In this text based on a presentation delivered in 1985 at a conference on the POUM held in Madrid, the former leader of the Iberian Communist Youth, and the last general secretary of the POUM, reviews the history of the POUM and discusses the background of its leading militants in the CNT and Spanish communism, its leading role in the founding of the Workers Alliance and the October 1934 insurrection in Asturias, it founding in 1935, the Popular Front and the February 1936 elections, its fight against Stalinist repression and its persecution under the Negrín government during the civil war, and the fates of the party’s militants underground and in exile.
Ten years after the death of Franco and almost fifty years after the Revolution and civil war, Spain, its past, its present, and its future, have aroused a new interest in political and intellectual circles in Europe and America. Commemorative events, colloquia and seminars are being held everywhere. Publishers are or will soon be marketing books that seemed to have been forgotten, as they are preparing to publish new editions of the most “classic” works on the civil war or new works written over the last few years by young historians in various countries.
For their part, important sectors of the younger generations, disappointed by the political process of what has been called the transition—a transition that proved to be longer and more complicated than anyone had generally anticipated—have turned their gaze towards the past, towards the historical period of 1930-1939, one of the richest, most fruitful and dramatic periods of modern Spain, for the purpose of rediscovering the history of our workers movement and finding elements in that history that could help them to understand the present and to situate themselves with relation to the future.
In the political literature published during the first few years of the transition everything was there: more or less objective, interesting works; books that are partisan in the strict sense of the word; memoirs in which the authors tended either to idealize the past, or to distort it, presenting it not as it really was, but as they perceived it through the mists of time, the political disappointments they experienced or—worst of all—their political interests at the time of writing, which were often quite different from those of the past. We hope that the new batch will be better.
For the new revolutionary generation of the 1970s, which had sought its reasons for hope more in faraway events (the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese resistance to imperialism, May ’68 in France…) than in the past of the Spanish revolutionary movement, it was no easy task to confront the political literature on the Spanish Revolution and civil war. It must be assumed, however, that this task will be easier for today’s young people, who are more free and more well-informed. History does not repeat itself. But a country’s past does condition its present and its future.
For those of us who lived through that past and who do not wallow in the old soldier mentality, it is the present that is of much greater interest. It would be absurd, however, for us to refuse to contribute our testimony or to engage in a dialogue with those who, quite legitimately, have the kinds of concerns that we have just summarized. We have therefore decided to participate in this colloquium to shed a little light on the events that have left such a mark on all of us—both the older and the younger generations—and for which there is no other remedy than to engage in repeated reflection if we really want to open up the perspective of freedom and socialism in Spain and in Europe.
For a long time, in the name of the famous policy of “national reconciliation”, the results of which are in plain sight for all to behold, an attempt has been made to present the Spanish Revolution and civil war as some kind of absurd tragedy, unworthy of a “civilized country”. We need not point out that those who have thought or who still think in this way have behaved in a completely opportunist and anti-scientific way. Do we have to remind these people that the Spanish Revolution and civil war took place during a particularly dramatic historical period for Europe and the entire world? When the reactionary forces led by a sector of the Army went on the offensive against the Republic and against the workers movement, they did not act merely with reference to the specific situation of our country, but to that of Europe more generally. That was the era of the rise of fascism and Stalinism. Hitler had seized power in Germany, Italy had been subject to a fascist dictatorship since 1922, and Austria had fallen under the rule of a reactionary regime of Papal inspiration in 1934 after the defeat of a workers insurrection. Reactionary or semi-fascist regimes ruled Portugal, Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic and Balkan countries. Furthermore, the French Popular Front government, once the occupations of the factories had been brought to an end, turned towards the right and meekly followed in the footsteps of the foreign policy of the English bourgeoisie, which sought to reach a compromise agreement with Nazi Germany, a compromise that was finally attained in 1938 in Munich at the cost of the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia. Finally, in that situation, Stalin’s policy consisted in the elimination of all revolutionary opposition within the USSR and in the quest for a military alliance with France and England in order to confront the Nazi threat, a policy to which the interests of the European workers movement were subordinated, exactly as in 1939, when, in a 180 degree about-face, the Kremlin signed the pact with Hitler.
What is really and profoundly dramatic about our country’s history during that time resides in the fact that the reply of the Spanish proletariat to the military-fascist rebellion—which, of course, relied from the very beginning on the support of Hitler’s Germany and fascist Italy—took place in the context of these extremely unfavorable conditions. And, in this respect, today we must admit that none of the men who contributed the most to understanding the historical period with which we are concerned—Joaquín Maurín, in “Hacia la segunda revolución” [Towards the Second Revolution], and Leon Trotsky in various articles, to mention only two of the most outstanding examples—were capable of grasping the extent of the immense difficulties that the Spanish revolutionary process would encounter. Revolutionary optimism, which is often creative, can sometimes lead to an incorrect evaluation of the correlation of forces. Trotsky had on various occasions written that a proletarian victory in the West would have the effect of an electric shock in the USSR, awakening all the revolutionary energies that had been buried by bureaucratic despotism. Maurín and Nin thought in quite similar terms, but they, like so many others, underestimated the overwhelming impact of Hitler’s victory in 1933 and did not believe that the Kremlin, under Stalin’s leadership, would be capable of playing the nefarious role that it would actually play during the Spanish Revolution.
Two conceptions of the Revolution
All serious historians, except for those who restrict their efforts to justifying the policy of the bourgeoisie or of Stalin, agree that the revolt of July 1936 not only provoked an astounding response on the part of the working class in the country’s leading cities, thus undoing the initial plans of the reactionary forces, but also unleashed a revolutionary process of a socialist nature throughout Spain. For, within the span of a few weeks, the workers were not content with having defeated the uprising in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, etc., but they also dismantled the apparatus of the bourgeois State, dissolved the Army, destroyed the ultra-reactionary Church, proclaimed the freedom of national minorities, seized the factories and farms, and everywhere constituted the elements of a dual power. As Andrés Nin said, the unfinished tasks of the democratic-bourgeois revolution were resolved in the blink of an eye and socialist tasks were addressed without having been consistently implemented. The Revolution penetrated most deeply in Catalonia, where the confluence of a powerful and well-organized workers movement, represented essentially by the CNT and the POUM, and the existence of a powerful movement of national emancipation, caused the situation to reach its highest pitch: the radical solution of the Catalonian question, collectivization of industry, transport and commerce, and the rapid organization of the armed struggle under the direction of the Central Committee of Militias. The revolutionary process in Euskadi [the Basque Country], however, was contained within narrower limits, where the Basque Nationalist Party, with the complicity of the leaderships of the Socialist and Communist Parties, successfully eliminated the Revolutionary Committees and preserved the essential elements of capitalist power; and in the places where the policy of the Popular Front distorted the meaning of the Committees which had arisen during the struggle against the fascist military revolt, the Committees were placed unconditionally under the orders of the republican government of Madrid, which had been completely left behind by the unfolding events and was responsible, due to its fear of the workers, for the victories of the rebels in Zaragoza, Seville, La Coruña, and other places. This uneven development of the revolutionary process in Catalonia and Euskadi and other regions of Spain is one of the aspects of the civil war that has been most neglected by the historians but is nonetheless one of the factors that best explains the subsequent course of events, the gradual reconstruction of the bourgeois State apparatus, the May Days of 1937, the victory of the coalition formed around Negrín and the Communist Party, and the final defeat.
In fact, the so-called republican side in Spain faced, during the entire process, especially between July 1936 and May 1937, two conceptions of the Revolution: the one that had been theoretically elaborated by the POUM and which the CNT and a sector of the Socialist left instinctively followed; and the one elaborated by the Stalinist leaders, under the control of the “solid team of the Communist International (Stalin) installed in Spain to supervise the activities of the PCE, along with the no less solid team of Soviet political and military advisors” (Fernando Claudín, in La crisis del movimiento comunista [The Crisis of the Communist Movement], with the blessings and support of the republican parties and the right wing socialists. In short, it was a matter of knowing whether the reality of July 1936 that was imposed by the masses corresponded to the conception of the democratic-socialist, or permanent, revolution, or whether, due to reasons external to the Spanish situation, “the proletarian revolution had to retreat to the domain of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, beyond which it should not have proceeded” (Claudín); that is, whether the distinction was posed between fascism and socialism or between fascism and democracy. The latter expression of the basic choice led the Kremlin, the Communist Parties and the republican parties to set forth the theory of the “revolutionary national war”, for the defense of the “bourgeois-democratic Republic”.
While the first conception corresponded with the real situation in most of the country, and especially in Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon and Andalusia, it was opposed by powerful forces in Europe and in Spain itself. The authentically revolutionary forces, however, never succeeded—except for a few brief moments, as in Lérida in July-September 1936, during the brief period of the Revolutionary Youth Front, and in other local and limited circumstances—in articulating an authentic front that would have been capable of neutralizing the policy of Stalinism and the republican parties. With regard to this question, it can now be affirmed, many years later, that the responsibility for this failure is widely shared. The lack of understanding of the problem of political power on the part of the militants of the CNT and the FAI, who, according to Santillán and others, “did not want to establish their dictatorship”, weighed terribly on the entire revolutionary process, contributing to its distortion and dislocation. It must also be said, however, that the split in the PSOE, the “conquest” of the Unified Socialist Youth by Carrillo’s Stalinist faction and the indecisiveness and vacillations of the Socialist Left also had a major impact on the course of events. As for the POUM, its disproportional strength in Catalonia as opposed to the other regions of Spain, its excessive confidence in the possibilities of the development of the CNT, and the obstacles created by its recent formation, created difficulties and problems for it which were beyond its effective capabilities.
Stalinism and the revolutionary process
Fernando Claudín wrote, in La crisis del movimiento comunista, that “during the first few months of the war there were major opportunities for the unification of communists, Caballeristas, POUMistas and Durruti-type anarchosyndicalists into one vast revolutionary party, or at least for their close collaboration in the construction of a proletarian State. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities it was necessary, above all, for the PCE to unreservedly situate itself on the terrain of the revolution and to abandon all dogmatic schemas. Such a party and State would have had to be fully independent of the Communist International and the Soviet State. Only thus would it have been fully acceptable for the other revolutionary fractions of the Spanish proletariat”. But Claudín concludes as follows: “We need only say that none of this was possible, in view of the actual nature of the Communist International and Stalinist policy.”
With regard to these questions, we are partially in agreement with Claudín with respect to his initial hypothesis as well as his final conclusion. We shall only make an exception with regard to the fact that we were not in favor of a “single party”, but rather the collaboration to which he refers, which would have been able to modify the trajectory and correct the ultra-leftist errors of the CNT. It is important, however, to make it clear that the POUM was formed as an attempt to unite all the revolutionary Marxists in a unified force and that it never renounced this perspective. But neither “close collaboration in the construction of a proletarian State”, nor the formation of one big revolutionary Marxist party in the entire country, was possible for many reasons that we cannot examine here, but mainly because of the policy that Stalin imposed in Spain as part of his strategy, a strategy that we have defined on various occasions and which Claudín himself has summarized by saying: “Between the two World Wars, Stalin’s Spanish policy, implemented by the CI and the PCE, was the most remarkable instance of the subordination of an ongoing revolution to the reasons of State of the Soviet power.” In his book, Eurocommunism and the State, Santiago Carrillo did not arrive at the same analyses and conclusions as Claudín—understandably. His work was devoted to the task of providing some legitimacy for “Eurocommunism” and, since this enterprise was too difficult in view of the consistent practice of the author and his colleagues, the secretary of the PCE attempted, with little success, to uncover what he calls the “Historical Roots of Eurocommunism” in the period of the Revolution and the civil war. In one chapter of his book (Chapter 5), he claims: “Later, when the Popular Front was formed and when on the Soviet scene and in the Communist International the struggle against Trotskyism was at its height, the Communist Party accepted the inclusion of the Spanish Trotskyists in the Popular Front and even collaborated with them for a time in the government of the Generalitat in Catalonia…. The requirements of political development in Spain made themselves felt more strongly at that time than the incompatibility resulting from the factional struggle in the Soviet party and the Communist International.” All of this, with a few important verbal qualifications, is true. But Carrillo, unlike Claudín, lies by omission, or seeks justifications that have no basis at all. The Spanish Stalinist leaders were not as free from blame as he claimed. The truth is that while they accepted the participation of the POUM in the working class-republican coalition of February 1936, in the Central Committee of Militias of Catalonia, the Popular Executive Committee of Valencia and other institutions, this was only because the correlation of forces left them no alternative and because the imperative orders of Stalin regarding the POUM were only issued later, when the Moscow show trials and the physical elimination of the Bolshevik old guard began, and when the Kremlin perceived the POUM as an effective threat to renew the revolutionary movement and that this threat had important consequences throughout Europe, since the healthiest forces of the international Marxist movement had rallied to the defense of our party and its political positions.
Furthermore, while it took Carrillo 40 years to finally recognize that the assassination of Nin was “an abominable and unjustifiable crime”, he did not have the honesty to pursue this argument to its logical conclusion and to recognize his own responsibilities in the psychological, political and material preparation for this crime and many others. It is likewise surprising that Carrillo should try to “explain” the crime committed against Nin by referring to the May Days of 1937. One need only take a quick look at any history book or any newspaper articles from that era to verify the fact that the campaign of repression against the POUM began long before May 1937. Already, in November 1936, when the secretary of the JSU [Carrillo] was briefly a member of the Madrid Defense Committee, at a time when it was necessary to concentrate all efforts and resources to save the capital, an attempt was made at the instigation of Carrillo and his colleagues to deprive the Madrid POUM of its offices and its press, and to begin to treat the POUM militants who were fighting and dying in the trenches at Moncloa as agents of fascism.
The POUM and the Spanish Revolution
As everyone knows, the POUM was formed in September 1935 in Barcelona, in the period between the October Revolution of 1934 and the July Days of 1936. It was constituted practically in the wake of the Workers Alliance, a coalition of proletarian organizations that played a crucial role in finally overthrowing the Lerroux-Gil Robles alliance, which was defeated after the battles of October 1934 and the subsequent mobilizations and the elections of February 1936. Without the Workers Alliance, none of this would have been possible, nor would the response of July 1936 to the fascist military uprising have taken place. That is why the Workers Alliance is still an example of the united workers front that has often been imitated in other countries but has never been equaled or surpassed.
The POUM was the product of the merger of two communist organizations that were independent of Moscow—effectively rather than merely apparently independent, as is the case today with certain parties that lay claim to the title of “Eurocommunism”—the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left. The latter organization, due to its strong personality and the valor of its cadres, had often engaged in conflicts with Trotsky and with the international movement that he inspired. In 1934-1935, having learned the lessons of October, a process of clarification and unification took place in the workers movement. In this context, the Communist Left rejected what it called the “French deviation” of the Trotskyist movement—entrism in the Socialist parties in order to contribute to their radicalization—and voted, after a period of debate and collaboration, to merge with the Workers and Peasants Bloc, in order to create the basis for a mass revolutionary Marxist party throughout the peninsula. The POUM, which was from then on the biggest working class party in Catalonia, rapidly spread to the other regions of Spain, with particular success in Valencia, Madrid, Asturias, Euskadi, Galicia and Estremadura. The revolutionary events took place soon thereafter, and the POUM did not have a chance to consolidate its organization in certain locations where it could count on many sympathizers, nor did it ever attain the strength in any other part of Spain that it enjoyed in Catalonia. Furthermore, Franco’s repression brutally deprived it of its sections and militants in Galicia, Andalusia and Estremadura.
There are few cases in the history of the workers movement that can compare with that of the POUM. A historian who did not hold back on his criticisms of our movement, Pierre Broué, wrote: “The debate about the policy of the POUM during the Spanish war and Revolution actually condenses all the basic problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics, the construction of a revolutionary party and international. It would, however, be foolish to attempt to engage in such a debate while overlooking the specific conditions in which the revolutionaries of the POUM had to perform their mission: founded clandestinely in September 1935, this party was immersed a few months later in an unprecedented revolutionary uprising, then in a civil war, facing the repression unleashed against it by the international apparatus of Stalinism. The sudden acceleration of the pace of the class struggle, and the multiplication of its own organizational, educational and defense-related tasks did not leave it enough time to carry out its mission as it was conceived—as it was necessary to do so—by the founding political discussions, and it had to once again go underground before it could even hold its first congress.”
Indeed, Broué, at a conference similar to this one held in 1969 in Paris, only provided a political summary of a reality that can be more adequately expressed by saying that not since the era of the Russian Opposition or the Spartacist Movement of Rosa Luxemburg, has any revolutionary Marxist organization ever assumed a role like the one taken on by the POUM in such dramatic conditions. The comrades of the Russian Opposition or the German Spartacists had to fight against a single enemy. But we had enemies all around us. We had to fight against Franco with arms in hand, just like the other working class organizations in Spain. But we also had to confront the formidable campaign of calumny and repression organized by Stalinism. And later, or even at the same time, we were persecuted by the Vichy police, the Gestapo, by all the police agencies of Europe during the Nazi occupation. The militants of the POUM, and among them were some of its most prestigious leaders, were shot by Franco’s forces, murdered by the GPU and the Stalinists, died in the guerrilla war in France or in the concentration camps in Germany, or they were shot by the Nazis in Brussels or Hamburg. It might be worth the trouble to point out, at least once, that in the last fifty years no revolutionary Marxist organization has had to face such difficult and bitter struggles as the POUM.
The role of the POUM in the Spanish Revolution and civil war and in the struggles against fascism in Europe is a matter of historical record and is depicted in a multitude of books, films and publications of various kinds. It would be impossible to summarize it in a few pages. Perhaps it would be preferable to discuss the critiques that have been directed against the POUM from the most diverse perspectives. We shall skip the Stalinist literature published between the 1930s and the 1950s, among other reasons, because that History was buried after Khrushchev’s revelations at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, and no one dares to revive it, except in exceptional cases, which deserve no consideration at all today. The most recent position amounts to a few leaders of the PCE declaring that “they were not fair to the POUM” (López Raimundo), or they will blame their treatment of the POUM on “special circumstances of the time” or to pressure from the Russians and Stalin’s police apparatus (Teresa Pamies and others), and that it is in the archives of the Russians that one will have to search to discover such things as “the secret of Andrés Nin”. These declarations are not always exempt from ambiguities and are situated on the terrain of what Gramsci called the hypocrisy of self-criticism.
We shall discuss, above all, the critiques that have been formulated by the revolutionary camp and particularly by the Trotskyist movement, among other reasons because it is one of the currents that is closest to ours and was itself subjected, from its beginning and for many years afterwards, to Stalinist calumny and terror.
Criticisms from a revolutionary political perspective
For some years—and now in Spain—we have had access to a book entitled The Spanish Revolution by Leon Trotsky, edited and annotated by Pierre Broué, which gives us a chance to approach this question with more resources at our disposal than we had in the past. First of all, because this book contains almost all Trotsky’s writings on the Spanish Revolution and the POUM and some of the most critical texts about our movement written by foreign militants who either lived in or spent some time in our country during those crucial years. It is true that this book does not contain many documents of the POUM and especially the correspondence between Leon Trotsky and Andrés Nin which was unfortunately not found in the Harvard collection.
We do possess, however, enough documents to allow us to draw a certain number of conclusions. The two most important, in our view, are the following: Trotsky did not assume, contrary to what certain neophytes imagine, a consistent position against the POUM and, at certain moments, especially when the Spanish Revolution first broke out, he rectified certain exaggerated and even injurious criticisms he had initially made, in order to call for a policy of collaboration with a party that was committed to a formidable battle and in which some of his closest comrades and best friends occupied positions of responsibility; the Trotskyist movement did not respond in a uniformly negative way against the POUM and, in fact, the role and policy of our party provoked a crisis in its ranks. In connection with this point, we need only recall that some of its most prestigious figures, such as Alfred Rosmer, the Russian author Victor Serge, who was so closely connected with the Spanish proletariat throughout his life as a militant, and men like Vereecken and Sneevliet and the Trotskyist organizations of Belgium and Holland, displayed a consistent solidarity with the POUM (which did not prevent them from formulating criticisms of its policies), which they defended and supported during the most critical moments.
This is the real history. There is also another kind of history, in which some of those who waged a most vigorous campaign against the POUM indulged in frankly hallucinatory exaggerations, such as the American Felix Morrow, who went so far as to write that if the POUM had seized power in May 1937—which it could only have done by defeating the CNT—it would have been able to “resist imperialism by spreading the revolution to France and Belgium and then wage revolutionary war against Germany and Italy, under conditions which would precipitate the revolution in the fascist countries”. Naturally, today we are shocked that someone could have written something so irresponsible and silly.
Concerning certain political critiques
The main political critiques directed against the POUM concentrate on several points that we have no intention of sidestepping: its original formation, its participation in the working class-republican electoral front in February 1936, its participation in the Council of the Generalitat of Catalonia during the first few months of the Revolution and its intervention in the May Days of 1937. Various militants of the POUM, among others, Juan Andrade, who, in his introduction to Nin’s book, Los problemas de la revolución española (1931-1937) [The Problems of the Spanish Revolution], as well as the author of this text (at the meeting held in Paris in 1969, whose presentations were collected and published in France by the Marxist Studies Circle), have already responded to these critiques. It is not possible for us to repeat our responses in this context. But perhaps we should formulate, as briefly as possible, some pertinent observations.
The founding of the POUM was a great step forward, without which the revolutionary Marxists would have been incapable of intervening effectively in the Spanish Revolution and in Spanish History. It is most likely that, without the POUM, revolutionary Marxism would have played just as minor a role in Spain as it did in the Cuban Revolution, the Portuguese Revolution or in the Chilean revolutionary process, not to speak of the most recent examples that retrospectively shed light on what the POUM was and what it represented in Spain. Moreover, it is utterly absurd to define the POUM as a “centrist” party, a thesis that is becoming increasingly more difficult to uphold in the light of the opportunist divagations that leftist groups in many countries, or groups that claim to be Marxist, have engaged in and are still engaging in. What can be said is that the POUM was a revolutionary Marxist party that did not want to limit itself to mechanically copying the Russian experience, a party that always took into account the specific circumstances in which it had to act and that rejected sectarian blueprints. On one occasion Trotsky said that the revolution in Germany “had to speak German”, Lenin constantly repeated that no one should just “copy what the Russians did”, that in the West “things would be done better”, and, even Zinoviev, the man who spearheaded the Bolshevization of the International and who wreaked such havoc in the communist movement, expressed his admiration for the Peruvian militant Mariategui, saying: “That is someone who does not just copy us.”
In February 1936, the POUM participated in the working class-republican electoral coalition without ever ceasing to criticize the policies of the Popular Front and always maintaining its class independence. This made it possible for it to appear, with its flag and its program, before millions of workers and to make its contribution to the defeat of the reactionary forces, which was what the masses wanted at that time. And, a few months later, without ever having indulged in the bloodthirsty demagogy that was so widespread during that period and without ever having spoken thoughtlessly about “armed struggle”, it knew how to take up arms in July 1936 and to take up a position in the front ranks of the fight against the military uprising.
The POUM’s participation in the Council of the Generalitat—which was, we must not forget, the institution of an oppressed nationality whose destruction was one of the main objectives of all the reactionaries—was bitterly disputed within the POUM, which was not a monolithic party. One may think that it was right or wrong. One may think, like Nin, Molins i Fábregas and Landau—all of whom were former veteran Trotskyist militants—that the Generalitat of that time “displayed a mixture of institutions of dual power”, that it was “a transitional situation” in which the determinant factors consisted in the working class majority and the socialist program of the coalition. One may very well dissent from this point of view with equally valid arguments. What one may not do, however, and what is no longer admissible, is to depict Andrés Nin, who was loyal to the fight for socialism right up to the moment of his death, as a vulgar opportunist or as some kind of Millerand or Blum. This is not only completely unjust, but simply ridiculous.
As for the May Days, which originated from an obscure provocation that triggered the spontaneous insurrection of the proletariat of Barcelona, one may express the opinion—as some of us did at the time—that it was possible, speaking militarily, to seize power in Catalonia. But the discrepancy between the spirit that reigned among the workers of Barcelona and part of Catalonia, and the attitude that prevailed in Madrid—where the militants of the POUM and the CNT themselves experienced many difficulties in explaining the events to their comrades—and in Valencia and other parts of the country, was enormous. It was precisely this discrepancy that politically isolated the proletariat of Barcelona and made possible the political-military offensive of the Valencia Government, under pressure from the PC and its Russian advisors, and the subsequent suppression of the political sovereignty of Catalonia. The POUM stood at the side of the proletariat and its militants fought on the barricades until the end, and only withdrew when they understood that the correlation of forces in Spain in general was unfavorable and that they could not call for the seizure of power against the opposition of the CNT. Those who are familiar with History and the writings of Trotsky know that, as long ago as 1931, the founder of the Red Army had foreseen such a situation of uneven development and had warned his political friends against any revolutionary action in Catalonia that was not consonant with the mental state of the workers of the other nationalities and regions of the peninsula. The POUM adopted this principle, without renouncing anything and without abandoning its weapons. And later, when it was subjected, after June 16, to Stalinist repression, it continued to prosecute the struggle on the fronts and in the rearguard under almost unimaginable conditions.
Am I saying that the POUM did not make any mistakes and that its critics should agree with all its policies? Not at all. All revolutionary parties that have had any real influence have made mistakes. The Bolsheviks made mistakes, and Lenin, who, during the last period of his life came to admit that he was “seriously to blame before the Russian people”, vigorously denounced the “bureaucratic deformations” of the Soviet State, the Pan-Russian chauvinism of Stalin and the policy that Stalin enforced against Georgia. Today, as was the case in the past, the POUM feels its responsibility towards the Spanish and international proletariat and is not opposed to an attempt to draw up a critical balance sheet of its policies during the Spanish Revolution. But it is particularly unjust and painful for the POUM to witness, at a time when the Stalinists themselves, after their “Eurocommunist” baptism, backpedal, and partially admit their tremendous errors and, although in ambiguous terms, attempt to situate the POUM on a terrain that is not that of the real past, some revolutionary militants are still mindlessly repeating, without the least critical spirit, the superannuated clichés of another time, from a terrible era, during which, as Pierre Broué says in “Attempt at a Balance Sheet” of his work on Trotsky’s writings on Spain, the essential point is the following: “Let us frankly admit it: in this debate (between the POUM and Trotskyism) certain polemics leave a bitter aftertaste. After all, they were assassins of the same kind, guided by the same hand, who, only three years apart, successively murdered Andrés Nin and then Trotsky, thus reuniting in death these two friends who had been separated in life, these two incorruptible revolutionaries from the generation of 1917, who opposed one another within the same camp in 1937.”
These facts—Andrés Nin assassinated by the agents of Stalin in Spain, with the connivance of the Spanish Communist Party, as was admitted some years later by one of the survivors of the squad that was ordered to carry out the arrests of the leaders of the POUM in 1937, and Leon Trotsky, assassinated in Mexico by Ramón Mercader, agent of the GPU and militant of the PSUC—are much more instructive than they might seem at first sight.
The final accounting of the darkest and bloodiest period of Stalinism remains to be compiled and many things have yet to be revealed. Not long ago, the Catalonian communist author, Teresa Pamies, claimed that “an uninterrupted, in-depth de-Stalinization might have clarified the details of the Moscow trials in Barcelona, because the secret of Andrés Nin is somewhere out there. The Soviets, very bureaucratic, wrote it all down, and those records of the Communist Party of the USSR, where a commission was named that had access to the top-secret archives”. We are convinced, however, that these “top-secret archives” will be opened some day and that the “secret of Nin” will finally be revealed. Thus, in expectation of this day, for the health and the honor of the workers movement and of socialism, the leaders of the Communist Party and of the PSUC should begin to draw up their own balance sheet, for which they possess many more elements than Carrillo, López Raimundo and Teresa Pamies have mentioned up until now. And they should, among other things, call upon the leaders of the Communist Party of the USSR to reveal the “secret of Nin”, that they should clarify the conditions under which the political secretary of the POUM, the former secretary of the Red Trade Union International, the friend and comrade of Lenin and Trotsky, of Bukharin and Zinoviev, was kidnapped and assassinated during the civil war.
As we said earlier, the Spanish civil war and Revolution took place in a very specific European and international context: that of the rise of fascism and Stalinism, two of the most tragic and negative phenomena of the 20th century. The neutralization or destruction of the POUM was an objective of the greatest importance for Stalin in 1936-1939. On the one hand, it deprived the Spanish proletariat of one of its most prophetic forces—and one that never surrendered or capitulated—and, on the other hand, it prevented the example of the POUM from being a powerful stimulus for the rebirth and consolidation of the movement that, throughout Europe, sought to recover what was best from the traditions of October, to fight Stalinist degeneration and to inspire an authentic hope for socialist renewal.
The critical examination of the Spanish Revolution of 1936—which even the PC and the PSUC will finally have to undertake—will be the task, above all, of those who lay claim to the mantle of revolutionary Marxism in this era of ideological conformism and frivolity, in which a false liberalism is waging a fraudulent assault on the conquests won by the workers movement in 150 years of incessant struggles and battles; of those who do not want to fall prey to the same errors of the past and who want to learn from an extraordinary experience which, as Nin said, was more profound than the Russian Revolution, the necessary lessons for confronting the tasks of our time, to put an end to what remains of Francoism, to transform Spanish society and to create the conditions for a new impulse for socialism in Spain and throughout Europe.
From the origins of the POUM to the Workers Alliance
The Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) was founded in Barcelona, clandestinely, on September 29, 1935, on the basis of the merger of the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left. Its founding took place during a crucial period in the history of the Spanish workers movement: the period between the Revolution of October 1934 and the military-fascist uprising of July 1936.
The Workers and Peasants Bloc was formed in Tarrasa on March 1, 1931—on the eve of the fall of the Monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic—as a result of the merger of the Catalonian Communist Party, an organization of young militants (Arquer, Colomer, Farré Gassó, Rodes, Coll) with a background in revolutionary syndicalism and radical Catalonian nationalism during the dictatorship of general Primo de Rivera, and the Catalonian-Balearic Federation of the Communist Party of Spain (Maurín, Bonet, David Rey). Both organizations agreed on three crucial points: the analysis of the nature of the Spanish Revolution, the interpretation of the nationalities problem and opposition to the methods which the Communist International, in precipitous decline under the direction of Stalin, sought to impose on the workers movement of our country.
The Catalonian Communist Federation had always occupied a special position within the Communist Party. Its most active members and its most outstanding leader came from the anarchosyndicalist movement, in which they had played important roles. In 1921-1922, they formed the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees, began to publish La Batalla and rallied around the banner of the Russian Revolution. They were therefore, along with the young socialists who founded the Communist Party in Madrid in 1920 (Portela and Andrade, among others), the pioneers of the communist movement in Spain and the most resolute defenders of the October Revolution.
The formation of the Workers and Peasants Bloc was the final act in the Catalonian-Balearic Federation’s break with the Communist Party, which then entered into a full-blown crisis. In Madrid an autonomous Communist Group had been formed, and the communist organizations in Valencia, Castellón and certain cells in Asturias maintained very close political relations with “the La Batalla group”, as it was then called. Furthermore, for some time, in exile (France and Belgium) and in Spain (Madrid and Asturias), there were significant groups of militants who did not conceal their sympathies for the international Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky.
Within less than two years, the Workers and Peasants Bloc had become the leading workers party in Catalonia. It introduced Marxism into a workers movement which had previously been dominated by anarchosyndicalism, it set down firm roots in the trade union movement (the trade union federations of Gerona, Tarragona and Lérida were excluded from the CNT because they were led by militants of the Bloc), it created powerful peasants’ organizations such as the Agrarian Union of Lérida and a revolutionary youth movement (the Iberian Communist Youth). The weekly newspaper La Batalla, the books by Maurín and the pamphlets distributed by its publishing bureau spread the ideas of the Workers and Peasants Bloc throughout all of Spain and made it possible for the party to form branches in other regions of the peninsula, especially Valencia, Aragón and Asturias. The Congress of the Workers and Peasants Bloc held in April of 1934 was attended by delegates representing 4,500 militants, 74 sections and 145 incipient cells. These figures were relatively significant in an era when the workers parties were parties of cadres and the trade union federations were the mass organizations. That is why the real importance of the parties was not measured by the number of their militants, but by the influence these parties and their militants exercised on the rich social fabric of the time, comprised by the trade unions, associations, ateneos and other cultural and recreational centers.
The Communist Left issued from the Opposition which was formed in 1930 within the Communist Party of Spain on the basis of Trotsky’s “Platform of the Joint Opposition”. Composed of very courageous militants, such as Nin, Andrade, García Palacios, Loredo Aparicio, Fersen and many others, the Communist Left did a lot of work in political education and training thanks to its theoretical journal, Comunismo, its pamphlets and books and its propaganda and meetings; but perhaps due to the fact that it long appeared to be an opposition group with reference to the Communist Party rather than as a fully independent organization, it did not grow at the same rate as the Workers and Peasants Bloc. Its ideas and its members, however, had a significant impact on the development of the Spanish workers movement, especially in Madrid, Asturias and Estremadura.
The Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left worked as separate organizations during the first few years of the Republic, despite the fact that the differences that separated them were not essential and despite the fact that their main leaders—Nin, Andrade and García Palacios, on the one hand, and Maurín, Bonet and Portela, on the other—had marched side by side in defense of the Russian Revolution and had introduced revolutionary Marxism to Spain. All of them, however, would find themselves in the Workers Alliance at the end of 1933 and early 1934.
The Workers Alliance, created in Catalonia at the instigation of the Workers and Peasants Bloc, had the virtue of uniting, in the period of defeat that followed the electoral victory of the Lerroux-Gil Robles coalition, all the Catalonian political and trade union organizations except for the CNT, which upheld its traditional “apoliticism”. The success of this initiative to establish a united front favored the recovery of the workers movement throughout the peninsula.
Hitler’s victory in Germany and its serious consequences for the European workers movement served to provide a powerful impulse for tendencies in favor of unification and the fight against fascism everywhere. The Workers Alliance of Catalonia became the great herald for unity at a time when the Socialist Party was undergoing a significant process of political rectification after the results of its ministerial collaboration with the republicans during the so-called “first two years” [“primer bienio”]. The Madrid newspaper El Socialista proclaimed in a famous editorial that “Catalonia leads the way”. And this was indeed true, as the example of Barcelona was imitated in other cities. The Workers Alliance rapidly spread to Valencia, Madrid and Asturias, and in the latter region it benefited from the enthusiastic and extremely valuable participation of the CNT.
The revolutionary movement of October 1934 failed, however, because the Workers Alliance had not provided itself with the appropriate structures throughout the country, nor had it established an effective system of coordination of workers and peasants struggles. The Commune of Asturias—the workers seized power and held out for fifteen days—arose as an isolated vanguard. The Workers Alliance organized an impressive general strike, without the participation of the CNT, but could not drive the struggle to a higher level due to the capitulation of the Generalitat and the reticence of the anarchosyndicalists. The greatest failure, however, took place in Madrid and other major cities, where the Socialist Party, which was the dominant force, was incapable of organizing and leading the struggle.
After the failure of the October movement, all the workers organizations carried out, for better or worse, critical analyses of the experience. The Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left, which had been moving closer since the formation of the Workers Alliance, agreed in their interpretation of the causes of the failure of October and in the definition of new political perspectives. For Nin, the movement was defeated because of the deficiencies of the Socialist Party and the absence of a large revolutionary party. For the Workers and Peasants Bloc, the lessons of the insurrection of October led it to reexamine the whole basis of its political perspective and to focus on the following goals: “Unity of action: Workers Alliance. Trade union unity: a single trade union organization. Political unity: a single revolutionary socialist party.” Such were the conclusions of an extensive analysis of the political situation of the workers movement published on January 10, 1935, and endorsed by the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Iberian Communist Youth.
The problems addressed by the Communist Left and the Workers and Peasants Bloc were being discussed by all the sectors of the workers movement. Indeed, in 1935 an important process of redefinition and unification was underway throughout the country. The two main tendencies of the CNT, an organization which had undergone serious crises and splits in the previous few years, reunited at the Zaragoza Congress. The Communist Youth and the Socialist Youth merged into a single organization, the Unified Socialist Youth, which soon fell under the control of the Stalinists. More precisely, we should say that the Carrillo-Melchor-Laín team, which had maintained excellent relations with the Communist Left, the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Iberian Communist Youth during their “Bolshevization” phase, especially in the months before and after October 1934, when they had asked these organizations to join the party and the Socialist Youth in order to help radicalize socialism, engaged in a shocking reversal in the autumn of 1935.
This reversal consisted in a rapprochement with Moscow and the Communist International, the abandonment of the “Bolshevizing” theses and the acceptance of the concepts of the Popular Front and the Youth Front. This was all finalized in a visit by Carrillo to Moscow, where the definitive basis for the unification of the Young Socialists and Young Communists was formulated. This would have enormous consequences for the correlation of forces in the workers movement and in the political struggles before and after July 1936. As everyone knows, the Unified Socialist Youth left the orbit of the Socialist Party and was practically absorbed by the Communist Party.
The POUM, the Revolution and the war
The process of unification proceeded along different lines in Catalonia. It began with all the political organizations that were members of the Workers Alliance, since all of them had reached an agreement concerning their deficiencies in October 1934. These organizations were the Workers and Peasants Bloc, the Communist Left, the Catalonian Proletarian Party, The Communist Party of Catalonia, the Catalonian Federation of the PSOE and the Socialist Union of Catalonia. The main discussions were held on April 6 and 13, 1935. At the first meeting, some basic points of debate were established for “merger on the basis of revolutionary Marxism”. It did not take long, however, before it became apparent that there were basically two blocs: those groups that laid claim to revolutionary Marxism in effective practice; and the reformist groups that had moved closer ideologically to Stalinism, attracted by the latter’s new Popular Front policy. The former groups, that is, the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left, had sections, militants and sympathizers in various regions on the peninsula, and, refusing to join an organization limited to Catalonia, decided to found the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM: Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). The other groups later and quite hastily founded, in July 1936, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC: Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña), which immediately joined the Communist International and firmly took up a position, along with the Unified Socialist Youth (JSU: Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas), under the wing of Stalinism.
The POUM was born on September 29, 1935, after long discussions within the two organizations that were to merge to form it, with three goals: persevere to the end to implement the strategy of the Workers Alliance; help bring about the unification of the CNT, the UGT and the independent trade unions in a single centralized trade union; and unite all revolutionary Marxists in a single Party. These goals, which had been under consideration for a long time, responded to an unequivocal project: to prepare the Spanish proletariat to crown the political process that commenced in 1930 with the fall of the Monarchy with the victory of the Socialist Revolution, the only way, after the failure of the Second Republic, to radically transform Spanish society, bypassing the impotent bourgeoisie in order to realize the tasks that history had imposed for many years.
The POUM was therefore not a circumstantial improvisation, a reflection of a phenomenon external to the country and its profound unrest, but rather the product of painstaking elaboration within the workers movement itself, which emerged from the double break that was carried out during the 1920s with both social democratic opportunism as well as anarchist adventurism, under the decisive influence of the October 1917 Revolution. For that same reason, a significant number of the militants who supported Lenin and Trotsky and founded the Communist Party would later be found in the POUM after the experiences of the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left, organizations that arose in response to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. These factors comprised a kind of synthesis of a long, dialectical process. It was therefore natural that the new party should be more adequately armed than others to understand and interpret the Iberian revolutionary process.
The POUM made its debut on the stage of Spanish and international politics with its unitary trinity (workers united front, trade union unity, unity of revolutionary Marxists) because it was firmly convinced, as may be discerned from its political literature, that in a Europe menaced by fascism, where the working class had suffered one defeat after another, the time was approaching for a direct confrontation between the reactionary forces and the revolutionary forces in Spain, a confrontation upon which the destiny of Europe for many years to come would depend.
It was necessary to arm ideologically, politically and organically to defeat fascism in Spain and thus to block the continued expansion of fascism in Europe, thus preventing a second world war and opening up a perspective of liberation for the workers movement of our continent. And the POUM had kept its powder dry.
At the moment of its foundation, the POUM had about 8,000 militants and approximately 40,000 sympathizers. In Catalonia, it played the leading role in the Workers Federation of Trade Union Unity, formed by the trade unions of Lérida, Tarragona and Gerona that had been expelled by the CNT because “they were led by Marxists”, and a multitude of other independent trade unions. And it also played the leading role in powerful peasant organizations, such as the Agrarian Union of Lérida, besides its not insignificant influence in the Union of Rabassaires. Furthermore, the POUM had a youth organization, the Iberian Communist Youth, which was quite strong in Catalonia and Levant, an organization that would experience considerable growth a few months later.
The POUM was overflowing with great hopes and was soon more than just the sum of its two founding organizations. It was henceforth the largest workers party in Catalonia. Later, relatively quickly, from the positions it already occupied in Valencia, Madrid, Asturias, Andalusia and Estremadura, it spread throughout the peninsula. The organization in Galicia, which was thriving, was holding a Congress in Santiago de Compostela on the day that the military-fascist uprising began, July 18. According to a document of the Executive Committee of the POUM dated December 10, 1935, when it merged into the POUM the Communist Left contributed sections or cells in Pamplona, Astillero (Santander), Gijón, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Madrid, Villada (Palencia), Llerena (Badajoz), Seville, Bilbao, Lugo “and other sections in various provinces of Spain”.
Over the course of the first few months of 1936, the year that it had defined as the “crucial year”, the POUM, faithful to its policy of workers unity, warned the workers against the artificial euphoria of the Popular Front and repeatedly reminded them that the historical alternative was as follows: socialism or fascism. Without compromising its class independence, it participated in the workers-republican alliance for the elections of February 16 and thus helped to assure electoral victory for the alliance, which resulted in the release of the prisoners of October 1934 and the opening up of a new political phase of development for the country. On July 19, 20 and 21 of 1936, the militants of the POUM mobilized all over the country to confront the military-fascist aggression. The participation of the POUM in the battles of Barcelona, Valencia, and Lérida and in the struggles of Madrid and of other cities is a matter of historical record. Germinal Vidal, the general secretary of the Iberian Communist Youth, died at the Plaza de la Universidad in Barcelona along with other militants, fighting against the rebels. In Barbastro, the resolute action of a group of soldiers who were members of the Iberian Communist Youth and José Rodes, the Chief of Police of Lérida, prevented the brigade under Colonel Villalba from joining the uprising. In Galicia, Luis Rastrollo, the secretary of the POUM Galician Federation, assumed command of the armed resistance. In Llerena (Estremadura), the best militants of the POUM fell in battle defending the city against the troops of Queipo de Llano. In Asturias, Luis Grossi, Emilio García and other brave militants died on the Oviedo fronts.
The July battles had only just concluded, when the POUM organized militia units in Catalonia, Levant, Aragón and Madrid. The first international brigade that was formed in Spain was the “Lenin Column”, created by the POUM on the Aragón front in July 1936. This militia included, together with revolutionary militants from Italy, Germany, France, Belgium and other countries, the great authors George Orwell and Benjamin Perat. The militias of Catalonia, organized into the “Lenin Division”, later known as the 29th Division, fought on the Aragón fronts. Hundreds of POUM militants died in the disastrous operation at Mallorca. The militias of Castellón and Valencia participated in the conquest of Ibiza, the siege of Teruel and the defense of Madrid. The POUM’s Madrid motorized column, immortalized in the book by the Argentinian author Mika Etchebehere (Mi guerra de España [My Spanish War]), participated in the storming of Sigüenza, and its units performed glorious feats later, under Mika’s command, in the trenches at Moncloa, in the Division commanded by Cipriano Mera.
In the first few months of the revolutionary process and of the war, the general impulse assured the unity of the workers and antifascist organizations. The POUM participated in the Committee of Militias and the Council of the Economy of Catalonia, the Popular Executive Committee of Valencia, the Revolutionary Committee of Lérida and a multitude of institutions and committees throughout the entire zone controlled by the working class and republican forces. It did not, however, participate in the Madrid Defense Committee (Junta de Defensa de Madrid) because the Russian ambassador directly imposed his veto and the Communist Party and the Unified Socialist Youth imposed this condition on the other organizations.
The POUM engaged in an unprecedented campaign of information, propaganda and education. At the meeting of the Enlarged Central Committee held in December 1936 in Barcelona—at the very moment when, under pressure from Stalin’s representatives in Spain, the elimination of the POUM from the Council of the Generalitat of Catalonia was being planned—the party reviewed the scope of these efforts. The POUM had about 45,000 militants and a much larger number of sympathizers. It published six daily newspapers: La Batalla (30,000 copies) in Barcelona; Adelante in Lérida; L’Espurna in Gerona; Front in Tarrasa; El Pla de Bages in Manresa; and El Combatiente Rojo in Madrid. It also had several important weekly papers—POUM in Madrid, El Comunista in Valencia, and L’Hora in Barcelona, along with others—in addition to the ones published by the Iberian Communist Youth: Juventud Comunista, the main publication of the organization, in Barcelona (15,000 copies); La Antorcha in Madrid; Juventud Roja in Castellón; Combat in Lérida; and Acció in Tarragona. Furthermore, the International Secretariat of the POUM regularly published The Spanish Revolution in French, English, German and Italian, and a theoretical journal in French, Juillet. We should also mention La Nueva Era, another theoretical organ, and Generación Roja, a magazine for political education published by the Iberian Communist Youth. All of this work in the field of the press was topped off by the activity of Marxist Publications [Editorial Marxista] which, under the direction of Juan Andrade, published numerous books on Marxist theory and an impressive series of pamphlets for political education, particularly many works that the Stalinists no longer published or had banned because of the changes that had taken place in Moscow between 1926 and 1936. The names of Zinoviev, Victor Serge, Bukharin and many others would appear in the newsstands and the bookstores much to the chagrin of Stalin’s scandalized representatives in Spain.
Throughout the entire course of the Revolution—even during the brief period when it participated in the Council of the Generalitat of Catalonia, when Andrés Nin was organizing the system of revolutionary justice, declaring the age of eighteen to be the age of legal adulthood, and laying the foundations for legislative measures for the liberation of women—the POUM clearly affirmed its status as a revolutionary Marxist force, intransigently defending its conception of the democratic-socialist revolution, maintaining against overwhelming opposition that the war and the revolution were inseparable, seeking alliances with forces that might help lead the revolutionary process to victory. Its main slogan was “We must make the Socialist Revolution triumph over Francoism”.
The fight against Stalinism in the middle of a war
Beginning in mid-1936, and then continuing through the years 1937 and 1938, the POUM had to confront one of the most tragic realities of the revolutionary process: the deliberate intervention of the Russian bureaucracy (a fact that was finally later admitted by most of the leaders of the Communist Party) and the counterrevolutionary activities of Stalinism. While the Russian oppositionists, the comrades in arms of Lenin and Trotsky, were destroyed under dishonorable circumstances (the Moscow Trials) or were being sent to die in the camps of the Gulag, at the other end of Europe the militants of the POUM fought and died to open up a perspective for the renewal of the movement that had arisen from the Russian Revolution.
On the pretext of the May Days of 1937—an uprising of the proletariat of Barcelona against a provocation arranged to deprive it of its revolutionary conquests—the Russian advisors of the Communist Party (Togliatti, Stepanov, Geroe, Codovila, etc.) began by overthrowing the government of Largo Caballero, who, as everyone knows, had repeatedly refused to follow their orders, and cleared the way for the installation of the government of Negrín, who offered them almost all the guarantees that Stalin demanded in exchange for the continuation of their “help for the Spanish Republic”, assistance that was economically and politically purchased for a very high price. Once Largo Caballero had been eliminated, the next goal was the drastic curtailment of Catalonian autonomy, the neutralization of the CNT and the destruction of the POUM.
On June 16, 1937, a brigade of Stalinist police, controlled and directed by agents of the Russian GPU, launched a surprise raid against the POUM, its leaders, its offices and its press, utilizing for this purpose the framework of the State apparatus that the Stalinists controlled or which did not dare to refuse to carry out their orders. Andrés Nin and most of the leaders of the POUM were arrested and held incommunicado without any notifications or consultations of the authorities of the Generalitat of Catalonia. Nin was rapidly taken to Valencia and then to Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, where, it would seem, he was tortured and murdered. All of this took place without the Minister of the Interior (the socialist Zugazagoitia) or the Minister of Justice (the Basque Nationalist Irujo) having been informed at all concerning what had happened. Andrade, Bonet, Gorkin, David Rey and Escuder were taken from Barcelona to Valencia, and then from Valencia to a “checa” in Madrid, and finally were brought back to Valencia, where their whereabouts were finally make public.
Evidently in order to justify these outrages and the crime committed against Nin, the Stalinist press, after a few days of hesitation, launched a defamatory campaign that presented the leaders of the POUM as “spies” and “agents of Franco”, insinuating that Nin might be “in Salamanca or Berlin”. The response was immediate. The workers of the POUM, organized in underground cells, initiated a vast campaign to demand public clarifications concerning the disappearance of Nin, freedom for the arrested militants, and the restoration of the rights of the POUM as a legally recognized party. Some socialist and CNT newspapers published exposés denouncing the repression and defended the POUM. But no one could restrain the destructive frenzy of the GPU and the Stalinist leaders who, unfortunately, occupied increasingly more important positions in the State apparatus.
Contrary to the assertions of some historians, the POUM did not disappear after the raids of June 16, 1937. To the contrary, the organizations of the POUM and the Iberian Communist Youth carried on an underground existence until the end of the war. The best proof of this is their publications, especially La Batalla and Juventud Obrera, which were published with surprising regularity, week after week, until May 1938, provoking the public annoyance of the leaders of the Communist Party, the PSUC and the Unified Socialist Youth. These publications comprise a gold mine of information for present-day historians.
Amidst great difficulties, the POUM confronted the campaign of calumny organized by the Stalinists, protected its militants on the fronts, maintained regular relations with all the anti-fascist organizations, especially with the CNT and Largo Caballero’s Socialist Left—whom it constantly encouraged to resist Stalinist terrorism and manipulations—and organized an international campaign to denounce the assassinations of Nin, Landau, Berneri, José María Martínez and many others, and to prevent a reprise of the Moscow Trials in Spain.
For the purpose of the repression was this: to uncover and condemn the “Trotskyist traitors” in Spain in order to provide a posteriori justification for the Moscow Trials against the leading figures of Bolshevism, trials which had given rise to a wave of repulsion and horror among the most advanced circles of the European socialist movement and left wing intelligentsia.
After another series of police raids aimed at dismantling the underground apparatus of the POUM, which captured those leaders of the POUM and the Iberian Communist Youth who had managed to escape the June 1937 repression (Rodes, Solano, Farré, Arquer), raids that had quite disastrous consequences for the organized resistance of the POUMistas, preparations were accelerated for the “big trial” that was supposed to justify the whole Stalinist operation, shatter the leadership of the POUM and reduce the Largo Caballero-Araquistain tendency, and even the CNT itself, to impotence. This entire plot failed resoundingly, however, thanks to the sacrifice of Nin and to the resistance of his most representative comrades.
Spain, after all, was not Stalin’s Russia. The court established to try cases of “espionage and high treason” was composed of men who sympathized with socialism and who did not yield to the pressures to which they were subjected. Furthermore, besides the fact that such well known figures as Largo Caballero, Araquistain, Federica Montseny and Tarradellas publicly vouched for the fact that the defendants were revolutionary militants with an unimpeachable political history, Andrade, Bonet, Gorkin, Gironella and Escuder defended their honor as revolutionaries, refuted all the Stalinist charges and vigorously denounced the assassination of Andrés Nin.
The court immediately dismissed all the charges of “espionage and high treason” and condemned the accused to a few years in prison for their activities during … the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona. The transcript of the sentences almost constitutes a eulogy of the defendants by recalling and emphasizing their prestigious careers as militants. The disappointment and the fury of the GPU and the Stalinist leaders were so great that the censorship under the Negrín government, which they controlled, prohibited the publication of the transcript of the court’s sentence, because of the fact that it had become a political document used on behalf of pro-POUM propaganda.
The outcome of this trial, like so many other things that happened over the next few months, demonstrated that Spain could not be subjected to a regime of “peoples democracy” of the kind that would be organized ten years later in various countries in Eastern Europe. That was, however, precisely the intention of the Stalinists, as Santiago Carrillo himself has admitted in recent declarations. That is, they intended to install a regime in which the Communist Party, through its organizations and its “fellow travelers” installed in the State apparatus, the Army and the Police, would be able to openly exercise their dictatorship, eliminating all those who opposed their designs and, first of all, the POUM, the CNT and Largo Caballero’s Socialist Left.
In any case, the POUM did not give up, it did not compromise its principles, it did not capitulate either at the fronts or in the rearguard, in the prisons or the courts. Its militants carried on the war against Franco on all the fronts and fought for the cause of socialism right up to the end. Andrés Nin, tortured and murdered in despicable circumstances, is the historical embodiment of the heroic resistance of the Spanish worker, in the midst of revolution, against Stalinist reaction. And along with him, all the militants who, like the Basque economist José M. Arenillas, the political commissar Marciano Mena, the teachers Hervás, Xurriguera and Trepat, leading figures in the establishment of the Unified New School of Catalonia, were also the victims of the crimes of Stalinism.
The case of the POUM has no precedents nor can it be compared with any other. While Joaquín Maurín and many other outstanding militants were in Franco’s prisons, charged with being communists or Marxists—for which not a few were to face the firing squads, such as José Luis Arenillas, secretary of the party in Euskadi, Luis Rastrollo, secretary of the party in Galicia, Felipe Alutiz and Eusebio Cortezón, members of the Central Committee—Nin was assassinated in the republican zone and trials and violent repression were directed against the POUM and the JCI, a repression that also fell upon the officers and the soldiers of the POUM who were fighting at Jarama and on the Ebro, on the banks of the Segre and in the heart of Catalonia, who were unhesitatingly accused of being “agents of Franco”. The main organizers of the defeat, those who behind the shadow of Negrín prepared for disaster or surrender, thus assumed an immense responsibility before History.
The POUM: underground activity in Franco’s Spain and political exile
Once the civil war had ended, the militants of the POUM who for a wide variety of reasons remained in Spain, imperceptibly passed from resistance against Stalinism to the new resistance against the terror of Franco’s dictatorship. One of the first underground newspapers that appeared in the country in 1939 was El Combatiente Rojo, the organ of our comrades in Madrid. In Catalonia the Freedom Front, the first resistance organization, was created and led by POUM militants. Between 1944 and 1950, that is, during the worst years of Franco’s dictatorship, La Batalla, Adelante, Catalunya Socialista, and many other publications ensured the continuing presence of the POUM in the struggles against the dictatorship. These activities, along with those carried out during the Revolution and the war, necessarily entailed that some of the militants would fall into the hands of the police and face long prison sentences.
Exile did not prove to be an easy way of life for those who managed to escape from Spain. There was no “fallback position” anywhere. The main leaders of the POUM—those who were in the State Prison in Barcelona—were evacuated from Barcelona at the order of González Peña, the socialist Minister of Justice, and taken to the border, where they were welcomed by a special group from the Workers and Peasants Socialist Party of France [Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan] organized by Marceau Pivert and Daniel Guerin that escorted them to Paris. But thousands of militants were sent to concentration camps in Algeria and Barcarés, Bram and Vernet, and getting out of those camps was no easy matter.
Whether inside or outside of the concentration camps, imprisoned or assigned to live in villages where they lacked the most elementary rights, the life of the exiles in France was very hard for the first few years and during the Second World War. In November 1941, a French court, under pressure from the Gestapo, condemned various militants of the POUM, who were accused of having reorganized their party in France and of having established contacts with the first French resistance groups against the Nazi occupation, to long prison terms or forced labor. This unjust and barbarous trial meant long years of imprisonment for men like Rodes, Andrade, Solano, Farré Gasó, Coll, Ignacio Iglesias, J. Comabella, and C. Zayuelas. Some of them were deported to Germany in 1944, where they occasionally encountered other militants of the POUM who had been arrested in other parts of France and sent to Dachau, Mauthausen or Buchenwald….
In general, it can be said that, having made contact with the underground organization in Spain, the exiled militants of the POUM did what they could to help the underground revolutionary socialist organizations and arranged for the escape from Spain of numerous combatants and fugitives of various nationalities. Furthermore, certain militants took advantage of the opportunity to join the guerrilla groups organized in France or to create Spanish combat units, as in the case of the “Libertad” battalion which, together with a Basque brigade, helped eliminate the last strongholds of German resistance on the southern Atlantic coast.
After the end of the Second World War, the POUM could operate legally in exile, restoring its organizations and publishing its press, especially La Batalla, which has assured the continuity of revolutionary Marxism for more than thirty years, holding its conferences, carrying out various activities, and establishing fraternal links with the most advanced tendencies of the international workers movement. All of this work was carried out in the framework of the general struggle against Franco’s dictatorship and for the reconstruction of the workers movement in our country, in constant relation with the underground groups of the POUM and with the new organizations that were arising in clandestine conditions, at times inspired by our historical tradition and by revolutionary Marxism.
For all the workers organizations, even for the strongest ones and the ones that had the most international support, it was very difficult to maintain their resistance during the worst years of repression and terror, and then, in the era of stagnation and retreat of the period between 1950 and 1962, to preserve and renew their clandestine militant cadres. This task was all the more difficult for the POUM, which was simultaneously the victim of the repression directed at it by Franco’s regime and the victim of the campaigns of calumny aimed at it by the Stalinists.
The reconstruction of the workers movement by way of the strike movement of 1962 and the process initiated after the death of Stalin and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1956, began to essentially modify the situation and the future outlook. The historical struggle of the POUM against Stalinist degeneration and its interpretation of the Spanish Revolution of 1936—a socialist revolution and not merely a “war for national independence”—began to make an impact on the new Spanish reality. And it led to the appearance of new groups and organizations, generally formed by young workers and students, many of whom situate themselves on the terrain of revolutionary Marxism and of the renewal of socialism against bureaucratic despotism. But that is another history.
Translated from the Spanish original in March 2015.
Originally published under the title, “La significación histórica del POUM”, Iniciativa Socialista, No. 40, June 1996. Text of a speech delivered by Wilebaldo Solano, the last general secretary of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, at the Madrid Ateneo in December 1985.