A Brill publication @ the Central: Revolutionary Marxism in Spain, 1930-37 by Alan Sennett.

Alan Sennett 

The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 7, ‘Defending the Revolution’, pages 267-9 of Revolutionary Marxism in Spain, 1930-1937, published by Brill. I have omitted the footnotes and altered the tense of the first sentence to address the present reader.  This snippet is taken from the concluding section to the chapter and offers a brief assessment of the POUM, its key thinkers and leaders, their role in Spain’s revolution and relationship with both the political thought and personality of Leon Trotsky.  It follows the main body of the chapter that deals with the attacks upon the POUM and what amounted to the rolling back of revolutionary gains (especially collectivisation) in which the party had played a role alongside the much larger and more powerful Anarcho-Syndicalist CNT.  The party and its leadership were subjected to a campaign of vilification and slander – accused, among other things of being ‘Trotsky-fascists’ and part of a ‘fifth column’.  This position was put forward by the official communists, the Comintern and other national Communist parties and their press organs.  May 1937 had seen the playing out of a mini civil war in Barcelona triggered by attacks upon revolutionary gains. Defeat for the revolutionary Left was quickly followed by the Republican government outlawing the POUM, Nin’s disappearance and murder and the arrest of many militants, some of whom were later tried by the Republican government. The chapter assesses historians’ explanations for the propaganda assault and the nature of the May events and Nin’s murder, all of which are matters of some controversy. There is also major historical disagreement over the roles played by the official Communists, Soviet agents and other forces; the culpability or otherwise of the POUM leaders; and whether or not the vilification campaign was connected to Soviet foreign policy, whose logic – it has been argued – dictated terminating Spain’s social revolution and the forces supporting it.  While sympathetic to the POUM in many ways, the emphasis is upon presenting a historical analysis which will, I suspect, find little favour with any sectarian political positions. 

This book attempts to present and examine the political thought and practice of the Spanish dissident communists and to place it in historical context. It seems clear that the political analysis of [the POUM’s] key intellectuals, Nin and Maurín, made a significant contribution to political debate on the socialist Left during the Republican period. Moreover, it is evident that the POUM was far from being a peripheral player in the Revolution and Civil War in Cataluña between July 1936 and May 1937. However, it cannot be said that the POUM was a successful political organisation. Indeed, it might be argued that the ease with which the party was wiped off the political map in May and June 1937 was symptomatic of its leadership’s belated grasp of political realities. But was its vulnerability simply the product of a failure to appreciate the extent of Communist influence within the government, or were there other factors at play that have to do with the strategic implications of its theory of revolution?

It is hard to read Nin’s repeated assertions that the revolutionary workers could take power without recourse to violent struggle as anything other than the last of a series of political miscalculations based upon overestimating the strength of revolutionary forces in Cataluña. By 1937, there had been no ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘dual power’, even during the heady days of the Summer Revolution in 1936. The Generalitat had never truly constituted a workers’ government, even with CNT and POUM participation, nor had it been a purely bourgeois or petty-bourgeois government either. The reality was that, by early 1937, the official Communists (PCE/PSUC) had gained a great deal of prestige and political leverage, leading to remarkable membership growth. This cannot simply be attributed to the boost afforded by Russian military assistance but must also be seen as recognition of the popularity of their political positions. The implication of Nin’s argument, that the revolutionary workers must seize power, was that power would have to be taken from a government enjoying the support of significant sections of the Catalan working class as well as the lower middle classes. Trotsky may have been correct to say that power could only have been achieved through a civil war within the Republican zone, but such a conflict would have been fought primarily between workers’ organisations. In the context of the War, this could only have weakened the Republican side. Neither Trotsky nor Nin addressed this uncomfortable fact. However, it is important to stress that, through its actions, the POUM demonstrated that, together with the tiny grouping still loyal to Trotsky, it was the only Marxist party prepared to defend the social revolution.

If the POUM’s final actions demonstrate that, in practice, it was a revolutionary Marxist party, it is important to understand why the leadership adopted positions that at times conflicted with the party’s own revolutionary principles. Trotsky criticised POUM leaders for wavering between revolutionary politics and reformism. However, the charge of ‘centrism’ rests upon the supposition that Nin and Maurín were not wholly convinced by the theory of revolution to which they subscribed, or that they feared the practical implications of this theory. Yet the POUM’s support of the Barcelona working class in May 1937, despite appreciating the hopelessness of the situation, and the fate of its leaders offer sufficient grounds to refute Trotsky’s accusation. Trotsky himself acknowledged Nin’s revolutionary credentials and referred to the POUM’s political honesty after Nin’s disappearance in June. Yet it appears to have become commonplace in Trotskyist circles to describe the POUM as ‘inveterate centrists’.  In order to reveal the real reasons the POUM signed the Popular Front pact and entered the Generalitat, one needs to recall the history and composition of the POUM and appreciate the weakness of its position in the Spanish labour movement.

As we have seen, the POUM was an amalgam of Catalan Marxists and Spanish Trotskyists in which Maurín’s supporters enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority. It was noted in Chapter Five that the political positions the new party adopted reflected a shift toward the Left Communists rather than a continuation of BOC policies. However, this left a legacy of uneasiness among the ranks of the POUM’s former BOC members over issues such as the national question and fears that they were adopting Trotskyist positions that would leave them vulnerable to the attacks of their political rivals in Cataluña. With the loss of the party’s main leader, Maurín, at the outset of the War, the majority of former BOC members tended to be suspicious of Nin and the other former Trotskyists. Notwithstanding post-war recriminations by surviving POUM militants over its tactical decisions, it is clear from the primary sources that both Nin and Maurín shared a conception of revolution that can only be described as one of permanent revolution. The party’s programme explicitly counterposed a permanentist conception to the Socialists’ belief that the next stage of Spain’s Revolution would be bourgeois-democratic. They contrasted their view of the Spanish situation as a struggle between fascism and socialism with that of the official Communists, to whom it was a conflict between fascism and democracy. A shared appreciation of the socialist character of the Revolution and common criticisms of the Comintern and the Soviet bureaucracy’s degeneration under Stalin constituted key points of political concurrence between Nin’s and Maurín’s organisations. This undoubtedly facilitated their fusion in September 1935. The POUM’s position on the USSR seems indistinguishable from Trotsky’s and was certainly informed by his powerful criticisms of Stalinism. After the Austrian Socialists, the POUM had been the first workers’ party to condemn the Moscow trials and defend Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks accused with him. Trotsky’s portrait hung alongside Lenin’s at POUM political meetings and his articles occasionally appeared in the party’s publications.

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