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Trotsky and the POUM


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


Despite Trotsky’s trenchant criticism of the political parties in the workers’ camp in Spain there were few people in Spain who were listening to him. A Spanish section of the International Left Opposition had been formed by Andres Nin after his expulsion from the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in 1927. For two and a half years – from September 1930 to February 1933 – Trotsky corresponded with Nin who was virtually alone in Barcelona. Relations with other supporters in Madrid were slight, a fact which already revealed a chronic provincialism (an adaptation to Catalan nationalism) in Nin’s political make-up.

During these years Nin oriented himself almost exclusively to the Catalan Federation which was a split from the PCE. It was led by Joaquim Maurin who was a right-centrist who only objected to the ultra-leftist excesses of Stalinism. Nin refused to criticise Maurin openly and refused to build a left opposition faction within Maurin’s group. Indeed, Nin went further in his opportunism and even helped to write the Federation’s documents and edit its paper.

Trotsky’s political ties with Nin were effectively broken in 1933 although Nin did not publicly break with Trotsky until 1935 when he joined forces with Maurin to form the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). In the intervening period Trotsky upbraided Nin for failing to enter the PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Party) and its union (UGT) whose rank and file were undergoing massive radicalisation in 1934 and 1935.

Despite these failings Trotsky recognised that the POUM, small as it was, organised some of the best vanguard elements in the Catalan working class. (Its influence outside this region was negligible.) It was a lone voice in Spain in unmasking the crimes of the Stalinists in the Moscow Trials. Also during 1935 the POUM developed the best formal criticisms of the Popular Front and the Second Republic in the pages of its paper La Batalla. Its leftism earned it the hostility of even the CNT and UGT leaders who sought to exclude POUMists from their unions.

The POUM was small. Before the Civil War estimates of its size vary from 3000 to 8000. Like most of the left groups it grew during the Civil War and by September 1936, it was about 30 000 strong, with l0 000 in its own militia. Yet much more than to contribute to its numerical growth, the Popular Front government and the Civil War cruelly exposed the centrist politics of the POUM leaders. Capable of left criticisms, the POUM consistently refused to carry through a break with the leaders of the CNT and UGT. Fearful above all of ‘isolation’ from these leaders they diplomatically refused to be critical of their practice. Worse still, they acted as a ‘loyal opposition’ in the Popular Front, often arguing against the PCE’s proposals but accepting to abide by them and even taking responsibility for them when they were defeated.

It is for this reason that Trotsky ruthlessly called the POUM ‘the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party’. Unlike Stalinism, which refused for a second to adapt to the revolutionary impulses of the masses after July 1936 and instead derailed and destroyed all radical initiatives, the POUM wanted revolution, proclaimed its necessity and even on occasion proposed correct tactics. However, it did this alongside covering-up the weaknesses and betrayals of the anarchist, socialist and even Stalinist leaders. For one whole year La Batalla refused to criticise the CNT leadership!

The best example of the POUM’s centrism was to be found in its attitude to the Popular Front itself. Before the February 1936 elections the POUM campaigned against any coalition with the republican bourgeoisie. Then, on the very eve of the elections, they actually entered the Popular Front – only to renounce it again when the elections were over. However, Nin’s criticism of the Popular Front after February was not that it tied the workers’ organisations to the programme of the bourgeoisie but that it was not genuinely a Popular Front. La Batalla of 17 July 1936 on the eve of the Civil War, called for ‘an authentic government of the Popular Front, with the direct participation of the Socialist and Communist parties’.

Yet, when the Civil War erupted and the initiative was with the masses, the POUM shifted direction sharply and gave voice to the demands of the socialist revolution. In those early weeks the POUM exercised the leadership in the Lerida revolutionary committee. It was the only committee in Catalonia to refuse to have a representative of the republican bourgeoisie on it.

But even here the POUM stopped halfway. It could and should have used its revolutionary influence in towns like Lerida and Gerona to agitate for the formation of district and provincial Soviet-type bodies which would have developed into a decisive challenge to the authority of the Generalidad.

Not only did they refuse this road but Nin went out of his way to explain at great length that Soviet-type bodies were unnecessary and ‘alien’ to Spain. This unforgivable rationalisation for the prejudices and libertarian localism of the anarcho-syndicalist masses was typical of the POUM. Instead of ‘saying what is’, the POUM tried at every turn of events to minimise the differences and above all to conciliate with the leaders of the CNT.

Nin was to get his wish for a ‘genuine’ Popular Front in September 1936. Up until 7 September La Batalla denounced ‘bourgeois ministers’, unlike the PCE which heaped praise upon them. But once the Caballero cabinet was formed (ie, the PSOE leader and the leftist face of the bourgeoisie) in Madrid and the offer was made to the POUM of a seat in the provincial government in Catalonia, all this ceased.

In its place Nin assured the readers of La Batalla that a revolutionary orientation was ‘assured’ whenever there was a majority of ‘socialists’ in the government. Nin went so far as to define the dictatorship of the proletariat as a united front of workers’ parties and trade union leaders who assume governmental power! Nin ‘forgot’ the little matter of the democratic control and accountability of the mass of workers and poor peasants!

Once the POUM took its seat in the Catalan government it also took responsibility for the measures of the government. Of course, the POUM proposed radical measures to its Stalinist and bourgeois allies: an industrial and credit bank; no compensation to factory owners, etc. But these were rejected and the POUM remained respectfully silent. Worse, when the government proposed that there should be a government agent in each factory, or that there should be no further elections of factory councils for two years, the POUM agreed.

Worse even than that – indeed criminal – was Nin’s readiness to accompany President Companys on a tour of Lerida to convince the workers that the powers of the revolutionary committees should be dissolved. Nin argued:

These revolutionary committees, whether Popular Executive Committees, or Committees of Public Safety, represent only part of the workers’ organisations, or else represent them in incorrect proportions ... Obviously, the suppression of their revolutionary initiative is to be regretted, but one must recognise the need to codify ... the various municipal organisations, as much with the aim of replacing them uniformly as of setting them under the authority of the new General Council.

After having performed these valuable services for the bourgeoisie, on 16 December 1936 Nin was kicked out of the government. The POUM’s usefulness was at an end. Trotsky commented:

In the heat of the revolutionary war between classes Nin entered a bourgeois government whose goal it was to destroy the workers’ committees, the foundation of proletarian government. When this goal was reached, Nin was driven out of the bourgeois government.


Despite the record of Trotsky’s criticism of the POUM it is sad to reflect that the British Trotskyists grouped around Reg Groves, the Marxist League, and their paper the Red Flag tended to obscure these criticisms and parade the POUM as a revolutionary organisation. The September 1936 Red Flag argued that ‘upon the rapid evolution of POUM into a Bolshevik Party depends the fate of the Spanish Revolution’. This does not reflect Trotsky’s own view of the POUM at the time. The Bolshevik-Leninists of Spain were only formed in the spring of l937 but they were formed in opposition to the POUM.

Keith Hassell


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