The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham


A Note on British Trotskyists and Spain
by Martin Upham

The Spanish Civil War dramatized the menace of Fascism for the Left in Britain. The Trotskyists had a distinctive critique, and their comrades were being brutally repressed in Spain. The communists had to engage in a limited polemic on their left. It might have been possible to avoid it had the Trotskyists been their only critics (except perhaps in the League of Youth where the centre of gravity of the debate was further left than elsewhere). As it was there was some disquiet in the Labour Party about the communists” role in the war, though loyalty to the Republic generally overrode it. The ILP, however, was militantly critical and its opposition to the Spanish communists deepened after the Barcelona rising of May 1937 and the suppression of its sister party, the POUM. [1] The communists branded all their left critics as Trotskyists, though they eschewed a polemic with the Trotskyists themselves. [2] Within the party there were differences over Spain [3], though the Trotskyists only gained from them in a very minor way. [4]

In Spain the verdict of the Moscow Trials was steadily applied to critics of the communist line, and that was a matter not only for Trotskyists. Yet the response of the ILP, the party most at risk, was muffled for most of 1937 by its longing for a united front at home.

All Trotskyists closely followed developments in Spain, especially after the events of May 1937 in Barcelona. To Militant the gains of the July 1936 revolution were steadily filched later in the year and in early 1937. Continual provocation by the Government led, in its view, to the Barcelona rising. Yet this insurrection would, it believed, have succeeded but for the vacillation of the POUM. and the anarchists. With its failure “the Government felt more secure and the tempo of the counter-revolution increased”. The keynote criticism of the POUM was probably the extract from a Trotsky article with which Youth Militant led in June 1937

The New Leader publicised the rolling back of the revolution from 1937. [5] The death of Bob Smillie and the murder of Andres Nin drew particular attention. But, the ILP apart, it was only the Trotskyists who thoroughly covered the revolution within the Civil War in Spain. What was more, Trotskyism denounced the ILP for its willingness to unite with a communist movement which was executing revolutionaries in Spain:

“Let Brockway and Maxton take this to heart. Their participation in the famous ‘unity’ campaign helped the Stalinist murder gang to get away with this crime” (the murder of Nin – M.U.). [6]

Trotskyism opposed the strategic thrust of the republicans and communists towards a democratic Spain. As Militant observed, Spain had been a democracy since 1931, but the advantages were not obvious. [7] A socialist programme could not await the end of the war: indeed the destruction of the revolution would prolong war and lead in the end to some sort of fascism. Militant therefore supported the POUM and Anarchist belief that the war was indivisible. It differed in its insistence that workers and peasants power, mediated through Soviets, was the indispensable tool for translating belief into reality. Yet Trotskyists drew encouragement from the regroupment of revolutionary socialists through the Socialist Party and the Friends of Durrutti: a new party might be born out of this. Of all the Trotskyist papers Fight most regularly carried the documents of the Spanish “Bolshevik-Leninists” who were fighting for such a regroupment.

Looking back over two years of the Spanish conflict, Fight [8] reflected that a People’s Front government was unable to prevent civil war breaking out and incapable of waging it either. “Almost from the very beginning, the Spanish Government did not obtain a single lasting victory.” Fight did not minimise the inferior arms supplies of the Republic, but it insisted that moral superiority could bring victory against a better equipped enemy. But the People’s Front government had, in its view, destroyed morale by reintroducing Assault Guards into key military positions and deepening the divisions between officers and men through salary differentials.



1. Within the ILP. Trotskyists and others at annual conferences urged the inconsistency of ILP-CPGB cooperation in the Unity Campaign, while the communists were suppressing the POUM. in Barcelona (The New Leader, 2 April 1937 and 22 April 1938 ).

2. J.R. Campbell, Spain’s “Left” Critics, 1937, 16p. The POUM was not a Trotskyist party any more than the ILP. itself. But there were Trotskyists in the POUM. Two of them, Mary Low and Juan Brea published Red Spanish Notebook (with an introduction by C.L.R. James) in 1937.

3. Discussion for 13 April 1937 did carry an article by Hugh Slater which argued that Daily Herald reports of fighting behind the lines might be untrue, but otherwise there was no public controversy between communists over Spain. Yet Wally Tapsell and others did bring back criticisms from the Brigades (H. McShane and J. Smith, Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter, 1975, 223; F. Copeman, Reason in Revolt, 1948, 119; H. Dewar, Assassins at Large, 1951, 70.). Emile Burns did feel it necessary to defend Stalin’s early policy of neutrality (Discussion, Nov. 1936). See also R. Black, Stalinism in Britain, 1970, 113-4.

4. Bob Armstrong and four other communists who had served in Spain joined WIL in 1939.

5. See The New Leader, passim, and also Brockway’s pamphlet, The Truth About Barcelona (1937). Fight polemicised against this pamphlet in July 1937.

6. Militant, Sept. 1937.

7. “The advent of the Azana Government in Spain was hailed as a decisive defeat for Fascism, a victory for the working class. But the agrarian problem could not be solved, for this would have meant an attack upon the banks and the church. No political rights were given to the oppressed people of Morocco, with the result that they became a ready prey to Fascist demagogy. All the old instruments of repression – the army, the police – were maintained and were used by the reaction in the rising of July. We have seen the result in a civil war which has decimated Spain for over a year.” (Militant, Oct. 1937)

“It is for a third taste of a liberal bourgeois government that the leaders of the liberals, the socialists and the Stalinists say the workers are fighting and dying. A slight knowledge of the history of Spain since the Republic shows how monstrous is the slogan ‘For Democracy’ in Spain.” (Fight, April 1937)

8. S. Frost, Two Years of Civil War in Spain, Aug. 1938.

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Updated by ETOL: 6.4.2004