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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM

The Final Break

The signing of the Left Electoral Pact by the POUM signalled the final break between the ICL and the former ICE members. On 23 January 1936 Trotsky, after some months’ silence on the Spanish situation, attacked the POUM and its betrayal of the proletariat “for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie”. [120] As far as the international Trotskyist movement was concerned, there could no longer be any lingering illusion that the decision of the ICE to fuse with the BOC was justified. The former ICE, Trotsky wrote, “had turned into a mere tail of the ‘left’ bourgeoisie”. It was hard to “conceive of a more ignominious downfall”. More harsh criticism followed, and Trotsky returned to the question of entry into the PSOE. The ex-ICE should be “stigmatised forever as criminals against the revolution” for “having permitted the splendid Young Socialists to pass over to Stalinism”. The task of the Spanish supporters of the Fourth International was, on the one hand, to enter the PSOE and the Socialist Youth and, on the other, to “grasp in full the wretchedness of the leadership of the POUM ... especially of the former Left Communists”. [121]

Trotsky also turned his attention to Maurín’s concept of the “Socialist-democratic revolution”, [122] the theoretical basis of the POUM’s analysis of the Spanish Revolution. Neither Trotsky nor the ICL had singled out this aspect of the POUM’s politics when the unification process was taking place during 1935. Not even Rous, who had the closest contacts with the former Spanish section in the summer of that year, had made the slightest mention of it. The old Bolshevik leader now described Maurín’s theory as an “eclectic hodge-podge”. Trotsky argued that the “democratic and Socialist revolutions” were, as the October Revolution in 1917 had shown, “on opposite sides of the barricades”. Not only had the democratic revolution been carried out in Spain, but the Popular Front was “renewing it”. The Socialist revolution could only be made by an uncompromising struggle against the “democratic” revolution and its Popular Front. Maurín’s “synthetic democratic-Socialist revolution” meant nothing. [123]

But what exactly was Maurín’s position? [124] In the late 1920s Maurín had argued that the coming Spanish revolution would be democratic. This revolution would complete the “unfinished tasks” of the bourgeois revolution – self-determination for the national minorities, land to the peasants, the separation of church and state, the disarming of the old monarchist army, etc. However, given the weakness of the Spanish bourgeoisie, only the working class, with the support of the peasants and national liberation movements could bring about such a revolution. Under the leadership of the proletariat, this democratic revolution would immediately develop into a Socialist revolution. The link between the democratic and Socialist stages of the revolution was to be given more emphasis in Maurín’s analysis following the events of October 1934. The term “Socialist-democratic” rather than just “democratic” was then adopted to describe the coming Spanish revolution. [125]

The Trotskyists had criticised Maurín’s position in the early 1930s as being “stagism”, “pre-1917 Bolshevism” and even “reactionary”. [126] Instead the ICE consistently defended the need to raise democratic slogans that would open up the road to Socialist revolution. Nin, however, shared Maurín’s view that the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out the bourgeois revolution, and that the tasks of the democratic revolution could only be carried out by the proletariat with the support of the peasants. “To demand that the democratic revolution is really carried out”, he wrote at the end of 1931, “must be our battle cry today.” [127] Thus the positions of the ICE and the BOC at this stage do not appear to be so different.

The content of the POUM’s position in 1935 was little different from that of Nin’s of 1931, that the democratic and Socialist revolutions remained completely inseparable. An article by Maurín attacking the concept of the Popular Front, which was published in the party’s theoretical journal in May 1936, emphasises this point. Contrary to what the Socialists and Communists believe, the present revolution, he wrote, “is not bourgeois-democratic but Socialist-democratic, or to be precise, Socialist”. For Maurín, his position was that of the Bolsheviks: “Whilst reformist Socialism, Menshevism, saw the Russian revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution, revolutionary Marxism, represented by Lenin and Trotsky, believed that the proletariat must conquer political power in order to carry through the bourgeois revolution that the bourgeoisie is incapable of doing, and to initiate the Socialist revolution.”

Like other writings by POUM leaders at this time, the whole article demolishes the absolutely un-Marxist nature of the official Communist position – its abstract separation of democracy, Fascism and Socialism. Only the working class could install true democracy, and for the POUM this was inseparable from the Socialist revolution. Maurín concluded:

The seizure of power by the working class will entail the realisation of the democratic revolution that the bourgeoisie will not make – the liberation of the land and of the nationalities, the destruction of the church, the economic emancipation of women, the improvement of the material and moral situation of the workers – and at the same time it will initiate the Socialist revolution, nationalising the land, transport, mines, heavy industry and the banks. [128]

Without wishing to enter here into the exactitude of the POUM’s analysis, it is apparent from Trotsky’s writings that he was only superficially aware of what Maurín was arguing. The term “Socialist-democratic” is, however, hardly edifying. In fact, Trotsky effectively dismisses the POUM leader’s position as little more than a grotesque justification for the decision of his party to sign the Popular Front programme.

The international Trotskyist movement may have broken unequivocally from its former Spanish section, but this did not spare the POUM from the anti-Trotskyist phobia of the Stalinists. The campaign of abuse and slander, as well as physical assaults, which was to come to its bloody climax a year later during the Civil War, was well under way by the spring of 1936. The POUM was the “enemy of the Soviet Union and the Popular Front”, and “paid by Fascist gold”. [129] The true significance of these attacks was, as yet, not clear. The POUM, unimpressed by the histrionics of the traditionally weak official Communist movement, confidently asserted in April 1936 that “experienced militants had nothing to fear” from such abuse. [130]

Unlike during the war, when the most right wing local sections of the POUM used their press to insist that they had “nothing to do with Trotskyism”, prior to the military uprising the party was far less defensive in its response to Stalinist attacks. Articles by Trotsky continued to appear occasionally in the POUM press, [131] and in March 1936 Gorkin praised the old Bolshevik’s “magnificent” analysis in 1931 of the “historic causes of Spanish backwardness”. [132] Local POUM branches, especially those composed of ex-ICE members, were even more enthusiastic in their references to Trotsky, the only former Bolshevik leader who still “held high the banner of international revolution”. [133]

In even starker contrast to Trotsky’s denunciation of the POUM and its leaders, was an article by Maurín in La Batalla on 1 May 1936, entitled I am not a Trotskyist, but .... Replying to the Stalinist campaign against himself and his party, Maurín explained that whilst they were not Trotskyists, they were not insulted by being described as such. Despite disagreeing with Trotsky on a number of questions, this “could not cloud the truth” that he had been and still was, in Maurín’s words, “one of the best organised brains that the Socialist movement has produced”. Not only was he not a counter-revolutionary, but he was the “man of October” and the “major Bolshevik leader after Lenin”. In contrast the POUM leader listed many non-revolutionary aspects of Stalin’s policies, from the “division of the German working class” through to his new-found patriotism and support for the League of Nations. Maurín concluded that although he was not a Trotskyist himself, “Trotsky stood head and shoulders above this rabble of Johnny-come-lately so-called revolutionaries” who now led the Communist International.



120. L.D. Trotsky, The Treachery of the POUM, 23 January 1936, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., p.209.

121. L.D. Trotsky, Tasks of the Fourth International in Spain, 12 April 1936, op. cit., pp.211-4.

122. Maurín’s “revolución democratico-socialista” has usually been translated as “democratic Socialist”, however “Socialist-democratic” is a more accurate translation.

123. L.D. Trotsky, Tasks of the Fourth International in Spain, op. cit..

124. The first major exposition by Maurín on the nature of the ‘democratic revolution’ can be found in his book La revolución española, published late in 1931.

125. Cf. J. Maurín, Hacia la segunda revolución, op. cit.

126. L. Fersen, El frente contra comunismo, Comunismo, August 1931; El congreso del Bloque Obrero y Campesino, Comunismo, March 1932.

127. A. Nin, El proletariado español ante la revolución, Barcelona 1931.

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

129. La Batalla, 17 April 1936.

130. La Batalla, 10 April 1936.

131. La Batalla, 13 September, 4 October and 8 November 1935; La Nueva Era, February, May and July 1936.

132. Gorkin is referring to Trotsky’s pamphlet The Revolution in Spain, Cf. J. Gorkin, Los problemas de la revolución española, La Nueva Era, March-April 1936.

133. El Comité de Salamanca del POUM, A todos los trabajadores, leaflet issued by the Salamanca branch on 1 May 1936.


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Last updated on 28.7.2003