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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM

The Foundation of the POUM

The first steps towards ‘Marxist unity’ took place in Catalonia – where the workers’ movement was most fragmented. In February 1935, and on two more occasions that April, six Catalan workers’ parties met with the declared intention of seeking some basis for unity. But the heterogeneous nature of those involved made this very unlikely. Apart from the BOC and the ICE, delegations also attended from the PSOE, the PCE, the Social Democratic Catalan Socialist Union (USC), and the radical left nationalist Catalan Proletarian Party (PCP).

None of the groups involved could have seriously believed that such unity was possible, least of all the revolutionary Marxists. The USC was more interested in Socialist unity with the PSOE, and it baulked at the radicalism of most of the others present. The Catalan Federation of the PSOE stated that it could not make any decision without the agreement of the party leadership in Madrid. The PCE insisted that any new Marxist party should accept the programme of the Communist International, and, unsuccessfully, attempted to get the Trotskyists thrown out, as they were “not a party” but only an “opposition faction”. An agreement between, on the one hand, the BOC and the ICE, and, on the other, the PCP, proved impossible due to the insistence of the latter that the new party be a Catalan rather than a state-wide organisation. This left the BOC and the ICE. The other four parties would eventually unite in July 1936 to form the Stalinist United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC).

Although the BOC’s intervention in the ‘unity’ talks was largely a propaganda exercise, it had hopes of winning over the leftist Catalan Federation of the PSOE and the PCP. Both these organisations were very weak and had frequently collaborated with Maurín’s party. The reasons for the participation of the Trotskyists were more complex. The ICE had agreed to take part in the Catalan talks both in order to get a platform for its ideas and to draw closer to the BOC. Nin had publicly warned in the BOC’s press in January 1935 that a party formed on the basis of a “monstrous cohabitation of irreconcilable tendencies” would only paralyse the struggle of the proletariat. A party could only be formed on the basis of “revolutionary Marxist principles”. [76]

The question of entrism, despite the ICE’s vigorous rejection of the tactic in September 1934, continued to be debated within the Spanish section. Fersen, the author of the September motion against the new ‘French turn’, in prison following the October events, now changed his position and became the main advocate inside the ICE of the entry tactic. [77]

The ICE Executive Committee finally met in April 1935 to clarify its position over the question of building the party. A compromise position, proposed by Nin, was adopted with only Francesc de Cabo of the Catalan organisation voting against. The resolution pointed to the fact that the ILO had “failed to convert itself into the centre of attraction for the working masses” or into “an independent force capable of grouping together the revolutionary vanguard”. Moreover, a “profound crisis” had developed in most sections because of the entry tactic, consequently leading to “disorientation and a loss of confidence in the independent development of our forces”. [78]

But parallel to this crisis inside the Trotskyist movement, there was, according to the ICE’s leadership, “a growing hostility among workers towards groups that were outside the large mass organisations”. In Spain, in particular, it had to be recognised that thousands of workers had joined the PSOE since the fall of the monarchy in 1931. Neither the importance of the PSOE nor the development of its left wing could, therefore, be underestimated. It was not only a necessity but a duty to “guide the Socialist masses towards revolutionary Marxism”.

At the same time the resolution acknowledged that the great tendency towards unity now prevalent in the workers’ movement was in danger of turning into an “unprincipled fetishism of abstract unity ... if a tendency like ours is not involved”. From this “double reality” the ICE decided to form part of a new party in Catalonia, whilst applying for membership of the PSOE in the rest of Spain. Once inside the PSOE the Trotskyists intended to “form a group that would tenaciously defend the need to unite with the party created in Catalonia in order to form one political organisation of the Spanish proletariat”. The motion continued:

Acting in isolation, our organisation, apart from having extremely limited possibilities for organic growth, would be incomparably less influential than it could be inside the PSOE. We should ask to join on the basis that our existence as a group is respected and that we can maintain our own publications. In support of our position, we could point to the precedent of our French section. We should give the maximum publicity to our decision to join so that the working class will understand clearly our reasons for doing so. If the Executive of the PSOE refuses to accept completely our conditions, we must make an effort to gain the maximum concessions, with the aim, however, to make our entry ... understood by the working class.

Compared to the ICE’s clear rejection of entrism eight months previously, this new position was a considerable volte-face. But in September 1934 the ICE National Plenum had noted that the new policy of the ICL would be unacceptable to the membership of the Spanish section – which now proved to be exactly the case.

A counterposition was put to the Executive Committee by de Cabo and Amadeu Robles. Essentially they argued that the Trotskyists would stagnate inside the PSOE. Instead, they needed to take advantage of the lever that the new party would create in Catalonia “to force a split inside the Socialist Party”. Hence the ICE should form groups of the new party in the rest of Spain. Inside the PSOE, de Cabo and Robles argued, the Trotskyists, with no independent presence, would be incapable of pulling behind them those revolutionary workers who were disillusioned with the constant vacillations of the Socialist leaders, as such workers were more likely to leave the party. In conclusion, they called:

1. For the creation of the party in Catalonia, fusing with the other Marxist parties on the basis of a revolutionary doctrine.

2. Convert our groups in the rest of Spain into part of the party formed in Catalonia, thus helping its growth in the rest of the peninsula. This, moreover will give us more influence over the political nature of the party that is formed in Catalonia.

3. Carry out a strong campaign about the rôle played by the Socialist leaders in the recent movement [the October general strike – eds.]. [79]

In the weeks following the Executive Committee meeting, the latter’s resolution was discussed by the group’s members. A large majority rejected entering the PSOE, and the leadership had no choice but to accept the de Cabo-Robles position. Among the most vociferous in their opposition to the Executive Committee’s proposals was the Madrid branch, recently strengthened by the recruitment of 30 or so militants from the Communist Youth, which had had considerable experience of fighting the Socialist bureaucracy inside the local UGT.

Only a small group, consisting of five militants (according to Jean Rous [80]), decided to enter the PSOE, and even this was done without the specific agreement of the International Secretariat. This group did, however, include two prominent ICE leaders, Fersen and Bilbao, as well as Grandizo Munis, the future leader of the Bolshevik-Leninist group during the Civil War. The entrist group had no impact inside the PSOE, and Fersen soon moved away from Trotskyism altogether.

What was the attitude of Trotsky and the International Secretariat to the ICE’s position? As is known, Trotsky had continued to berate the ICE for not having entered the PSOE in 1934.[81] However, the International Secretariat initially approved of the talks with the BOC in Catalonia, with the proviso that the ICE maintained itself as a faction inside any new party, and that in the rest of Spain its members entered the PSOE – the same position as was adopted by the Executive Committee of the ICE in April 1935. Once it became clear that the Spanish section had changed its position in favour of a new unified party, the International Secretariat wrote to its leadership condemning this move. [82] It accused the ICE of being in danger of becoming absorbed into the BOC and, because of that party’s proposed adherence to the centrist London Bureau, of being against the Fourth International. Worse still from the International Secretariat’s point of view, the ICE had declared it would not form a separate faction inside any unified organisation.

The reaction of the ICE to this latest criticism from the International Secretariat was to launch a bitter attack upon the methods and activities of the international leadership. [83] It accused the International Secretariat of demoralising the membership of the ICE with its “incomprehension” of the Spanish political situation and its attempts to manipulate the Spanish Trotskyists as if they were “puppets”. In contrast to what was believed in Paris, the ICE claimed that the BOC, long characterised by its “confusion”, had accepted “our fundamental principles”, which were thus reflected in the new party’s programme. The supposed similarity between this programme and that of the Trotskyists was used to justify why there was no need for them to maintain their own faction in the unified organisation.

As for the Fourth International – apparently the only real difference between the two groups – the ICE had not wanted to insist on the question to avoid any excuse for negotiations to be broken off. The ICE leadership was extremely optimistic that the new party could be won to the idea of the Fourth International and that it would then, in turn, fight inside the London Bureau for this perspective, as other Trotskyists were presently doing inside the Second International. The ICE finished by stating that it would not send any more information to the International Secretariat, given the latter’s “fundamental lack of understanding of Spanish affairs”, and that information sent in the past had obviously been ignored.

The final break between the Spanish section and the ICL appeared to have been consummated. However, as far as the International Secretariat was concerned, this was not necessarily the case. Work inside centrist parties could not be completely ruled out. Trotskyists were active in similar parties, such as the RSAP in Holland and the US Workers Party.

In order to get a closer view of exactly what was happening, the International Secretariat sent Jean Rous to Spain during the summer of 1935. After long discussions with Nin and other ICE leaders, Rous made a conciliatory report to the International Secretariat. [84] Whilst the new party outside Catalonia would be based more or less solely upon the ICE, he claimed that given the emphasis placed on its orientation towards the Socialist Youth, all was by no means lost. The ICE’s leaders had also agreed to enter into contact with the Fersen-Bilbao group inside the PSOE, as Rous and the International Secretariat wanted.

Moreover, whilst the statutes of the new party did not recognise the right of faction, the Trotskyists would be able to form “groups of friends” in order to pursue their aims. Finally, the Maurínists had effectively declared in favour of the Fourth International, “except for the number”, and the former ICE group saw winning the unified party to the new International as one of its principal tasks. So whilst officially there was now no Spanish section of the ICL, Rous concluded that this should be seen as only a “momentary disappearance”, and should be considered as a “stage on the road towards the constitution of the revolutionary party and the Spanish section of the Fourth International”.

Rous’ report seems to have placated the International Secretariat, at least for the time being. So without dropping its criticisms, the international organisation still considered that it had some links with the members of its former Spanish section. This attitude is clear in Trotsky’s response to the news of the formation of the new party: “The new party has been proclaimed. We take note. To the extent that this depends on international factors, we must do everything possible to make this party gain authority and influence. This is possible only through the means of intransigent and consistent Marxism. I am prepared to follow this road, and I am sure of the collaboration of all the comrades of the International Secretariat in all that is asked of us.” [85]

Nevertheless, the hopes of Trotsky and the International Secretariat of further collaboration proved illusory, and four months later all formal links were broken off with the former Left Communists when the POUM signed the Popular Front pact.



76. L’Hora, 26 January 1935.

77. P. Pagès, op. cit., p.261.

78. Resolución del CE de la ICE, Boletín interior de la ICE, 25 April 1935.

79. Roures i Tossal (Francesc de Cabo and Amadeu Robles – AD), Los deberes de la ICE ante el momento actual, Boletín interior de la ICE, 25 April 1935.

80. J. Rous, Rapport sur la fusion de la Gauche Communiste d’Espagne (Section de la LCI) et le BOC (Bloc ouvrier et paysan, Maurín), September 1935. A copy of this report appears in Spanish in L.D. Trotsky, La revolución española, Volume 2, op. cit., pp.362-70.

81. L.D. Trotsky, On Entry into the Spanish Socialist Party, and Passivity in the Face of Great Events, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., pp.202, 206.

82. Carta del Secretariado Internacional al Comite Ejecutivo de la ICE, Boletín interior de la ICE, 1 August 1935.

83. Carta del Comite Nacional al Secretariado Internacional, 21 July 1935, Boletín interior de la ICE, 1 August 1935.

84. J. Rous, Rapport ..., op. cit.

85. Referred to in ibid.


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