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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM

The POUM and the Popular Front

The insistence of the ICE leaders that they had made few concessions in unifying with the BOC did not convince the International Secretariat for long. The POUM’s signing of the Left Electoral Pact, which became known as the Popular Front, in January 1936 shattered any illusions that the international Trotskyist movement may have had in the nature of the new party.

The reaction of the POUM to the Communist International’s new Popular Front line had been to condemn it outright. When in July 1935 the French Communist Party signed its historic agreement with the Socialists and Radicals, Maurín denounced the Stalinists for negating the “historical concept of class struggle” and reducing the proletariat’s actions to class collaboration. [100] Similar attacks on the Popular Front tactic continued to appear unabated in the press of the BOC and then the POUM over the coming months. The former leaders of both the BOC and the ICE appeared to be in complete agreement in rejecting the Popular Front in terms little different from those used by Trotsky. [101]

The importance of winning the petit-bourgeoisie over to the side of the proletariat was not underestimated, but this had to be done on the basis of the workers’ movement maintaining its independence and defending a revolutionary Socialist programme. The subordination of the proletariat to the petit-bourgeoisie would only bring defeat. Talk of a struggle between Fascism and democracy was denounced by the POUM as a dangerous abstraction, as both were forms of capitalist rule and neither could be treated as separate entities.

The position of the Communist International, Maurín wrote in May 1936 [102], just showed its “total incomprehension” of the nature of Fascism, and would only result in holding back the working class by keeping the struggle within a bourgeois framework, thereby giving the counter-revolution time to prepare itself. “In a word”, he concluded, the new line of the official Communists was the “repetition of what the Mensheviks had wanted in Russia in 1917”, and the same as the position of reformist Socialism which had led to disaster in Italy, Germany and Austria. Instead, the POUM counterposed Lenin’s position, symbolised by the Bolsheviks” defence of the democratic republic against Kornilov, whilst submitting its head, Kerensky, to “implacable criticism”, and maintaining the complete independence of the proletariat. A handful of former BOC leaders disagreed with this line, abandoned the POUM in December 1935, and later joined the PSUC. [103]

Given the POUM’s apparently orthodox Marxist critique of the Popular Front, its decision to sign the Left Electoral Pact appears incoherent, to say the least. For the Trotskyist movement it was simply treachery, and only confirmed the vacillating and opportunist politics adhered to by Nin and his comrades since the advent of the Republic. However, little reference was made, or has been made since, to the POUM’s constant attacks on the Popular Front, both before and after the elections. Thus, how the POUM could justify signing an electoral pact which embodied the very politics of class collaboration that it condemned is of some interest.

We have noted how the pressure for workers’ unity had become increasingly intense since October 1934. When new elections were being proposed by late 1935, the idea of some kind of agreement with the Republicans, at least in order to obtain an amnesty for the 30 000 or so political prisoners, was very popular throughout the workers’ movement, even among the Anarcho-Syndicalists. But as the POUM continually pointed out, recognition of the need for an electoral agreement with the left wing Republicans to defeat the right at the polls was not the same thing as political capitulation to the petit-bourgeoisie. It appeared, however, that some of the Republican leaders had regained much of their earlier popularity since their imprisonment after the October events. The former Prime Minister, Azaña, attracted gigantic crowds to a series of open air rallies during the autumn of 1935. But the POUM did not consider this to reflect a new upsurge of mass support for the Republicans. The “immense majority” of those attending these meetings were “revolutionary workers’ drawn there because of the lack of any other means of public protest. Azaña saw stretched out before him “thousands of clenched fists and red flags”.[104]

The BOC had favoured the workers’ Alliances presenting lists in any eventual elections. But the hostility of the Syndicalists (the Treintistas) to such an idea, and the ambiguous attitude of the PSOE towards the Alliances, meant that these lists were never drawn up. By the summer of 1935 the future POUM leaders were openly recognising the need for some form of agreement with the petit-bourgeois left, albeit purely circumstantial and without the workers’ organisations making any concessions over their political independence. [105]

The POUM now wanted to form a workers’ Front with other workers’ parties, which in turn would reach a tactical agreement with the Republicans. [106] But such a Front failed to materialise. With the fall of the right wing government in mid-December 1935 and the subsequent calling of elections, a coalition of the Republicans, the PSOE and the PCE appeared inevitable. The POUM offered to support such an alliance, but only if it was transitory, and aimed at “defeating the counter-revolution at the polls”, securing an amnesty for all political prisoners, and re-establishing the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. If the electoral pact did not meet these requirements, then the POUM warned that it would stand alone. [107]

Yet in the coming weeks the POUM’s principled stand collapsed, and it ended up signing the very moderate and completely Republican programme of the Left Electoral Pact. Deliberately excluded by the right wing Socialists and the PCE from the meetings which drew up the electoral agreement, the POUM was presented with a fait accompli. It could either sign or not, it had no influence over the basis of the pact. The left wing Socialists, who had been most vociferous in opposing a renovated version of the old Socialist-Republican alliance of 1931-33, surrendered without a fight when faced with the “realities” of the electoral system. On 15 January, after some last minute telephone calls to Barcelona [108], the ex-ICE leader Juan Andrade signed the pact in the name of the POUM.

This apparent about-face was justified in a number of ways. At the beginning of 1936 the POUM Executive Committee had expressed itself “extraordinarily interested in obtaining parliamentary representation” which would allow the party to defend a “class position” in the Spanish parliament, the Cortes. [109] This would, it was hoped, also give them more leverage over the PSOE, thereby helping to draw closer to them sections of the left wing Socialists. The POUM leaders were disposed to defend their party’s right to be included in the electoral lists where they claimed to be strong – Asturias, Badajoz, Castellon, Huesca, Valencia and, above all, Catalonia. Nevertheless, given the lack of any real influence of the POUM inside the coalition, its representatives found all their proposals blocked, and in the end it was forced to accept places only in the lists of Barcelona, Cadiz and Teruel. Positions in the latter two provinces could not be taken seriously, because the POUM had virtually no members in either area.

When Nin and Gorkin arrived in Teruel and Cadiz respectively to participate in the election campaign, they found the local Socialist, Communist and Republican organisations completely unwilling to collaborate with them. Faced with this situation, the POUM candidates decided to withdraw on the grounds that, as they declared publicly, their presence could only create divisions and help the right. [110] This left the POUM with Maurín in Barcelona as its sole representative.

The isolation of the POUM inside the Left Electoral Pact could not have been clearer, not only on a state-wide level but also in Catalonia. Despite the party’s optimism that its influence in the region would force the rest of the Catalan left to make concessions, this had not happened. Instead, because both the Catalan left wing Republicans and other workers’ parties saw the POUM as a rival, they sought to minimise its influence in the electoral lists. Hence the left wing nationalists were able to impose an agreement that left the POUM and the far weaker Catalan organisations of the PCE and the PSOE, along with the Catalan Proletarian Party, with one representative each. The Catalan Socialist Union, the only other workers’ party with any presence in the region apart from the unquestionably stronger POUM, and a faithful ally of the Catalan Republicans, was given four candidates in the pact’s list in Catalonia. [111]

Further justification for signing the pact was added by Andrade, who stated that the POUM and the left wing Socialists had been forced to recognise the “material existence of an electoral law” that had obliged them to make “provisional agreements” with the left wing Republicans “to avoid the victory of the bourgeoisie”. [112] Andrade blamed the left wing Socialists for the programme of the coalition. Yet the desire of the POUM to enter parliament in order to promote revolutionary propaganda, the electoral law, and the failings of the left wing Socialists cannot justify the party’s decision to sign the pact. Given the political situation, the POUM had little choice but to support the pact against the right, but the only viable way to do this without confusing the party’s position was to do so independently from outside. Instead, for a lone voice in the Cortes, the pact was signed.

Even at this stage the POUM tried to impose some conditions on its participation in the coalition. The party rejected any limits on its own independent activity in the election campaign, and any collaboration in any future left wing government. It believed that once the elections were over, the best safeguard for the future was the unity of all factions in the workers’ movement, and for the continuance of a workers’ Front based on the PSOE, the PCE and the POUM. The workers could expect no more than “vague promises” from the Republicans, and the pact should “end on the day the election finished”. [113]

During the election campaign, the POUM persisted with a revolutionary message which had little to do with the electoral pact it had signed. According to the party press, the crowds which flocked to the left’s election meetings “listened with indifference, if not coldness, to the petit-bourgeoisie”, but, in contrast, reacted enthusiastically to the “revolutionary class language of October 1934”. [114]

Maurín, speaking to a “wildly enthusiastic” crowd of 5,000 in a Madrid cinema bedecked with giant portraits of Lenin and Trotsky, presented a singularly radical interpretation of the electoral campaign:

On the one side is the Socialist-democratic front, and on the other only thieves and murderers ... We are going to the elections thinking not only of our dead and prisoners, but also of the victory of our revolution that will trace a diagonal line through Europe between Madrid and Moscow that will contribute to the sinking of Fascism throughout the world.[115]

Jordi Arquer, speaking to a meeting of 12,000 in Barcelona, declared that the POUM did not “counterpose bourgeois democracy to Fascism, but Communism ... the dictatorship of the proletariat”. [116]

The triumph of the left in the elections was greeted by the POUM as a great victory for the workers and peasants, and an important defeat for the counter-revolution. The POUM stressed that the success of the left was neither a victory for bourgeois democracy, nor did it represent mass support for petit-bourgeois Republicanism, but was a by-product of the revolutionary struggle of October 1934. The party was equally quick to point out that any new Republican government would be no better than the last. In fact, given the depth of the economic and social crisis by 1936, this new all-Republican administration, the POUM predicted, would be worse than that of 1931-33. Any attempt to carry out even the mildest aspects of the left’s electoral programme would provoke the fiercest resistance from the ruling classes. Two roads stood before the masses – that of Germany and Austria, and that of Asturias. [117]

Over the next few months the POUM continued to argue that revolution was the only solution open to the working masses. However, it also recognised that an important sector of the masses still had illusions in the Popular Front. The best way to dispel these illusions, the POUM claimed, was for a “true Popular Front” government to be formed, involving all those who believed in such a solution – Republicans, Socialists and Stalinists. The formation of such a government, it was hoped, would show the impossibility of either solving the demands of the workers and peasants, or of dealing with the counter-revolution, through parliamentary reform. [118]

The masses themselves, both in spite of and because of the election victory of the Popular Front, were increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1936 there was a massive wave of strikes and land occupations. The counter-revolution also began to prepare its move, both inside the army and on the streets. Faced with this situation, the Republicans, enthusiastically supported by the PCE and the right wing Socialists, opposed most strikes and land occupations, and called on the workers not to take any action that could “put the democratic Republic in danger”. At the same time the government did little to curtail the widely known activities of the military plotters, and instead generally tried to placate them.

The POUM unceasingly denounced the attempts of the Stalinists and the Social Democrats to subordinate the workers’ movement to petit-bourgeois Republicanism. Given the circumstances, Nin had written soon after the elections, it was “a crime and a betrayal” to demand that the working class should renounce its maximum aspiration – the destruction of the bourgeois state and the conquest of state power – in the name of “consolidating the Republic”. This did not mean that the working class should launch itself on some “putschist adventure”, as the Anarchists would have liked to organise, nor did the fact that the conquest of power was not immediately on the agenda mean that it was a remote possibility, and that the masses should therefore limit themselves to a struggle for reforms. Instead, Nin concluded, in the short term it was necessary to create the conditions for the conquest of power, and this meant “forging the necessary arms for such a victory” – the workers’ Alliance and the revolutionary party –  with the workers’ movement maintaining its complete ideological and organisational independence.[119]

Thus, from when the Communist International first broached its Popular Front policy through to the eve of the Civil War, the POUM maintained an orthodox Marxist position which apparently differed little from that defended by the ICL. Nevertheless, by signing the Left Electoral Pact, it put this position in doubt. Subsequent events during the war were to expose further the POUM’s weaknesses in this respect.



100. J. Maurín, Las relaciones del proletariado con los partidos pequeños burguesas, La Batalla, 19 July 1935.

101. Of the many articles by POUM leaders against the Popular Front, the most interesting appeared in the party’s theoretical journal, La Nueva Era, for instance: J. Arquer, ¿Frente popular antifascista o frente unico obrero? (February 1936); J. Maurín, ¿Revolución democraticoburguesa o revolución democratico-socialista? (May 1936); J.L. Arenillas, Las clases medias en su relación con el proletariado (July 1936).

102. J. Maurín, ¿Revolución democraticoburguesa o revolución democratico-socialista?, op. cit.

103. This group amounted to 40 militants at most, but it included several former BOC leaders such as Miquel Ferrer, who was later to be General Secretary of the Catalan UGT during the war, and Victor Colomer, who had been a founding member of the FCC-B and the PCC, and a close collaborator of Maurín’s.

104. J. Gorkin, Retrato político de Azaña, La Nueva Era, June 1936.

105. For example see J. Maurín, Como se plantea entre nosotros la cuestión de las relaciones del movimiento obrero con los partidos pequeños burguesas, La Batalla, 26 July 1935.

106. La Batalla, 15 November 1935.

107. La Batalla, 27 December 1935.

108. R. Fraser, Blood of Spain, London 1979, p.566.

109. POUM, Acta del Comité Central, 5-6 January 1936.

110. Ibid.; La Batalla, 14 and 21 February 1936.

111. By 1936 the USC had around 2,000 members, the Catalan PCE less than 500 (they claimed four times that figure), the Catalan Federation of the PSOE had 300, and the PCP had less than 100. The POUM had 6,000 members in Catalonia on the eve of the Civil War, and perhaps another 1,000 in the rest of Spain.

112. J Andrade, El Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista y el alcance y significación del bloque de izquierdas, La Batalla, 24 January 1936.

113. Ibid.

114. La Batalla, 7 February 1936.

115. La Batalla, 14 February 1936.

116. La Batalla , 10 January 1936.

117. Comité Ejecutivo del POUM and Comité Central de la JCI, Ante la nueva situación política. A todos los trabajadores, 10 March 1936, La Batalla, 13 March 1936.

118. La Batalla, 10 April 1936; Cf. Maurín’s speech in the Cortes on 15 April 1936, in J. Maurín, Intervenciones parlamentarias, Barcelona 1937, pp.7-11.

119. A. Nin, Depues de las elecciones del 16 de Febrero, La Nueva Era, February 1936.


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