Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


POUM Problems

Dear Editor,

I was gratified to read the extensive reviews of Spanish Marxism v. Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM by Victor Alba and I in your Spring 1991 issue. However, the two reviews include a number of statements in need of correction.

In Al Richardson’s review, the following should be noted:

1. Gratifying as it may be to see the British Communist Party exposed for its years of Stalinist fabrications, criticism of the (lying) reference in the London Daily Worker to monarchist flags allegedly flown alongside POUM banners during the May 1937 events did not appear first in our book, but, rather, in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (p.153, Folio Society edition).

2. It is incorrect to describe our book as “disregarding the history of Stalinist agents fanning the factional squabbles inside the International Left Opposition”. Our book includes a discussion of the activities of the group of GPU personnel in Paris, including the literary figure Sergei Efron and the anthropologist Mark Zborowski, the latter responsible for fomenting bad relations inside the international Trotskyist movement (pp.220-21, 234). Indeed, ours was the first book in any language to identify Zborowski and Efron as members of the same overall group of GPU agents, responsible for a whole series of crimes. This has lately been supported, I understand, by the Russian memoirist D.M. Sezeman, who was in a position to know, in an article in Literaturnaya Gazeta (see Pierre Broué’s comments on this in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.44, December 1990, p.44).

3. Richardson states that we “show no knowledge at all of the whole pamphlet devoted to the May days in Barcelona written by Hugo Oehler”, citing our discussion of Rosalio Negrete’s correspondence with Oehler (pp.294-296). In fact, this pamphlet is referred to on page 295, as “a pamphlet excoriating the POUM in classic Trotskyist style”.

I am sorry to say that this work, titled Barricades in Barcelona, was erroneously dropped from our bibliography. However, I am not only fully acquainted with Oehler’s writing on this subject, but also - a matter of printed record – helped distribute a new edition of the pamphlet in the USA in the early 1980s. At that time I considered myself to be closer to the POUM’s Trotskyist critics, including Oehler and, especially, Munis.

Oehler’s pamphlet was not treated at length in our book for several reasons. First, it offers absolutely nothing new in the way of facts on the Spanish workers’ movement, the May events, or any related subject. Second, it is written in an insufferable tone of ignorance and hostility that makes it, in the final analysis, irredeemably offensive to the memory of the POUM and its members. There is nothing in Oehler’s writings on Spain but spleen and spite over what was, in the final analysis, Oehler’s own sectarian alienation from Spain’s political reality. Further, there was nothing about Oehler or his career that would make him an individual whose opinions were intrinsically important, such as, e.g., Bertram D. Wolfe. Oehler was a lifelong sectarian bereft of serious intellectual or political achievements, and certainly of attainments as a revolutionary leader, that might have justified his ridiculously condescending tone.

Had we chosen to devote an extended analysis to the pamphlet literature in English on the Spanish Civil War, of which Oehler’s screed is a most lamentable example, we would have dealt with many other such items before his. But our book was intended to focus on the POUM and its authentic cultural and social environment, not its secondary commentators and critics. A proper analysis of the Trotskyist criticism of the POUM would require another full volume; some of that task has been accomplished by Ignacio Iglesias, in his Trotsky et la Révolution Espagnole (Lausanne 1974).

4. ‘Moulin’ (Hans Freund), and not ‘Casanovas’, as Richardson would have it, led the Bolshevik Leninist section in Barcelona during the May events, in Munis’s absence.

Ernest Rogers’ article falls into a different category. To begin with, his text is composed in a tone of barely-concealed ire, as if between clenched teeth. Why this is, I do not know. But he is mistaken about several things.

5. It is wrong to describe our book as consisting of a “first and larger section by Alba” and a “second and lesser part” by me. In fact, the basic text, chapters 1 to 6, consists of an earlier-published work of Alba thoroughly revised, and at various points rewritten, as well as translated, by me. This will be obvious to anyone who examines the earlier editions, produced by Alba alone. Rogers pretends to authority in discussing our work but gives the strong impression he has never examined the earlier editions in Catalan, Castilian, and French. Chapter 7, on some foreigners and the POUM, was signed by me alone because unlike the others there was no element of collaboration in its writing.

6. While misinterpreting the conditions of the book’s production, Rogers nonetheless reproaches Alba for the statement that Munis had no knowledge of the Friends of Durruti group before the May 1937 events, and me for a footnote stating that this was told to me by Munis in conversation. Rogers cites against us a letter of Munis to Burnett Bolloten, noted in the now-obsolete 1979 edition of Bolloten’s work, The Spanish Revolution, in which Munis stated that the Bolshevik Leninists and the Friends of Durruti collaborated in distributing their press. Rogers then asks how it might have been possible, given the knowledge Juan Andrade and Russell Blackwell (Rosalio Negrete) had of the Friends, that Munis would not know of them before May, and accuses us, wholesale, of “carelessness and unreliability”.

This criticism is completely wrongheaded. First, Munis’ letter to Bolloten, referring to joint work with the Friends, describes the period after May, not before. Munis informed me in a discussion in 1981 that he did not know of the Friends until the May events. This is explicable by several things. Some are merely logical, and others require a knowledge of the Spanish workers’ movement that Ernest Rogers clearly lacks.

Munis spent a good deal of time in Paris during that period, attempting to organise financial support for the Spanish Trotskyists. Such internal organisational tasks consumed most of his energy; unlike Andrade he was not a journalist assigned to cover daily political events. On the other hand, unlike Negrete, Munis had roots and a regular milieu in which his work was more or less fixed; Negrete politically footloose, had many more opportunities to pick up such stray details.

Above all, one must understand the size and particularism of the CNT-FAI movement from which the Friends of Durut emerged. It was an enormous phenomenon with an immense presence in Barcelona, magnified during the war, and involving literally hundreds of organisational entities. It was ideologically self-absorbed to a point where the ability any outsiders, especially Marxists, to learn about internal developments was extremely limited.

Finally, Munis himself was no great admirer of the CNT-FAI, even though utilised Anarchists to print La Voz Leninista and later collaborated with the Friends, becoming somewhat close personally to Jaime Balius, the Friends’ leader. Thus it is eminently comprehensible that he knew nothing of their existence until May.

In any event, what basis has Rogers to challenge my statement that I received this knowledge directly from Munis? I would add that I worked very closely with Burnett Bolloten in the completion of the brand-new definitive edition of his work, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (University of North Carolina Press). In that book he describes my work with Alba as follows:

This work includes considerable material on the party’s origins in the Catalan working class movement.

He says of our book, with Reiner Tosstorff’s recently published doctoral thesis on the POUM in German (Die POUM während des Spanischen Burgerkriegs):

These two books must be considered the basic authorities on the history of the POUM and should be consulted by future researchers interested in matters relating to the POUM and the Trotskyist movement in Spain that are not dealt with in Bolloten’s book.

7. Rogers’ review is strewn with the kind of pseudo-critical remarks we are very familiar with from Stalinist literature, in which failure to mention some small detail is considered a sinister political manoeuvre. Thus, in discussing the biography of Rosalio Negrete, I failed to mention that the US State Department refused to issue passports for Spain during the Civil War; Rogers also criticises my description of US Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s role in getting Negrete released from a Spanish prison (which came from Negrete’s obituary, and was footnoted as such.) But our book is about the POUM and Spain, not about the USA, and such details are of small significance in any event.

Further, we did not know about Thalheimer’s involvement with the Oehlerites, which Rogers describes at length, and frankly, there is no compelling reason why we should have cared about this; it, also, is of no perceptible significance beyond being a detail that seems to excite Rogers in his own rambling trip down memory lane. Rogers resents my using Charles Orr as a reference on Oehler; as should be clear from the comments under point 3, I offer no apology for my handling of Oehler. Rogers also seems to want to impute intellectual turpitude to our ignorance of the biography of Demetrios Giotopoulos, or Witte. But our area is Spain, and especially, Catalonia; we have no pretensions to great knowledge about Greece.

Finally, Rogers refers to me personally in a sneering way as a “journalist with literary ambitions”. This is, it seems to me, inappropriate as well as malicious, especially on the part of a Trotskyist revolutionary. I am indeed a journalist, as was Trotsky, who was also known, by the way, for literary ambitions. As a journalist, I happen to be a wage worker, and a trade union member; my profession, notwithstanding political differences of my own which I freely admit to, is no less worthy of a Trotskyist’s respect than that of any other wage worker. Would Rogers have preferred that the book be-done by a graduate student mainly concerned with advancement in academia? I think not. On this score, I believe I am owed an apology.

Rogers also owes Pierre Broué an apology. Rogers attempt to ascribe an evil motive to Broué for the failure to treat Spanish Trotskyists at length in his first book, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (with Emile Temime), is a demonstration of nothing but Rogers’ insistent ill-will. Broué had to contend with the problem of Munis’ steadfast refusal to discuss anything with him or any other historian of the Spanish war except for Bolloten – I myself came to know Munis as an activist, not as an historian. Broué has more than made up for this, or for any other lacuna in his subsequent work.

Stephen Schwartz

Al Richardson replies:

1 . Correct – it appears in the Penguin edition on p.158 – shows how long ago I read this outstanding book – must go back and read it again.

2. An ingenuous answer. If indeed you knew of the role of the Stalinist agents within the Trotskyist movement responsible for fanning factional disputes and driving away superb militants from its ranks, why did you then blame it on “the sectarian suspicions of Trotsky himself”? The part played by Mill and Well in Rosmer and Landau’s departure is well known (cf. Georges Vereeken, The GPU in the Trotskyist Movement, New Park, 1976, unreliable on many things but certainly not on these). The differences between Trotsky and Nin go back a long way (cf. the appendix to the Pathfinder version of Trotsky’s The Spanish Revolution, 1973, pp.369-400). In the end it was proved that the real sectarian was not Trotsky but Nin, who united with the semi-Stalinist Bloque to set up the POUM instead of entering the mass Socialist Party Youth which was at that time calling for a Fourth International.

3. Again, rather ingenuous. Your statement on p.295 makes it sound as if the verdict upon Oehler’s pamphlet is that of Charles Orr and not of yourselves as authors of the book. In other words, I assumed from the English that you had not even read it yourself, since anybody who could describe Oehler as writing “in classic Trotskyist style” has got a lot of reading up to do on Oehlerism and Trotskyism. That is confirmed by your remarks on Oehler’s career, which you might try investigating, for example when he was an organiser for the CP. May I suggest you start with the Labour Defender of December 1927?

Nor would any of our readers agree that there is nothing in his pamphlet but “spleen and spite”, since all who read that issue (Volume 1 no.2, Summer 1988) congratulated us upon it. Perhaps the misunderstanding would not have arisen if you had cited the pamphlet in your bibliography, or written in more precise English.

4. Again, ingenuous. It is true, as you say, that Moulin led the group in Munis’ absence on this occasion, but ‘Casanova’ (Bortenstein) led the group when Munis was in prison later on. But the substantial point at issue remains. Casanova’s account shows that he was there, in Barcelona, during the May Days. Munis was in Paris. Yet you accept Munis’ word on the lack of contact between the Amigos of Durruti and the Bolshevik-Leninists at the time, and, indeed, in flat rejection of the other eyewitnesses.

Ernie Rogers replies:

Although the preface to A History of the POUM by Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz says Schwartz, in addition, edited and amplified the work, I assumed that Alba was still responsible for the major part of the book and Schwartz the lesser part. Schwartz says I am wrong, and claims a larger share in the production of the book. In the absence of any statement by Alba on the matter, I can do no other than accept his word.

In reply to my doubts about Schwartz’s claim that Munis did not know of the Friends of Durruti until the May Day events, Schwartz says that Munis, unlike the “footloose Negrete” was not in a position to “pick up stray details” or learn “about internal developments”. The public meeting of the Friends on 18 April 1937, with an audience of 1,000 people and four speakers, in a town of approximately one million inhabitants, as Barcelona was at that time, was not a “stray detail” nor merely an “internal development”. Even if Munis had missed all this, he had intimate fraternal relations with Oehler, Negrete and others, and would undoubtedly have been made aware of what was happening.

I said in my review that Schwartz “either did not know of Hugo Oehler or did not want anyone else to know”. From his tirade against Oehler in his reply to Al Richardson and the fact that Oehler’s Barricades in Barcelona was not included in the bibliography, it appears it was the latter. I will not waste my time or the readers’ by attempting to answer Schwartz's unreasonable vituperation against Oehler but merely recommend to the reader the Summer 1988 issue of Revolutionary History where they can read Oehler’s Barricades in Barcelona and judge for themselves.

In my review my “trip down memory lane”, as it is described, was not taken in order to criticise Schwartz’s report of foreign persons in Barcelona but only to augment it. Although he sneers, he does not dispute the accuracy of my information.

Schwartz says I sneered at him as a “journalist with literary ambitions”, Schwartz is too thin-skinned. This was not a sneer but a statement of fact, as Schwartz proceeds to prove in the same paragraph in which he complains. I have no objection to his literary ambitions and wish him every success, but, as I said in my review, it is his substitution of literary values for political ones to which I object.

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003