Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


The POUM in History

Wilebaldo Solano
El POUM en la historia: Andreu Nin y la revolución española
Los libros de la Catarata, Madrid 1999, pp. 282

THERE are good accounts of the two groups whose merger created the POUM, BOC 1930–1936 on the Bloque Obrero y Campesino by Andrew Durgan, and El movimiento trotskista en España on the Izquierda Comunista (IC) by Pelai Pàges, but there has been nothing comparable on the POUM itself. Wilebaldo Solano, as the Secretary of its youth organisation, the Juventud Comunista Ibérica, from its formation, and a member of the POUM Executive Committee during the Civil War, is well placed to write its history.

The book describes the party’s evolution from its foundation in 1935 until the first year of exile after Franco’s victory. It is not a theoretical analysis, although it defends the POUM from the criticism of Trotsky and others. The POUM formed part of the Popular Front alliance for the February 1936 election which produced a left government, but Solano insists that it stood under its own banner, and did not forfeit its independence.

Solano describes the struggles in May 1937, in which POUM and CNT militants fought against the Stalinist counter-revolution, and argues that once the CNT leaders ordered their members to withdraw from the barricades, the POUM had no alternative but to follow suit, given the vast disparity in the strength of the two organisations. The militant Anarchist group, the Friends of Durrutti, which opposed the CNT’s capitulation, was, he argues, small and had little influence. As those events and the subsequent murder of Nin and other revolutionaries are already well known, Solano’s account is most interesting for his first-hand description of working with Nin, and of the POUM’s struggle in clandestinity.

The author was with Nin the day before he was kidnapped, and he was part of the party’s clandestine leadership after the arrest and trial of the main leaders, until he himself was jailed. Solano, with other POUM leaders, was still in prison a week before Franco’s troops entered Barcelona. González Peña, the Minister of Justice, who together with BOC member Manuel Grossi had been sentenced to death after the 1934 Asturias rising, told them that their release might mean murder at Stalinist hands, and compromised by sending them to a prison outside Barcelona, where they freed themselves.

The book is less informative on the relations between Nin and the majority of the POUM leaders, who had come from the BOC. Joaquín Maurín had founded the BOC, and his position had been unchallenged, but the insurrection trapped him in enemy-held territory. Nin’s abilities made him the obvious choice to lead the POUM, but many former BOC members were suspicious of someone with a background in the Left Opposition. Nin and Maurín were personal friends, and both had held the position of National Secretary of the CNT, but from 1922 their histories had diverged. Nin had been based in the Soviet Union as the Assistant Secretary of the Red International of Labour Unions, while Maurín had spent the 1920s in Spain, often in prison. The BOC’s politics had been formed by revulsion at the lunacies of the local Stalinists, rather than at Stalin’s policies in Russia. When, in 1936, the Moscow show trials of the old Bolsheviks began, some POUM leaders, notably Luis Portela, objected to La Batalla criticising the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the POUM paid a high price for its courage in defending the Bolshevik old guard, when the Socialist Party and the CNT kept a discreet silence.

In retrospect, it is obvious that Stalin could not permit criticism of his show trials. The fact that the POUM had political differences with Trotsky did not save it from being branded as ‘Trotskyist’, when it defended him and the other old Bolsheviks from the charges of being imperialist agents. Solano points out that the Stalinists’ attacks on the POUM began in Madrid, where the party was much weaker than in Catalonia, and where most of its members had come from the IC.

Solano pays generous tribute to the foreign comrades, especially Victor Serge, Marceau Pivert and Daniel Guérin, who defended the POUM against Stalinist slanders, and aided its members when they were refugees in France. He is less complimentary about Willy Brandt, then a leader of the SAP youth, who refused to take a clear anti-Stalinist position. The author is moved by the reception of Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom and by Catalan television programmes on the murder of Nin, which have done so much to clear the party’s reputation from the mountain of slanders heaped on it.

The book contains several useful appendices. One is an extract from a report by Luigi Longo, the Chief Commissioner of the International Brigades, discovered in the Moscow archives, which expresses concern at the opposition by some Socialist Party leaders to the frame-up of the POUM. Another reproduces an editorial from Treball, the paper of the Communist Party in Catalonia in 1989, which withdraws all the allegations made against Nin. Perhaps it might have come sooner, but it is complete and unequivocal. The lunatic Stalin-worshippers who still exist in Britain seem to have become extinct in Spain.

John Sullivan

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011