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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM

The Trotskyists and the Workers and Peasants Bloc 1931-32

The relationship between the Spanish Trotskyists and the international movement of which they were a part was never very harmonious. The first of various disputes arose in early 1931 over how the OCE should be built. Nin was initially against an exclusive orientation towards the PCE, of which the Trotskyists considered themselves a faction, proposing instead that the OCE should also work inside the various dissident Communist groups, in particular the Workers and Peasants Bloc in Catalonia.

This disagreement with the official line of the Left Opposition at an international level was reflected in the correspondence between Nin and Trotsky during the first half of 1931. [11] Trotsky urged his supporters in Spain not to waste their time trying to influence the BOC, which he considered as a confused and rightist organisation, but to direct their energies to strengthening their own independent organisation with its own publications, and to orientate themselves towards the PCE. The official parties, despite all their manifold weaknesses, still represented the political ‘centre’ of the international Communist movement, unlike ‘national’ and ‘opportunist’ groups like the BOC.

The BOC had been formed as a result of the fusion in March 1931 of two groups: the former Catalan Federation of the PCE and the Catalan Communist Party. The majority of the Catalan Federation’s leaders had been members of a pro-Communist grouping inside the CNT in the early 1920s, which had included Andreu Nin. Led by Joaquim Maurín, this group had not formally joined the PCE until October 1924.

Due to its Syndicalist origins and the more or less complete disorganisation of the PCE during the mid-1920s, the Catalan Federation had never been fully integrated into the party. The bureaucratisation of the PCE, in line with developments on an international level, was vigorously opposed by Maurín, who was in prison from 1925 to the end of 1927, and then in exile in France.

The opposition of the Catalan Federation’s leaders came to a head in 1929-30. Not only did they oppose the bureaucratic methods of the party leadership, but also its general analysis of the situation in Spain and its call, inspired by the Communist International, for a ‘workers’ and peasants’ democratic dictatorship’. The Catalans claimed that the forthcoming revolution in Spain would be democratic, although given the political weakness of the middle classes, it could only be completed under proletarian leadership, thus leading to a Socialist revolution. The Catalan Federation also opposed the PCE’s attempts to split the CNT. A similar position was taken by the PCE’s Madrid and Levante Federations, as well as an important part of the party’s organisation in Asturias.

The Catalan Federation was finally expelled from the PCE in June 1930 as “bourgeois agents”, “counter-revolutionary elements” and for its relations with the “petit-bourgeois” Catalan Communist Party. The latter had been formed in November 1928 by young militants, some from a left wing nationalist background, and others from the Catalan Federation itself, although most of them were new to political activity. They were attracted to Communism mainly on the basis of the Soviet Union’s apparent solution of the national question.

Rather than join the PCE, which they saw as bureaucratic and unsympathetic to the national liberation movement in Catalonia, they decided to form a new party. The PCC was fairly loosely organised, and by 1930 it was working closely with the dissident Catalan Federation. At the unification congress it was decided to keep the name Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation (FCC-B), and also to form a broader organisation of sympathisers, the Workers and Peasants Bloc (BOC). In practice the FCC-B and the BOC were the same organisation, having the same press, the same leaders and, more often than not, the same membership.

Like other opposition groups in Spain, with the exception of the Trotskyists, the Catalan dissidents initially blamed the PCE leaders, rather than the Communist International, for the party’s disastrous policies. In fact, until Maurín was formally expelled from the Communist International in July 1931, they appealed to it to intervene in Spain and throw out the party leadership. In the face of the divisions inside the Soviet party, the Catalans adopted an abstentionist position, describing themselves as “neither Stalinists nor Trotskyists but Communists”. Events were to force them to clarify their views of the international Communist movement, and to adopt an increasingly anti-Stalinist stance.

Nin favoured working inside the BOC basically for two reasons. Firstly, by early 1931 the majority of Spanish Communists were outside the PCE, and the formation of an independent Communist grouping appeared as a real possibility. During early 1931 Nin favoured forming part of such a grouping rather than maintaining the fiction of the OCE being a faction of the PCE. Perhaps more significant was Nin’s friendship with the BOC’s undisputed leader, Joaquim Maurín. Outside the ranks of the Trotskyists, Maurín was the most able Communist leader and theoretician in Spain. His writings on the historical development of the Spanish revolution alone testify to that. [12]

In December 1930 Maurín, Nin and other Catalan Communists found themselves in prison together following the failure of a revolutionary uprising against the monarchy. Whilst in prison Maurín read Trotsky’s letters to his Spanish followers and appeared to be in general agreement with his analysis. Moreover, Nin wrote for the Federation’s press and helped Maurín to draft the BOC’s first political thesis – the general line of which was practically identical with that of the Trotskyists. [13]

Nevertheless, Nin does not seem to have taken into account the general nature of the BOC, Maurín apart. Although in opposition to the PCE leadership, the BOC’s leaders had yet to question the Stalinist leadership of the international Communist movement. Despite Nin’s influence on its first political programme, the FCC-B/BOC soon reverted towards more ‘official’ positions, because of its continued aim to avoid a final rupture with the Communist International. Thus in April 1931, only two months after the publication of its political thesis, the BOC stood candidates in the local elections under the Third Period slogan of “class against class”. [14]

And despite breaking from the Communist International as a result of Maurín’s expulsion in July 1931, references to “Social Fascism” continued to appear in the BOC’s press until early 1932. In addition, as Trotsky himself had feared, [15] the Federation’s leaders were not prepared to tolerate open factional work by the Trotskyists inside their organisation. Once this work started, Nin’s apparently cosy relationship with the BOC came to an end. In May 1931 Nin’s formal request to join the BOC was turned down, and mutual attacks soon began to appear in the press of both groups. However, the formal constitution of the OCE in Barcelona did not take place until September 1931. [16] A tiny group of Trotskyists continued to try and defend their ideas inside the BOC, but they were expelled in October 1931 for “factional activity aimed at destroying the party”. [17]

Thus by late 1931 the OCE finally appeared to be taking a more orthodox position, presenting itself unequivocally as a faction of the official party, and submitting the BOC’s “confused” and “vacillating” politics to the “pitiless and incessant criticism” that Trotsky had advocated. “Maybe it would not be possible”, one Spanish Trotskyist leader wrote in April 1932, “to find in today’s working class movement an organisation crippled by a more unhealthy opportunism than that from which the Catalan Federation suffers.” [18] The OCE’s attacks were centred on the BOC’s initial refusal to take up a position in relation to the Communist International, its organisational structure, its nationalism, its confusion over the question of revolutionary power, and its trade union policy.

Maurín’s party, because of its “national” outlook, was seen by the Trotskyists as being on the right, close to the politics of Bukharin or Brandler. Lacroix argued, as he had in 1930, that the real aim of the leaders of the Catalan Federation was to replace the current PCE leadership, hence their refusal to differentiate themselves openly from the Stalinist line of the Communist International. [19] The relationship between the FCC-B and the BOC was far from clear. Was the latter a broad front, or was it a party? The OCE reminded the Federation of a similar confusion that had been made by the Chinese Communists in 1927, with terrible results. In reality the two organisations were increasingly one and the same, as was later admitted by the BOC leaders themselves [20], although Nin had already pointed this out as early as January 1932. [21]

Even more disturbing was the FCC-B’s position on the national question. Rather than just defend the right to self-determination of existing national movements, the BOC went much further. In June 1931 Maurín declared himself in favour of “separatism”, albeit not from Spain but from the Spanish state, the disintegration of which could give way to genuine Iberian unity. It was not sufficient, the BOC argued, to win over the leadership of existing national liberation movements, it was actually necessary to participate in their formation. Thus, where national movements did not exist, be it in Andalusia, Aragon, Castille or elsewhere, it was necessary for Communists to help create them.

Maurín believed that “the prospects for Socialist revolution were greatly favoured by the presence of a national problem”, so much so that “if it did not exist, it would be necessary to create it”.[22] Not surprisingly, the Trotskyists were scathing in their attacks on what they described as the FCC-B’s predilection for “separatist rather than class politics”, and even described it as “more Catalanist than the Catalan Republican Left”, the principal petit-bourgeois nationalist party in Catalonia. [23]

Equally alarming was the FCC-B’s position on revolutionary power. After initially adopting a fairly benevolent attitude towards the new Republican regime, in June 1931 Maurín’s party, influenced by the increasingly radicalised strike movement led by the Anarcho-Syndicalists, suddenly lurched to the left. The FCC-B/BOC now called on the CNT itself to “take power”, arguing that the illusions of the masses in the bourgeois Republic were “burnt out”. Maurín defended his party’s position by claiming that the hegemony of the CNT in the strike movement, coupled with the radicalisation of its rank and file, meant that the Anarcho-Syndicalist unions could perform the rôle which soviets had played in Russia. The BOC leader argued that in the same way that a soviet system had developed in Russia, a “Syndicalist system” could develop in Spain. He predicted that his position would “horrify the mimics of fossilised Marxism” with their “grotesque equation of Spain with Russia”. [24]

The BOC leaders recognised, however, that the CNT, given its Anarcho-Syndicalist principles, was not interested in “taking power”. Thus the BOC’s task was to “create an atmosphere” through its propaganda whereby the leadership would be swept aside, and the unions would pass into the hands of the Communists. Parallel with this call for “power to the CNT”, the BOC still defended the need to form workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils.

Understandably, the Trotskyists attacked the position of the FCC-B/BOC on a number of levels. [25] To call for the CNT unions to take power was pure Syndicalism, and appeared to show that the BOC had forgotten all the most basic lessons of the Russian Revolution. In addition, the exact rôle of the unions in the revolutionary process was hardly clear when Maurín and his comrades continued to call for councils to be set up through a “congress of all working class organisations”.[26] Moreover, by talking of a revolutionary movement based solely on the CNT, the BOC was ignoring the great mass of workers, especially outside of Catalonia, who were in Socialist or other unions, or, as in the case of the majority, still unorganised.

The Trotskyists also argued that despite the strike wave, the majority of workers and peasants still had illusions in the Republic. In order to dispel these illusions, Communists had to continue to call for partial demands and for the Socialists to end their collaboration with the bourgeois parties, and not to reject such agitation, as the BOC had done, in favour of generalised calls for “the proletariat to take power”.

The abortive Anarchist uprising in the Alt Llobregat region of Catalonia in January 1932, and the increasing persecution of Communists inside the Catalan CNT, led the BOC to drop its calls for the unions to take power. But the Trotskyists now saw another error arising in that the BOC saw itself as being forced to leave the CNT altogether. The ICE considered that whilst the BOC formally opposed any splits in the unions, many of its trade unionists did little to fight to stay in such a hostile environment. The Trotskyists, in contrast, recognised the importance of trying to remain at all costs within the CNT. The BOC’s decision in 1933 effectively to build a separate trade union federation would render later attempts to influence the Anarcho-Syndicalists that much more difficult. [27]

The confusion and opportunism that characterised the FCC-B/BOC’s politics, especially in 1931-32, was not merely due to its lack of programmatic clarity in relation to a Stalinised international Communist movement. As the Catalan Trotskyist and future POUM leader, Narcís Molins i Fábrega, was to point out, it was also a reflection of its social base. [28] In the towns the BOC related to a “section of the working class which feels itself to be above the rest of the proletariat, and closer to the petit-bourgeoisie”. Most of its urban members were not factory workers, Molins claimed, but shop assistants and clerks. In the countryside the BOC was based on medium peasants, “who had no argument with the bourgeoisie other than over the right to land”. This social composition, he concluded, had led the Catalan Federation “to break its links with Communism”, and it was now in “the front line of the extreme left of the petit-bourgeoisie”.

After 1932 the attacks of the Trotskyists on Maurín’s party became less frequent and more moderate in tone. This was partly due both to changes inside the BOC itself and changes within the Trotskyist movement after 1933 in relation to the need to build parties independent of the Communist International. By mid-1933 the Trotskyists recognised that some sections of the BOC’s rank and file believed that there was little between themselves and the ICE on most major issues. However, “nothing could have been further from the truth”. The BOC may have made similar criticisms to the Trotskyists of other sections of the workers’ movement, but there was “no continuity in their politics”. [29] Even as late as June 1934, when the two organisations were working quite closely, the ICE press described the BOC as “opportunist” and “lacking any clear programme”. It was, the Trotskyists concluded, repeating Trotsky’s prediction of three years previously, “doomed to collapse”. [30]

If the Trotskyists were harsh in their criticism of the BOC, the latter was even more so in its treatment of Trotskyism. Maurín himself had been accused of “Trotskyism” by the PCE leadership during the late 1920s, and this had been one of the reasons given for his eventual expulsion. Maurín and other Federation leaders were, however, quite contemptuous of Trotskyism, and dismissed the OCE as a divisive and irrelevant sect condemned to the sidelines of the working class movement, from where it “would blindly follow the positions handed down by Trotsky”. They even accused the Trotskyists of being the “mirror image of Stalinism” whose same “mechanical centralist methods” they had copied.

Nin, in an obvious reference to his stay in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, was accused of having deserted the Spanish workers’ movement in its “most difficult moments”, and of having at first sided with the PCE leadership against the Catalans. “Experience has shown”, the FCC-B stated in September 1931, that Nin could easily change his position, and that he would soon be “knocking on the door of the BOC”. [31] The BOC’s attitude towards the Trotskyists remained basically unchanged over the next three years, although attacks on them became less frequent. At the end of 1933 Maurín described Trotskyism as “the antithesis of organisation” which introduced “civil war” wherever it intervened in the workers’ movement.[32]

Whilst the FCC-B/BOC were totally dismissive of Trotskyist organisations, they were less so when it came to Trotsky himself. Articles by Trotsky still occasionally appeared in the BOC press, and the former Bolshevik leader was even defended from Stalinist slanders, being described as “Lenin’s best comrade ... the man of the October Revolution ... a great fighter for the Communist cause” and “one of the most extraordinary brains of world Socialism”. [33] More contradictory was the BOC’s treatment of the speech which Trotsky gave to young Social Democrats in Copenhagen in December 1932. Whilst its weekly, La Batalla, praised his speech and printed extracts from it, Maurín was talking elsewhere of Trotsky’s “definitive political failure”. [34]



11. Cf. L.D. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, New York, 1973 pp.370-400.

12. J. Maurín, La revolución española, originally published in 1931, and republished in Barcelona, 1977; Hacia la segunda revolución, originally published in 1935, republished as Revolución y contrarrevolución en españa, Paris 1966.

13. La Batalla, 12 February 1931. The demands in the FCC-B’s first Political Thesis are similar to those contained in Trotsky’s pamphlet The Revolution in Spain (Cf. The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., pp.67-89). Nin mentioned his participation in writing the Thesis in a letter to Trotsky dated 17 January 1931 (ibid., pp.371-2). Molins i Fábrega speaks of how Maurín and other BOC leaders read Trotsky’s letters whilst in prison with Nin, Cf. Una linea política: el Bloque Obrero y Campesino, Comunismo, April 1932.

14. La Batalla, 19 and 26 March 1931.

15. Cf. Trotsky’s letter to Nin, 15 March 1931, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., p.386.

16. According to Molinier the Catalan group had a dozen members at this time. Cf. R. Molinier, Rapport sur la delegation en Espagne, 21 September 1931.

17. La Batalla, 12 November 1931. The Trotskyist faction’s own account can be found in the document Organización Comunista de Izquierda, Por la unidad de todos los comunistas de España, Barcelona, December 1931.

18. L. Fersen, Acerca del congreso de la FCC-B, Comunismo, April 1932.

19. La Verité, 13 June 1930; El Soviet, 15 October 1931.

20. Cf. for example the BOC’s Organisation Thesis, La Batalla, 11 May 1933.

21. A. Nin, ¿Bloque, partido u organización de simpatizantes?, Comunismo, January 1932.

22. La Batalla, 4 July 1931; J. Maurín, La revolución española, op. cit., p.128.

23. Tesis sobre las nacionalidades, Comunismo, April 1932; N. Molins i Fábrega, La posición política y fuerzas del Bloque Obrero y Campesino, Comunismo, December 1931.

24. J. Maurín, La revolución española, op. cit., p.168.

25. See the article by Nin, Los comunistas y el momento presente. A propósito de unas declaraciones de Maurín, El Soviet, 22 October 1931; ¿A donde va el Bloque Obrero y Campesino?, Comunismo, September 1931; La huelga general de Barcelona, Comunismo, October 1931. Cf. L. Fersen, El congreso del BOC, Comunismo, March 1932.

26. La Batalla, 30 July 1931.

27. Underestimation of the Catalan CNT became widespread on the Spanish Marxist left. Nin claimed in May 1936 that the Anarcho-Syndicalists had “definitely lost their hegemony” over the region’s labour movement (La Batalla, 15 May 1936). The CNT’s dramatic loss of members in Catalonia between 1931 and 1936 – from 300,000 to 140,000, according to its own undoubtedly inflated figures – led many to believe mistakenly that the Anarcho-Syndicalists were losing their grip over the Catalan workers’ movement. Such a view is also expressed by a member of the Bolshevik-Leninist group during the war, Cf. G. Munis, Jalones de derrota, promesa de victoria, Madrid 1977, first published in Mexico in 1948, p.118.

28. N. Molins i Fábrega, La posición política y las fuerzas del Bloque Obrero y Campesino, Comunismo, December 1931.

29. Comunismo, July 1933.

30. La Antorcha, 30 June 1934; L.D. Trotsky, A Narrow or a Broad Faction, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., p.165.

31. La Batalla, 17 September 1931.

32. J. Maurín, La quiebra del trotskismo, La Batalla, 26 October 1933.

33. La Batalla, 22 and 29 December 1932, 27 April 1933 and 26 October 1933.

34. La Batalla, 22 December 1932; J. Maurín, Trotsky al pais d’Hamlet, Front, 17 December 1932.