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Andy Durgan

The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM


The subsequent development of the POUM in the Civil War and the revolution – particularly its participation in the Catalan government and its relations with the CNT – was to lead historically to a general condemnation of this party by the Trotskyist movement as opportunist and centrist. According to this view, the roots of this centrism were to be found in the politics of the ICE since its foundation, not to mention those of the BOC. But between 1930 and 1935 the ICE undoubtedly constituted the most advanced section of the Spanish workers’ movement. Its analysis of the Spanish situation was unmatched by any other organisation, and it had within its ranks many of the most able cadres of Spanish Communism.

Far from being so inherently opportunist, as the ICE has often been portrayed, its politics were in general a constant defence of revolutionary Marxism. Its decision to unite with the BOC has also been presented as a break from these politics. Yet to evaluate the trajectory of the ICE it is necessary to take into account both the objective circumstances and how the Spanish Trotskyists, wrongly or rightly, understood them. The events of October 1934, the massive pressure for unity, the clarification of certain aspects of the BOC’s politics, and the isolation of the ICE provided the impetus for unification. Most importantly, the ICE leaders were aware of the weaknesses of the BOC, but were confident that they could draw its militants even closer to revolutionary Marxism.

Given the subsequent development of the POUM, it may appear that they were clearly mistaken. However, in 1935 there were a number of reasons to believe that this was not the case. The fact that such experienced revolutionaries as Nin and Andrade and the International Secretariat representative Rous were convinced that the new party’s programme would be based on revolutionary Marxism was not purely due to wishful thinking on their part. Even a cursory glance, let alone a more thorough reading, of the POUM’s publications between September 1935 and July 1936 reinforces this view. But formal programmes alone do not make a revolutionary party – as the war would show. There were a number of key weaknesses in the politics of the BOC which would bear fruit during the war. The signing of the Left Electoral Pact – even allowing for the POUM’s overall critique of the Popular Front – was a sign of things to come.

Despite being in a minority, the ICE leaders thought that there were reasons to be optimistic. Above all, Andrade’s claim that Maurín had “completely corrected his point of view” and adopted the positions of the ICE, [134] and Maurín’s intellectual and political domination of the BOC were central to the belief of the ICE that it could have a decisive influence over the new party. The loss of Maurín at the beginning of the war was a serious setback for the former Trotskyists. [135] Jealous of Nin’s personal influence inside the party, and lacking Maurín’s political sophistication, many of the ex-BOC leaders, who naturally made up the majority of the POUM’s Executive Committee, reverted to their mistrustful and generally hostile attitude towards the ‘Trotskyists’.

External pressures in the form of the Stalinists” campaign against the party strengthened this tendency. Despite Nin’s individual prestige, the party was too new and the ex-ICE members too few to shift the balance of forces inside the POUM in such a short time. Worse still, the most important groups of former ICE militants, apart from those in Madrid, were annihilated in the Fascist onslaught during the first days of the war. This was most notably the case in Estremadura, Seville, Salamanca and Galicia. Of those who survived the first days of the military uprising, the groups of former Trotskyists in the north of Spain – the Basque Country, Santander and Asturias – were isolated from the rest of the Republican zone, and they were destroyed in Franco’s victorious offensive in this area during the first half of 1937.

The most important group of former Trotskyists that still remained was in Madrid, but three-quarters of them died in the desperate defence of the capital in the autumn of 1936. This effectively left the small Catalan group, which was overwhelmingly outnumbered by the ex-BOC rank and file. The remnants of the ICE remained, with few exceptions, in silent opposition to the POUM leadership during the war. Only after the conflict did the latent conflicts inside the POUM come to the surface. Those former Trotskyist militants who survived the Civil War, the Stalinist terror and the Nazi terror in exile, were to be prominent in the left wing of the party during the 1940s. A few would later rejoin Trotskyist groups.

Of course, it was not just the ICE and an enlightened Maurín that gave rise to the belief that the POUM would become a full-blown revolutionary party. There were many BOC militants who were genuine revolutionaries, especially amongst the youth. It can be argued that neither the ICE nor the POUM were inevitably lost to revolutionary Marxism. Rous believed this in 1935, as did many foreign revolutionaries, most of whom were former or ‘dissident’ Trotskyists, during the Civil War. Even Trotsky himself did not rule out a reconciliation between the POUM and the Trotskyist movement during the summer of 1936. [136] But Nin’s entrance into the Catalan government that October put an end to such a possibility.



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

135. This, in particular, was Andrade’s opinion, Cf. his preface to A. Nin, Los problemas de la revolución ... op. cit., p.7.

136. Cf. L.D. Trotsky, Letter to Jean Rous, 16 August 1936, and For Collaboration in Catalonia, 18 August 1936, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., pp.239-42. Cf. P. Broué in L.D. Trotsky, La revolución española, Volume 2, pp.22-4.


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Last updated on 28.7.2003