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The New International, October 1939


Douglas Conley & Mary Wills

Whitewashing the POUM


From New International, Vol.5 No.10, October 1939, pp.316-317.
transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IN THE SPRING of 1937, when the defeats of the Catalan workers led the vanguard to question the past actions of their leaders, the POUM chiefs refused any reconsideration of their positions. Within the POUM heated discussions were forced by the rank and file. The brilliant, though politically yellow, Andrade suggested in his La Batalla column that there might be room for a little self-criticism in the approaching party congress; he even went so far as to say that the wisdom of the POUM’s entry into the government of Catalonia might be questioned. After this one guarded criticism, Andrade shut up like a clam.

The Catalan proletariat was beginning to grasp at the political analyses laid down months before by the revolutionary Marxists in Spain. Faced with demands from within, and without, their own ranks for some political justification of their course, Nin and the Executive Committee of the POUM maintained an absolute silence: their documents merely recounted what they had done. Only Gorkin, the bright young showman and would-be European diplomat replied – by calling the Bolshevik-Leninist leader, Moulin, “fish-face” and by raising the Stalinist slander-cry of “Trotskyite” against the POUM left wing. This was supposed in some way to answer their political criticism.

Now, after the direst predictions of the IVth Internationalists have been fulfilled: after the suppression of the POUM and a year and a half of GPU prisons for the POUM leaders and thousands of Spanish workers, after the final liquidation of the revolution by the Stalinist-Republican Government, the victory of Franco and his final mopping-up, it was to be hoped that the POUM leaders would have had the time and incentive to learn something from their own mistakes.

It would be an inestimable service to the international working class could they courageously analyze their own political errors and draw clear lessons for the future; but not only did they consistently fight Bolshevik analysis and criticism with all the weapons at their disposal; even now, when the lessons have been drawn in blood, they refuse to see them. At last, however, they have been forced by the tragic course of events to try to answer the revolutionary criticisms politically.

Here is Gorkin’s alibi, printed in the press of the London Bureau:

“And what was this Central Committee of Soldiers?” (a literal translation for the Spanish of Anti-fascist Militia Committee – B.C.)

“The Trotskyites say: ‘The organ of the revolution’, and they reproach us as criminals for dissolving it. It was really a prolongation of the Popular Front to the CNT, to the FAI and to the POUM – exactly the same as the government which was to follow it.”

What a tremendous falsification of history Gorkin has packed into these three lines! Of the three surviving theoreticians of the POUM, Molins, Andrade and Gorkin, only Gorkin is capable of making such an apology for the POUM. The others at least knew enough to keep silent.

After lashing out at all the other traitors and cowards: the counter-revolutionary Stalinists, the right-wing Socialists, the weak-kneed Caballero and the childish anarchists of the CNT-FAI, Gorkin finds only the mildest eye-wash for the POUM – he even attempts to justify their key mistake.

To confuse the Anti-Fascist Militia Committees with the autonomous Government of the Generality of Catalonia is no less grotesque than to confuse the Provisional Government of Kerensky with the Russian

Soviets. To confuse the revolutionary committees set up throughout Spain by the workers and peasants with the Popular Front government, dominated by the bourgeoisie and its agents and interested solely in stopping the revolution, reveals an abysmal ignorance of the most elementary Marxist teachings on the nature of the state. Or perhaps Gorkin doesn’t know what went on in Spain from 1936 to 1938. Here are a few of the main lines.

The social and economic revolution in Spain in 1936 was one of the most profound and rapid ever accomplished: this was due solely to the work of the numerous committees – military, economic and political – set up by the Spanish workers and peasants. The Anarchist, Socialist, POUM and Communist workers began the creation of their own organs for fighting Franco even before his July 19th rising took place. In the first days the workers and peasants acted through fragments of their trade union and party structures – in most cases without the knowledge or consent of their leaders; local sections of the organizations met together to arm and to force a general strike. In Catalonia the initiative in stopping the rebellion was taken by the rank and file men of the FAI (the Anarchist Federation) – who drew into the struggle the best elements of their syndicalist union, the CNT; by groups of POUM workers, who acted independently to arm themselves, as did the best elements in the Socialist union, the UGT. The same independent action of the rank and file of all the working class organizations stopped the Franco forces in Madrid, Valencia, the north, and two-thirds of Spain.

For the first three days after the rising there was a general strike. When the necessity of going back to work, producing arms and organizing the economy became clear, local coordinating committees, and committees of action, sprang up on all sides: Popular Committees, Revolutionary Committees, or, as the central Catalan body was called, Anti-fascist Militia Committee.

These committees were always termed by the Bolshevik-Leninists and the POUM left wing as “imperfect” organs of power. The already constituted workers’ organizations – their political parties, trade unions and the peasants’ organizations – sent their best men to these committees. The local committee tended to be dominated by the most powerful group in their own districts. The Anarchists controlled the committees in most of Catalonia and Aragon, the POUM, the committees in Lerida and many smaller towns, the Socialists in Madrid and Valencia, while the village committees across Spain varied in political composition from region to region. These decentralized base committees everywhere in Spain took over the functions of the government and the economy. For a time everywhere, in Catalonia for ten months, they were the de facto government. They were the dominant force in a situation of dual power. They ran the militia, the police, supplies, industry, transportation, communications, censorship, customs. The Popular Front government, in most places, was dead; in others it was the thinnest shadow of its old self.

The revolutionary committees, following Anarchist, POUM or Socialist lines, were the indirect democratic expression of the will of the workers and peasants. To turn them into democratic Soviets it was necessary: (1) to have elections of delegates in the factories, farming centers and at the front; (2) to elect the central bodies from these lower bodies; (3) to coordinate all the independent committees (such as the CNT Transportation Committees, the village Provisioning Committees, workers’ police bodies, etc.) under various departments of the central revolutionary committees.

These reforms would have made the delegates responsible to the broad masses of workers, instead of only to their own parties or unions. In many of the smaller towns the Revolutionary Committee had merely taken over the functions of the municipality (always a strong unit in Spain) and left the economic problems to the unions, the military problems to the militias. The subordination of the militia and the labor unions – with all their peripheral committees – to the political committees would have been the first step toward solving the economic and military problems, which were first of all political. Their successful solution depended on the resolution of the situation of dual power in favor of a strong centralized revolutionary government based on the democratized committees.

The Barcelona Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee, as actually set up, did not in any way reflect the base committees or the relation of class forces in Catalonia. Yet it could by no stretch of the imagination be called merely an extension of the Popular Front to the CNT-FAI and the POUM, as Gorkin would have it. This Central Committee was set up to coordinate and direct the activities being carried out through all Catalonia by innumerable new organizations; it was an outgrowth of these new revolutionary committees. It represented committees of all shades and descriptions, carrying out all sorts of tasks: economic, political, military, dominated by many different fractions, – but all alike in one important respect: they had nothing whatsoever in common with the old governing apparatus and its middle class bureaucrats. They had taken over the functions of the old government and were ignoring it completely.

In the first days of the war and the revolution, who heard of the Popular Front? In Catalonia it had never been very real, and the Anarchist and POUM workers had no illusions that it had any connection with their new committees and tasks. The Popular Front was an electoral and parliamentary combine which was only dragged into the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee with the rest of the Stalinist garbage. Gorkin knows as well as anyone that in August, 1936, the Stalinist PSUC tried unsuccessfully to set up a Popular Front Cabinet in the Catalan Generality. Unsuccessfully because the Anarchists refused to be a party to it – then.

If the workers’ committees were merely extensions of the Popular Front, why weren’t the Popular Frontists satisfied with their rule? Why set up another Popular Front government? Why the constant sabotage of the workers’ committees by the PSUC, the Madrid Government, the Catalan Left Republicans and the Russian Consul – all tried and true Popular Frontists? If the workers’ committees and the Popular Front were the same thing, why put these committees down in blood ? Why not dissolve the Popular Front Government, which had already lost its power to the working class?

No, the revolutionary committees had no connection organically or ideologically with the Popular Front. The true Popular Frontists, devoted to the interests of the bourgeoisie and the “great democracies”, would have none of them, no matter how diluted or rechristened they later became.

When, due to their inability to answer in a revolutionary way the problems posed by the war and the revolution, the Anarchists were forced to adopt the Stalinist answer and form a Popular Front Cabinet – trailed, as ever, by the POUM – the local revolutionary committees supposedly became a part of the Generality apparatus. The plan was to incorporate them much as the Arbeiterräte were incorporated into the Weimar Constitution. Those with political functions were dissolved by Generality decree and replaced by Municipal Councils with the same proportion of representation as the Catalan Government Council; transportation committees, supply committees, etc., were to be absorbed one by one into the corresponding government departments.

These laws remained long unenforced – in many cases until after May 1937. The committees were so “identical” with the Barcelona Popular Front Government that they refused even to obey its orders, much less amalgamate with it. The Catalan workers and peasants had seized the political power too firmly. They knew that to take their committees back into the old government was to lose this power. The constant disagreements and petty warfare between the provinces and the Central Catalan Government bear witness to the fact that these workers’ and peasants’ organs, devoted to organizing and consolidating the workers’ power, remained the antithesis of the Popular Front Government in Barcelona, which was devoted to daily, fatal concessions to the Central Republican Government, and to the political line of “courting the democracies”.

The Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee represented, not its own base committees, but the Executive Committees of the various anti-fascist organizations. Thus, it was no more democratic than its constituent organizations; and when it adopted the Peoples’ Front line, it only meant that these Executive Committees had adopted that line. The same Executive Committees which had never stopped Franco or taken over the factories in the first place.

In this sense Gorkin might possibly compare the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee with the Popular Front Generality Government it dissolved into: neither was democratic, both favored the Popular Front. But to see no further than these superficial parallels shows that Gorkin has no real understanding of the class content of the two contesting governments. Gorkin lightly skips over the tremendous social upheaval which shook Spain to its very foundations, which took the combined forces of the Communists, Republicans, France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy and Franco three years to break. Gorkin completely ignores the passage of political power from the bourgeoisie to the Spanish workers, this power that the rank and file of the Spanish working class seized and tried in vain to organize, and which they finally lost because they had no Bolshevik party to lead them.

Instead of deepening and democratizing the revolutionary committees where the real hope for the revolution, and the victory over fascism lay, the POUM signed a decree suppressing them. The POUM by its actions told the workers to put their faith in the Popular Front Government of the Generality – from which Nin was later kicked as a reward for his services. And now Gorkin comes whining back with an attempt to change history a bit to suit his newly-found line.

Since Gorkin failed to understand what was happening around him in the heat and fire of social revolution, it is too much to expect him to understand it now. His answer to the question of the revolutionary workers “Why did Spain go down?” is just as bankrupt as his answer to the Catalan workers asking “How shall we complete our revolution?”

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