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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM

The Politics of the POUM

The POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) was formed on 29 September 1935 at a meeting of the leaders of the BOC and the ICE. A formal unification congress could not be organised because of the conditions of clandestinity forced upon the workers’ movement following the events of October 1934. A Central Committee, consisting of 28 BOC members and 13 from the ICE, was appointed, as was an Executive Committee, consisting of Maurín, Jordi Arquer, Pere Bonet and Josep Rovira from the BOC, and Nin and Molins i Fábrega from the ICE. [86]

To what extent was the claim of the ICE that the new party “adhered to all our fundamental principles” and Rous’ cautious optimism justified? What can be discounted is the view that the POUM was simply the continuation of the BOC under a different name, and that Maurín had agreed to the fusion of the two organisations solely with the intention of strengthening his party’s leadership with the incorporation of the talented Nin. This line of argument became particularly common among some former BOC leaders after the Civil War as, consistent with their own political trajectory, they scurried towards Social Democracy or worse. [87]

The Spanish Trotskyists, as we have seen, were confident that the new party’s programme was theirs. According to the ICE leadership, in their last letter to the International Secretariat in July 1935:

The fusion will take place on the basis of a jointly [original emphasis] elaborated programme, which is the result of discussions that have continued for months, and which contains all our fundamental principles: the affirmation of the international character of the proletarian revolution; the condemnation of the theory of Socialism in one country and of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry; defence of the Soviet Union, but with the absolute right to criticise all the errors of the Soviet leadership; affirmation of the failure of the Second and Third Internationals, and the necessity to re-establish the unity of the international workers’ movement on a new basis. [88]

A similar view was expressed privately by Juan Andrade in a letter to the Mexican A. González in which he claimed that Maurín “had completely corrected his point of view after October 1934, and now coincided with the Trotskyists”. [89] On the face of it the programme of the POUM [90] differed little from that of the Trotskyists, except on the two major issues of entrism and the Fourth International. Nin was to state publicly that unification had been so easily achieved because there were no “fundamental differences” between the two organisations, and that “neither side had made important concessions”. [91]

Despite the position adopted briefly by the ICE leadership in April 1935 on the question of entry into the Socialist Party, there were a number of factors that convinced the vast majority of the group’s membership that such a tactic was doomed to failure. Experience inside the UGT had shown them that they could expect little tolerance towards any factional activity from the Socialist leaders. The expulsion of the Trotskyists from the Socialist Youth in France helped strengthen this view. Instead, most members of the ICE believed that they had a better chance of influencing the radical elements of the Socialist Party by presenting them with a clear and independent alternative outside the party. During 1935 both the ICE and the BOC, and the POUM once it was founded, orientated strongly towards the left wing Socialists, as can be seen from their press. The party’s publications were read widely among the Socialist Youth [92], and various members of the latter’s leadership expressed their sympathy not only with the ICE and the BOC, but even with the idea of creating a new, “fourth”, International. [93] Rous’ report in September 1935 reflected the POUM’s emphasis on the need to win over the left wing Socialists.

Nevertheless, the POUM’s influence among the left wing Socialists, particularly the youth, was more apparent than real. Apart from a handful of cases, few Socialist organisations were won over to the new party, the known exceptions being the local branch of the Socialist Youth in Gerena (Andalusia) and the PSOE in Sagunto (Valencia). It seems that in both of these cases the ICE had, in fact, previously entered these organisations.[94] Despite the collaboration of various Socialist Youth leaders, including its General Secretary, Santiago Carrillo, in the BOC and POUM press in 1935, and their vague talk in favour of a “fourth” International, none of them was subsequently won over. In fact, they nearly all became ardent Stalinists, as Trotsky had indeed warned could happen. The dramatically changed circumstances of the Civil War were largely what led to this development, and whether entry by the Trotskyists could have alone stopped this is doubtful. The very limited experience of winning over some local Socialist organisations in Gerena and Sagunto proves very little.

Another argument in favour of staying outside the PSOE was the need to win militants from the CNT. [95] Obviously, any revolutionary party in Spain had not only to relate to, but win over important sectors of the great mass of militant workers who were organised inside the Anarcho-Syndicalist trade union federation. The Anarchists were traditionally hostile towards the Socialists – and often for good reasons. The Socialist leaders had collaborated with the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, taken part in the repression of the Anarchists when in government from 1931 to 1933, and organised scabbing on CNT-led strikes. An entrist group, therefore, would have arguably found it more difficult to relate to Anarcho-Syndicalist militants than an independent organisation.

The other major criticism initially made by the ICL of the POUM at its formation was its position regarding the Fourth International. The ICE answered by claiming that the BOC was “effectively” in favour of a new revolutionary Socialist International, and that the Trotskyists intended to fight for this position inside the POUM. However, the former ICE leaders never seem to have taken the question of the Fourth International any further, and the new party held to the position previously defended by the BOC.

As we have seen, the BOC had moved towards a generally anti-Stalinist position since 1932, and towards an open identification with the politics of the first four Congresses of the Communist International. In April 1932 [96], nearly a year before the first calls of the Trotskyists for a Fourth International, the BOC argued that there was a need for a “truly great International”. But this was a fairly vague formulation, and the BOC did not believe that the basis for such an International as yet existed. Instead it favoured cooperation in the short term with the “strong minorities” which existed in many countries which “wanted to return to the traditions of Marx and Lenin”.

The BOC consequently supported the international conference organised by the Independent Labour Party in Paris in August 1933. It was the position defended by Maurín at the international conference in favour of an “international United Front”, as opposed to creating a new International, that was supported by the majority of the delegates. The conference concluded that it was necessary to reconstruct revolutionary parties in every country before the question of founding a new International could seriously be posed. An International Committee, usually known as the London Bureau, was established to “develop common international action between its own sections and with other revolutionary sections of the working class movement with the objective of preparing for the formation of a reconstructed International on a revolutionary Socialist basis”. [97]

The BOC’s defence of “the need to build progressively the base of a new International” [98] apparently convinced the ICE leaders and Rous that the BOC’s members could be won over to the idea of the Fourth International. Such optimism proved misfounded, and the POUM leadership continued to have links with the London Bureau. It is worth noting that at least some POUM leaders became extremely critical of the London Bureau during the Civil War, but the subsequent repression of the party prevented this criticism from developing further and into an open split. [99]



86. Boletín del Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, October 1935.

87. The argument that the POUM was merely an extension of the BOC under another name is sustained chiefly by Victor Alba in his El Marxismo en España, Volume 1, Mexico 1973, pp.230-1, and J. Coll and J. Pané, Josep Rovira: Una vida al servei de Catalunya i del socialisme, Barcelona 1978, p.53. In a letter to Alba dated 27 February 1972, Maurín claimed that the principle reason for founding the POUM was to obtain the collaboration of Nin, Cf. V. Alba, Dos Revolucionarios, op. cit., p.204.

88. Carta del Comite Nacional al Secretariado Internacional, op. cit..

89. Andrade’s letter, dated 29 June 1935, is reprinted in L.D. Trotsky, La revolución española, Volume 2, op. cit., pp.348-52.

90. POUM, Què és què vol el Partit Obrer d”Unificació Marxista, Barcelona 1936.

91. A. Nin, Un pacto de unificación firme y sincero, La Batalla, 19 July 1935.

92. Interview with Wilebaldo Solano, 4 July 1986.

93. P. Pagès, op. cit., p.254-8.

94. POUM, Acta del Comité Central, 5-6 January 1936; La Batalla, 22 May 1936.

95. Boletín interior de la ICE, 15 March 1935.

96. La Batalla, 14 April 1932.

97. La Batalla, 7, 14 and 21 September 1933; Revolutionary Socialist Bulletin, January 1936.

98. J. Maurín, La capitulación de la Internacional Comunista, La Batalla, 2 August 1934.

99. See for example the letters sent by ‘Rosalio Negrette’ (Russell Blackwell) from Barcelona to Hugo Oehler, leader of the US Revolutionary Workers League, between November 1936 and January 1937.


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