80th Anniversary of the POUM.
Commemoration in Barcelona 31st October.
This article brilliantly explains the POUM, (LLW)
On my first day in Barcelona during a trip a few years ago, I was walking down the fabled Ramblas street. Barcelona is a very dynamic city, with a much more “European” feel than Madrid, and there’s quite a lot to draw your attention. But it was a municipal library which caught my eye more than anything else, and stands out to this day: the Biblioteca Andreu Nin. When I asked the librarian inside, she explained that this was where the POUM’s headquarters had been during the Spanish Civil War, “hasta que lo desmantelaron”, until they dismantled it.
The POUM, or the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (the name is only slightly less clunky in Spanish) is best known in the English-speaking world as the party whose militias George Orwell fought with during the Civil War. Fans of Ken Loach will also remember that this party was central in Land and Freedom. Yet, although the Spanish Civil War is second only to the Russian Revolution as a historical reference for sect-ists of all types, the reference is always to the dramatic moments and the assorted leaders, with very little attention paid to what the mass of participants, including those in organizations, were thinking or doing.
“Until they dismantled it” – “they” here does not refer to the fascists headed by General Franco, but to the Spanish Republican State, under the influence or domination of the Soviet Union. There’s a common refrain in Anarchist milieux that “Leninism” is in itself inherently counter-revolutionary, that all “Leninists” will always repress “Anarchists”, and that the proof lies in the repression of the Red Army against revolutionary Ukraine in 1918-1920, or of Republican Spain against the CNT during the Civil War. And yet the POUM were repressed alongside the CNT in Spain, despite being “Leninists” just like the advisors from Stalin’s NKVD. In fact, they were repressed first, as a test of strength for the government before going after the CNT, not to mention that the CNT leadership had bought itself some time after the showdown of May 1937 by calling for the working class to lay down its arms – a compromise which the POUM did not make. Without denying that there are definitely counter-revolutionary ideologies and positions, perhaps materialists would also do well to look at the relationship to the means of production when we ask how a party or individual transitions from revolution to counter-revolution.
The POUM is generally not discussed in those narratives, and certainly not in detail. When they are mentioned, one almost gets the impression that the POUM were anarchists without knowing it, that their Marxism was nothing more than an embarassing accident, and that they were simply unaware of the counter-revolutionary path that it would inevitably lead them on. Very conveniently for this narrative, there is almost nothing about the POUM’s activity or set of ideas available in English. (A notable exception is the hard to find Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism, also by Victor Alba.) Today, on May 4th, it seems appropriate to mention what happened on May 4th, 1937. From Wikipedia:At eleven o’clock the delegates of the CNT met and agreed to do everything possible to restore calm. Meanwhile, the anarchist leaders Joan García Oliver and Federica Montseny heard an appeal on the radio asking to their followers to lay down their weapons and return to their jobs. Jacinto Toryho, director of the CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera, expressed the same sentiment. […] By five in the afternoon, several anarchists were killed by the police near the Via Durruti (current Via Laietana). The POUM began to support resistance publicly.
It was on that same trip, at a CNT-affiliated bookstore called La Rosa de Foc, that I ran across an old paperback whose title caught my eye: La Revolución Española en la Práctica. Documentos del POUM. I bought it without hesitation. When I had time to crack it open, I was engrossed. As an anthology, it is in a genre which must have very few other members: a collection of documents dealing with the problems of a revolution, made by participants in that revolution, during the process of the revolution itself. The documents deal with concrete problems of agriculture and industry, public health and the military situation, the dynamics of the various workers’ organizations and of the growing reactionary influence of the Soviet Union in Republican Spain. They were not written ahead of time, full of references to Lenin, nor were they handed down from the Party leadership. They read very well even today, and I would say they are worth reading for more than just historical interest. I would like at some point to translate some of these documents – as Victor Alba states in the introduction, which I have translated below, they have a refreshing mix of realism and idealism.
But I’ll try to let Victor speak for himself, as I think he’s more than capable. As he says, when something is thought through clearly, it is expressed clearly. I’ll make only a few other points here. First, there is a common thought that revolutionaries should form organizations based primarily on their specific ideas, and that the organization’s actual relationship to the class struggle is only a secondary matter. The problem, when the only discernible difference between one organization and another is a slightly different set of ideas, is that any new ideas in either organization will logically lead to a split. As Hal Draper put it in The Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,
As long as the life of the organization (whether or not labeled “party”) is actually based on its politically distinctive ideas, rather than on the real social struggles in which it is engaged, it will not be possible to suppress the clash of programs requiring different actions in support of different forces. The key question becomes the achievement of a mass base, which is not just a numerical matter but a matter of class representation. Given a mass base in the social struggle, the party does not necessarily have to suppress the internal play of political conflict, since the centrifugal force of political disagreements is counterbalanced by the centripetal pressure of the class struggle. Without a mass base, a sect that calls itself a party cannot suppress the divisive effect of fundamental differences on (for example) supporting or opposing capitalist parties at home in the shape of liberal Democrats and such, or supporting or opposing the maneuvers of the “Communist” world.
The POUM provides an example of the opposite process, of a movement where the life of the organization is based on the real social struggles in which it is engaged, and which does allow for the free play of ideas about the best program to move forward. As Alba mentions, the POUM published classics by Marx, Riazanov, Bebel … and Kautsky.
The second point to make here is that the crucial thing for American revolutionaries should not be to have the right “line” on Spain, or on Russia – we should try to figure out America, and the contradictions that are present here. One of the POUM’s strengths, which Alba will show better than I can, is that the POUM attempted to use Marxism to work out a revolutionary strategy for Spain, rather than to take ready made answers from others (whether Stalin, Trotsky, or anyone else) and apply them rigidly. My purpose in translating this text is not to raise the understanding of what did or didn’t happen, what could or couldn’t have happened during the Spanish Revolution (though I’m not opposed to those dicussions), but to contribute to the questions that can be asked about what an American socialist workers movement would look like. To paraphrase Alba one final time, there are many differences between America in 2015 and Spain in 1937 – but perhaps not as many as we’d expect.
This is particularly important:
An old militant, a founder of the Spanish Communist Party and later the POUM, has given a summary, forty one years later, of what the POUM was:
“The Workers Party of Marxist Unification has more than forty years of history behind it. It was born in the last months of 1935 out of the fusion of the Workers and Peasants Bloc, and the Communist Left. But its origins reach to the year 1920, in which the Spanish Communist Party was founded. Almost simultaneously, a group of militants from the CNT placed themselves resolutely on the side of the Russian Revolution and adopted the principles and tactics of the communists. From 1920 on, these militants of the CNT were grouped around the weekly Acción Sindicalista, from Valencia; after 1921, around the weekly Lucha Social, in Lérida; and in 1922 they adopted La Batalla, from Barcelona, as their mouthpiece while they were organizing the Revolutionary Union Committees. In 1924 this group of militants joined the Spanish Communist Party, and they exercised a decisive influence in the Party’s Catalan-Balearic Federation. In the first months of 1931 this federation fused with the Catalan Communist Party, which had unsuccessfully tried to be admitted as a national section to the Communist International. After fusing, both organizations created, to give the new party a greater power of attraction, the Workers and Peasant’s Bloc, and the new party was known under this name, even though the nucleus that it revolved around retained the name of Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation and, after 1932, when its forces began to grow outside of Catalonia, it took the name of Iberian Communist Federation.
The Communist Left was the primitive Communist Opposition constituted around the figure of Leon Trotsky, with whom it had broken when he advised his troops to enter the ranks of Social Democracy. The POUM, then, is a legitimate heir of the communist movement’s heroic years, of the first years of the Russian revolution, and it contained a mixture of people from the communist old guard as well as those who brought the traditions of struggle from Spanish anarchosyndicalism, militants who had participated in the great battles of 1917, 1918, 1919, and 1920. […] The Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation began to differentiate itself during the years of the military dictatorship [by Primo de Rivera, from 1923-1931], a little bit more every day, from the leadership of the Spanish Communist Party, which in those days was in the hands of the Trilla-Ballejos group. Above all, the Federation opposed the Communist Party’s attempts to carry out splits in the heart of the CNT, an attempt which was disguised under the name of a Committee of Reconstruction.
To the degree that Stalin was imposing his methods on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and on the Communist International, and through this on its various sections, the Federation was distancing itself from the international communist organization, which, after a period, it openly confronted. And the POUM was the only party of communist origin which, having broken with the 3rd international, succeeded not only in continuing to exist, but actually consolidated and considerably incremented its forces and its influence.
But this was something that, in a time in which the Communist Party claimed everywhere to be the party of the workers, in which the official section of the Communist International in every land claimed to have a monopoly of revolutionary action, in which the communist movement was rigidly monolithic, the International inspired by Stalin and guided in every moment by one or another of his cronies could neither allow nor forgive. The circumstances created in Spain by the Civil War gave Stalin the opportunity to present the bill to the POUM, with heavy interest, for resisting submission to his orders.
After July 19, 1936, in the parts of Spain where it had any forces worth considering, particularly in all of Catalonia, in Valencia, in Castellón, and in Madrid, the POUM’s militants went arms-in-hand to confront the military rising, and then organized militias which fought valiantly, frequently heroically, in the field. Many of our comrades died fighting fascism. But if the workers confronted the mutineers, rifle-in-hand, it wasn’t to simply begin the game again, to return to the situation that had made the Civil War possible.
That’s why the struggle took on a revolutionary character in the parts of the country where the mutiny had been smashed in the first moments, that’s why the war and the revolution appeared intimately linked in the eyes of the working class. The petty bourgeoisie, whose political expression took the form of the republican parties, found itself overwhelmed in the early moments by the revolutionary tide, but bit by bit, as the war dragged on and the difficulties inherent to any armed conflict piled up, they recovered the positions they had lost. In this they could count on the support of the Communist Party as well as a large part of the Socialist Party.
The scant aid which the Spanish republic received from the democratic governments, scared as they were of a revolution in the south of Europe, and nervous about irritating the fascist states, in contrast with the considerable, although not disinterested, aid which the Soviet Union brought from the early stages of the Civil War, gave the Communist Party enormous possibilities to augment its forces and its influence in Spain.
Over time the Soviet Union, in return for its aid in war materials, was able to steer the policy of Republican Spain and introduce its agents and methods into the government, the army, the police, even into the economy, into some parties, and into a large part of the union organizations. The idea that Spain should become a socialist country never entered into Stalin’s mind, as this would have created difficulties for the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, which at that time was playing the card of military alliance with the democratic states without losing hope for a possible understanding with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. From this stems its determination to strip the Spanish Civil War of its revolutionary character, to separate the war and the revolution. While it’s true that perhaps the war could have been won even if the revolutionary conquests of the early days had been lost, and that without securing the military victory, the revolution would certainly have succumbed, it’s no less true that those who wanted to sacrifice the revolutionary conquests to win the war lost everything.
The POUM considered the war and the revolution inseparable and opposed the policy of the Communist Party and the petty bourgeoisie. This gave cause to the agents of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party to unleash a campaign of lies and slander which was unprecedented in this country, the first step to the repression which began in May of 1937, in which many of our best militants were assassinated, including Andrés Nin, political secretary of the POUM. The very tribunal which judged the leaders of our organization, although it condemned them for high treason for their attitude around the events of May 1937 in Barcelona, solemnly recognized their spotless revolutionary past, and rejected the calumnious accusations that they had been subjected to. History has judged all of us, slanderers and slandered, persecutors and persecuted. It’s clear now that those who once upon a time defamed and persecuted us don’t feel proud today about their past behavior.
At the end of the civil war, the POUM was caught by two overlapping repressions: the first, undertaken by the Communists, was joined by the other, the repression which hit all of Republican Spain. Even in 1939, our militants who refused to leave or could not leave Spain began to regroup themselves and to carry out clandestine action, under great risk. In September 1939, in Barcelona alone, 26 of our militants were executed. It was our Party who denounced the execution of Catalan President Luis Companys in a manifesto. In 1945-1947 the POUM collected, above all in Catalonia, a growing number of enthusiastic militants. Just like the other parties, after this year our party suffered due to the continuing repression as well as the demoralization caused by the survival of the Franco regime after the victory of the allied armies over the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis. Additionally, there was the difficulty that every party and union experienced to one degree or another caused by the existence of two leaderships, one in exile and one in the interior, or else just the exile leadership.”
Read the rest: The POUM in their own words.
This is the serious article (from no less than the SWP….) which deals with, amongst other things, “Historical debate about the outcome of the Spanish Revolution (1936-37) has often centred on the dissident communist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). For the Trotskyist movement the POUM was responsible for the revolution’s defeat.”
Trotsky and the POUM. Andy Durgan. International Socialism. July 2015.
Trotsky’s criticism of Nin and the POUM can only be understood from an appreciation of his absolute belief in the capacity to influence events…the conviction that, however minuscule the initial nucleus of revolutionaries may be, with the correct theory, leadership and programme, this tiny grouping could be transformed into a revolutionary party with mass support at a time of revolutionary crisis.42
But for Trotsky, writing in December 1937, “contrary to its own intentions the POUM proved to be in the final analysis the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party”.43 In the new edition of his text Sennett steps back from what was possibly the “harshest and least justified” of Trotsky’s condemnations of the POUM. According to Sennett, Trotsky:
Failed to appreciate, on the one hand, the hegemony of the Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists over the Spanish labour movement, and, on the other, the rapid expansion in membership and power of the [communists] after July 1936. There was little room for a new political force. It is remarkable that the POUM, which was largely confined to Catalonia, achieved as many adherents and wielded as much influence as it did.44
Having thus pointed to an underlying problem with Trotsky’s writings on the POUM, Sennett then later criticises the POUM for not—in May—being “a vanguard party” that was able to shape events. But he offers no alternative strategy. We are left with the conclusion that neither a revolutionary nor a Popular Front victory was possible.45 However, such fatalism does not lead to a better understanding of what was at stake and what options were available for the revolutionary left in Spain in 1936. Instead we are left with a confusing and incomplete narrative of events and their consequences.
For many us, democratic socialists, libertarian Marxists, anarchists, the POUM were our sisters and brothers, and their dead, our martyrs.
We remember them, sempre, siempre.