Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM, Transaction Books, 1988, pp323, £35.
This is a thoroughly interesting and very detailed book, which must set our knowledge of the fascinating history of the POUM on a far firmer basis than ever before. Among a wealth of material we are told that Salvador Dali flirted briefly with Maurin's Bloque Obrera y Campesino (p.30), that it was Brandler and Willi Brandt who tried to persuade the POUM not to criticise the Moscow Trials (p.133), that the Edinburgh Revolutionary Socialist Party, later to become Trotskyist, attended the international Congress Against War and Fascism in Brussels organised by the London Bureau in the autumn of 1936 (p.156), and that strong suspicions remain that the Orlov who defected to the USA and Nin’s torturer were the same person (p.276, n6). An especially tasty morsel for British readers, now that the Communist Party is finally collapsing under the weight of its own infamy, is the note that the Daily Worker even ‘reported’ that the Monarchist flag had been raised alongside that of the POUM over the town halls occupied by the latter (p.204).
This said, a venomous anti-Trotskyist prejudice runs through the book from start to finish, distorting its analysis and even affecting its factual accuracy. Disregarding the history of Stalinist agents fanning the factional squabbles inside the International Left Opposition, we are told that the Landaus, Rosmer and Nin “had been driven away from the official Trotskyist movement by the sectarian suspicions of Trotsky himself” (p.283). Not that the authors are any partisans of Nin, clearly preferring Maurin to him, in spite of the fact that the modern reprint of the theoretical magazine of the Communist Left shows that they were streets ahead of anything the Bloque could produce. At one point before the fusion that created the POUM we are given a full summary of a speech by Maurin to the Madrid Ateneo; he was followed by Nin, not a word of whose speech is even hinted at (p.33).
After the formation of the POUM Nin is even attacked for the invitation to bring Trotsky to Spain (p.166). Felix Morrow’s superb book is described as “mainly remarkable for its Trotskyist biases” (p.290), and “based exclusively do notes amassed by Charles and Lois Orr” (p199). Doubt is cast upon the veracity of Paul and Clara Thalmann’s memoirs for being “Trotskyist”, without the authors feeling obliged to tell us that they subsequently became Anarchists, or even to substantiate their criticisms of them (pp.296-97). What the writers are pleased to call “the lethargic milieu of the small Trotskyist groupings” (p.40) were guilty, apparently, of exaggerating the “success of the official Communists in suppressing the POUM” (p.222), and of wasting “more ink and saliva attacking the POUM than they did the official Communist Party” (p.220). A side-swipe at the postwar Trotskyists castigates them for the failure of their movement in Vietnam, Bolivia and Sri Lanka (p.222), in the hope that we will not notice that these failures were precisely the result of following policies that were practically identical with those of the POUM itself in 1936.
Unable to answer Trotsky’s critique of the POUM, the authors subject him to continuous denigration. His struggle to reform the Comintern before 1933 is described as “infiltrating the official Communist apparatus” (p.89). Kronstadt, where he was not even present at the time, he apparently “brutally suppressed” (p.8) and “drowned in blood” (p.124). Although as commander of the army Trotsky accepted political responsibility for the suppression of the revolt, in fact he “stepped aside completely and demonstrably from the affair” (More on the Suppression of Kronstadt, 6 July 1938). In case we missed their first assertion, that Trotsky had a “real lack of knowledge” of what he was talking about in Spain (p.88), the writers feel the need to reassert it on at least three other occasions (pp.89, 130, 223).
Why this oversensitive concern? The answer glares at us from every page, that out of touch Trotsky might have been, but he was considerably less out of touch than the POUM. The POUM’s prissy sectarianism emerges at every point in the crisis. When dealing with the move of the PSOE to the left after 1934 the writers note that “if its radicalisation had been more extensive and prolonged” (p.113) something positive might have come of it. But what was the POUM’s attitude to this radicalisation? It was to keep itself apart from it and preach abstract Marxist purity at it from outside. This failure to enter the Socialist Party when its mass left was in ferment in effect handed over its youth to Stalinism, and the POUM to its executioners, not a few of whom came from precisely this milieu, or even from the Bloque’s own miseducated ranks (e.g. Rodriguez Salas, p.92). Trotsky’s repeated pleas for them to take the situation seriously and enter the PSOE youth are refuted by a series of laughable Talmudic devices, such as that the Socialist Party was itself “one of the initiators of the People’s Front” (p.223), or that to do so would have been to solve the problem in an “artificial” (p.41) or a “mechanical” way (p.89) (in spite of the fact that it was the Socialist Left that was specifically asking them to enter), and even on the grounds that to have gone in would have lost the Bloque’s own youth to Stalinism (p.82)! Yet the authors have the gall to castigate Trotsky for refusing “to countenance the slightest organisational flexibility in Spain” (p.90)! As to who was really “flexible” in the circumstances can easily be gauged by the fact that Trotsky advised the POUM to liquidate its own trade union chain, the FOUS, in order to enter the CNT and influence its ranks then in mass revolutionary ferment, whereas the POUM in fact entered the UGT and handed control over its unions to Stalinism, the springboard for counter-revolution in Catalonia. In the face of these facts the writers of this book first try to blame the CNT for this state of affairs (pp.129-30), and then try to use as an excuse for the POUM’s impotence in 1936 the fact that the POUM found itself, then, two months after the beginning of the revolution, without a base in the unions (p.130). And yet but a few pages later we are solemnly informed that “for political motives – and also later, for psychological and even for personal security reasons, the POUM had to get closer to the CNT” (p.173).
Dogmatic and rigid where it should have been “flexible”, on organisational matters, the POUM was “flexible” where it should have been principled, over the political ones. “To remain outside the People’s Front”, we are told, “would mean to swim against the stream to no profit, to lose the possibility of gaining a parliamentary tribune, to remain without contact with the masses, and to accept isolation. The POUM had not been founded simply to become a sect.” (p.97) In spite of their argument that the Popular Front was merely an electoral pact, and not a commitment to a bourgeois government in the middle of a workers’ revolution, the uncomfortable fact emerges that Maurin’s speech on the inauguration of Azana’s government began “by saying that this time the representative of the POUM will vote confidence in the government of Senor Azana” (p.100). Even more lame is the apology for Nin’s entry into the Council of the Catalan Generalitat. On 8 September 1936 Nin had declared that the dictatorship of the proletariat already virtually existed in Catalonia. Just over two weeks later he joined the government, and a fortnight after that it dissolved the local committees of the militias, and Nin himself had to go down to Lerida and persuade the local POUM to hand over its power to the municipality (p.140). Yet again the POUM justified its actions by an appeal to exceptional circumstances (as if a revolution in itself is not an ‘exceptional circumstance’): “the new government will have a working class majority ... but with some representatives of the petty bourgeoisie ... an original, and not long-lasting kind of revolutionary transition” (p.135). This blatant rejection of the Marxist analysis of the nature of labour politicians’ participation in a bourgeois state is supported by the most spectacular of theoretical contortions it is possible to read. “For the POUM the question was not one of principle, as far as government per se was concerned”, we are told. “As a Marxist party, it believed in the necessity of taking power. But could entry into a Generalitat administration be the same as taking power?” (p.l34) This is a good question, but it does not a good answer: “The real question was not whether it was correct to enter the Generalitat administration, but whether this should replace or be replaced by the Committee for Militias as an organ of working class power. But with nobody outside the POUM viewing the problem in these terms ...” (pp.135-36) “Nobody”? For the benefit of our writers, it should be quite clearly stated that the question during a revolution is precisely whose institutions should wield power, those of the working class or of the bourgeoisie. Not only were there those in the POUM who saw this clearly – the ‘Cell 72’ opposition led by Jose Rebull in Barcelona (whose views are censored completely out of this narrative) – but the much-maligned Leon Trotsky spent practically the whole of his time available trying to point this out. And that is the whole point.
It was indeed over the fundamental questions of Marxism that the Maurin Bloque, which ideologically dominated the POUM, was so lamentable. Its two-tier organisation (pp.24-25) shows that it was far from Bolshevist, and outside of conditions of extreme illegality it is certainly not the case that “cells of five members at the base” is an “organic structure typical of Leninist parties” (p.27). Its very name (Workers and Peasants Bloc) assumes that it is possible to have parties representing two classes at once, what Trotsky called the purest “Kuomintangism” transplanted onto Spanish soil. All its basic political assumptions were stagist, and Stalinist. The very speech of Maurin referred to above at the Madrid Ateneo “affirmed that Spain at that moment needed a ‘Jacobin’ republic”. “We believe Spain has begun its revolution”, said Maurin, “and that every effective revolution has two stages: the democratic revolution and the Socialist revolution. Without the first the second is impossible.” (p.33, cf. also p.29) Thus the confused statement of the basic position of the POUM in 1936 had a long history: “The Spanish Revolution is a revolution of the democratic socialist type.” (p.94) The command of Marxism by both the Bloque and its POUM offspring can be assessed by the repeated assertion that the petty bourgeoisie are capable of wielding state power as a class; Azana’s first government was described as such by Maurin (p.43), and this was repeated for Company’s Generalitat by Nin (p.139). But whereas Nin had forgotten the Marxism he once knew, there is little evidence that Maurin had ever learned it in the first place, having first declared that “in 1931 the CNT-FAI occupied, in their own way, a historical place comparable to that of the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917” (p.31), and then that he was “in favour of a seizure of power by factory committees” (p.44).
In view of this damning testimony, freely available from the book itself, the claim of the POUM to represent any sort of Marxism at all must remain in deep doubt: It is thus beside the point to grumble at incidental silly remarks, such as that the country of the classic Canovas system of rigged parliamentarism had “democratic traditions” (p.223), or to complain about the authors’ propensity to import fashionable modern feminist concerns into their discussion of the work of women revolutionaries in Spain (pp.285ff.). There are also signs that the documentary evidence has not been considered as closely as it should have been. Although they are acquainted with Negrete’s letters (pp.294-96), they show no knowledge at all of the whole pamphlet devoted to the May days in Barcelona written by Hugo Oehler (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1 no.2, Summer 1988, pp23-29), and they prefer Munis’ opinion about the lack of contact between Bolshevik-Leninists and the Friends of Durruti during this crisis to that of ‘Casanovas’, even though he was there at the time leading the former group and Munis was abroad (p.199).
But however we evaluate the POUM, the Spanish Civil War in general, and the attitude revolutionaries should take up towards them, what is clear is that it cannot be done without a serious and careful consideration of this book. What a shame that its price places it only within reach of the respectable classes in society!
The first and larger section of this book is written by Victor Alba, an old member of the POUM, and a participant in many of the events. He was there. The second and lesser part is by Stephen Schwartz.
Alba writes what amounts to a lenient obituary of the POUM. Somewhat bemused and puzzled by the fate of that party, he puts forward several reasons for its failure, one being that Joaquim Maurin, a leader of the party who was trapped in the Franco area at the commencement of the civil war, might have been a better leader than Andres Nin. Although Maurin survived the civil war and lived until 1973, and published several books on that war, Alba is unable to give us one quotation from them that proves he had a better understanding and position than Nin.
The main error of the POUM – its entry into the bourgeois Republican government, which proceeded to disband the Workers’ Militias – is excused on the ground that if it had failed to enter it, it would have lost support.
The effect of the POUM in damping down the leftward movement of its members is revealed in the following quotation: “It is worth recalling, 50 years later some facts that are nowhere in print, but which every POUM member knew at that time. The first is that the executive served as a brake where it could, on the most radical and sharp position of the local committees, especially those in Barcelona and Lleida and in the party youth organisation.” (p.120). In spite of what Alba says here, these facts were well known at the time and constituted the basis of the criticism of the POUM by the left.
The feebleness of the POUM in the second workers’ uprising in May 1937 is excused on the grounds of not wishing to respond to the provocation of the Stalinists. The authors’ use of “refusal to respond to provocation” reminds one of the character in the oft told story of two persons being shot by the Gestapo, in which one refuses to wear a blindfold and the other says “why do you have to cause trouble?”.
There is an incredibly rambling chapter on the Workers’ Militias, in which the author, 50 years after the events, fails to realise their importance, an importance the republican government revealed in its drive to disarm and suppress them.
Alba makes the remarkable statement that Grandizo Munis, the leader of the Trotskyist group, the Bolshevik Leninists, “did not even know of the existence of the Friends of Durruti, until the events [of 3 May 1937 – ER] took place” (p.199). This statement is supported by a footnote which refers to “Munis in conversation with Stephen Schwartz”. The following would seem to prove otherwise. In Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Revolution (North Carolina Press, 1979), we are told that the Friends of Durruti were officially constituted in mid-March. The organisation increased its membership, according to Balius (vice secretary) to between four and five thousand by the beginning of May. He also quotes Munis: “We worked fraternally with the workers of the Friends of Durruti and they helped us in the sale and distribution of our newspaper”. (Unser Wort, early May 1939, >in Bolloten, p.394).
Bolloten goes on to quote a leading member of the POUM, Juan Andrade, as saying: “In the last days of April, they, the Friends of Durruti, plastered Barcelona with their slogans.” (p.401) Negrete published in the Hugo Oehler’s Fourth International of June 1937 a report of the first public meeting, on Sunday 18 April 1937, of the Friends of Durruti. So Alba and Schwartz ask us to believe that Munis did not know of the existence of the Friends of Durruti until 3 May, although they came into official existence in the middle of March, held their first public meeting on 18 April, and plastered Barcelona with their slogans at the end of April. This item alone indicates the carelessness and unreliability of the authors.
Alba does endeavour, however inadequately, to deal with the facts and the errors of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. Schwartz is different, and would appear to be a journalist with literary ambitions. For him, the Spanish Civil War is not a battle of the classes for the future domination of Europe, in which all the parties and groupings are on trial, but rather a picturesque event giving rise to various styles of Belles Letters; of reminiscences, some sentimental, others abrasive, and some even bilious. For Schwartz, the issues in the Spanish Civil War for which so many fought and died were only a ‘miasma’. For example, Mary Low and Juan Brea’s Red Spanish Note Book, dealing with the first six months of the Revolution and the Civil War, is treated as a feminist and sentimental account. As the following excerpt proves, Mary Low’s account was far from being sentimental.
Schwartz reports how Russell N. Blackwell (Rosalio Negrete) obtained a Spanish passport and stowed away on a ship to France. He does not point out why. The US State Department refused to issue passports valid for Spain, and any passports they did issue were stamped “Not valid for Spain”.
Schwartz refers to the many persons with whom Negrete had discussions whilst in Barcelona. One person to whom he does not refer is August Thalheimer. The Leninist League of Glasgow, which was a member of the Oehlerite International Contact Commission, received from Negrete, posted at Perpignan, on the French side of the frontier, a code for communication to and from Barcelona. The first document we had to use it on was a lengthy thesis on the Spanish situation by Thalheimer, which Negrete had typed out.
Schwartz quotes a Charles Orr as a reference for Hugo Oehler. Who Charles Orr is that he should be used as a reference for Oehler, we are not told. Schwartz either doesn’t know, or does not wish anyone else to know, that Oehler fought on the barricades on 3 May, and wrote one of the most authoritative reports of chat struggle.
Schwartz says that Negrete “met frequently with the Greek Archeiomarxist leader about whom we know little”. Witte, as he was known then, whose real name was Demetrios Giotopoulos, had been a leading member of the Trotskyist International Communist League. There is a 5,000 word account by him on the situation in the British section. In 1933 he broke with Trotsky over the entry into the Second International. He was the Greek representative on the London Bureau, and claimed to represent over 20,000 workers. During Easter 1938, representing the Leninist League of Glasgow, I had a long discussion with Witte in Paris. He had just been served his third expulsion order as an undesirable alien. In 1945, while awaiting trial in a London prison for political offences during the war, I met three Greek sailors charged with ‘mutiny on the high seas’. They told me that Witte had been beaten to death in a police cell in Athens.
On this trip I briefly met Gorkin at the headquarters of the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan, the French sister party, around which the POUM refugees were grouped. The Union Communiste group of G. Davoust, publisher of L’International, with whom I had a discussion at this time, played the same role with Friends of Durruti. At that time I was mainly interested in the Union Communiste’s connection with the print workers of Paris, in which they had a big influence. After the war I heard that Davoust had been tortured by the Gestapo, and was very ill.
The few survivors of those who picketed the US State Department and the Spanish Embassy will be surprised to hear that, according to Schwartz, “thanks to pressure from the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull”, Negrete was released from his Spanish jail. Negrete would have regretted the absence from the list of those who helped to secure his release the name of the Anarchist, Carlo Tresca. (See my letter on the Negrete-Blackwell Defence Committee, Revolutionary History, volume 1 no.3, Autumn 1988.)
I note that AI Richardson’s review of this book replies to Alba’s criticism of Trotsky. Whatever Trotsky may have said of the Spanish situation in general, the fact remains that the Trotskyist forces in Spain were down to a group of seven, and of that seven two were reputed to be police spies. One does not need to have read the complete works of Lenin. The biblical adage “by their fruits ye shall know them” is sufficient to appraise this fact. In 1936, according to Negrete, the Trotskyist group comprised approximately 30 persons. In the period up to 1937 the POUM increased its membership by tens of thousands, and the Communist Party by hundreds of thousands. This was a revolutionary situation, a situation, as Trotsky pointed out, in which the masses were on a higher level than those of Russia in 1917. The Trotskyist forces dwindled to vanishing point. To say they were hampered by being infiltrated by police spies won’t do. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was riddled with police spies. The leader of the Bolshevik fraction in the Duma was a police agent. In spite of this the Bolsheviks increased their membership and support by leaps and bounds. All the revolutionary rhetoric of Trotsky on Spain ended in three applications, by the Bolshevik Leninists, for membership of the POUM. The last application was made after the May day events, i.e. after the POUM “had entered the dustbin of history’. These facts are hardly known by the Trotskyist movement, and have certainly never to my knowledge been assessed.
Pierre Broué, who is by way of being an ‘official Trotskyist’ historian, in The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, written in conjunction with Emile Temime, a work of 591 pages in the English translation, does not once mention the Bolshevik Leninists and their fate. Orwell, Oehler, Negrete, Morrow, Thomas and Alba all do. This silence on the part of Broué says more than words.
Editor’s note: Ernie was misinformed by his sailor friends. Witte died in 1965.
Updated by ETOL: 22.7.2003