Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Trotsky and the POUM

Dear Comrades,

Volume 1, No.2 of Revolutionary History (Summer 1988) published a statement by the international Spartacist tendency in which we commented that the article by Paul Flewers in the same issue on Stalinism and Spain treated the POUM with kid gloves. In a letter in the last issue (Spring 1989) Refiner Tosstorff wrote that our statement contained “some really important errors”. “It is simply not true”, he states, “that Trotsky broke with the Izquierda Comunista over the fusion with the Maurinists“ in September 1935; Trotsky was against it “but accepted it as a majority decision of the Spanish section“. And while breaking with the POUM over the signing of the “election platform” (of the People’s Front) in February 1936, Tosstorff says, Trotsky was willing to collaborate with them in August, then broke again “much more ‘definitively’” in September over the POUM’s entrance into the Catalan government.

This is much more than a question of dates; what is at issue here is the attitude of Trotsky toward the Popular Front. As we wrote: “Trotskyists are not simply opposed to, but rather counterposed to, the Popular Front and every class-collaborationist alliance which subordinates the interests of the proletariat to those of the bourgeoisie.”

Trotsky made exceptional efforts to win and retain Comintern revolutionary veterans like Henk Sneevliet, Alfred Rosmer and, not least, Andres Nin. But recurring major political differences separated Trotsky from Nin before September 1935. Writing on the murder of Nin by agents of Stalin’s GPU, Trotsky noted (8 August 1937) that “as early as the beginning of 1933, differences of opinion on questions of principle led to a complete break between us”. Prefiguring their later betrayal in joining the Popular Front, in April 1933 Nin/Andrade had offered “loyal collaboration” in a Stalinist-called “national anti-Fascist conference”, to include bourgeois pacifists. Trotsky denounced this as a “mockery of the United Front policy” and declared that Nin’s campaign against the International Left Opposition “violates the most fundamental principles of Marxism“. (Nin screamed about interference when Trotsky made available to the membership of the Spanish section extracts from his running polemics in their correspondence). From Nin’s ‘national Trotskyism’ to the POUM and the Popular Front was a logical evolution.

For their part, the leaders of the Izquierda Comunista certainly saw the 1935 fusion as their break with the Trotskyist movement. When the International Secretariat called on the Spanish section to follow “international organisational discipline” and “take your complete independence” from Maurin and Co, Nin responded in a vituperative letter (21 July 1935) accusing the international organisation of seeking to demoralise and split the Spanish militants to produce an “insignificant nucleus which ...w ould bear the pompous name of ‘Spanish section of the International Communist League’,” and peremptorily refused to send the IS information it requested, for “lack of time” and because “given your fundamental lack of understanding of Spanish affairs, we don’t think it would be useful to you”.

In his book Leon Trotski y Espana (1930-1939), former Izquierda Comunista leader Ignacio Iglesias wrote that “the break with Trotsky had freed the Spanish Trotskyists from a kind of corset which required them to maintain an ideological rigidity ...” And Nin’s biographer, Pelai Pagès, concludes his study El Movimiento Trotskista en Espana (1930-1935) with the remark that “the final difference that set the Izquierda Comunista and Trotsky at odds in 1934 and 1935 was the pretext and definitive justification which the Izquierda Comunista used to put an end to its Trotskyism, above all its organisational Trotskyism”. The “corset” of “organisational Trotskyism” which Nin threw away was international democratic centralism and the Leninist programme.

So what was Trotsky’s view of the formation of the POUM? Tosstorff cites his comments about reports on the trip to Spain by International Secretariat delegate Jean Rous. In a letter of 16 September 1935 to Rous, Trotsky wrote of the “ostracism” by the leaders of the Spanish section of the international, while noting of the about-to-be-founded POUM:

The new party is proclaimed. Duly noted. To the extent that this can depend on international factors, we must do everything to help this party gain strength and authority. Which is only possible along the path of consistent and intransigent Marxism. Along this path, I am ready, just as, I’m sure, all the comrades of the IS are, for any collaboration that may be requested of us.

Trotsky’s counsel to the IS was to “await patiently the lesson of experience”. This was not long in coming. Pierre Broué notes in his recent biography Trotsky that Rous was “optimistic and foresaw a positive evolution, but in fact the relations were at a dead end between the Spanish leaders on the one hand, Trotsky and the secretariat on the other ...”

In a footnote in his collection of Trotsky’s writings (La révolution espagnole 1930-1940) Broué writes that “the only writing of Trotsky on Spain contemporaneous with the foundation of the POUM which we have been able to discover” is a letter of 18 October 1935 to Sneevliet. Here Trotsky takes the POUM to task for its claim that the London Bureau was working for “reconstruction of revolutionary unity on a new basis” and insists “in a friendly way” on the need for theoretical and political clarity “in the interests of the future of the new Spanish party”. Not a ringing denunciation but not exactly “acceptance” of the fusion as the “majority decision of the Spanish section” as Tosstorff says. In any case, the “Spanish section” ceased to exist as of the fusion.

What is most notable is Trotsky’s relative silence on the formation of the POUM. And there is a document which can shed light on that. A resolution of 15 February 1936 of the International Secretariat said that while the fusion was a “de facto split” and “the fatal consequences of a whole long series of differences with the ICL(BL)”, it had decided to “postpone any organisational measure in the hope of showing through the experience of acts the true opportunist content of the POUM”. This was shown by the POUM’s joining the left electoral bloc, whereupon the IS “publicly denounce(d) the attitude of the members of the Izquierda Comunista who covered for this treasonous operation” (reprinted in the collection prefaced by Broué, La révolution espagnole (1936-39). There is no reason to believe that Trotsky differed on this with the IS, led by Leon Sedov.

Certainly, in August 1936 Trotsky did offer a “sincere and lasting rapprochment” with Nin and Andrade. This was at the outset of the Civil War, which represented a qualitative change in the situation, at a time when the POUM was organising workers’ militias, and the Trotskyists were dispatching international comrades to fight in Spain. But that soon changed, as Nin entered the Popular Front Catalan government and the Trotskyists were expelled from the POUM’s armed formations. Likewise, on the projected international conference called by the POUM, Trotsky was for waging a struggle against the Popular Front, participating or not participating “according to circumstances”; but, he warned, participating as Vereecken and Sneevliet wished, conciliating the POUM leaders, would be “fatal”. And the POUM was invited to send observers to the founding conference of the Fourth International (Rodolphe Prager, ed., Les congres de la IVe Internationale, Volume 1).

Concerning Trotsky’s remark in Volume 15 of the French edition of his writings, cited by Tosstorff, what be says is: “As to the necessity of unification, our fight with the POUM was not over unification – but over the question, will the policy unify the bourgeoisie or the new creative elements from the proletariat?” Pierre Broué claims that “Trotsky hereby gives the lie to the very widespread version that his break with Nin and his comrades was the consequence of the constitution of the POUM with Maurin and his people”. Hardly. The entire context of Trotsky’s remark, both before and after his comment on “unification”, is about the formation and unification of soviets (as against Nin’s predilection for “unifying” with the official leaders of Spanish labour); not a word about the formation of the POUM.

Tosstorff’s letter reflects the views of those who disagree with or are uncomfortable with Trotsky’s repeated, emphatic denunciations of the POUM for capitulating to the Popular Front. Yet this was central to everything Trotsky wrote on Spain from January 1936, when he excoriated the POUM’s “betrayal of the proletariat for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie”, up to his unfinished 1940 article on The Class, the Party and the Leadership. There was a whole sector of the Trotskyist movement at the time, with Sneevliet and Vereecken in the forefront, who repeatedly opposed Trotsky and the IS on this hard proletarian opposition to class collaboration. By the time the Fourth International was founded in 1938, they had left.

Tosstorff likes the article by Keith Hassell, a supporter of the Movement for a Revolutionary Communist International, on Trotsky and the POUM (also in Revolutionary History Vol.1, No.2) better than the Spartacist statement. Hassell’s article documents well a number of examples of the POUM’s opportunism, but there is one betrayal by Nin and Andrade he doesn’t mention: their abandonment of the struggle for the Fourth International in favour of vague references about “international revolutionary unity on a new basis“. Yet this was at the centre of Trotsky’s critique of the POUM from October 1935 on.

Fraternally<<BR>>Jan Norden for the International Secretariat
International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003