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Stalinism and the POUM in the Spanish Revolution


From Revolutionary History magazine, Vol.1 No.2, Summer 1988. Used by permission.


This article by Walter Held first appeared in Quatrième Internationale March-April 1937, and has been translated by Ted Crawford

The dialectic of history allows the paradox of a revolution in one country becoming the greatest obstacle to the revolution in another. It is true that the same tragedy was played out ten years ago on the stage of the Chinese revolution. There too the Soviet bureaucracy threw into the scales the whole material weight of the state that it had usurped in order to prevent the victory of the Chinese workers and peasants. This case has not been enough to compromise the Communist International in their eyes. But it may be different today when the same process is played out in Spain in front of them. Today there is no task more pressing for revolutionary workers than to show the proletariat that the Comintern has been transformed into a counter-revolutionary body. If anyone doubts this they only have to read the last resolution of the Executive of the Communist International on the Spanish question which among other things states that:

The Praesidium of the EC of the CI approves the political line of the Spanish CP, which is mobilising its followers and the popular masses for the struggle against the Fascists who want to destroy the Parliamentary regime and install a Fascist dictatorship. It approves the line followed for this and states that the parliamentary democratic republic, the Republic of the Popular Front, which guarantees the rights and liberties of all Spaniards, in which the Fascist base is challenged and where there will be no place for Fascism and in which the people can express their own choice and decide their own future for themselves.

The absurdity of these phrases is so clear that it is hardly worthwhile to refute them. The ‘parliamentary democratic republic’, in which ‘there will be no place for Fascism’? On the contrary, Fascism is the most legitimate child of the democratic republic, so legitimate that today in the epoch of capitalist decay there is hardly a single democratic republic which does not contain strong bodies of Fascists. Their presence is then the clearest sign that, thanks to the treachery of the Second and Third Internationals, the proletariat has already missed the most convenient moment to seize power. The demagogic lies of the Popular Front not merely do not hinder Fascism but increase its chances. Insofar as the Popular Front government of France is compromised in the eyes of the masses the chances of de la Rocque [1] and Doriot [2] steadily grow. Equally, Doriot is the direct result of Stalinist degeneration.

In a word: there is no better natural base for the growth of Fascism than the parliamentary republic and only the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will replace it, can eradicate Fascism completely. Let us note that Internationale Communiste already says what Azaña [3] and Companys [4] have not dared to utter up until now – ‘The re-establishment of private property’.

The Praesidium of the EC of the CI declares that the position taken by the party against nationalisation is correct. As long as nationalisation is based on the interests of the defence of the republic [and which will no doubt cease to be necessary at the end of the Civil War – WH] and is undertaken to counter the attempts of enemies of the people to sabotage and shake the economy, so following this position nationalisation will only be undertaken in those firms which belong to direct or indirect supporters of the military uprising.

Those who believe that we are giving a prejudiced interpretation of the resolution of the EC of the CI must read the manifesto of the Spanish CP of 18 September 1936, which reads ‘Any seizure of property by the workers is only a temporary measure in the interests of defence.’ We can add quotations from the speeches of Pasionaria, the leader of the Hernandez Party and of other Stalinists who say the same thing. After all the resolution of the EC of the CI had as its aim the wish solemnly to confirm this ‘line’ of the Spanish CP. The aim of the Stalinists was then the ‘re-establishment of private property and of the democratic republic’ after which the Stalinists can play their games of cabinet shuffles again.

To justify the reactionary politics of the Comintern in Spain on the orders of the great Stalin – the Borgia of our time – one can see sprouting like weeds all over the world theoreticians who, with great seriousness, prove that Spain today is living through its 1789 and not its 1917, and that it is necessary to deliver bourgeois society from the feudal yoke, and not the worker from the yoke of bourgeois society. One blushes with shame to have to contradict such theories.

Spain then, is the only country untouched by 150 years of capitalist development, a development which has with its extraordinary power reached into every corner of the civilised world! Spain has been as fast asleep as the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and has only been awakened by the diabolical kiss of Prince Franco, in order that she may fight for the Rights of Man, private property and for the ideas of the eighteenth rather than the twentieth century.

Back to Menshevism

In Spain today the Stalinists are defending in a comical manner what the Mensheviks defended from 1905 to 1917 and what Stalin-Bukharin defended in China from 1925-27 and what was defended up until now in Spain by the reformists such as Prieto, Besteiro etc. ... a theory already drowned by the events of the twentieth century.

The paradox that it is the Soviet Union which is trying to prevent the sovietisation of Spain, on the pretext that this country is not yet ready for the workers’ revolution, is accentuated by the fact that it is being done by the usurpers of the revolution in a country which in 1917 was incomparably more backward than Spain today. Some statistics will show this. In Spain in 1920 the number of industrial workers was 25 per cent of the total employed, and since then there has been an enormous growth in Spanish towns, so that since the Great War this proportion has grown considerably. In Tsarist Russia no more than 16.7 per cent were workers and even in 1928 the Soviet proletariat was no more than 17.3 per cent while 40 per cent of the Spanish population are urbanised and several cities such as Madrid and Barcelona have more than one million inhabitants. In Tsarist Russia only 20 per cent of the population was urbanised. It is true that one cannot deny that Spain’s railway system is extremely undeveloped, but it is still much greater than that of Tsarist Russia just before the world war (3.1 kilometers for every 100 square kilometers against 0.4 kilometers for every 100 square kilometers.)

But it is evident that the question of knowing whether an isolated Spain is ready or not for Socialism is an abstract one. In this sense no country is ready for Socialism and for the strongest of reasons neither is Russia. Socialism is international or it cannot occur. The shameful trials in Moscow have shouted out this simple truth to the world. Spain is ready for Socialism in this sense that there too finance capital has created a bourgeoisie which is so reactionary that capitalism no longer has any progressive role to fulfil: it is ready for Socialism as part of the whole body of world capitalism, which has entered the stage of decay and which threatens to hurl the world into the abyss of barbarism.

Only the Stalinist epigones of Menshevism try to explain why the liberal bourgeoisie has not succeeded in creating a democratic parliamentary republic in over one hundred years. Has not the bourgeoisie constantly called the generals to its aid because it is afraid of the working class? The Spanish revolution of 1930-31 was, like the German revolution of 1918, a case where the proletariat lost the fruits of victory because of the absence of revolutionary leadership.

Just as the French revolution of 1848 produced the coup d’état of Cavaignac, the Russian Revolution the Kornilov rising, the Weimar Republic the Kapp Putsch together with the attempts of Hitler and Ludendorf and then Fascism – so the Spanish democracy has constantly given birth to both putsches and uprisings from Primo de Rivera and Sanjurjo to Franco. What member of the Comintern could have thought in 1920-23 that Kapp and Ludendorf were representatives of feudalism against progressive capitalism and would have then, on this basis, have formed a Popular Front for the defence of the republic with the republicans Wirth and Streseman? Such brilliant flashes of insight could not even be found in the head of a Walcher. [5]

Those theories which state that Spain is not ready for Socialism and only finds itself today at the dawn of bourgeois development are even more grotesque, since the Spanish workers, lacking such Menshevik scruples, have already taken the collectivisation of the economy into their own hands. Despite the sabotage by their political leadership which stands for the principle of private ownership of the means of production, they have, notably in Catalonia, obtained magnificent results. And not only the war industries, railways and the commanding heights have been socialised but also the tramways, taxis, department stores, cinemas, theatres, hotels, cafes and the food processing industry – all find themselves in the hands of the workers and unions. How much better would have been the results of the collectivisation if there had been a centralised political leadership which would consciously continue this process, which would actively defend it and which would enforce on the economy a direct and clear plan. But the political direction of events was always in the hands of bourgeois republicans and their Stalinist agents, who, it is true, followed the movement, but only the better to betray it when the right moment came.

However, one would be confusing cause with effect if one thought that the Stalinist treason in Spain arose as a result of the political neo-Menshevism of the EC of the CI. The Stalinists have always had the most profound contempt for theory and degraded it to a tool of their own opportunist and material interests. The reputation of Stalin as a theoretician and the ‘best pupil of Lenin’ is less based on the strength of his own intellectual arguments than on the material resources of the GPU which has extremely efficacious ways of dealing with any attempt to contradict the ‘ideas’ of Stalin.

This hostile position to the Spanish revolution is also motivated by the Russian military entente with French imperialism. Stalin and Litvinov fear that by taking a position in favour of a Soviet Spain they will throw the French general staff into Hitler’s arms – the bureaucrats have no confidence in the spontaneous power of the French working class. As they tried to do at its start the Soviet leaders would prefer to stay completely neutral vis-a-vis the civil war in Spain. Then they said that they would be prepared to help in an effective blockade against both sides in the whole of Spain. Thus the fact that the French CP has given full powers to Blum [6] to prohibit the movement of volunteers across the Spanish border is part of their political line.

However, the neutrality of the Soviet Union while Hitler and Mussolini are actively helping Franco brings them another danger. Franco’s victory would both enormously increase Hitler’s pressure on France and to a great extent strengthen his foreign policy. On the other hand, if the Kremlin openly betrays the Spanish workers it would as a result be cut off from the working class of the world and would leave the field clear for Trotskyism, which it hates and fears like death itself.

Under this double pressure it was decided to send some modest, very modest, help to Republican Spain, but as a condition of such aid there must be the following programme. No nationalisation, but the preservation of private property: no Soviets, but the preservation of bourgeois democracy: no Red Army of workers’ militias, but the rebuilding of a ‘Republican Army’ commanded by bourgeois officers and lastly the destruction of ‘Trotskyism’, by which is understood all anti-Stalinist working class initiatives.

In close conjunction with considerations of a foreign policy nature internal necessities force the Stalinist bureaucracy to adopt this attitude. After having succeeded in transforming the proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union into a bureaucratic morgue it cannot admit that in another part of the world a young Soviet Republic with an independent working class, conscious of its strength, is forming itself.

The contrast leaps to the eyes of the whole world. Sensing a new force in the world because of the initiative of the Spanish workers, their Russian brothers, seeing in this ardent example the memory of their own glorious past, will raise themselves again and sweep away the tyranny and privileges of the bureaucracy. That, Stalin and his supporters are aware of, and that is why they must appear as the Messiahs of a national religion where the gods, Marx, Lenin and Stalin, have provided Socialism to the chosen people of Russia. That is why they fear and suppress all independent action of the working class wherever it may be.

However, it is an axiom, not a Stalinist axiom to be sure but a Marxist one, that the situation in the Soviet Union can only be guaranteed and strengthened permanently by the creation of new workers’ states. Through that one can see to what degree the interests of the Soviet Union (and its proletarian conquests) are opposed to those of the bureaucracy, and one can estimate the unbelievable cynicism of the bureaucracy and of its friends (in whose ranks one finds names like Romain Rolland, Heinrich Mann etc) who identify the interests of the Soviet Union with those of the bureaucracy and slander all criticism of the latter as from ‘a paid agent of the Gestapo and a close ally of Hitler’.

Agent of the Gestapo? Stalin and his bureaucracy have done more for Hitler’s victory by their politics of ‘national and social liberation’, their policies of ‘red unions’, and by the imbecile ‘theory’ written by Stalin himself of ‘Social Fascism’, than Adolf himself. Conspiracy for the re-establishment of Fascism? Stalin and his bureaucracy, who have re-established the unconditional right of inheritance, who have made the managers of factories exploit their workers, who praise as Socialist forms of labour the worst sorts of piece work, who replace Marxism by the most stupid forms of nationalism and who give new importance to the forms of bourgeois life? Stalin and his bureaucracy who by their idiotic ‘all-out collectivisation’ during the First Five Year Plan ruined agriculture throughout the country so that it has not yet recovered and who are responsible by their poor administration for the huge numbers of factory and rail accidents in the Soviet Union?

The Strategy of the POUM

The POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) was formed by a fusion of the Workers and Peasants’ Bloc led by Maurin with the Left Communists of Andres Nin. Inasmuch as the question was posed in an abstract manner it recognised the proletarian characteristics of the Spanish revolution, which gave it an incontestable advantage compared with the Stalinist position. Because of past faults on the national question (the Maurin heritage) the POUM only had any sort of mass base in Catalonia. That is why we are forced when talking about the politics of the POUM to consider the situation in Catalonia, and it turns out to be very relevant, since the position of the Caballero-Del Vayo [7] government essentially corresponds with that of the Comintern which we have criticised in the first part of this article.

The POUM took a position for the Socialist Revolution against the democratic parliamentary republic (without however, as we will show, posing the necessary practical consequences of this) and this, most honourably, brought upon it the hatred of the scab Executive of Moscow. In the resolution already quoted of the EC of the CI in which the POUM is constantly identified with ‘Trotskyism’, unhappily however without meriting this accusation, it is said:

The Praesidium of the EC of the CI approves of the struggle waged by the CP and supported by the other organisations of the Popular Front against Trotskyism, the agent of Hitler and of General Franco which carries out work of local espionage for them, which seeks to destroy the Popular Front, which wages a campaign of lies against the USSR and which uses all sorts of intrigues and demagogic strategies to hasten the advent of Fascism in Spain. Seeing that the Trotskyists carry out underground struggle in the interests of Fascism in the midst of the Republican armed forces, the Praesidium approves the line of the Party which leads on to the complete and definite wiping out of Trotskyism in Spain as necessary for the victory against Fascism.

The Deutsche Volkszeitung (Stalinist) which printed this resolution complained in another part of the article that the German Fascist troops made themselves perfectly at home in Spain. In the same way this complaint concerns the Stalinist bureaucracy who attempt to transplant into Spain their Russian witchcraft. And in the same way that this disgusting, crazed brute without a spark of imagination, the Borgia in the Kremlin, dirties all the old Bolshevik party leaders, dishonours them as agents of the Gestapo and the Mikado and shoots down the most prominent figures of the Russian revolution like ‘mad dogs’, so, in the same way, the accomplices of Stalin in Spain set out to slander in the most venomous fashion a whole party, which is an important section of the Spanish proletariat, in order to prepare a pogrom against it.

Even if, as we have already said, we have numerous and deep political differences with the POUM, which we have already met in the SAP [8] (the German fraternal party of the POUM) and the latter employs all its influence in Barcelona to prevent open criticism of Stalinism, we openly and totally defend the POUM. All sane and honest parties of the world’s working class must demand an end to the incredible slanders against the Trotskyists, the Old Bolsheviks and the POUM. If the workers’ movement in the world does not wish to perish it must forbid the methods of Goering in its own camp.

But our complete solidarity with the POUM will not prevent us from explaining in a loud clear voice our differences with them. It is not a question of ‘who is right’ or ‘how many angels are there on the point of a pin’ but of the destiny of the Spanish Revolution itself. And if our criticism is too late in the day to affect events in Spain we must understand these happenings in an international context. In order to define our position vis-à-vis the POUM permit us to call upon our masters Marx and Engels. In the same way they put themselves unconditionally on the side of the Paris Commune and defended it against all sorts of lies and suspicions and thus gave themselves the right to criticise its weaknesses and its faults.

The friends of the POUM internationally (some of whom, such as the German SAP, are of extremely doubtful quality and are ready to sell the POUM to the Popular Front for a ‘mess of pottage’) often claim that it is the ‘Party of Spanish Bolshevism’ which will lead the working class to victory. Unhappily the POUM does not represent Bolshevism (and does not claim this historic role for itself as we shall see by some quotations) it is rather the left wing of Menshevism against the right Menshevism (Kerensky, Plekhanov and Dan) of the Stalinists.

Since the POUM was a signatory to the Spanish Popular Front in January 1936, only, it is true, to condemn it very gently a few weeks later, it has not stopped wobbling on the policy. Each time that it takes a step on the right path which gets it the sympathies of the revolutionary masses it starts to have qualms, and then goes to seek a deal with the ‘majority’ of this same Popular Front of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the great barrier on the road to a Socialist Spain.

With the aid of the POUM’s own explanations we are going to see an intensification of this wavering. We will show that these are genuine hesitations, and not merely tactical subtlety, which is not only permitted but necessary. In the first number of their bulletin appearing in French, Revolution Espagnole, the POUM declares in a leading article on the ‘Political Principles of the POUM’ that: ‘The Popular Front government is in the hands of the Left Republican Azaña and its programme, supported by all parties, does not go beyond bourgeois reformism. This new experiment in bourgeois Liberalism can only end in disaster.’

Bravo! But are you going to call us sectarians because we said that at the very time that you helped in the creation of the Spanish Popular Front, or have you forgotten that this ‘bourgeois reformist’ programme could only lead to disaster?

At that time the POUM went into opposition to the Catalan government of M Companys, unhappily without drawing out the necessary conclusions:

In Barcelona the government of the Generalidad [9] (that is those who wish to say National Community and not “Generalité”) represents an official facade without any power. Real authority is held by the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias of which the majority of members are representatives of workers’ organisations.’

Then, apparently, there existed dual power which is the result of all proletarian revolutions.

However, the POUM recoiled before this event which signified an overturning of old and now empty forms of power. And in this very article which reaches a Leninist revolutionary position and which forms the most leftward point of the POUM’s swing of the pendulum, confusion already starts. ‘What is called dual power does not then exist in Catalonia. The working class effectively controls the whole of society.’

So then instead of combatting the government of Companys one liquidates it by phrases. And we are going to see this non-existent Companys government, nonexistent according to these phrases, liquidate, and not by phrases but properly, the all-powerful Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias and all those who help the POUM. By its support for the Economic Council of the Community the POUM committed another error. In the article already cited it is said, ‘With the Militia Committee the Economic Council has as its objective the organisation of the Catalan economy in a revolutionary sense’. However, the Economic Council is nothing else than an instrument of the Companys government, which tolerates the seizure of factories by workers only because it lacks the means to oppose them and which continues to remain faithful to the principles of private capitalism, for which it prepares a rebirth with great diplomatic skill.

The task of the POUM as a revolutionary party cannot in consequence be that of glorifying and supporting the Economic Council of the ‘Esquerra Catalana’ [10]; on the contrary, it must declare that one can only imagine a permanent and real socialisation after the seizure of power by the working class and after the installation of its dictatorship. The task of the POUM was to deliver the proletariat from the petit bourgeois ideologies of Azaña, Companys, Caballero, Stalin-Hernandez and also the Anarchists, and to declare war on the bourgeois and petit bourgeois tendencies by agitation, by propaganda and by clarifying matters among the masses, and not to cover up a deceit by calling for ‘unity’ – a unity with traitors to the revolution.

Another article, which appeared in No.2 of Revolution Espagnole, on the relationship between the Central Committee of the Militias and the Catalan government, deepened the programmatic confusion of the first issue. The POUM compares the role of the Central Committee of the Militias with that of a general staff in a war and against which the civilian government has no apparent power. Here the POUM contradicts its own argument. If it is true that the civilian government’s power is enormously reduced, it is also true that this power is never reduced to nothing. The question is also one of knowing what will happen after the war. Either the civilian government maintains its power or the general staff makes a military putsch and removes the civilian government. If this last would result in the rational conduct of the war the general staff would not fear to make a coup even during the war. In our case the dilemma is all the greater since the civilian government represents the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie while the Central Committee of the Militias represents the working class.

It is certain that for a short time of transition a dual power is possible, and the revolutionary party must obey the government up to the moment when it has persuaded the immense majority of the working class that it must overturn the last remnants of the old state of affairs. It is precisely this necessity that the POUM attempts to deny, and it joins in all kinds of diplomatic games which may serve to hide the fact that dual power, which means in reality the Central Committee of the Militias, is becoming an instrument of the government and is not, as the POUM believes with the best faith in the world (but revolutionary honesty is not sufficient to make a revolution if it lacks revolutionary understanding) making the government an instrument of the Militias’ Central Committee.

Let us look first at the description in the French paper of the POUM of the first steps taken to liquidate the Central Committees of the Militias:

The scene, which made the Central Committee of the Militias look like the Smolny Institute during the revolutionary days of 1917, is no more. The Central Committee of the Militias as well as the War Committee have moved their headquarters into the Defence Ministry ... This removal is not merely geographic but corresponds to the development of relations between the Central Committee and the government of Catalonia. Two ideas have made this possible: the first is that it is only a diplomatic facade ... the majority of the anti-fascist side has thought it better to leave apparent authority with the Companys government. In a similar way one is determined to transform the Central Committee of the Militias into a section of the official Defence Ministry.’

Kerensky would have been reconciled with the Revolutionary Committee at Smolny if it had been as submissive. The POUM does not defend intransigent Bolshevik opposition against the efforts of the petit bourgeois traitors who seek to put the working class under their orders; it submits – with a bad conscience just like Martov – to the majority and to the impersonal word ‘one’. Instead of showing to the proletariat the real role of Companys, Tarradellas and their Stalinist agents, the POUM consoles itself with confused pseudo-Marxist phrases.

One cannot talk of dual power in Catalonia. The traditional pattern inspired by the Russian Revolution where workers’ councils find themselves facing a bourgeois government, is not the same as the situation in Barcelona. The Companys government does not represent the interests of the capitalist bourgeoisie: it is of republican petit bourgeois composition, and under the pressure of a series of events it wavers, and these waverings have their origin in the economic weakness of the petit bourgeoisie. In October l934 Companys and his friends were shown to be incapable of leading capitalist reaction. In l936 they could not – even if they had the intention – resist the huge wave of the proletariat. Were is only one power in Catalonia: it is the working class and behind it the peasantry and the petit bourgeoisie.’

In all of that one cannot find the shadow of rational thought. For Companys and his party the civil war is just a national disaster without any meaning. And if they submit in appearance, for a short period, to the measures taken by the working class, it is only to keep power in their hands, little by little, to disarm the proletariat politically and to prepare a rotten compromise with the Francos and the Molas. The POUM seems to imagine that it is enough for the proletariat to exercise power by putting pressure on a petit bourgeois government. Is it that Nin and Andrade, who are not men without historical sense, do not remember the Stalin-Kamenev position of February 1917 [11], and do not know of the reply which Lenin gave in the April Theses to the conciliatory wing of the Bolsheviks? It is true that we will see the POUM, after other odysseys, having a more correct view of the role of Companys, but our greatest reproach to the POUM is that they did not foresee these events after making a Marxist analysis of the class forces involved but only followed event empirically.

The confusion of the POUM on the fundamental question of the state and revolution then led it to take the fatal step of 26 September: entry into the government of Tarradellas.

Some weeks previously one had mocked the republican government of the Caballero-Giral coalition and had pointed out that Catalonia was much more progressive given that the real power was in the hands of the Central Committee of the Militias and other proletarian bodies. However, in the same number of the Revolution Espagnole in which we are told of the creation of a new government with Andres Nin as Minister of Justice, we are told of the liquidation of the Central Committee of the Militias. This is surely too high a price for a ministerial seat. Anatoly Lunarcharsky, who was saved from execution and slandering by his premature death, tells us in his Revolutionary Silhouettes the only phrase that Trotsky pronounced about the entry of Chernov into the Kerensky Government: ‘What miserable ambition to give up his historic role for a ministerial portfolio.’ Nin, whom the world’s press willingly presents as a pupil of Trotsky, seems, alas, to be closer to Chernov than to his claimed master.

As a member of the Companys-Tarradellas government Nin also signed decrees on the new commercial organisation in Catalonia. In the revolutionary current, committees were formed all over the place spontaneously, committees which were generally called ‘Houses of the People’. It is evident that the ‘Esquerra Catalana’ was not particularly enamoured of this initiative of the revolutionary masses but the task of the POUM, which called itself a revolutionary Leninist party, would be to support such initiatives, to broaden them and to help in organising them centrally in order completely to destroy the old state bureaucracy.

The decrees of the Tarradellas-Nin government liquidated the Popular Committees, prevented such initiatives by legal penalties and imposed on the communes a new bureaucracy. Like a real Martovian centrist party the POUM accompanied the new decrees with crocodile tears: ‘one can regret the suppression of the local revolutionary initiatives but one must, on the other hand, recognise the need for the whole of Catalonia to be under the same legislation’. Furthermore in No.8 of the Revolution Espagnole we read:

In our conception each people must learn from its own struggles. As educative as the lessons of the Russian Revolution are, they are not completely applicable to the Spanish Revolution. From the political point of view one cannot think for a moment that one can in Spain, and still less in Catalonia, establish the rule of a proletarian party in the middle of the war. Looking at the real situation of the organisations, parties and unions and the balance of forces one can hardly say we have here a deplorable outcome.

The POUM here makes the tragic error of all centrists, which consists of thinking of their own party as a lifeless object, instead of thinking of it as a living factor in the revolution. There are in Catalonia four principal political currents: the ‘Esquerra Catalana’, bourgeois-republican, the Stalinist PSUC, the Anarcho-Syndicalists and the POUM. The Esquerra and the Stalinists fight for the Republic, the Stalinists being in other words agents of the Esquerra in the proletarian camp. The anarcho-syndicalists are in confusion and join the side which is the strongest, and the POUM, it says, is for Socialism. What then does the renunciation of hegemony by the POUM mean? It can mean nothing else but this: the POUM does not take its own programme seriously, it refuses to apply it in order to have peace with the Esquerru and the PSUC. How then can the POUM explain to the workers so that they will understand the depth of its differences with the Stalinists?

Do not these half measures, this self-castration, really prepare the way for the hypocritical work of the Stalinists? For Stalinism is not at all ‘generous’ enough to give away its hegemony. It is true that it has never been Stalin’s method to carry out an open political struggle to persuade the masses. But instead of arguments it has available an immense material power, the greatest perhaps that a despotism ever possessed, and which it uses without any scruples. Thus it makes its support for Spanish anti-Fascism dependent on the liquidation of the POUM as a political factor. At the same time it sends its gutter journalist Michael Koltsov, a specialist in the pogrom, who learnt his honourable trade when employed by Petlura [12], the hangman of the Ukraine, to start up a campaign of slanders and lies against the POUM.

In this way Stalin prepares his hegemony, which is a denial of Marxism, a denial of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a denial of victory. Of course a Marxist party, the only conscious representative of the interests of the proletariat, should not forcefully oppress other political currents. The sarcasm of Bukharin, ‘One party in power, the others in prison’ is neither a principle nor an axiom as the dim epigones of Stalin would have us believe: in Russia it was nothing else but the most bitter necessity of the terrible years of the Civil War. That is why it is entirely possible that the POUM can, with a correct political line, come into a long term coalition with the anarcho-syndicalists. But a revolutionary Marxist party can never deny the struggle both for leadership and for the victorious application of its beliefs. In the Temps, the most respectable paper of French bourgeois opinion we find on 22 January 1937 the following idea of the situation in Catalonia:

One gets there. The revolutionary horrors stick in one’s throat. The leaders. who from Russian experience know that it is dangerous to go too far, try to rein back their troops. The troops go on in the way that their leaders used to point out to them not so long ago. In Russia Lenin brutally cut the knot. But in Russia he had an authoritarian regime which knew how to make itself obeyed. In Barcelona the only method is propaganda. They make a great effort to unify the proletariat in unions, to make Socialists, Communists and Anarchists a single party, in order to create a solid base for the building of an authoritarian anti-Fascist state. They spare nothing in their efforts to achieve this, neither conferences, meetings and press campaigns, but the results are poor.

It seems that this employee of the Comité des Forges [13] has better understood the dangers that menace the Spanish working class than the host of leaders of the POUM. What is indispensable for the Spanish revolution so that it can conquer Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, is an iron fist, the authoritarian regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is to say the hegemony of the revolutionary party of the proletariat. And in denying itself this role the POUM reinforces our main argument: the tragedy of the Spanish working class is that it does not have a true Marxist vanguard. The correspondent of the Temps talks rather clumsily of installing an authoritarian anti-Fascist regime. There is nothing astonishing in that but a negation is not a positive programme. These attempts can only lead to the resolution of the crisis in a counter-revolutionary manner, that is to say against the proletariat and for the businessmen of the Esquerra. And these latter in their turn will give way to Franco and Mola.

In one of his speeches when Minister of Justice, Nin himself talked of the organisation of the economy:

Another problem is that of collectivisation and socialisation. The spontaneous movement of the masses has shown their Socialist wishes. But we must deliver ourselves from deviations and errors which we can now see in this area. In some cases the collectivisation of a factory has meant that we seize it without taking account of the necessities of the war and the whole economy. This must stop. The collectivisation or confiscation of a factory is not done for the needs ot a union or just a section of the working class.

That is correct comrade Nin. But how would you establish economic order, how would you organise that sort of thing for the needs of the whole working class without establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat? How can you join in a government which the POUM itself characterises in the following fashion: ‘If it is not bourgeois democratic it is not proletarian either.’ On 21 January you published a number of La Batalla in honour of Lenin, where you have printed some of Lenin’s theses on the dictatorship of the proletariat: but would it not have been better to remember the decisive lessons of Lenin on the decisive steps of the Spanish revolution as for example in the following statement that you quoted:

The main thing that the Socialists do not understand and which appears in our eyes as theoretical blindness, dependence on bourgeois prejudices and political treason to the proletariat, is that in capitalist society when the class struggle that lies at its base reaches a climax, there can be no middle way between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Any dream of a truce is only a petit bourgeois cry of despair.

The exit of Nin from the government thanks to the strength of Stalin’s representative in Barcelona, Antonov-Ovseyenko [14], (who, in spite of all, will soon be shot as a ‘Fascist-Trotskyist’ and a ‘mad dog’) triggered a new turn of the POUM to the left without however taking stock of its main error, which left the field open to other fatal faults. Companys and Tarradellas have confidence and are not at all put out, and make speeches in the style of Azaña, of Caballero and of Del Vayo condemning a Republic of Soviets and glorifying the League of Nations and Mr Eden. The difference between the central government and the government of Catalonia, a difference so often underlined by the POUM, begins to disappear. La Batalla fears that the petit bourgeois politicians impertinently take a more and more prominent position and seek to diminish the influence of workers’ organisations. It is above all the valiant organisation of POUM Youth, the JCI, whose heroic leader Vidal [15] fell in the fight against Franco, which I found the right tone. La Batalla of 6 January announces in enormous headlines: ‘It is necessary to recall to life the committees to create instruments of workers’ power’. Right on – that is the correct slogan. But comrades, do you believe that the workers will forget that it is you yourselves who signed the decrees to dissolve the committees? Goethe, whom modern Marxists could still read with profit, wrote, ‘... for that man, who in uncertain times, has an uncertain spirit, multiplies and enlarges his troubles more and more. But those who stick firmly to an idea recreate the world.’

The POUM and the Anarchists

The POUM leaders frequently emphasise their friendly relations with the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Certainly it is the correct political line to create a stable front with the Anarcho-Syndicalist organisations against the blackleg treason of the Stalinists, but without for a moment ceasing to criticise the theoretical errors and pragmatic faults of Anarchism.

At the start of the Civil War the POUM had its own independent trade union organisation (FOUS); that was already an error that the POUM recognised soon enough. But instead of unifying with the mass Anarcho-Syndicalist organisation, the CNT; and then resolving in a positive way the conflict with the UGT, a reformist reactionary trade union body led by Stalinists (instead of ‘trade union unity at any price’, ‘trade union unity on a revolutionary position’), the POUM brought its members into the UGT, probably in order to avoid a serious theoretical discussion with the Anarcho-Syndicalists.

The result was quite different from what they had wanted: the POUM, instead of controlling the Anarcho-Syndicalist leaders through their influence on the revolutionary masses within the CNT, were excluded from all the negotiations on trade union unity, and the eventual resolution signed by the UGT and the CNT contained a certain number of points which one could consider as a direct threat to the fractional work of the POUM (point 15)’We will wage a struggle against all cell work of undisciplined trades union groups, which either by misunderstanding or maybe by ill-will, may be dangerous for the achievement of this programme.’ (Revolution Espagnole, No.9) On the trades union question the POUM is coming apart and at the same time is helping the leaders of the CNT and UGT.

It is not very different concerning the question of the formation of the government. Instead of leading with the CNT a joint opposition against Companys, and of fighting for the seizure of power by the soviets, the POUM helped and encouraged the transformation of the Anarchist deniers of the state into a party talking about coalition with the Republicans. Now, after the expulsion of the POUM from the government, it naturally tries to win over the CNT by its renewed opposition to Companys. But how can they show the masses that this is not pure party egoism on the part of the POUM? They will be asked: does the character of the Companys government depend on whether Nin is, or is not, the Minister of Justice? Are not our Anarchist ministers sufficient guarantees of almost a joint opposition against Companys, of the ‘Socialist’ character of the government?

We have already pointed out that it is these waverings of the POUM that make the Stalinist campaign of pogroms so dangerous. The workers will not understand that the differences between the POUM and PSUC are about the dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to bourgeois reaction, and is it not a fact that backward layers of the working class are willing to sacrifice the POUM for Russian aid? It will only be by a firm, clear, brave position that the battle can be won by the POUM. It is still not too late, but much precious time has already been lost.

The POUM and the International

As part of its inheritance from Maurin [16], the POUM belongs to the London Bureau [17], the bureau of independent Socialist parties, or what is left of the ‘Two and a Half International’, which, formed in confusion, creates even more confusion around it. Six whole parties still belong to this bureau. One of them has only a purely imaginary existence: the Independent Socialist Party of Poland, which does not exist save in the imagination of the famous hero-comic Dr Kruk, and two others can only produce feeble little groups, the Italian Maximalists and the German SAP [18]; apart from that there is the ILP and the Swedish Socialist Party.

When the Bureau met at the beginning of October to prepare the conferences which it loves to have and which are always without any result, because they forget to take any position on the most important questions (such as the USSR or the new International), they were unable to get a unanimous resolution because of the lack of a common point of view.

Here are some other proofs of this curious ‘unity’: the POUM rightly calls the policy of neutrality of the workers’ movement vis-à-vis the Spanish conflict a crime. But the French wing of this London Bureau, Marceau Pivert [19], belongs elsewhere to Blum’s General Staff, and Blum is one of those principally responsible for this policy of neutrality!

The Swedish Socialist Party supports the Swedish government’s policy of neutrality. La Batalla of 28 January published the speech of the Swedish Minister of Justice, Westman, in which he defended in Parliament the policy of neutrality. Unhappily the article forgot to mention that the leader of the POUM’s fraternal party in Sweden, Flygg, said that he agreed with Westman on essentials. Today the POUM, after long hesitations, calls the Popular Front a bourgeois treason against the revolution and at the same time the SAP signs a manifesto in favour of a new Weimar Republic with the living corpses of Weimar. By a happy ‘chance’ the call for a German Popular Front appeared in the same number of the Deutsche Volkszeitung (the organ of the German accomplices of the Moscow murderers) as the resolution of the EC of the CI on Spain in which are published the most gross attacks against the POUM, ‘the spy of Hitler and Franco’. In the interests of the German Popular Front, with its wimpish liberals and Stalinist pogromists, the SAP is itself becoming an instrument of Stalin, and takes a great deal of trouble to pacify the POUM and to push it into dropping all its criticism of Stalinism.

Inasmuch as the POUM still holds the formula that the SAP used yesterday (that is to say, that one must establish the bases for the creation of a new Marxist International, etc) these last have already started negotiations with Stalin’s German mercenaries. The Neue Front (paper of the SAP) for this reason takes aim at the dreadful position of the POUM with following prediction:

We are very well aware that a necessary and fundamental renewal of the workers’ movement cannot be done by simple acts of will and resolutions at a conference. But a victorious revolution in Spain would greatly improve the chances of a huge proletarian International capable of going places. However today, when victory in Spain is a hope and not a reality, and where we still do not know what consequences that such a victory would have for the USSR, one cannot foresee whether the result of this would be a new International or a renewed International.

Evidently we cannot explain how those who are floundering up to their necks in the swamp cannot see further than the end of their own noses. And so the SAP, which fears all moves to the left by the POUM like death, and utters a sigh of relief after each move to the right, has done all that it can to prevent the victory of the Spanish proletariat, so that Stalin can both decimate the Old Bolsheviks by the firing squad and get a pogrom against Spanish revolutionaries under way, wants to ... ‘renew’ this kind of International.

In the second German number of Revolution Espagnole we find a resolution of the POUM on the International question from where we draw the following quotation:

In order to conquer, the proletariat needs revolutionary parties which submit to international discipline. This International does not exist. The Second and Third Internationals cannot be the instrument of world revolution. Neither, because of its sectarian character, can the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky. Historic events have made our party the centre of the world revolutionary struggle, and our party the vanguard of this struggle, the meeting place for independent Socialist parties and groups from different countries.

As we have seen, international discipline does not exist unless it is that of the London Bureau. The Marxism of these parties does not go very far, for they have understood nothing of the subjective role that is played by a revolutionary party. The only response that the POUM makes to us is to call us ‘sectarian’. On the other hand the POUM knows very well that the Fourth International has not been founded by Trotsky or indeed founded at all. What is true is that we are working hard and consistently to build it, under an international bureau which co-ordinates our theoretical and practical work, and that we are proud to have amongst us the strength, experience and science of comrade Leon Trotsky.

And our sectarianism? Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were forced to be sectarian in the years when, with all their strength, they worked to persuade the masses of the collapse of the Second International. The struggle against the Third International, which disposes of enormous material resources, and possesses the halo of the first proletarian state, is incomparably harder and longer. Our sectarianism consists in the fact that we remain faithful to our ideas and that we tell the world what is. Inasmuch as it is associated with the worst sectarians, such as the Zionists or Dr Kucky Field, the London Bureau increasingly decays, while the Fourth International continues to consolidate its forces and is already in contact with the masses in several countries such as Belgium and France. If the comrades of the POUM wish to become the Spanish Bolshevik Party, they must not go towards the Kautsky and Longuet of 1937, that is to say Schwab, Pivert and Maxton, but rejoin the platform and the methods of struggle of the Fourth International.

Last of all the leaders of the POUM talk about the ‘unjustified attacks on the part of the Third and Fourth Internationals directed against the POUM’. After all that we have said we think that the comrades of the POUM should recognise that this is a demagogic, dishonest argument which we would have thought was beneath their dignity. The Third International spreads the most venomous slanders, lies and provocations in order to prevent the Spanish working class from freeing itself. On the other hand, the Fourth International spreads the critical light of Marxism and has no other interest than in preparing the road for proletarian revolution. That is why it is time to create such a new path towards revolutionary Marxism. Everything possible must be done for this in the interests of both Spain and the world.

Walter Held
5 February 1937



1. Colonel Casimir de la Rocque (1886-1946): the leader of the semi-fascist Croix de Feu which made a violent attack on the French parliament building in February 1934. [Note by Editors 1988]

2. Jacques Doriot (1898-1945): Stalinist mayor of St Denis, who broke with the Communist Party in 1934 over its refusal to advocate a United Front. In June 1936 he formed his own Fascist organisation, the Parti Populaire Français. [Note by Editors 1988]

3. Manuel Azaña y Diaz (1880-1940): Leading liberal and anti-clerical who was Prime Minister of the republic. Dying in 1940 he accepted Extreme Unction from the Bishop of Montauban. [Note by Editors 1988]

4. Luis Companys y Jover (1883-1940): Catalan nationalist politician who was Prime Minister of the regional government in Catalonia. He was handed back to the Spaniards by Petain in 1940 and was promptly shot. [Note by Editors 1988]

5. Jakob Walcher (1887-19–): One of the leaders of the SAP, later a bureaucrat in East Germany after the war. See footnote 8. [Note by Editors 1988]

6. Leon Blum (1872-1950): Leader of the French Socialist Party and Premier of the Popular Front government of 1936-7.

7. Julio Alvarez del Vayo (1891-l975): Supposed left Socialist and trusted lieutenant of Largo Caballero and Foreign Minister in his government. In fact a secret Stalinist, he was responsible for refusing help to the Moroccan Rif rebels and for transferring Spain’s gold reserve to the Soviet Union, so placing the Popular Front government at the mercy of Stalin. He was not expelled from the Socialist Party until April 1946, but always in search of an infallible leader, he later flirted with Titoism and Maoism, becoming the president of FRAP. Some years ago the organisation of the Spanish Maoists in London was appropriately named after this Judas. [Note by Editors 1988]

8. The SAP (Socialist Workers Party of Germany) came into existence when the German Social Democracy expelled its own left wing, which organised itself as a party in 1931. A year later its leadership was taken over by a group of ex-Brandlerites led by Jakob Walcher. [Note by Editors 1988]

9. Generalidad. The name of the Catalan regional government established by the statute of Catalan autonomy in 1932. [Note by Editors 1988]

10. The German government of November 1918, Ebert-Scheidemann, also created ‘Socialisation Committees’ and the German ‘Independents’ participated in this contrickery instead of exposing the lie. [Note by Held.] [The Esquerra Catalana or Catalan Left was the nationalist party of the small businessmen and lower middle classes in Barcelona. – Note by Editors 1988]

11. Incidentally: in the Soviet Union today all differences of opinion with Lenin at any time in the past play a decisive role in the accusations of the Menshevik Vishinsky, who once was on the other side of the barricades. But do they accuse Stalin for his own error in March 1917? [Note by Held]. [Thanks to Glasnost it has just been revealed that Vishinsky, while a legal officer of the Provisional Government, actually signed the warrant for Lenin’s arrest during the July days! He certainly had something to hide and what is more had to do as he was told. The Trotskyists did not then know that! – Note by Editors 1988]

12. The Hetman, Semyon Petlura (1877-1926): a notorious anti-Semite and military dictator in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War. [Note by Editors 1988]

13. The Comité des Forges. Very right wing association of largest French capitalists – then in the iron and steel industry. [Note by Editors 1988]

14. V.A. Antonov-Ovseyenko (1884-1938): Stalin’s Consul-General in Barcelona who planned the provocation against the POUM, was himself recalled in 1937 and was shot on Stalin’s orders at the end of 1938 or the beginning of 1939. He had led the assault on the Winter Palace in 1917. He was rehabilitated by Khrushchev. [Note by Editors 1988]

15. Germinal Vidal (?-1936): Secretary of the POUM Youth, fell during the assault on the troops of the Generals in the Plaza de Catalona. [Note by Editors 1988]

16. The Fourth International also honours the memory of Joaquim Maurin, murdered by Franco’s troops. But, nothing could be more dangerous than to canonise his terrible theoretical and practical errors because of this martyr’s death, which, to a considerable extent, is what Gorkin is probably trying to do. [Note by Held] [Gorkin (1912-?) was a journalist and a leading POUM member. He later collaborated with El Campesino to write Listen Comrades. On Maurin’s fate, see above. The date given for his birth by Hugh Thomas in the Spanish Civil War is incorrect. – Note by Editors 1988]

17. The London Bureau, otherwise known as the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity, was founded in Paris in August 1933. Its secretary was Fenner Brockway. [Note by Editors 1988]

18. Both German and Italian groups were, of course, exiles from Fascism. [Note by Editors 1988]

19. Marceau Pivert (1895-1958): Leader of the left wing of the SFIO, the French Socialist Party, and later, after a split, the PSOP (Workers and Peasants Socialist Party) in 1938. [Note by Editors 1988]


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