndicalist working-class movement. The anarcho-syndicalists acknowledged the unique social power of the proletariat in the struggle against capitalism but shared the anarchists’ hostility to all parties and states and any form of centralized authority.
Though outlawed for three years after its formation in 1911, the CNT grew rapidly amid the social turbulence of the war years and the postwar period, boasting about 700,000 members in 1919. As the CNT grew, its leadership was increasingly divided between “pure” anarchists like Buenaventura Durruti—who embraced Bakunin’s vision of a society of small autonomous communes and often operated in guerrillaist/terrorist “affinity groups”—and “pure” syndicalists like Angel Pestaña, who were essentially trade-union reformists much like PSOE/UGT leader Francisco Largo Caballero.
The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution was felt in both the Socialist and anarcho-syndicalist movements. Pacifist/neutralist elements who rejected the pro-Allies (Aliadofilismo) line of the PSOE majority coalesced around support to the Russian Revolution and in opposition to Menshevik stagism and political blocs with the liberal bourgeois parties; but this broad left wing was also opposed to breaking with the reformist PSOE majority. It was the Young Socialists in Madrid, headed by Juan Andrade, who first split from the Socialists in 1920. With their relatively meager and inexperienced forces, they proclaimed the formation of the Communist Party. The following year, a wing of the PSOE centered in Asturias and Vizcaya also split in solidarity with the Communist International (CI). Organizational unity between the two parties was achieved only in 1922, after much prodding by the Comintern.
The effect of the Russian October on CNT militants was, if anything, more pronounced. Some of the initial enthusiasm among radical anarchists was based in part on a misunderstanding that the Russian “maximalists,” i.e., Bolsheviks, were in fact anarchists. But as Meaker observes: “Under the spell of the Bolshevik Revolution, Spanish Anarchists began to think, as never before, about the uses of authority and the rationales of violence. The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat began to enjoy a surprising vogue among them, and there was a growing acceptance of the Leninist proposition that revolutions had to be organized, that not everything could be left to the workings of spontaneity” (Meaker, op. cit.). Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) reasserted against reformist Social Democracy the authentic Marxist view that the bourgeois state had to be smashed and replaced by a new form of state, a workers state. This work had a particular impact on anarchists in Spain, and internationally.
Yet no mass Communist Party was to emerge from this fertile soil. Above all, this failure was conditioned by Spain’s neutrality in the interimperialist First World War. Neither the PSOE nor the CNT witnessed the sort of sharp polarization seen in the workers movement in the combatant countries. In those countries the social-chauvinist misleaders wallowed in patriotic appeals for “defense of the fatherland” and acted as recruiting sergeants for their “own” imperialist rulers, provoking bitter splits with the internationalists who held true to the revolutionary unity of the working class. (Even then, the split between the reformist and revolutionary-internationalist wings was often initially muddied by the development of large centrist formations, such as that around Karl Kautsky in Germany.) The Communist International attracted many anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists who had been repulsed by the abject bourgeois parliamentarism of the Second International—e.g., Victor Serge, Alfred Rosmer in France and a number of activists from the Industrial Workers of the World in the U.S., including founding American Communist and, later, Trotskyist James P. Cannon. The Red International of Labor Unions, or Profintern, founded in 1921, sought to intersect and work with such syndicalist elements and win them to communism.
Andrés Nin and Joaquín Maurín were leaders of the Communist-Syndicalist wing of the CNT in Barcelona and fought for the CNT to affiliate to the Communist International. Both traveled to Moscow in 1921 to take part in the founding conference of the Profintern, which coincided with the Third Congress of the CI. Maurín returned to Spain but did not join the PCE until 1924. His Communist-Syndicalists, centered in Catalonia, maintained virtually total independence from the rest of the PCE. After trying unsuccessfully to return to Spain, Nin went back to Moscow, becoming secretary of the Profintern.
As the revolutionary tide in Spain receded, the CNT became openly anti-Communist, breaking all relations with the Profintern in 1922. Faced with Miguel Primo de Rivera’s military coup in 1923, neither the PSOE/UGT nor the Catalonian CNT would join with the PCE in united-front protest against the coup. Declaring “I have come to fight against Communism,” Primo de Rivera arrested PCE leaders and closed party offices; both the CNT and PCE were driven underground. Though some PSOE leaders were arrested, the dictatorship tolerated the reformists, and UGT head Largo Caballero joined its Council of State in 1924.
The Rise of the Stalinist Bureaucracy
The isolation of the fledgling Soviet workers state, coupled with the devastation of industry and infrastructure by World War I and the Civil War which followed the Russian Revolution, facilitated the rise of a bureaucratic layer as the arbiter of scarce resources. The Bolsheviks had understood that the success of the revolution depended on its extension to the more advanced industrial countries of Europe. But the failure of revolutionary opportunities in the West, particularly the aborted German Revolution of 1923, and the ensuing wave of demoralization in the Soviet working class led to the increasing consolidation of the bureaucracy’s grip on power. Beginning in 1923-24, the bureaucracy usurped political power from the Soviet proletariat.
This was the beginning of a political counterrevolution. Though the Soviet Union still rested on the collectivized property forms established by the Bolshevik Revolution, from then on the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled and the purposes for which the USSR was ruled were all changed. Ideologically, this political counterrevolution was codified in the nationalist, anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country,” promulgated by Stalin in late 1924, which effectively denied the iron necessity of extending socialist revolution internationally. In 1926, the Soviet bureaucracy, through the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee, provided a left cover for the British Trades Union Congress misleaders as they betrayed the General Strike. In the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution, Stalin/Bukharin instructed the Chinese Communist Party to liquidate into the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang in the name of “two-stage revolution.” Communist parties around the world were increasingly transformed into tools of Soviet diplomacy, aimed at pressuring their respective bourgeoisies to “peacefully coexist” with the USSR.
Trotsky’s fight against the rising bureaucracy began with the 1923 Russian Opposition. His 1928 “Critique of the Draft Program of the Communist International” (the core of The Third International After Lenin) analyzed the link between Stalin’s dogma of “socialism in one country” and the capitulatory zigzags of the Comintern, especially the betrayal of the Chinese Revolution. Expelled from the Soviet Communist Party in 1927 and forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, Trotsky organized his supporters into the International Left Opposition (ILO) to fight as an expelled faction of the Communist International to return it to the road of revolutionary internationalism. Among these supporters was Nin, who, while in Moscow, had been won to Trotsky’s fight against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy.
Origins of the Spanish Left Opposition
Brought to power to impose capitalist order on the rebellious proletariat of backward Spain, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship came toppling down in January 1930 under the impact of the international capitalist crisis, the Great Depression sparked by the stock market crash of late 1929. The pent-up aspirations of the masses led to an explosion of protest. In May, students and workers under red and Republican flags engaged in armed combat with the police in Madrid. In December, Republican army officers staged a revolt against the monarchy. The revolt was suppressed and its leaders executed, but it signaled the death knell of the monarchy. The Socialists and Republicans swept the urban vote in the April 1931 municipal elections, King Alfonso XIII fled, and the Spanish Republic was declared, headed by a coalition government including the PSOE.
In February 1930, Francisco Garcia Lavid (Lacroix) and other former PCE members in exile founded the Spanish Communist Opposition in Belgium. In Spain, Juan Andrade and several other ex-PCE cadre also affiliated to the Left Opposition. They were joined by Nin later that year, following his expulsion from the Soviet Union. Nin was an authoritative figure in the Spanish workers movement. Yet a few years later, Trotsky was to write of Nin: “The greatest misfortune for the Spanish section was the fact that a man with a name, with a certain past and the halo of a martyr of Stalinism, stood at its head and all the while led it wrongly and paralyzed it” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” 16 July 1936).
In a 25 May 1930 letter to the exile group in Belgium, Trotsky wrote: “The Spanish crisis is unfolding at this time with remarkable regularity, which affords the proletarian vanguard a certain amount of time to prepare itself” (“Tasks of the Spanish Communists”). The official Communist Party had no authoritative leadership, only several hundred members, and was rent by internal disarray. The PSOE, whose erstwhile opposition to bourgeois ministerialism had simply been an expression of its lack of opportunity under the monarchy, was part of an increasingly unpopular capitalist regime from 1931 to 1933. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT/FAI rejected the very idea of a struggle for proletarian state power, vacillating instead between boycotts of all political activity and backhanded support to the “democratic” bourgeoisie.
Writing from a distance, Trotsky exerted every effort at working with and guiding Nin and his comrades to take advantage of an exceptional opening. Excerpts from the correspondence between Trotsky and Nin in 1931-33 were published in a 1933 International Bulletin and reprinted in The Spanish Revolution. Unfortunately, the letters themselves are not in the Trotsky archives at Harvard and appear to have been lost. The published excerpts of Trotsky’s letters are a model of programmatic clarity, probing questions and comradely persuasion, while Nin’s were filled with personalism, impressionism and evasion. “Clarity, theoretical precision, and consequently political honesty is what renders a revolutionary tendency invincible,” insisted Trotsky (“To Say What Is,” 12 April 1931). But Nin turned his back on theoretical clarity and precision. He argued: “With people whom we have to teach the first notions of communism, we cannot begin by making Opposition propaganda” (Letter to Trotsky, 12 November 1930). Instead, Nin boasted of his personal prestige and influence with Maurín.
Reading from a legal brief that has changed not at all over the decades, Nin’s many political attorneys of today berate Trotsky for his allegedly “sectarian” demeanor, for his supposed ignorance of the situation in Spain and for the “harshness” of his polemics. This was the refrain in the 1930s of some of Trotsky’s erstwhile collaborators and allies—such as Serge, Rosmer, George Vereecken in Belgium and Henricus Sneevliet in Holland—who, under the pressure of democratic “anti-fascism,” alibied Nin while acknowledging that he had made “errors.” As Trotsky wrote in a letter to Serge:
“You are dissatisfied with our behavior toward Andrés Nin, behavior that you find ‘sectarian.’ You do not and cannot know the political and personal history of our relations.
“You can easily imagine how happy I was when Nin arrived abroad. For several years, I corresponded with him quite regularly. Some of my letters were veritable ‘treatises’ on the subject of the living revolution, in which Nin could and should have played an active role. I think that my letters to Nin over a period of two or three years would make up a volume of several hundred pages: that should indicate how important I regarded Nin and friendly relations with him. In his answers, Nin affirmed over and over again his agreement in theory, but he always avoided discussing practical problems....
“Of course, no one is obligated to be a revolutionary. But Nin was the head of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists, and by that fact alone, he had a serious responsibility, which he failed to carry out in practice, all the while throwing dust in my eyes.”
— “Is a Rapprochement with Nin Possible?” 3 June 1935
A Party, Once More a Party, Again a Party
In a 1931 article, “The Revolution in Spain,” Trotsky outlined the program and strategy that could have guided Spanish revolutionaries on the road to power. Trotsky put forward a series of demands aimed at linking the democratic aspirations of the worker and peasant masses to the fight for the class rule of the proletariat: confiscation of the large landed estates for the benefit of the poor peasants; the separation of church and state—disarming the bastions of clerical reaction and turning over the vast wealth of the church to the masses; the creation of workers and peasants militias; the nationalization of the railways, banks and mineral resources; workers control of industry; the right of national self-determination for the Catalans and Basques.
Here Trotsky was applying the theory and program of permanent revolution, vindicated in the Russian October of 1917 and confirmed in the negative through the defeat of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution. Given the belated emergence of capitalism in these countries, the tasks historically associated with the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries could be accomplished only through the seizure of power by the proletariat standing at the head of the peasant masses, which would necessarily and immediately place not only democratic but also socialist tasks on the agenda.
Trotsky stressed the importance of reaching out to the militant ranks of the CNT in order to break them from their anarcho-syndicalist prejudices and called for a unified trade-union federation. He argued that it was necessary to agitate for the formation of soviets—workers juntas—to act as organs of united proletarian struggle against the capitalist class, “rising over all the present political, national, provincial, and trade union divisions.” He continued:
“The proletarian junta will become the broad arena in which every party and every group will be put to the test and scrutinized before the eyes of the broad masses. The communists will counterpose the slogan of the united front of the workers to the practice of coalitions of Socialists and a part of the syndicalists with the bourgeoisie. Only the united revolutionary front will enable the proletariat to inspire the necessary confidence among the oppressed masses of the village and city. The realization of the united front is conceivable only under the banner of communism. The junta requires a leading party. Without a firm leadership, it would remain an empty organizational form and would inevitably fall into dependence upon the bourgeoisie.”
— “The Revolution in Spain,” 24 January 1931
Above all, concluded Trotsky, “For a successful solution of all of these tasks, three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party!” (ibid.).
Yet it was the party question that most separated Nin from Trotsky. Nin initially resisted Trotsky’s urgings to launch a theoretical journal to lay down clear programmatic foundations for a Bolshevik-Leninist vanguard. He likewise refused to heed Trotsky’s injunctions to take seriously the political fights then taking place within the ILO, which were necessary to sort out the genuine revolutionaries from a variety of dilettantes, dabblers and others who had accidentally been attracted to Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism. Such debates were vital in forging a disciplined and politically homogeneous international tendency and combating deforming national pressures. But the Spanish Opposition leaders did not politically intervene in these debates or bring them into their section. Rather, they “let themselves be guided by personal connections, sympathies, or antipathies” (Trotsky, “The State of the Left Opposition,” 16 December 1932).
Trotsky urged Nin to implement the ILO’s orientation toward the CI, arguing that the Stalinist bureaucrats “must not be allowed to create the impression that the Left Opposition is hostile to the workers who follow the banner of the official Communist Party” (“Tasks of the Spanish Communists”). Despite the bureaucratic atrocities, lies and betrayals of Stalin & Co., the Communist parties continued to attract those elements within the international working class who were drawn to the Russian Revolution and wanted to fight for a workers revolution in their own countries. Moreover, it would have been a crime to surrender the banner of the Communist International to the Stalinists without a struggle or a decisive test.
Nin explicitly rejected the ILO’s international perspective, pleading Spanish exceptionalism: “In Spain the proletariat will organize its party outside of the official party (which does not exist in fact), and in spite of it” (Letter to Trotsky, 3 December 1930). Trotsky responded, “Although the official party as it is today may be feeble and insignificant, nevertheless it possesses all the external historic possibilities in it, in the USSR, and everything that is linked up with the USSR. That is why to guide yourself empirically solely on the immediate relation of forces seems dangerous to me” (Letter to Nin, 31 January 1931). Nin turned a deaf ear to such arguments, demonstratively changing the name of the Spanish group from Left Opposition to Left Communists (ICE) in March 1932.
Rejecting the fight of the Left Opposition, Nin looked instead to the former Catalan Federation headed by Joaquín Maurín. Expelled from the PCE in June 1930, the Catalan Federation was a rightward-moving centrist organization whose politics Trotsky characterized as a “mixture of petty-bourgeois prejudices, ignorance, provincial ‘science,’ and political crookedness” (“Spanish Communism and the Catalan Federation,” 8 July 1931). In March 1931, the Catalan Federation joined with the Catalan Communist Party (a petty-bourgeois grouping not affiliated to the PCE) to found a “mass” organization, the Workers and Peasants Bloc. Trotsky characterized the program of Maurín’s BOC as “pure ‘Kuomintangism’ transported to Spanish soil” (i.e., Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang) and “a new edition of the workers’ and peasants’ party” (“The Catalan Federation’s Platform,” 12 June 1931). This two-class formula had been used to justify liquidation into the Guomindang and other bourgeois-populist formations such as the U.S. “Farmer-Labor Party.”
Internationally, Maurín was aligned with the Right Opposition that coalesced around the views of former Stalin ally Nikolai Bukharin (who himself quickly capitulated to Stalin) in opposition to the policies of the so-called “Third Period.” These policies were inaugurated by Stalin in 1929 as a supposed new period in which international proletarian revolution was imminent. The Communist parties internationally began to pursue an adventurist and sectarian course, abandoning the reformist-led trade unions to build isolated “red” unions and opposing any joint actions with the social democrats, who were labeled “social fascists.” The International Right Opposition opposed this sectarian course from a perspective of evolving class collaboration; its chief spokesman was Heinrich Brandler, who had presided over the default of the German Revolution in 1923. At the same time, the Brandlerites defended the Stalinists’ disastrous policies in China in 1925-27 and the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.”
Trotsky waged repeated fights against any merging of banners with the Right Opposition. In the Soviet Union, he had intransigently opposed a bloc with the Bukharin wing of the bureaucracy, whose policies conciliated and encouraged the internal forces of capitalist restoration—the layer of well-off peasants (kulaks) and petty entrepreneurs. Internationally, unity with the Right Opposition meant the liquidation of the fight for a communist vanguard. The correctness of this understanding was starkly demonstrated by the course taken by Nin and Andrade in their pursuit of Maurín.
The French Turn and Unprincipled Combinations
The rise to power of Hitler’s Nazis in early 1933, and the criminal passivity of the leaders of the powerful Communist and Socialist organizations of the German proletariat, sent shock waves through the working class internationally. When the German debacle failed to provoke even a hint of revolt within the Third International, Trotsky pronounced the Stalinized Comintern dead for the cause of proletarian revolution and called for building new communist parties to carry forward the banner of Leninism. “The Declaration of Four” (August 1933), which was written by Trotsky and called for the formation of a new, Fourth International, was signed by representatives of the ILO, the Sneevliet group and a second group in Holland and the German Socialist Workers Party (SAP), a left split from the Social Democracy. In 1934, the ILO reconstituted itself as the International Communist League (ICL).
The Stalinists soon abandoned the sectarian adventurism of the Third Period. Panicked by the Nazi victory, Stalin sought an alliance with the imperialist “democracies”—Britain, France and the U.S. The new order of the day was the “people’s front” against fascism, later codified at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935 and realized in popular-front coalitions with the parties of the “democratic” bourgeoisies in France, Spain and elsewhere. Stalin’s strangulation of the Spanish workers revolution was in the service of his hoped-for alliance with Britain and France, as he sought to prove to the imperialists that the Comintern no longer posed a challenge to the bourgeois order.
The Nazi victory in Germany coincided with a resurgence of class struggle elsewhere after three years of the Great Depression. The radicalization of a section of workers and youth found expression in the growth of vibrant, combative left wings in the social-democratic parties and, in the U.S., in the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). For the first time in years, in 1934 Socialist militants stood at the head of proletarian revolts—in the Austrian capital of Vienna and in the mining region of Asturias in Spain. Trotsky urged his supporters to carry out temporary entries into parties of the Second International in order to intersect and win over revolutionary-minded youth and workers. First implemented in France in 1934, this tactic became known as the “French turn,” and was soon pursued in a number of other countries, including, in 1936-37, the U.S., where the Trotskyists won a sizable layer of youth and trade-union militants from the Socialist Party.
In Spain, the situation was probably the most open for the successful implementation of this tactic. Renovación, the Madrid newspaper of the Socialist Youth (JS), which had some 200,000 members at the time, openly appealed to the Trotskyists as “the best revolutionaries and the best theoreticians in Spain, who are invited to enter the Youth and the Socialist Party in order to bring about Bolshevization” (quoted in Pierre Broué, “Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution,” translated in Workers Vanguard No. 10, July-August 1972). Even the inveterate reformist Largo Caballero came out for socialist revolution and a Fourth International.
Criminally, Nin and Andrade spurned the exhortations of Trotsky and the entreaties of the Socialist Youth and refused to take their organization into the PSOE/JS. A small handful of ICE members, including the future leader of the Trotskyist SBLE, Manuel Fernández (Grandizo Munis), rejected Nin/Andrade’s course and entered the PSOE, though with little success. Munis wrote later: “But what seemed impossible for a little group could have been relatively easy for a sizable contingent of the Communist Left. There is no doubt that the CL’s [Communist Left] entry into the Socialist Party would have entirely changed the course of the Spanish Revolution” (Munis, Jalones de Derrota: Promesa de Victoria [España 1930-39] [Milestones of Defeat: Promise of Victory (Spain 1930-39)] [Mexico City: Editorial “Lucha Obrera,” 1948]). In April 1936, the JS was captured by the Stalinists, providing the PCE with a mass base for the first time, while in Catalonia the PCE merged with the PSOE to form the United Socialist Party of Catalonia.
Nin and Andrade were not alone in their obstinate refusal to seize a brilliant opportunity for strengthening the forces of revolutionary Marxism, though it was their failure that cost the proletariat most dearly. In the U.S., a small minority around Hugo Oehler, an effective mass worker but a sectarian bonehead, opposed the entry into the Socialist Party from an ultraleft sectarian standpoint and soon split from the Trotskyist majority led by James P. Cannon. Internationally, Oehler entered into a rotten bloc with Nin and others who opposed the French turn on their national terrains from the standpoint of opportunist accommodationism.
The Asturias Uprising
A particular factor in radicalizing the ranks of the Spanish Socialist Party was anger over the criminal role played by its leaders in the first Republican government, whose relentless attacks on the working class and peasantry provoked widespread hatred and revulsion. The brutal suppression of an anarchist-inspired peasant revolt in Casas Viejas in January 1933 was the breaking point, forcing new elections. The CNT urged its members to abstain, and the masses overwhelmingly withheld their votes in retribution against the Republican-Socialist government. The elections were swept by the parties of clerical and monarchist reaction.
When members of the clerical-fascist CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Groups) were invited to join the cabinet in October 1934, general strikes erupted throughout Spain. The workers of Asturias rose up in insurrection, centered on the powerful PSOE-led mine workers union. Police barracks were stormed, machine guns and rifles (seized from a captured arms factory) were distributed to the workers, and the capital, Oviedo, and other areas were taken over by the insurgents. “The bitter experience of the German workers was present in everyone’s minds. The Spanish workers were determined not to repeat that experience,” wrote Manuel Grossi, a BOC member and a central leader of the Asturian Workers Alliance at the head of the revolt, in his 1935 account, The Asturian Uprising: Fifteen Days of Socialist Revolution (London: Socialist Platform, 2000).
Here was fertile soil for the realization of Trotsky’s insistent calls for the building of workers juntas: broad, authoritative councils democratically elected by the working class. As Trotsky put it in 1931: “Only through juntas embracing the basic core of the proletariat can the communists assure their hegemony in the proletariat, and thus also in the revolution. Only to the extent that the influence of the communists grows among the working class will the juntas be transformed into organs of struggle for power” (“The Spanish Revolution and the Dangers Threatening It,” 28 May 1931). Instead, Nin’s Left Communists signed on to the “workers alliances” launched by the BOC. These bodies were neither elected by nor did they involve the participation of the insurgent workers. The 28 March 1934 agreement setting up the Asturian Workers Alliance—which, in addition to the ICE and BOC, included the PSOE/UGT, the PCE and the regional CNT—specified: “Beginning from the date of signing of this pact, all propaganda campaigns that could give rise to or worsen relations between the different allied parties shall cease” (quoted in The Asturian Uprising). Far from providing a forum in which the contending parties and programs could be tested, and thus acting as a crucible in which a revolutionary vanguard could be forged around a perspective for proletarian power, the Workers Alliance was a political nonaggression pact based on the lowest common denominator of agreement among the leaderships of the various organizations.
The Asturias revolt was a harbinger of the impending revolution, and of its betrayal and defeat. It was General Franco who was called in to crush the Asturian rebels. For the first time, Foreign Legionnaires and Moorish troops from the Spanish colony of Morocco were deployed against the proletariat in Spain, troops that would later be used by Franco to crush the Spanish Revolution. The suppression of the isolated Asturian commune—leaving 5,000 workers dead and 30,000 imprisoned—fueled renewed sentiment among the Spanish proletariat for unity among the workers organizations. These aspirations were channeled by the reformists and centrists into support for a new class-collaborationist coalition.
The Foundation of the POUM
At a September 1934 national plenum, Nin/Andrade’s ICE piously resolved that to carry out the French turn would be to “immerse ourselves in an amorphous conglomerate” (quoted in Durgan, “The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM”). A year later, in 1935, the ICE would immerse itself in a truly amorphous conglomerate, fusing with Maurín’s BOC to found the POUM and join the London Bureau. An unprincipled federation of various centrist organizations—chiefly the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain and the German SAP—the London Bureau vacillated between the Second and Third Internationals. The sole unifying force of this “International” was opposition to the formation of a Leninist-Trotskyist Fourth International, i.e., opposition to democratic-centralist constraints on their respective national-opportunist appetites and to the principles of proletarian internationalism.
The POUM was sectarian in form, opportunist in essence. It counterposed itself organizationally to the traditional mass organizations of the Spanish proletariat. But what lay behind this was an unwillingness to politically confront the misleaders of the PSOE, PCE and CNT. During the Civil War, the POUM set up its own militias, separating off its militants from the militias of organizations that claimed the allegiance of the mass of the Spanish working class. All the while the POUM embraced the popular front, beginning with signing on to the January 1936 “Left Electoral Pact,” a class-collaborationist bloc between the Republicans, PSOE and PCE.
Trotsky laid bare the cynical hypocrisy and gross opportunism of Nin/Andrade:
“It is in order to recall that the Spanish ‘Left Communists,’ as their very name indicates, posed on every appropriate occasion as incorruptible revolutionists. In particular, they thunderously condemned the French Bolshevik-Leninists for entering the Socialist Party. Never! Under no conditions! To enter temporarily into a mass political organization in order to carry on an uncompromising struggle in its ranks against the reformist leaders for the banner of the proletarian revolution—that is opportunism; but to conclude a political alliance with the leaders of a reformist party on the basis of a deliberately dishonest program serving to dupe the masses and cover up for the bourgeoisie—that is valor! Can there be any greater debasement and prostitution of Marxism?”
— “The Treachery of the POUM,” 23 January 1936
Here again, Nin’s latter-day apologists leap to his defense. Durgan and former POUM youth leader Wilebaldo Solano, in his hagiographical El POUM en la historia, Andreu Nin y la revolución española (The POUM in History, Andrés Nin and the Spanish Revolution) (Madrid: Libros de la Catarata, 1999), claim that Trotsky and the ICL’s International Secretariat (I.S.) approved of Nin’s merger with Maurín. In Durgan’s words, “The initial reaction of both the IS and Trotsky to the foundation of the POUM, it should be remembered, was of guarded optimism” (“Trotsky and the POUM”).
This is belied by the whole record of Trotsky’s writings on the BOC and the POUM, which makes clear his irreconcilable hostility to their centrist politics. Trotsky was hardly optimistic about the POUM. The fusion had been preceded by a sharp exchange between the I.S. and the Nin leadership. In a July 1935 letter, the I.S. argued that the ICE was “being absorbed by the Workers and Peasants Bloc” without even having factional rights and that “in such circumstances nothing good can come out of the new party
. What will the banner of the new party be? The well-known banner of the London-Amsterdam Bureau” (reprinted in Trotsky, La révolution espagnole [our translation]).
Nin rejected these arguments out of hand and cut off further discussion with the ICL, swearing that Maurín accepted “all our fundamental principles” and snarling that the I.S. had a “fundamental lack of understanding of Spanish affairs” (“Letter from the National Committee to the International Secretariat,” 21 July 1935; reprinted in ibid. [our translation]).
Durgan opines that Nin’s fusion with the BOC was comparable to the fusion of Cannon’s Communist League of America with the leftward-moving centrists of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of the United States. But unlike the POUM, which adhered to the London Bureau, the Workers Party explicitly declared for the founding of the Fourth International. As the July 1935 I.S. letter noted: “If the new party that you want to found takes a clear position regarding the Fourth International (as in America and Holland), it can play a great role on the national level as a new pole of attraction. Under such conditions a fusion is desirable. But if the new party presents itself as an instrument of ‘socialist-communist unification’...then joining such a party would mean the liquidation of our tendency.” Durgan dismisses the POUM’s hostility to the Fourth International as though it were a third-rate issue. In fact, it was a defining question demarcating revolutionary Marxism from all manner of centrist confusion.
Echoing Nin’s false assurances, Durgan paints the Maurín group as having moved toward Trotskyism and castigates Trotsky for his “apparent unawareness of this evolution in the BOC’s politics” (“Trotsky and the POUM”). Maurín was also “apparently unaware” of this evolution, as he later made clear:
“By its theory and practice, the BOC approximated to being a left Socialist party that had been able to grasp what was positive and what was negative in the Russian Revolution. The BOC was ideologically influenced by Marx and Engels, by Lenin and Bukharin, hardly at all by Trotsky, and by Stalin not at all.”
— quoted in Georges Garnier, “Preface to the French Edition,” The Asturian Uprising
Indeed, the only “evidence” Durgan dredges up of Trotsky’s “guarded optimism” toward the foundation of the POUM comes not from any article by Trotsky but from an October 1935 report on the fusion by Jean Rous, who had been sent to Spain as the I.S. delegate. Rous cites Trotsky saying: “The new party is proclaimed. We take note. Insofar as that can depend on international factors, we must do everything we can to help this party win power and authority, which is only possible on the path of consistent and uncompromising Marxism” (reprinted in La révolution espagnole [our translation]). All this “proves” is that Trotsky offered his continued collaboration—if the new party followed the road of consistent and uncompromising Marxism! Like all opportunists, Durgan equates tactical flexibility with unprincipled conciliationism.
Nin and Andrade had broken with the ICL and presented Trotsky and the I.S. with a fait accompli. The question was what could be done from afar to salvage Spanish Trotskyism. Trotsky hammered away at the politics. After reading the fusion manifesto, Trotsky stressed the need to relentlessly hammer on the POUM’s contradictions and evasions, focusing on the antirevolutionary significance of its adherence to the London Bureau (“Letter to a Comrade,” 18 October 1935). In his January 1936 article, he warned against any confusion within the ICL on the nature of the Nin/Maurín group and stressed his implacable opposition to these centrist renegades and traitors:
“The Spanish organization of ‘Left Communists,’ which was always a muddled organization, after countless vacillations to the right and to the left, merged with the Catalan Federation of Maurín into a party of ‘Marxist (?) Unification’ on a centrist program. Some of our own periodicals, misled by this name, have written about this party as though it were drawing close to the Fourth International. There is nothing more dangerous than to exaggerate one’s own forces with the aid of...a credulous imagination. Reality will not be restrained thereby from bringing cruel disillusion!”
— “The Treachery of the POUM”
Centrist Vacillation and Popular-Front Betrayal
The 1936 “Left Electoral Pact” initiated by the Republicans was a treatise in defense of private property and bourgeois rule. It guaranteed the sanctity of the officer corps and the church, rejected any nationalization of agricultural lands, industries or banks and maintained the national oppression of Catalonia and the Basque country. It affirmed the colonial occupation of (Spanish) Morocco and recommended that Spain’s foreign policy follow the “principles” of that imperialist den of thieves, the League of Nations. The signatories included the PSOE/UGT, the PCE, the Syndicalist Party of former CNT leader Angel Pestaña and Juan Andrade for the POUM. Though not a signatory, the CNT encouraged its members to vote for the popular front. Trotsky wrote:
“Most of these parties stood at the head of the Spanish revolution during the years of its upsurge and they did everything in their power to betray it and trample it underfoot. The new angle is the signature of the party of Maurín-Nin-Andrade. The former Spanish ‘Left Communists’ have turned into a mere tail of the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. It is hard to conceive of a more ignominious downfall!...
“How ironic is the name ‘Marxist Unification’...with the bourgeoisie. The Spanish ‘Left Communists’ (Andrés Nin, Juan Andrade, and others) have more than once tried to parry our criticism of their collaborationist policies by citing our lack of understanding of the ‘special conditions’ in Spain. This is the customary argument put to use by all opportunists. But the first duty of a genuine proletarian revolutionist lies in translating the special conditions of his country into the international language of Marxism, which is understandable even beyond the confines of one’s own country.”
Once again, Durgan rushes to the defense of Nin. While chiding the POUM for formally signing on to the electoral pact, he writes: “Given the political situation, the POUM had little choice but to support the pact against the right, but the only viable way to do this without confusing the party’s position was to do so independently from outside” (“Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM”). Here again, as in the 1930s and since, support for the popular front is presented simply as a tactical maneuver rather than, as Trotsky put it, “the greatest crime”—one paid for in the blood of the working class.
The February 1936 election of the popular-front government under Republican Left politician Manuel Azaña, who had also been prime minister in the 1931-33 coalition government, opened a period of massive worker and peasant unrest, including seizures of agricultural lands and hundreds of strikes between February and July 1936. While working mightily to suppress the proletariat, the popular front could not satisfy its bourgeois masters. On 17 July 1936, Franco radioed garrisons in Spain to seize the cities. The government scrambled to make a deal with the Franco forces while working to prevent any resistance by the working class. The next day, the PSOE and PCE leaders issued a declaration loyally proclaiming: “The government commands and the Popular Front obeys.” But the workers were not about to “obey” the government’s efforts to lull them with lies. On July 19, CNT/FAI and POUM workers spontaneously started organizing barricades. Refused arms by the popular-front government, workers seized stocks of rifles and dynamite and surrounded and disarmed army garrisons. A revolutionary uprising had begun.
Within days, the whole of Catalonia was in the hands of the proletariat. On July 20, a column of 5,000 dynamiters outfitted by the Asturian miners arrived in Madrid to guard the streets. Armed workers committees displaced customs officers at the borders; a union book or affiliation card from a working-class political party was the only requirement to enter the country. Important sectors of the bourgeoisie, particularly in Catalonia, either fled or were driven out, flocking to the areas controlled by Franco’s army. A joint committee of the UGT and CNT took charge of transportation throughout Spain. Workers seized the abandoned factories and created factory collectives that organized production on a local level. Such collectives or cooperatives were organized in shipping, mining, electric power, transportation, gas and water supply and many other industries.
The bourgeois government continued to “govern,” but power was effectively in the hands of the armed workers and their committees. This was a situation of dual power. As Trotsky wrote: “The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realize the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in the hands of the old lords.” The question was whether this “twofold sovereignty,” as Trotsky called it, would be resolved in favor of revolution or counterrevolution. In the period between the February and October revolutions in Russia, “the question stood thus,” explained Trotsky:
“Either the bourgeoisie will actually dominate the old state apparatus, altering it a little for its purposes, in which case the soviets will come to nothing; or the soviets will form the foundation of a new state, liquidating not only the old governmental apparatus, but also the dominion of those classes which it served. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries [SRs] were steering toward the first solution, the Bolsheviks toward the second.... The Bolsheviks were victorious.”
— The History of the Russian Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1932)
But in Spain there was no Bolshevik party. The Stalinists, Socialists and anarchists pleaded with the bourgeoisie, in the name of the “democratic revolution,” to take back the power that the workers had wrenched from the capitalists arms in hand. As recounted by CNT leader García Oliver, Luis Companys, head of the bourgeois-nationalist Catalan Esquerra, declared to an assemblage of anarchist leaders after the workers had repulsed Franco:
“You have won and everything is within your power. If you have no need of me, if you do not want me as president of Catalonia, say so now, and I will be just another soldier in the antifascist struggle. If, on the other hand, you believe that I, along with the men of my party, my name and my prestige, may be of use in this office in a struggle which, while resolved today in this city is yet to be decided in the rest of Spain, then you can count on me and on my word as a man and as a politician convinced that a past of shame has today been put to rest in the sincere hope that Catalonia will put itself in the vanguard of the most socially advanced countries in the world.”
— quoted in José Peirats Valls, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution (Hastings, England: Meltzer Press, 2001)
This was all the anarchist leaders needed to hear. García Oliver concludes his account: “The CNT and the FAI opted for collaboration and democracy, eschewing the revolutionary totalitarianism which would have led to the strangulation of the revolution by a confederal-anarchist dictatorship. They trusted in the word of a Catalan democrat and retained and supported Companys as president of the Generalitat.”
Dual Power in the Absence of a Bolshevik Vanguard
Unlike the soviets in Russia, the various factory and militia committees in Spain were generally unelected, their composition and character varying from one place to another depending on which group was in control. It was necessary to transform them into real soviets through the election of delegates, subject to immediate recall, from the factories and barracks, and to centralize them into organs of united proletarian struggle against the capitalist class countrywide. “Only when dual power assumes such organizational proportions is there put on the order of the day the choice between the prevailing régime and a new revolutionary order of which the Councils become the state form” (Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain).
The Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias (CCMA) stood at the pinnacle of the network of workers committees in Catalonia. Set up on 21 July 1936 as a committee of 15, it included representatives not only of the CNT, UGT and other workers organizations but also of the bourgeois Esquerra. Given the presence of the Esquerra, historian Agustín Guillamón argues in his valuable account of the left-anarchist Friends of Durruti: “At no point was there a dual power situation in existence. This is crucial to any understanding of the Spanish revolution and civil war. The CAMC was a class collaborationist agency” (The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 [San Francisco: AK Press, 1996]).
The inclusion of the Esquerra in the CCMA was an expression of the class-collaborationist politics of the reformist and anarchist leaders. But the CCMA was not simply an extension of the popular-front government, as was demonstrated by the fact that it was soon smashed by that government. As Morrow explained:
“Unlike a coalition government which in actuality rests on the old state machine, the Central Committee, dominated by the anarchists, rested on the workers organizations and militias. The Esquerra and those closest to it—the Stalinists and the UGT—merely tagged along for the time being. The decrees of the Central Committee were the only law in Catalonia. Companys unquestioningly obeyed its requisitions and financial orders. Beginning presumably as the center for organizing the militias, it inevitably had to take on more and more governmental functions. Soon it organized a department of worker-police; then a department of supplies, whose word was law in the factories and seaport....
“Around the Central Committee of the militias rallied the multitudinous committees of the factories, villages, supplies, food, police, etc., in form joint committees of the various antifascist organizations, in actuality wielding an authority greater than that of its constituents. After the first tidal wave of revolution, of course, the committees revealed their basic weakness: they were based on mutual agreement of the organizations from which they drew their members, and after the first weeks, the Esquerra, backed by the Stalinists, recovered their courage and voiced their own program. The CNT leaders began to make concessions detrimental to the revolution. From that point on, the committees could have only functioned progressively by abandoning the method of mutual agreement and adopting the method of majority decisions by democratically elected delegates from the militias and factories.”
— Morrow, op. cit.
A concrete expression of the fight against the class-collaborationist politics that were strangling the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat would have been the demand to expel the Esquerra from the CCMA. This call would have struck a powerful chord among the militant Catalan proletariat, which had been refused arms by the Esquerra in the fight against Franco only to witness the anarchist and reformist leaders turn around and embrace these bourgeois “democrats” after the workers had defeated Franco’s forces. Calling for the expulsion of the Esquerra from the CCMA would have drawn a sharp class line, elucidating the betrayals of the workers’ misleaders and thus serving as a lever to win the proletariat to the banner of workers power and the fight to forge a revolutionary party.
At the same time, simply expelling the representatives of the bourgeoisie from the CCMA hardly exhausts the question. In fact, in its Lérida stronghold, the POUM had evicted representatives of the Esquerra from the local workers committee. But the POUM bowed to the popular front and opposed the formation of democratically elected juntas of workers, peasants and militiamen, rejecting the election of such committees even in the factories and militia units under its control.
Nin argued that there was no need for soviets in Spain, ludicrously asserting that such broad, authoritative organs of class struggle had arisen in Russia because the proletariat lacked a tradition of struggle: “In Russia there was no democratic tradition. There did not exist a tradition of organization and of struggle in the proletariat.... Our proletariat, however, had its unions, its parties, its own organizations. For this reason, the soviets have not risen among us” (“The Fundamental Problem of Power,” La Batalla, 27 April 1937, quoted in Morrow, op. cit.). This was an expression of Nin’s lack of appetite for political struggle with the CNT and other tendencies. Nonetheless, the POUM’s ability to speak the language of revolution gave it real authority, an authority that would be wielded in disarming the proletariat and dissolving the CCMA and the local workers committees.
The Counterrevolution Rearms
In September 1936, Nin denounced the popular-front government in Madrid and raised the call, “Down with the bourgeois ministers.” Nin simultaneously declared that Catalonia was already under a dictatorship of the proletariat! That same month, Nin himself became a minister of the bourgeois state, as the POUM joined the CNT/FAI in entering the Catalan Generalitat. Nin was appointed Minister of Justice, the same position Kerensky first occupied in the bourgeois Provisional Government in Russia! In that capacity, Nin presided over a frontal assault by the Republican government against the incipient organs of proletarian power established by the revolutionary workers of Catalonia. The centerpiece of this counterrevolutionary attack was the “militarization” of the militias: a Generalitat decree in early October ordered the dissolution of the CCMA and the subordination of the workers militias to the bourgeois state. The local committees were also dissolved and replaced with bourgeois municipal administrations. An article signed “Indegeta” in the POUM’s La Batalla (7 October 1936) baldly declared:
“The Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias was dissolved as a logical consequence of the formation of the new government of the Council of the Generalitat. ‘Dual power,’ a classic revolutionary phase, was completely detrimental to the course of our revolution.... Two months of civil war and revolution have shown us the evils of such a duality.”
— quoted in José Rebull, “On Dual Power,”
October 1937, reprinted in Revolutionary History Vol. 4, No. 1/2
This was followed by an order to disarm all urban workers. In the name of “collectivization of industry,” another decree sought to eradicate the factory collectives by putting them increasingly under the thumb of a government-appointed agent.
Nin personally accompanied bourgeois-nationalist Esquerra leader Luis Companys to Lérida to oversee the dissolution of the POUM-dominated committee there. Enric Adroher (Gironella), a POUM leader, would later acknowledge that the Generalitat had “one historical mission...to liquidate the committees” and that the POUM had been “entrusted to convince the revolutionary forces” to accept this, only to be expelled from the government once this “invaluable service” had been carried out (quoted in Durgan, “Trotsky and the POUM”).
Following its ouster from the Generalitat in December 1936, the POUM then appealed to this bourgeois government to convoke a congress of the unions, peasants and combatants. As Trotsky noted, this was merely a means by which the POUM sought to find a way back into the popular-front government:
“The leaders of the POUM plaintively try to persuade the government to take the road of socialist revolution. The POUM leaders respectfully try to make the CNT leaders understand at last the Marxist teaching about the state. The POUM leaders view themselves as ‘revolutionary’ advisors to the leaders of the Popular Front. This position is lifeless and unworthy of revolutionaries.
“It is necessary to openly and boldly mobilize the masses against the Popular Front government. It is necessary to expose, for the syndicalist and Anarchist workers to see, the betrayals of those gentlemen who call themselves Anarchists but in fact have turned out to be simple liberals. It is necessary to hammer away mercilessly at Stalinism as the worst agency of the bourgeoisie. It is necessary to feel yourselves leaders of the revolutionary masses, not advisors to the bourgeois government....
“In La Batalla of April 4, we find the ‘thirteen points for victory.’ All the points have the character of advice that the Central Committee of the POUM is offering to the authorities. The POUM demands the ‘calling of a delegated congress of workers’ and peasants’ syndicates and of soldiers.’ In form, what seems to be involved is a congress of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ deputies. But the trouble is that the POUM respectfully proposes that the bourgeois-reformist government itself call such a congress, which then ought to ‘peacefully’ substitute itself for the bourgeois government. A revolutionary slogan is turned into empty phrases!”
— “Is Victory Possible in Spain?” 23 April 1937
The Role of the Anarchist CNT/FAI
The militarization of the militias marked a turning point. The Republican bourgeoisie, emboldened by the treachery of the workers’ misleaders, began to reassert its dominance. The revolutionary workers were thrown on the defensive. Franco launched his siege of Madrid, forcing the central government to move to Valencia. The CNT/FAI leadership accepted the subordination of the militias to the state in exchange for being granted four government ministries in Valencia. As Trotsky observed, “In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the Anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means, the revolution”:
“More precisely, the Anarchist workers instinctively yearned to enter the Bolshevik road (July 19, 1936, and May days of 1937) while their leaders, on the contrary, with all their might drove the masses into the camp of the Popular Front, i.e., of the bourgeois regime.
“The Anarchists revealed a fatal lack of understanding of the laws of the revolution and its tasks by seeking to limit themselves to their own trade unions, that is, to organizations permeated with the routine of peaceful times, and by ignoring what went on outside the framework of the trade unions, among the masses, among the political parties, and in the government apparatus. Had the Anarchists been revolutionists, they would first of all have called for the creation of soviets, which unite the representatives of all the toilers of city and country, including the most oppressed strata, who never joined the trade unions. The revolutionary workers would have naturally occupied the dominant position in these soviets. The Stalinists would have remained an insignificant minority. The proletariat would have convinced itself of its own invincible strength. The apparatus of the bourgeois state would have hung suspended in the air. One strong blow would have sufficed to pulverize this apparatus....
“Instead of this, the anarcho-syndicalists, seeking to hide from ‘politics’ in the trade unions, turned out to be, to the great surprise of the whole world and themselves, a fifth wheel in the cart of bourgeois democracy.”
— “Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning,” 17 December 1937
Despite his incisive portrayal of the traitorous role played by the CNT leadership, Vernon Richards can situate these betrayals only in the “corruption of power” (Lessons of the Spanish Revolution). The CNT’s capitulation to Companys and the bourgeois state was a reflection, not a repudiation, of the radical idealism at the core of anarchism. Rejecting political power, anarchism posits instead that liberation from oppression is an act of moral regeneration by all persons of “good will.” As Morrow explained:
“Class collaboration, indeed, lies concealed in the heart of anarchist philosophy. It is hidden, during periods of reaction, by anarchist hatred of capitalist oppression. But, in a revolutionary period of dual power, it must come to the surface. For then the capitalist smilingly offers to share in building the new world. And the anarchist, being opposed to ‘all dictatorships,’ including dictatorship of the proletariat, will require of the capitalist merely that he throw off the capitalist outlook, to which he agrees, naturally, the better to prepare the crushing of the workers.”
— Morrow, op. cit.
When it had a mass base and operated under conditions of bourgeois legality, the CNT acted pretty much like any other trade union. As Trotsky wrote in 1938, “As organizations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless” (“Trade Unions in the Transitional Epoch,” Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions [New York: Pathfinder, 1969]). If the trade unions did not come under the leadership of a revolutionary party struggling for proletarian state power, they would act as auxiliaries of bourgeois democracy. The CNT leaders, notwithstanding their more radical rhetoric, demonstrated themselves to be nothing other than what they were—reformist trade-union bureaucrats.
Reflecting increasing anger and discontent at the base of the CNT in response to the dissolution of the militias, one group of anarchists, the Friends of Durruti, did finally raise the call for workers juntas. Formed in March 1937, the group took its name from longtime radical anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, a leading militant in the FAI and the head of a CNT militia at the Aragon front. In November 1936, Durruti had publicly denounced the CNT leadership’s support for the militarization of the militias; he was killed later that month under suspicious circumstances. As Guillamón points out in The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939, the group represented a fusion of those radical anarchist combatants opposed to the dissolution of the militias—such as Durruti’s former collaborator, Pablo Ruiz—and anarchist intellectuals opposed to participation in the government. Among the latter was Jaime Balius, a central writer for the CNT’s Solidaridad Obrera. The Friends had some 4,000 or more militants and significant roots in the CNT/FAI. (See “Trotskyism and Anarchism in the Spanish Civil War,” Workers Vanguard Nos. 828 and 829, 11 June and 9 July 2004.)
Although the Friends of Durruti never made the leap from anarchism to Marxism, their desire to see the workers revolution through to victory propelled them to the limits of anarchist ideology. In a 1938 pamphlet, Towards a Fresh Revolution, Balius declared:
“We are introducing a slight variation into our program. The establishment of a Revolutionary Junta.
“As we see it, the revolution needs organisms to oversee it and to repress, in an organized sense, hostile sectors. As current events have shown, such sectors do not accept oblivion unless they are crushed.”
— quoted in Guillamón, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939
This “slight variation,” recognizing the need for an organ of repression against “hostile sectors,” amounted to an implicit recognition of the need for a workers state, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat. As Lenin put it, “Should the workers ‘lay down their arms,’ or use them against the capitalists in order to crush their resistance? But what is the systematic use of arms by one class against another if not a ‘transient form’ of state?” (The State and Revolution, 1917).
From the start of the Spanish events, Trotsky had emphasized the need to reach out to the CNT, which “indisputably embraces the most militant elements of the proletariat”:
“Here the selection has gone on for a number of years. To strengthen this confederation, to transform it into a genuine organization of the masses, is the obligation of every advanced worker and, above all, of the communists....
“But at the same time we have no illusions about the fate of anarcho-syndicalism as a doctrine and a revolutionary method. Anarcho-syndicalism disarms the proletariat by its lack of a revolutionary program and its failure to understand the role of the party. The anarchists ‘deny’ politics until it seizes them by the throat; then they prepare the ground for the politics of the enemy class.”
— “The Revolution in Spain,” January 1931
Both the ICE and Maurín’s BOC initially had some forces inside the CNT. In 1932-33, the anarchist FAI consolidated its grip on the CNT, driving out most of the Maurínists (as well as the reformist syndicalists around Pestaña). Anarchist Murray Bookchin, who rails against the alleged authoritarianism and brutality of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, cynically declaims of the FAI’s bureaucratic stranglehold over the CNT: “No illusion should exist that this success was achieved with an overly sensitive regard for democratic niceties” (Bookchin, “Introductory Essay,” ed. Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives [New York: Free Life Editions, 1974]).
The CNT/FAI, Trotsky observed, was drawn in the wake of the Catalan nationalists; the Maurín group, in turn, was in the tow of the anarcho-syndicalists. And Nin trailed behind the CNT/FAI and Maurín. This politically conciliationist course came to full flower under the impact of the Civil War and the popular front. Andrade, Nin’s “left” voice, openly acknowledged the POUM’s bankrupt reliance on the anarcho-syndicalist leaders: “The future of the Spanish revolution will depend on the attitude of the CNT and of the FAI and on the ability which their leaders (!) will demonstrate in orientating the masses which they influence” (quoted in Adolphe, “History and Lessons of a Mistake,” 28 May 1937, Information Bulletin, July 1937). As Morrow wrote:
“The POUM leadership clung to the CNT. Instead of boldly contending with the anarcho-reformists for the leadership of the masses, Nin sought illusory strength by identifying himself with them. The POUM sent its militants into the smaller and heterogeneous Catalan UGT instead of contending for leadership of the millions in the CNT. It organized POUM militia columns, circumscribing its influence, instead of sending its forces into the enormous CNT columns where the decisive sections of the proletariat were already gathered. La Batalla recorded the tendency of CNT unions to treat collectivized property as their own. It never attacked the anarcho-syndicalist theories which created the tendency. In the ensuing year, it never once made a principled attack on the anarcho-reformist leadership, not even when the anarchists acquiesced in the expulsion of the POUM from the Generalidad. Far from leading to united action with the CNT, this false course permitted the CNT-FAI leadership, with perfect impunity, to turn its back on the POUM.”
— Morrow, op. cit.
The Durruti Group: Left Anarchists Without a Compass
The POUM initially praised (seemingly uncritically) the Friends of Durruti. After the fact, Andrade dismissed the significance of this left current within anarcho-syndicalism, writing in 1986: “An attempt has since been made to depict the ‘Friends of Durruti’ as a mightily representative organization, articulating the revolutionary consciousness of the CNT-FAI. In reality, they counted for nothing organizationally and were a monument of confusion in ideological terms” (quoted in Guillamón, op. cit.). Durgan echoes: “There has also been a tendency in Trotskyist writings on the Spanish Revolution to overestimate the importance of the POUM’s potential allies in May 1937, the radical anarchist group, the Friends of Durruti” (Durgan, “Trotsky and the POUM”).
These are alibis for the POUM’s refusal to politically combat the anarcho-syndicalists. The Durruti group was deeply confused. But it was in political motion. Had there been a Leninist party to intersect that motion, the best of these left anarchists could have been stripped of the ideological baggage they carried and won to Bolshevism. Through the experience of the popular front and the treachery of the CNT/FAI leaders, the militants of the Durruti group had begun to empirically reject key aspects of anarchist doctrine, including the “anti-authoritarianism” with which the CNT leaders justified their capitulation to Companys. Before its dissolution, the Gelsa sector of the Durruti Column at the Aragon front called on the CNT/FAI leadership to reorganize the militias under a central command responsible to democratically elected delegates, and took some steps to realize this. In a similar vein, Balius wrote in January 1937:
“Everybody is starting to realize that in order for the proletariat to triumph rapidly in this struggle against fascism, it needs an army. But an army of its own, born of itself, ruled by itself—controlled at least by itself
. An army with command and discipline; workers command.”
— quoted in Miquel Amorós, La revolución traicionada: La verdadera historia de Balius y Los Amigos de Durruti (The Revolution Betrayed: The True History of Balius and the Friends of Durruti) (Barcelona: Virus, 2003) (our translation)
In one of his last articles in the CNT’s Solidaridad Obrera (6 December 1936), “Durruti’s Testament,” Balius wrote: “Durruti bluntly stated that we anarchists require that the revolution be of a totalitarian nature” (quoted in Guillamón, op. cit.). Balius later denied that the group ever conceived of the junta as the organ of a new class power (see Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War [New York: Pantheon Books, 1979]). But in an April 1937 poster, the group called for a workers junta to replace the capitalist Generalitat government: “Immediate establishment of a Revolutionary Junta made up of workers of city and countryside and of combatants.... Rather than the Generalidad, a Revolutionary Junta!” (quoted in Guillamón, op. cit.).
Yet the Friends of Durruti remained loyal to the CNT/FAI throughout, and retained the anarchists’ hostility to political parties. Thus they viewed the revolutionary juntas as being composed of delegates elected solely from the unions. This denied representation to the masses of unorganized workers, who were generally from the more oppressed and volatile layers of the proletariat. Moreover, the trade unions, as organizations of routine defensive struggle in peacetime, tended to act as a conservative brake on revolutionary struggle. Trotsky wrote: “The epigones of syndicalism would have one believe that the trade unions are sufficient by themselves. Theoretically, this means nothing, but in practice it means the dissolution of the revolutionary vanguard into the backward masses, that is, the trade unions” (“Communism and Syndicalism,” October 1929, Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions).
The Durruti group’s anti-political prejudice was also expressed in a false distinction between junta control of the military effort and trade-union control of the economy. Its 1938 platform, Towards a Fresh Revolution, specified: “The Junta will steer clear of economic affairs, which are the exclusive preserve of the unions.” But there is no way to separate political, military and economic questions. The fighting capacity of the proletarian army depended on the production of weapons, food and other materials; a revolutionary junta could not prosecute the war without such considerations, nor could the unions run economic affairs without consideration of what was necessary militarily.
This was posed concretely around the question of providing the workers with adequate arms. The CNT leaders justified their support to the bourgeois state by arguing that a centralized military with modern weaponry was needed to wage the war against Franco’s armies. Towards a Fresh Revolution observed: “The North of Spain could have been saved if the war materials needed for resistance to the enemy had been obtained. The means were there. The Bank of Spain had enough gold to flood Spanish soil with weaponry. Why was it not done?” The CNT could not and would not seize the banks because it was itself part of the bourgeois state. The expropriation and collectivization of finance and industry was the task of a workers state based on a centralized junta power. But the Durruti group did not accept that such was the task of a centralized soviet state, and was left without an answer to its question.
Perhaps even more telling of the Friends’ failure to break fully from the CNT/FAI was its line on the national/colonial question. The anarchists’ hostility to all states logically led them to oppose the fight for independence for Spanish Morocco. In its 1938 pamphlet, the Durruti group described Spain as a colony while never once calling for Morocco’s independence. Vernon Richards’ criticism of the CNT/FAI leaders applies with equal force to the Friends of Durruti:
“By their actions, it is clear that the C.N.T. had no revolutionary programme which could have transformed Morocco from an enemy to an ally of the popular movement, and at no time did the leaders take notice of those anarchist militants in their midst, such as Camillo Berneri, who urged that the Spanish anarchists should send agitators to N. Africa and conduct a large scale propaganda campaign among the Arabs in favour of autonomy.”
— Lessons of the Spanish Revolution
The question of Morocco figured heavily in the birth of the CNT, which followed in the wake of a 1909 general strike against the call-up of military reservists to Morocco. Just after its founding in 1911, the CNT called for another general strike, in part against the war in Morocco. But by the end of 1936, the CNT/FAI leaders were serving as ministers of the Spanish bourgeois state enforcing the colonial oppression of the Moroccan people.
The Trotskyists proclaimed: “Morocco for the Moroccans; the moment that this slogan is publicly proclaimed it will foment insurrection among the oppressed masses of Morocco and cause disintegration in the mercenary fascist army” (“The Program of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists,” July 1937, Revolutionary History Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1988). Franco’s shock troops were made up principally of Moroccans and the Spanish Foreign Legion, as well as some troops supplied by Mussolini and Hitler. In exile on the island of Réunion, Abd-el-Krim, the leader of the 1921-26 Rif war against the French and Spanish colonialists in Morocco, asked PSOE prime minister Largo Caballero to use his influence with the French popular-front government of Léon Blum to secure his release so that Krim could return to Morocco to lead an insurrection against Franco. But the British and French imperialists whom the Spanish Republic looked to would not countenance such a move. As Morrow remarked, “Caballero would not ask, and Blum would not grant. To rouse Spanish Morocco might endanger imperialist domination throughout Africa” (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain).
The Fight to Reforge a Trotskyist Nucleus
With Nin’s liquidation into the POUM in 1935, a betrayal and default of historic proportions, the banner of the Fourth International disappeared from Spain for over a year. Writing immediately after the POUM signed the popular-front pact, Trotsky stated that it was necessary to “mercilessly expose the betrayal of Maurín, Nin, Andrade, and their associates, and lay the foundation for the Spanish section of the Fourth International” (“The Treachery of the POUM”). A few months later, he wrote: “Marxist action in Spain can begin only by means of an irreconcilable condemnation of the whole policy of Andrés Nin and Andrade, which was and remains not only false but also criminal.” Asserting that “the truly revolutionary elements still have a certain period of time, not too long, to be sure, in which to take stock of themselves, gather their forces, and prepare for the future,” Trotsky argued that the tasks of “the Spanish supporters of the Fourth International...are as clear as day”:
“1. To condemn and denounce mercilessly before the masses the policy of all the leaders participating in the Popular Front.
“2. To grasp in full the wretchedness of the leadership of the ‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification’ and especially of the former ‘Left Communists’—Andrés Nin, Andrade, etc.—and to portray them clearly before the eyes of all the advanced workers.
“3. To rally around the banner of the Fourth International on the basis of the ‘Open Letter’ [Spring 1935].
“4. To join the Socialist Party and the United Youth in order to work there as a faction in the spirit of Bolshevism.
“5. To establish fractions and other nuclei in the trade unions and other mass organizations.
“6. To direct their main attention to the spontaneous and semi-spontaneous mass movements, to study their general traits, that is, to study the temperature of the masses and not the temperature of the parliamentary cliques.
“7. To be present in every struggle so as to give it clear expression.
“8. To insist always on having the fighting masses form and constantly expand their committees of action (juntas, soviets), elected ad hoc.
“9. To counterpose the program of the conquest of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the social revolution to all hybrid programs (à la Caballero, or à la Maurín).
“This is the real road of the proletarian revolution. There is no other.”
— “Tasks of the Fourth International in Spain,” 12 April 1936
This letter was written to a supporter in Spain, but it is unclear if it ever made it to its destination, or was circulated in Spain. It was, however, published in the Trotskyist press internationally.
It was necessary to build anew a Spanish Trotskyist nucleus that would openly fly the banner of the Fourth International and turn an independent face to the masses. This required a struggle as well against conciliationist elements within the ICL. Many of the older European Oppositionist cadres—including Vereecken and Sneevliet—were under the sway of the centrist London Bureau, and they ended up siding with Nin against Trotsky. In late July 1936, the ICL held a conference in Paris, out of which issued the Movement for the Fourth International. Sneevliet walked out of this conference after a few hours, having declared that he intended to participate in a conference of the London Bureau later that autumn. By and large, the International Secretariat, based in Paris, consisted of relatively young and inexperienced elements. They, too, were subject to the pressures of popular frontism, particularly pronounced in France, which was then under the Popular Front government of Léon Blum. Jean Rous, one of the leaders of the French section, served as the I.S. representative in Spain in 1936.
Thus, as the Spanish Civil War broke out, the international center of the Trotskyist movement was new and ungelled. Above all, it was deprived of Trotsky’s intervention for five crucial months. In late August 1936, as Moscow announced the first in a series of frame-up trials that led to massive blood purges, Trotsky was interned by the Norwegian government at the behest of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Having just completed The Revolution Betrayed, his definitive analysis of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, Trotsky was immediately faced with the task of exposing the Stalin regime’s slanders of himself and the other old Bolsheviks. In December, Trotsky was deported to Mexico, arriving there the following month. His absence as an active factor of intervention in Spain during this period was an incalculable loss.
A wealth of documentary material by or about the Spanish Trotskyists and the debates in the Fourth International over Spain is now available at Harvard and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, among other facilities. But the job of reviewing it all and putting together a complete picture of the Trotskyist intervention remains to be done. We have reviewed some I.S. minutes and correspondence and reports on Spain as well as memoirs by participants and other materials published in English in Revolutionary History and other sources. We have also looked through the collection of Spanish Trotskyist materials compiled by Agustín Guillamón in Documentación Histórica del Trosquismo Español (1936-1948) (Historical Documentation of Spanish Trotskyism) (Madrid: Ediciones de la Torre, 1996). However, even the best of the memoir material, like Munis’ Jalones de Derrota: Promesa de Victoria, says little about the internal disputes and discussions that took place between the liquidation of the ICE in 1935 and the Barcelona insurrection in 1937. Thus, our knowledge of the work of the Spanish Trotskyists is fragmentary, and we can make only some general observations. Much more work needs to be done for a thorough assessment of the work of the Fourth International in Spain in 1936-37.
Conciliation of the POUM
In the summer of 1936, after several largely unsuccessful efforts to re-establish contacts in Spain, the I.S. was contacted by the small Bolshevik-Leninist Group (GBL) headed by Nicola di Bartolomeo (Fosco). The GBL was made up largely of foreigners, many of them Italians like Fosco, who had been members of the Left Opposition in their countries and had come to Spain to fight in the Civil War. The bulk of them immediately went to the front to join the POUM militia. The Spanish Trotskyists overwhelmingly ignored what had to be their central task, getting out a journal with theoretical and polemical articles needed to programmatically arm their intervention. As Lenin stressed in his seminal work What Is To Be Done? (1902), a regular party press is the critical scaffolding for building a revolutionary party. It wasn’t until April 1937 that the GBL’s successor, the SBLE, began publishing a newspaper, La Voz Leninista (Leninist Voice). Only three issues were produced before the SBLE was suppressed in 1938. The lack of a regular press fundamentally crippled the Trotskyists’ intervention.
Instead of putting forward its own independent face to the masses, the GBL was drawn into the wake of the POUM. Fosco, who was assigned by Nin to take charge of organizing foreign volunteers for the POUM militia, pledged his allegiance to the POUM as “the only revolutionary party” (La Batalla, 4 August 1936, Guillamón, Documentación [our translation]). When an I.S. delegation led by Jean Rous arrived in Spain in August 1936 and distributed the issue of the French Trotskyists’ La Lutte Ouvrière containing “The Treachery of the POUM,” Fosco was no less incensed than the POUM leaders. “That alone,” he later wrote, “was enough to condemn the entire policy of the International Secretariat” (Guillamón, Documentación [our translation]).
Rous described Fosco as “an agent of the POUM in our ranks, who facilitated the POUM’s repression of us” (Bulletin Intérieur International No. 1, April 1937 [our translation]). Fosco was subsequently expelled from the GBL and went on to produce several issues of a French-language publication, Le Soviet, in league with Raymond Molinier, an unprincipled maneuverer who had been expelled from the French section in late 1935. But it was not only Fosco who denounced Trotsky for his scathing attacks on the POUM leaders. Sneevliet, Serge and Vereecken did so, too. In 1936-37, the younger elements in the I.S. were engaged in heated but often inconclusive struggles with the pronounced pro-POUM views of Sneevliet, Vereecken and Serge. Among the more solid elements in the I.S. were Erwin Wolf (Braun), a Czech Oppositionist who served as Trotsky’s secretary in Norway, and Rudolph Klement (Adolphe), who had been Trotsky’s secretary before that, in Turkey and France.
In a 20 December 1936 letter, Rous reported: “When Sneevliet came to Barcelona, he categorically and publicly condemned the political line of the I.S. in order to praise the political line of the POUM, in his position as a member of the Bureau for the IVth International” (ibid. [our translation]). Vereecken likewise defended the POUM. Vereecken acknowledged that the POUM had made some “mistakes,” though he would not call these by their right name—betrayals. He reserved his fire for Trotsky’s “criminal” denunciations of these “mistakes.” When Vereecken’s paper ran an article by the POUM with an introduction praising Nin & Co., Trotsky wrote in a letter to the editorial board:
“For six years, Nin has made nothing but mistakes. He has flirted with ideas and eluded difficulties. Instead of battle, he has substituted petty combinations. He has impeded the creation of a revolutionary party in Spain. All the leaders who have followed him share in the same responsibility. For six years they have done everything possible to subject this energetic and heroic proletariat of Spain to the most terrible defeats.... Such wretchedness! And you reproduce that with your approbation instead of flaying the Menshevik traitors who cover themselves with quasi-Bolshevik formulas.
“Do not tell me that the workers of the POUM fight heroically, etc. I know it as well as others do. But it is precisely their battle and their sacrifice that forces us to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Down with diplomacy, flirtation, and equivocation. One must know how to tell the bitterest truth when the fate of a war and of a revolution depend on it. We have nothing in common with the policy of Nin, nor with any who protect, camouflage or defend it.”
— “To the Editorial Board of La Lutte Ouvrière,” 23 March 1937
In response to Trotsky, Vereecken raged: “We consider this article as well as the attitude, in general, of our Buro and of the French Section on the POUM as sectarian and harmful, and if we were tempted to use strong words, we would say criminal” (Vereecken, “For a Correct Policy in Respect to the Spanish Revolution and POUM,” reprinted in Information Bulletin, July 1937). Vereecken echoed Nin’s parochial justifications for rejecting the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution: “A party is not a piece of goods which can be imported and exported at will. The Spanish Revolution will be ‘Spanish’ just as the Russian Revolution was ‘Russian’.” Finally, concluded Vereecken, “What we wish to bring out with all our strength is that the POUM is the revolutionary organization in Spain,” complaining, “The whole activity of the Buro is directed toward the building of a revolutionary party outside of the POUM” (ibid.).
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Hampered by Trotsky’s unavailability and the fact that differences over the POUM were not fully fought out, elements in the I.S. initially bent to the pressures of POUM apologists like Sneevliet and Vereecken and clearly did not “grasp in full the wretchedness” of Nin & Co. This was compounded by the weakness of the forces of Spanish Trotskyism on the ground. These had been strengthened with the return in October 1936 of Grandizo Munis, one of the handful of ICE cadre who had sided with Trotsky against Nin over the question of entry into the PSOE/JS. Even then the Trotskyists in Spain were overwhelmingly foreign, politically incoherent and confronted with mass organizations of the working class in a revolutionary situation.
But this is not an argument against fighting to build the proletarian vanguard leadership that was so desperately necessary. It was the first duty of the Spanish Trotskyists to fight to split and regroup revolutionary elements from the POUM, the anarchists and other workers parties with the aim of forging the crucial instrument for victory—a Leninist vanguard party. Instead, the Spanish Trotskyists and the I.S. were overwhelmingly preoccupied with entry into the POUM as the only means through which a Bolshevik party could be forged.
In a 24 August 1936 letter, Hans David Freund (Moulin), a German émigré who became a leader of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists, described the POUM as “a centrist party,” but concluded: “We must work towards the Bolshevisation of the POUM, although we cannot predict whether it will accomplish this by changing its present leadership for another one, or by the evolution of its leaders in the direction of Bolshevism-Leninism” (Revolutionary History Vol. 4, No. 1/2). With the support and urging of the I.S., the Bolshevik-Leninists attempted to arrange an entry into the POUM with factional rights.
Nin’s response to their first entreaty was to argue that the Trotskyists could join only as individuals and to demand, “You must declare publicly that you disassociate yourselves and disagree with the campaign of calumny and defamation carried on against our party by the publications of the would-be 4th International” (“Letter from Nin to the Bolshevik-Leninists of Barcelona,” 13 November 1936, Information Bulletin, July 1937). The SBLE tried another entry approach after this, with a sharply polemical letter to the POUM leadership in April 1937 (Information Bulletin, July 1937). Also published in the July 1937 Information Bulletin was an article by Trotsky, following the Barcelona May Days, warning against focusing on the POUM:
“The POUM still remains a Catalan organization. Its leaders prevented in its time entry into the Socialist Party, covering their fundamental opportunism with a sterile intransigence. It is to be hoped, however, that the events in Catalonia will produce fissures and splits in the ranks of the Socialist Party and the U.G.T. In this case it would be fatal to be confined within the cadres of the POUM, which moreover will be much reduced in the weeks to come. It is necessary to turn towards the anarchist masses in Catalonia, towards the socialist and communist masses elsewhere. It is not a question of preserving the old external forms, but of creating new points of support for the future.”
— “The Insurrection in Barcelona (Some Preliminary Remarks),” 12 May 1937
There is no question that the Trotskyists should have sought access to the members of the POUM, which had grown from several thousand to some 30,000 in the first months of the Civil War and whose leftist rhetoric, as Trotsky put it, “created the illusion that a revolutionary party existed in Spain” (“The Culpability of Left Centrism,” 10 March 1939). Needless to say, it was much more difficult to get such access to the POUM ranks from the outside. But this was not at all like the situation confronting the Trotskyists at the time of the French turn, where they entered large parties in ferment with the aim of intersecting a short-lived opportunity and were able to put out a press openly espousing their views and principles.
The POUM had gone over to the class enemy when it signed on to the “Left Electoral Pact” in January 1936. As Trotsky insisted, the fight to win over revolutionary elements within the POUM’s ranks had to begin with an “irreconcilable condemnation” of this betrayal. The demand that the POUM repudiate this pact was the only principled basis for even considering the tactic of entry. Nin’s participation as Minister of Justice in the Catalan popular-front government was simply the concrete expression of its original betrayal. Although Nin was thrown out of the government in December 1936, the whole orientation of the POUM remained focused on gaining re-entry into the government. To have joined the POUM, even with factional rights, would have subjected the Trotskyists to the POUM’s discipline. This would have been a betrayal in Spain 1936-37. There was no place in the POUM for Trotskyists. As Trotsky wrote in a later polemic against Sneevliet and Vereecken:
“That Vereecken should reduce the question to the simple right of factions to exist shows only that he has completely wiped out the line of demarcation between centrism and Marxism. Here is what a true Marxist would say: ‘They say there is no democracy in the POUM. This is not true. Democracy does exist there—for the right-wingers, for the centrists, for the confusionists, but not for the Bolshevik-Leninists.’ In other words, the extent of democracy in the POUM is determined by the real content of its centrist policy, radically hostile to revolutionary Marxism.”
— “A Test of Ideas and Individuals Through the Spanish Experience,” 24 August 1937
The task confronting the tiny Trotskyist forces was to build the nucleus of a vanguard party through regrouping left-wing elements from the POUM and the anarcho-syndicalists, as well as from the Socialist or Communist parties. Only by constructing such a nucleus as a fulcrum could a lever be applied for splitting the mass of revolutionary workers from their misleaders. The tactic of the united front would have been an important weapon to exploit the contradictions between the working-class base and the leaderships of the reformist, centrist and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies. The combination of unity in action against the blows of reaction and freedom of criticism in exposing the treachery of the other workers organizations would have aided in translating the political premises of Trotskyism into living reality.
The SBLE also bent in the direction of the POUM programmatically with its call for a “revolutionary front of the proletariat” of the POUM and the CNT to lead the fight against the popular front. A February 1937 SBLE leaflet declared:
“It is necessary, urgently necessary, to form a revolutionary front of the proletariat that rises up against the sacred unity represented by the Popular Front....
“As the most powerful organizations on the extreme left, the POUM and the CNT must initiate the revolutionary front. Its objectives, as well as free access to all workers organizations that reject the disastrous policy of the popular front, must be clearly established.”
— SBLE leaflet, “Workers of the CNT, the POUM, the FAI, the JJ.LL. [Young Libertarians]—Proletarians All,” Guillamón Documentación (our translation)
The SBLE slogan was a direct echo of the POUM’s call for a “revolutionary workers front,” by which Nin meant sealing a political pact with the CNT leaders for the purpose of re-entering the Catalan government. Trotsky argued that a united revolutionary front of the proletariat was only possible through the creation of soviets and under the leadership of a revolutionary party. Unlike the POUM, the SBLE did raise the call for soviets. Nonetheless, the demand for a “revolutionary proletarian front” separate from soviets and under the leadership of the CNT and the POUM could only have built illusions in the anarchist and centrist misleaders.
After Trotsky arrived in Mexico in January 1937, he resumed his writing on Spain, much of it polemics against apologists for the POUM. Klement and Wolf in the I.S. began to acknowledge some problems with their earlier partial attempts to address the pro-POUM opportunism of the Dutch and Belgian leaderships. An I.S. meeting in May 1937 saw a sharp fight with Vereecken and passed a self-critical resolution on the earlier acquiescence to Sneevliet’s demands not to publish criticisms of him in an internal bulletin. The resolution conceded: “The I.S. regrets having lost precious time trying in vain to convince the [Dutch] RSAP leadership to accept an international discussion on these differences.” Wolf, reporting from Spain, later wrote critically of “the overly prolonged silence and vacillations of the I.S. The POUM skillfully used the differences between the different sections of the IV International and weakened the force of argumentation of the Spanish BL” (Wolf, “Internal Report,” 6-7 July 1937, Documentación [our translation]). Wolf also acknowledged, “In the past, we focused almost exclusively on the POUM. The revolutionary anarchist workers were too often forgotten, with the exception of the Friends of Durruti” (ibid.). Finally, in “Resolutions of the International Buro for the 4th International on the Present Situation in Spain and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninists” (undated), there appeared a categorical statement of the need to build an independent party:
“The task of building a new revolutionary leadership of the 4th International will be not to become the advisers of the leadership of the POUM, but rather, above all, to address the workers directly and explain to them the situation as it is, on the basis of the line and program of the movement for the 4th International.”
— reprinted in Information Bulletin, July 1937
Wolf, who had volunteered to go to Spain when the I.S. could find no other cadre willing to go, was arrested shortly after by Stalinist GPU agents in Spain and murdered, as was Freund (Moulin). The following year, Klement was also assassinated by the Stalinists.
The Barcelona Insurrection
The last chapter of the POUM’s treachery was played out on the streets of Barcelona in May 1937. On April 14, the bourgeoisie’s pitiful commemoration of the founding of the Republic was drowned out by huge food riots by the working-class women of the city. On April 29, as Hugo Oehler reports in his 1937 eyewitness account, “Barricades in Barcelona” (reprinted in Revolutionary History Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1988), the Generalitat ordered that all groups “not directly dependent on the Generality Council will withdraw instantly from the streets so as to make possible the rapid elimination of the unrest and alarm that Catalonia is now enduring” (quoted in ibid.). The CNT, UGT, PSUC and POUM dutifully called off their May Day demonstrations. On May 3, Stalinist-led Assault Guards attacked the Telefónica occupied by CNT workers, and barricades went up throughout Barcelona and its suburbs.
The SBLE fought to offer revolutionary leadership to the CNT and POUM members who manned the barricades. In their 4 May 1937 leaflet, the Trotskyists urged the workers to seize the “revolutionary offensive” and to form “committees of revolutionary defence in the shops, factories, districts” (reprinted in Information Bulletin, July 1937). A POUM leaflet argued instead that “retreat is necessary” because the workers had already defeated the counterrevolutionary provocation (ibid.). Calling for the withdrawal of government forces from the streets and for the working class to keep its arms, the POUM declared: “The accomplishment of these perfectly acceptable conditions can put an end to the struggle.” But the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist henchmen rejected these “perfectly acceptable conditions”—and the POUM leaders nonetheless exerted every effort to “put an end to the struggle.”
Despite confusion and demoralization, the workers returned to the barricades time and again. Angered by the brutality of the police, Oehler reports, on Wednesday, May 5, “With renewed energy, with fury, the proletariat attacked the class enemy.” A section of the Durruti Column and some 500 POUM soldiers left the Aragon front—armed with machine guns, tanks and light artillery, to join their comrades on the barricades, but were turned back with the lie that the fighting had ended. That day, the Friends of Durruti also distributed a leaflet on the barricades, proclaiming:
“Workers! A Revolutionary Junta. Shoot the culprits. Disarm the armed corps. Socialize the economy. Disband the political parties which have turned on the working class. We must not surrender the streets. The revolution before all else. We salute our comrades from the POUM who fraternized with us on the streets. Long live the Social Revolution! Down with the counterrevolution!”
— quoted in Guillamón, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939
But the Durruti group continued to look to the CNT leadership and was itself disoriented when the CNT and POUM refused to fight for power. On May 5, representatives of the SBLE met with the Friends of Durruti to discuss the possibility of coordinated action, to no avail.
On May 6, reports Oehler:
“Solidaridad Obrera (CNT) this morning announced, ‘The CNT and the UGT have both commanded return to work.’ The same issue refused all responsibility for the leaflet of the Friends of Durruti. La Batalla (POUM) appeared and echoed the Anarcho-Syndicalist croaking: ‘Now that the counter-revolutionary provocations have been smashed, it is necessary to withdraw from the struggle. Workers, return to labour.’
When the POUM workers on the barricades beside the Hotel Falcon [POUM headquarters] saw this sheet, they raged and refused to leave their posts. They denounced their leaders as betrayers. The Thursday issue of Soli, as the CNT paper was called, was burnt like previous issues on many barricades.”
— Oehler, op. cit.
That day, the POUM leaders meekly surrendered the La Batalla offices to the police, and the murdered body of Camillo Berneri, an honorable left anarchist, was found on the streets, one of the first victims of the renewed white terror. Within a few weeks, Andrés Nin was also arrested and murdered. To the end he retained his illusions in the popular front, refusing to heed a warning passed on to him by a sympathetic militiaman that he was about to be arrested. Juan Andrade later commented, “None of us believed the situation was serious enough to risk our arrest” (quoted in Fraser, Blood of Spain).
Oehler concludes his account with a denunciation of Trotsky’s “liquidationism,” falsely blaming the Bolshevik leader for the SBLE’s attempts to enter the POUM. But Oehler says nothing of his own, very real political responsibility for the POUM. In 1934-35, Oehler’s rotten bloc with Nin in opposition to the French turn provided Nin with a leftist political cover as he liquidated the forces of Spanish Trotskyism into the POUM. And at the time of the Barcelona May Days, Oehler was aligned with an oppositional grouping within the POUM, José Rebull’s Cell 72 in Barcelona. A 16 April 1937 “Eyewitness Account by Edward H. Oliver” (likely a pseudonym for Oehler), published by Oehler’s Revolutionary Workers League, uncritically praised a resolution of the Barcelona POUM Local Committee that called on the POUM, CNT and FAI, as “organizations whose objectives [sic] is the proletarian revolution,” to “form the revolutionary united front in an attempt to win the masses” (quoted in Oliver, “Sixth Anniversary of the Spanish Republic in Barcelona,” datelined 16 April 1937). This resolution, according to Oliver, offered “the first clear workers solution for the crisis of the Generality” (ibid.).
Rebull remained in the POUM through all of its betrayals. Just after the May Days, Rebull authored an earnest critique of the POUM’s governmental slogan that said not one word about the POUM’s role in dismantling the barricades and subverting the insurrection! (See Rebull, “On the Slogan of ‘A UGT-CNT Government’,” May 1937, reprinted in Revolutionary History Vol. 4, No. 1/2.)
Pierre Broué: Defeatism Clothed as “Objectivity”
In a history of the Spanish Civil War co-authored with Emile Témime, Pierre Broué whitewashes the role of the POUM in the Barcelona May Days, essentially retailing Nin/
Andrade’s version of the events:
“By Thursday 6 May order had nearly been restored. Companys announced that there were neither winners nor losers. The mass of workers in Barcelona had heard the appeals for calm, and the POUM backed down: ‘The proletariat,’ it announced, ‘has won a partial victory over the counterrevolution
. Workers, return to work’.”
— Broué and Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1970)
Far from “backing down” in the face of a retreat by the workers, the POUM itself boasted in La Batalla (8 May 1937) of being “one of those which have contributed the most to restoring normalcy” (quoted in Oehler, “Barricades in Barcelona”). In contrast, a Leninist vanguard would have seized the moment to break the insurgent anarchist workers from their betrayers and lead a fight for power. But Nin & Co. were a gang of centrist capitulators who joined with the traitors of the CNT/FAI in ordering the workers to “back down.”
The “Spanish revolutionaries felt isolated,” write Broué and Témime, by way of tacitly justifying the POUM’s entry into the popular front. Pointing to the Stalinist blood purges in the Soviet Union, the triumph of fascism in Germany and the alleged passivity of the proletariat elsewhere, they assert: “In 1936 the world balance of power was by no means as favorable to the Spanish Revolution as it had been in 1917-1919 to the Russian Revolution.” They then pontificate:
“One could of course hold endless discussions about the opportunities that they had of compensating for this isolation with a bold revolutionary policy. It might be thought, as Trotsky did, that the Spanish Revolution offered the possibility of a reversal of the world balance of power and that it was precisely its defeat that opened the way to the outbreak of the Second World War. The fact is that their sense of isolation was one of the elements that determined the attitude of the Spanish Revolutionaries, many of whom gave up the pursuit of the Revolution.”
Broué and Témime return to this theme in concluding their account of the Barcelona May Days:
“It is of course arguable [!] that the spontaneous reaction of the Barcelona workers could have opened the road to a new revolutionary impetus and that it was an opportunity to steam in reverse. Historians can merely state that the Anarchist leaders did not wish to do so and that those of the POUM did not believe that they could.”
Like the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a proletarian socialist victory in Spain would have inspired revolutionary struggles of the working class throughout the world, upsetting the course of the then-developing second imperialist war. In 1936, France was engulfed in a prerevolutionary situation, there were massive strikes in Belgium and throughout Europe the victory of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany had impelled increasing leftward motion in the working class. Even in the relatively politically backward United States, the 1930s witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of class struggle. In 1934, three major strikes—the Toledo Auto-Lite strike led by the American Workers Party, the Trotskyist-led Teamsters strikes in Minneapolis and the eleven-week strike by San Francisco longshoremen led by supporters of the Communist Party—laid the basis for the class battles that built the CIO in the following years. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union was sufficiently fearful that a proletarian revolution in the West would reinvigorate the Soviet masses that it pulled out all the stops to suppress the revolutionary Spanish proletariat and drowned in blood any perceived challenge to the bureaucracy’s political grip over the Soviet workers state.
In his 24 August 1937 article, Trotsky replied to Vereecken’s assertion that a fight for power during the Barcelona May Days would have been pure “adventurism.” Trotsky’s words serve also as a response to Broué’s haughty above-the-battle “objectivity”:
“If the Catalan proletariat had seized power in May 1937—as it had really seized it in July 1936—they would have found support throughout all of Spain. The bourgeois-Stalinist reaction would not even have found two regiments with which to crush the Catalan workers. In the territory occupied by Franco not only the workers but also the peasants would have turned toward the Catalan proletariat, would have isolated the fascist army and brought about its irresistible disintegration. It is doubtful whether under these conditions any foreign government would have risked throwing its regiments onto the burning soil of Spain. Intervention would have become materially impossible, or at least extremely dangerous.
“Naturally, in every insurrection, there is an element of uncertainty and risk. But the subsequent course of events has proven that even in the case of defeat the situation of the Spanish proletariat would have been incomparably more favorable than now, to say nothing of the fact that the revolutionary party would have assured its future.”
— “A Test of Ideas and Individuals Through the Spanish Experience”
The Fight for Revolutionary Leadership
Andy Durgan castigates Trotsky for an “almost millenarian and messianic” political view, asserting that the Bolshevik leader “seemed confident that the correct political line in a revolutionary situation could transform even the smallest of groups into the leadership of the working class” (Durgan, “Trotsky and the POUM”). The odds were certainly stacked against the small forces of Spanish Trotskyism, up against mass organizations of the proletariat in the midst of a revolutionary situation. But unlike the sages of Revolutionary History, Trotsky understood that, regardless of the circumstances, it was desperately necessary to fight to build a Leninist vanguard party. To do otherwise is to admit defeat in advance.
One’s appreciation of the history of the workers movement and revolutionary struggles of the past is, of course, conditioned by one’s own programmatic outlook. Those who rule out the possibility of proletarian victory in Spain in the 1930s do so from the vantage point of having themselves forsaken the fight for the working-class seizure of state power. They read into the past their own demoralized wallowing in the “politics of the possible”—i.e., reformist accommodation to the capitalist order. Thus, the Revolutionary History crowd likewise denies the possibility of a socialist revolution in Germany in 1923, in this case to amnesty the German Communist Party leadership under Brandler (see “Rearming Bolshevism: A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001).
In his pamphlet, The Lessons of October (1924), Trotsky exposed and refuted the numerous “objective” arguments raised in 1923 as to why a workers revolution had been impossible in Germany, noting that similar arguments would have been made if the Russian Revolution had failed. Trotsky repeated this point in his August 1940 polemical defense of a revolutionary perspective in Spain against Victor Serge and other “attorneys of the POUM.” “The historical falsification consists in this, that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not those parties that paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses” (“The Class, the Party, and the Leadership”). The Spanish proletariat stood at a higher level in 1936 than did the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917. If Lenin had not been in Russia to carry out the struggles needed to politically arm the Bolshevik Party for the seizure of state power, wrote Trotsky, “There couldn’t even be talk of the victory of the proletarian revolution. The Soviets would have been crushed by the counterrevolution and the little sages of all countries would have written articles and books on the keynote that only uprooted visionaries could dream in Russia of the dictatorship of the proletariat, so small numerically and so immature” (ibid.).
The lessons of Spain were dearly bought. We learned from and sought to avoid the political problems and weaknesses of the Spanish Trotskyists when our tendency, the International Communist League, intervened into the incipient political revolution in the East German deformed workers state, the DDR, in 1989-90. Although far different—one a battle against the rule of the bourgeoisie and the other against the reinstitution of the rule of capital—both were revolutionary situations. Like the SBLE and the Movement for the Fourth International, our forces were small, although we had the advantage of international phone and fax communication and an established section in West Germany. But it wasn’t primarily a question of numbers, but of political clarity, coherence and relentless political struggle for the program of Bolshevism. In this we were guided by Trotsky’s understanding in his writings on Spain that “the advantage of a revolutionary situation consists precisely in the fact that even a small group can become a great force in a brief space of time, provided that it gives a correct prognosis and raises the correct slogans in time” (“The Character of the Revolution,” 18 June 1931).
We established a newspaper, Arbeiterpressekorrespondenz (Workers Press Correspondence), which appeared first on a daily and then a weekly basis and circulated in tens of thousands of copies in the DDR. We armed our supporters with theoretical and polemical propaganda, including a special issue devoted to polemics against the various pretenders to Trotskyism. For the first time in a bureaucratically deformed workers state, we made publicly available Trotsky’s writings, including The Revolution Betrayed, his incisive 1936 analysis of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy and its origins.
The impact of our Trotskyist program was seen in the 3 January 1990 united-front demonstration of 250,000 in East Berlin’s Treptow Park against the fascist desecration of a memorial to the Soviet soldiers who had died liberating Germany from Hitler’s Nazis. This was a mobilization of the East German proletariat in defense of the DDR and Soviet workers states. We initiated the call for this rally. It was then taken up by the ruling Stalinist party which feared how much our program resonated among East Berlin workers and felt compelled to mobilize its base. Our comrades spoke from the platform at Treptow, marking the first time Trotskyists had addressed a mass audience in a degenerated or deformed workers state since Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union. With a green light from the Soviet bureaucracy under Gorbachev, the West German imperialists responded to the spectre of proletarian political revolution with a full-throttle campaign aimed at annexing the DDR. We did not prevail in the face of this onslaught, but we fought. And through that fight, we helped lay the basis for the proletarian victories of the future.
The Trotskyists in Spain were committed to the fight for proletarian state power. But they were caught in a revolutionary tidal wave with few forces, little experience and insufficient tempering, in Trotsky’s words, in the “pitiless manner of posing the fundamental questions and a fierce polemic against vacillations” that “are the necessary ideological and pedagogical reflection of the implacable and cruel character of the class struggle of our time” (“The Culpability of Left Centrism”). As we honor Erwin Wolf, Rudolph Klement and the other Trotskyists who gave their lives, many at the hands of Stalin’s hirelings, in the fight for socialist revolution in Spain, we condemn and refute the opportunists who apologize for past betrayals and thus prepare new ones. This is an integral part of reforging a Trotskyist Fourth International to lead the fight for new Octobers.
The article “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics” in Spartacist (English edition) No. 61 (Spring 2009) implies on page 20 that Trotsky is referring to municipal elections in his May 1924 introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International when he hails the French Communist Party (PCF) getting about 900,000 votes as “a serious success, especially if we take into account the swift growth of our influence in the suburbs of Paris.” In fact, as stated in the French (No. 39, Summer 2009) and Spanish (No. 36, November 2009) editions of Spartacist, “Trotsky was likely referring to a parliamentary election that had been held that month.” However, as we also noted, “the PCF’s ‘influence’ in the suburbs also included its administration of several municipalities.” Just after the above quote, Trotsky’s “Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management” is correctly dated as 12 May 1939, though the subsequent paragraph incorrectly refers to 1938. On page 18, the caption implies that the drawing of Nikolai Shablin is to the left and that of Amadeo Bordiga to the right; it is rather the converse. (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011.)