Trotskyism and the Spanish Workers' Movement

Submitted by cathy n on 10 April, 2012 - 8:23

'There is nothing so destructive as illusion, whereas nothing can be of greater use to the revolution than naked truth.' Rosa Luxemburg, The Spartacus Programme.

The Spanish Revolution was the last great confrontation in the Europe-wide class war sparked by the triumph of the Russian Revolution in 1917. It inspired workers from all over the world and its tragic defeat was a source of controversy for decades after the events. The writings of Leon Trotsky were important in that debate. The writings of other revolutionaries — such as Victor Serge — are less well known, though they were important contributions in the development of the early "Trotskyist" movement. Those debates are worth revisiting. They highlight important lessons about Marxist organisation.

The Spanish workers' movement

The debates of Trotsky and others centred on the different political tendencies in the Spanish workers' movement: the anarchists, the reformist socialists and the communists.

Until the period following the First World War, the Spanish labour movement was relatively weak. Although anarchism had deep roots in Spain by the turn of the twentieth century it was faltering under the weight of severe state repression. After a failed general strike in 1902, union membership in Barcelona fell from 45,000 to just 7,000 by 1909. The anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) was formed in 1910, shaped by working-class alienation from the state following the massacre of an anti-colonialist rebellion in Catalonia in 1909. But initially it was small with no more than 50,000 members.

Spain's neutrality in the First World War reaped substantial war profits for Spanish capitalism, causing a boom and a subsequent slump. The anarchists who reaped the whirlwind, attracting the most militant workers with promises of immediate and direct action. Repression of the CNT followed a general strike in August 1917 — yet it grew from 107,096 members at the end of 1918 to 345,000 a year later in Catalonia alone. They were also beginning to make inroads in traditional Socialist areas such as Asturias and Vizcaya.

The fortunes of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the socialist-led union federation, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), offer a stark contrast. Spanish social democracy had long flinched from action which would bring it into conflict with the state. For instance, the Madrid-based PSOE-UGT leadership, led by the moderate reformist Pablo Iglesias, had opposed turning an important miners' strike of 1913 (Rio Tinto) into a general strike and ceded much ground to the new CNT in Catalonia. The party's combination of revolutionary rhetoric and conciliatory actions could not even be explained by a desire — like that of the German Social Democratic Party leaders - to preserve a large party apparatus at all costs. The PSOE was weak, registering only 45,000 votes in 1910.

Spanish social democracy had always been also ideologically weak — it did not take part in any of the controversies raging within the socialist Second International over political strategy at the turn of the century. It made few attempts to relate Marxist theory to Spanish realities, and its leading theorist Julian Besteiro, a former liberal republican and Professor of Logic in the Universidad Central de Madrid, was an extreme example of 'vulgar Marxist' dogmatism. Besteiro's analysis of Spain was highly deterministic: he thought that the country was in a semi-feudal condition; that the Second Spanish Republic declared in April 1931 represented a stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution; and that PSOE should step aside and allow the liberal republicans to govern alone. He advocated abstentionism from the Pact of San Sebastián in 1930, which saw a coalition of republicans and socialists agree to overthrow the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and declare a republic.

The revolutionary general strike of August 1917, vividly captured in Victor Serge's semi-autobiographical novel Birth of Our Power, had been the beginning of a wave of militant class struggle which ended in defeat for the workers and the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923. Primo's dictatorship was a cold winter for the working-class movement. The anarchist movement was outlawed, and driven underground , precipitating a split in 1927 between the more moderate and syndicalist wing around Angel Pestana, and the more ideologically pure anarchists such as Buenaventura Durruti who formed the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI).

At the same time the PSOE split over the whether or not to adhere to "Twenty One Conditions" for membership of the new, Third International set up after the Russian Revolution.The left-wing left to form the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). The remaining leadership of PSOE began to collaborate with Primo de Rivera, and the trade union bureaucrat Francisco Largo Caballero even joined the dictator's Council of Ministers in return for the UGT being allowed to take part in state arbitration committees designed to mitigate industrial disputes. The PSOE's stance only changed when living standards began to decline in the second half of the 1920s, leading to an opportunist shift in tactics.

The leftward shift in the Spanish socialist movement

The PSOE became the largest party in the Cortes following the elections in 1931. It decided, against the wishes of Besteiro and others, to share power with the Spanish republicans and the centre-right Radicals. Largo Caballero became the Minister of Labour, charged with solving the problem of the highly inefficient Spanish agriculture, characterised by starvation wages and seasonal unemployment.

Caballero proposed a relatively mild Agrarian Reform Law in 1932 which created a Land Registry, and laid the basis for the compulsory purchase of large estates. He also introduced a Law of Municipal Boundaries which hindered landowners' ability to import labour from one municipality to another in order to depress wages in times of regional unemployment.

The agrarian question was at the centre of the political polarisation between the left and right during the Second Spanish Republic. The reforms were met with stubborn resistance from landowners because they cut into already low profit rates. They were often delayed by unsympathetic officials on the ground. The apparent threats to private property enabled the right to mobilise pious Catholic smallholders in areas such as Navarre. In December 1933, the right came to power there, promising to halt progress on the agrarian question; they initiated a campaign of harsh repression against the working-class.

The consequent lack of movement on the land issue pushed important sections of the PSOE-UGT to the left. Significantly, the Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra (FNTT), the agricultural section of the UGT, grew rapidly. Founded in April 1930 with 157 sections and over 27,000 members it grew to 275 sections of 36,639 members by June. Two years later it had 392,953 members and made up 38% of UGT membership. The UGT was transformed - from a union of skilled craftsmen to one with a large base of landless labourers.

Largo Caballero was alert to rank-and-file radicalisation and knew that the UGT needed to fend off a resurgent anarchist movement. He shifted to the left, adopting bellicose revolutionary rhetoric. He was crowned the “Spanish Lenin” by the Spanish Stalinists after they adopted the popular front policy of allying with reformist socialists and bourgeois democrats at the 7th Congress of the Comintern in 1935.

A left tendency around Luís Araquistain in the PSOE emerged.

Araquistain had worked with Caballero on the land question before becoming Spain's ambassador to Germany at the time of Hitler's coming to power. He was able to help evacuate Jews and leftists from certain death. He founded the journal Leviatán in May 1934 which for its first six months was preoccupied with the threat of fascism.

Leviatán became a vehicle for relentless ideological attacks on Besteiro and is credited by the historian Paul Preston for destroying the professor's reputation as a leading Marxist theorist. The journal also contained articles by Italian, German, Austrian and Portuguese socialists in exile and gave space to Leon Trotsky's analysis of fascism.

Arguments about the bankruptcy of the Comintern's popular front strategy also found a voice in Leviatán through contributions from the Workers' and Peasants' Bloc (BOC) (led by Joaquin Maurín), and Izquiera Comunista Española (ICE), (led by Andrés Nin). Maurín and Nin eventually founded the Partido Obrera Unificacion de Marxists (POUM) in 1935.

From this analysis sprang projects aimed at creating working-class united fronts called Alianzas Obreras (Workers' Alliances). A brainchild of Maurín, the Alliances played a role in the October 1934 rising in Asturias. However the PSOE would be mainly interested in using them to promote their own hegemony in the workers' movement and, with the exception of Asturias, the CNT remained aloof.

The Spanish Section of the Left Opposition

The ICE were in fact the Spanish Section of the Left Opposition, formed originally as the Oposición Comunista Españala (OCE) by a group of Spanish exiles in Belgium on 28 February 1930. It was eventually led by Nín, who returned to Spain the following September. Nin was an experienced revolutionary. As secretary of the national committee of the CNT, he had travelled to Moscow in 1921 for the founding conference of the Profintern, the international organisation to co-ordinate communist trade union work. It was there that he first met Victor Serge and the French syndicalist leader Alfred Rosmer. Once in Moscow, Nin was unable to return to Spain because he was wrongly linked to the murder of the Spanish prime minister, Eduardo Dato in 1921. He resolved to stay in Moscow to assist the work of the Profintern and became an ally of Leon Trotsky, joining the Left Opposition and spending time in Stalin's prisons for his efforts in fighting the growing Soviet bureaucracy after Lenin's death.

However, the Spanish section very quickly demonstrated some major shortcomings which are discussed in Trotsky's correspondence with figures such as Nin and Victor Serge, and also in the Internal Bulletin of the Left Opposition.

The disagreements centred around two key issues. Firstly, Trotsky expressed reservations that the Spanish section was too insular. It was not participating fully in the debates within the International Left Opposition and its leaders, he complained, 'have persistently kept their organization away from the internal life and the internal struggles of the other sections, and thereby have shut it off from access to an irreplaceable international experience.' This sense of exceptionalism later caused massive became extremely problematic.

Secondly there was the issue of Nin's relationship with Maurín and his followers. In September 1931 Trotsky had written to the Spanish Left Opposition opposing moves to enter Maurin's BOC on the grounds that the Left Opposition had not yet given up hope in its ability to reform the existing official Communist Parties. In December 1932 Trotsky held an informal meeting with several sections of the Opposition in Copenhagen. The Spanish section was unable to attend so Trotsky let it be known that he felt they had let 'friendly personal relations' with Maurín take the place of 'principled struggle against petty-bourgeois nationalism and thereby put a break on the development of the Left Opposition in the most decisive period.'

However, after Hitler's takeover of power following the Comintern's disastrous ultra-left 'Third Period', which saw Communist Parties attack social democrats as 'social fascists' and refuse to form a united front with them against real fascism, Trotsky gave up hope of reforming the Stalinist parties and proclaimed the need for a Fourth International.

The historian of the POUM, Victor Alba, sees this as a vindication of Nín's initial instincts to join the BOC as a faction, especially as the PCE barely existed in Catalonia. It is reasonable to have some sympathy with this position; Trotsky's volte-face, combined with his distance from Spain, might be taken as an argument to challenge his position on the Spanish Communists.

Nevertheless, the BOC had a flawed political programme, sharing with the Stalinists the assumption that 'every revolution has two stages: the democratic and the Socialist revolution.' Alba admits himself that the BOC's propaganda penetrated little into working-class life and its main success was among white-collar workers in Barcelona. In eventual fact, Trotsky's warnings proved correct when the Catalan BOC's anti-Trotskyist instincts came to the fore within POUM following the capture of Maurín by the fascists at the beginning of the Civil War.

In France, too, the existing social democratic party was shifting to the left in response to the threat of fascism and this opened up a new arena of struggle. In June 1934, Trotsky therefore proposed to the French section of the Left Opposition, the Communist League, that they should enter into the Section Française de l'International Ouvrière (SFIO), in a move which became known as the 'French Turn.'

He recommended a similar policy in Spain. Nin opposed the 'French Turn' and in September 1934, his group, now called the ICE, broke with Trotsky. This sectarian position led to the exit of talented militants such as Esteban Bilbao and Manuel Fernández y Grandizo (alias 'Munis') who joined the PSOE. It was clear that the left of the PSOE was increasingly receptive to Trotsky's ideas and this was especially true of its youth movement, led by the future PCE leader Santiago Carillo. Carillo even wrote to the BOC's organ, La Batalla, inviting them to join the PSOE to wage a struggle against the party's Right as a step to creating a revolutionary party to fight fascism. However, Maurín was concerned about losing influence and he too refused. The Socialist youth movement eventually fused with the youth wing of the Stalinist PCE, making it much more difficult to win over a whole generation of militant young socialists to genuine revolutionary socialism.

The formation of the POUM

Still, all was not lost. In March 1935, the BOC brought together the ICE, the official Communists, the Catalan section of the PSOE, and some other minor Catalan leftist parties to discuss Marxist unity. Apart from Nin and Maurín, the others were not interested and later formed the basis of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) which acted as a de facto branch of the Stalinist PCE.

The International Secretariat of the International Left Opposition initially approved talks with the BOC, as long as the ICE could remain a faction inside any new party. Jean Rous, the Secretariat member sent to Spain in the summer of 1935, was initially optimistic and was assured by the ICE that they would re-establish links with the Munis group inside of the PSOE. This would open up the possibility of a faction inside a new open Marxist party in Catalonia, and entryist work inside the PSOE in areas where the ICE and BOC were both weaker.

However, the BOC was not prepared to tolerate factions and Nin instead opted for full fusion - and at a cost. In a letter to the French historian Pierre Broué in the 1970s, Maurín summed it up: 'The only concession the BOC made to the ICE was the change in the name of the party.'

Maurín later recounted to Victor Alba that in the course of fusion talks: 'There were no problems. Nin had official broken relations with Trotsky and I was persuaded that Nin was sincere and did not seek infiltration in the classic Bolshevik manner. The central topic was: international independence, no contact with Trotsky. Nin assented.' This 'international independence' meant in practice, membership of the centrist 'London Bureau' which was the international grouping including the British Independent Labour Party.

Initially, the POUM made some good noises. It criticised the disastrous Comintern Third Period policy, adopted a position on the Spanish Revolution similar to Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, and called for a united front of workers against fascism. It correctly accused Stalinism of swinging 'from one extreme to the other, in an empirical manner, entirely abandoning the essential fundamentals of Marxism.'

The POUM and the Popular Front

However, the POUM's conduct in 1936 would leave it open to similar charges itself. Despite publishing several articles correctly arguing against the Popular Front policy of binding workers' organisations to the bootstraps liberal bourgeoisie, the POUM's executive committee decided to join the Popular Front electoral list with the republican parties in the elections of February 1936, confirming the worst fears of the International Secretariat. Although convincing itself that it was a circumstantial electoral pact, the POUM were guilty of spreading illusions in the merits of the Popular Front by their very participation in it.

They signed up to a programme which was described by E.H. Carr as a 'mild and anodyne document, evidently designed to rally a wide coalition of divergent interests and sections of opinion, united only in their commitment to the republic and to some form of democratic government.' In fact, parts of it were anything but anodyne, committing the parties to support for the League of Nations, earlier attacked by the POUM as 'the united front of the imperialists', and rejecting any radical solutions to the agrarian question.

This made it almost impossible for the POUM to argue for their formal position of a workers' united front without spreading confusion at a time when spontaneous land seizures and factory occupations were spreading through Spain. It eventually led them to active participation in the Republican government during the course of the revolution which followed the Generals' coup d'etat on 17th July 1936.

Trotsky did not hold back in his criticisms of the POUM, accusing his former ICE comrades of the 'debasement and prostitution of Marxism' for concluding 'a political alliance with the leaders of a reformist party on the basis of a deliberately dishonest program serving to dupe the masses and cover up for the bourgeoisie.'

Such polemics created disquiet in the Dutch and Belgian sections of the Trotskyist movement. The respected Dutch revolutionary Hendricus Sneevliet, in the name of the Central Committee of his party, criticised Trotsky's attacks on the POUM for being exaggerated and overly sharp. Trotsky's criticisms also led to a lengthy correspondence with Victor Serge and others. Alfred Rosmer and Serge accused Trotsky of being 'sectarian', to which Trotsky replied, 'If it is sectarianism, then all of Marxism only sectarianism, since it is a doctrine of the class struggle and not of class collaboration.'

The charges of sectarianism - a much misunderstood word - are incorrect. Alba writes that the 'official Trotskyists wasted more ink and saliva attacking the POUM than they did the official Communist Party.' As well as being untrue, this criticism misses the point. Whereas the PCE were following the orders of the counter-revolutionary Kremlin bureaucracy, the POUM were sincere if mistaken revolutionaries, ostensibly open to persuasion. Trotsky wrote to Serge that 'if Nin today were to pull himself together...if he should draw all the necessary conclusions, then we would help him as a comrade'. It was constructive criticism, however acerbic and angry, and did not underestimate the individual bravery of POUM militants. As Trotsky wrote to French comrades, 'it is precisely their battle and their sacrifice that forces us to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.' Anything else would have been a betrayal of Marxism.

However, Nin did not listen to this advice. As is well known, the military coup in July 1936 was followed by a revolutionary explosion. Workers occupied factories and peasants invaded large estates; workers' control in industry was established in large parts of Spain; the the Republic's institutions existed only on paper. Meanwhile, the armed workers who had successful repelled the military in Spain's major cities ruled the streets. In short, a situation of dual power existed, especially in Catalonia.

At this critical stage of the revolution, the Catalan premier, Luís Companys offered power to the CNT. In reality it was power that he no longer had to offer, yet the CNT persuaded Companys to stay, resuscitating bourgeois legality as it lay on its death bed. In side-stepping the question of political power and denying the need to construct the basis of a workers' state, the CNT opened the way to the counter-revolution. The POUM compounded this fatal error by following the CNT into the re-organised Catalan regional government, the Generalitat, in October 1936. The Stalinists, acting alongside the bourgeois republicans, placed the collectivised factories under the control of the bourgeois state, paving the way for the eventual re-establishment of private property. Nin, as Minister of Justice, oversaw the dissolution of the revolutionary workers' committees and the re-establishment of the old municipal government.

An opposition in the Barcelona POUM, the ‘Cell 72’ group led by José Rebull opposed this policy, writing that: 'We do not accept the reformist position according to which the social overturn can take place by the ‘conquest’ of the bourgeois state. In this case the problem of dual power could be laid aside. But if you look at reality, you must recognise the necessity for destroying the bourgeois state and replacing it with a new organ that has nothing in common with the state of the exploiters.'

Members of the POUM in Lleida had also opposed entry into the Generalitat and Nín led a government delegation to persuade them to support the decrees. As Alba admits, 'this was, unquestionably, a low point for the party... On November 16, with all resistance now vanquished... the Generalitat decreed the suppression of three thousand official posts in committees, people's tribunals, commissions, etc., the majority of them held by workers. The structure of working-class power was thus eliminated.'

The POUM and the Trotskyists

The Munis group of Trotskyists, who stayed with the International Left Opposition after Nin's break with Trotsky, were joined by around one hundred foreign Bolshevik-Leninists who volunteered to fight in the Civil War. Jean Rous was sent by the International Secretariat in August 1936 to attempt to reach an agreement with the POUM and warned, to no avail, about the consequences of liquidating the revolutionary committees in Catalonia.

After this, the Bolshevik-Leninists constituted themselves as the official section of the International Left Opposition and published their own paper, La Voz Leninista. The group lost many militants in the defence of Madrid in the autumn of 1936. In the 'anti-Trotskyist' purges carried out by the Stalinists and the government of the right-wing PSOE premier Juan Négrin after May 1937, many Bolshevik-Leninists including Erwin Wolf, who was the secretary to Trotsky during his exile, and Hans Freund (alias Moulin) disappeared, presumably murdered.

One volunteer, Mieczyslaw Bortenstein, a Polish member of the French Communist League escaped from Spain, only to be later arrested in France and perished at the hands of the Nazis in the Auschwitz death camp. Bortenstein served in the CNT militia from the very beginning of the Civil War, before helping to edit La Voz Leninista. He went on to lead the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists after the arrest of Munis in 1938.

In his political memoir, written using the alias 'M Casanova', Bortenstein recounts how the Spanish Trotskyists applied to join the POUM in November 1936, promising to respect party discipline in return for factional rights. Nin, speaking on behalf of the POUM's Central Committee, told them he required 'a condemnation of the campaigns of the so-called Fourth International' among other things, and suspected sympathisers of the Fourth International were later expelled for 'deviating from the political line of the party.'

However, there was another Trotskyist group, originally inside the POUM, led by the Italian Nicola di Bartolomeo (alias 'Fosco') and aligned with the short-lived French International Workers Party (POI) of Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank. This group published the newspaper El Soviet and was very critical of the Bolshevik-Leninists for their alleged 'sectarianism.' Di Bartolemeo, along with another Italian, Virginia Gervasini, was given the task of registering foreign militants for the POUM when they arrived in Spain. Initially he supported the proposal from Rous that the Bolshevik-Leninists should join the POUM militias and felt that during August 1936 'the Bolshevik-Leninists acquired considerable influence among the ranks of the POUM...'

Nevertheless, in a polemic published in the POI's bulletin in 1938, di Bartolomeo condemned the official section for proposing to distribute a letter from Trotsky in the summer of 1936, which he admitted contained correct criticisms of the POUM's policy on the Popular Front. He blames the International Secretariat, and especially Rous, for a sectarian policy which repulsed the Trotskyist sympathisers within the POUM.

It is difficult to disentangle events and nuances 75 years later but the disagreements between the Trotskyists inside and outside the POUM seem insignificant given the gravity of the situation they were faced with. Di Bartolomeo was eventually left in the contradictory position of agreeing with the Bolshevik-Leninists entering the POUM as a faction in theory, but unwilling to accompany them himself because he disagreed with their International Secretariat. On the other hand, he saw the POUM was opportunist and centrist and was unwilling to remain in their organisation without a proper Trotskyist faction as a counter-weight.

Di Bartolemeo's polemic does not address Bortenstein's concerns that Nin set impossible conditions for the entry of the Bolshevik-Leninists into the POUM in November. According to a first-hand account by the Italian Trotskyist, Dominico Sedran (alias 'Adolfo Carlini'), di Bartolomeo told the Bolshevik-Leninist volunteers in August that the POUM had refused their request for factional rights upon their arrival in August. After a spell on the Huesca front in Aragon, the group returned to Barcelona after suffering casualties, and was again refused by Nin on the grounds that the International Secretariat had 'slandered' the POUM.

To put things into perspective, the American Trotskyist Sherry Mangan was sent to Perpignan in 1939 by the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party of the USA, Socialist Appeal, to interview revolutionary exiles escaping across the frontier to France. His article is a gripping account of the escape of the surviving POUM members and Bolshevik-Leninists from the wreckage of captured Barcelona, having been left to rot in Stalinist prisons to await the arrival of Franco's troops. After the men had already been expelled from France by Édouard Daladier's border police, Mangan recounts:

'Fourth Internationalists have grave political differences with the centrists of the POUM; but when they are ruthlessly hunted by the bloodhounds of French imperialism at the very time it is making friends with the butcher Franco, it is not these political differences, but our class solidarity which is uppermost in our minds.'

If only they had managed to reach a reasonable arrangement when the Civil War and the Spanish Revolution were still winnable in the summer of 1936.


In December 1936 the POUM was ejected from the Generalitat on the orders of the Soviet consul in Barcelona, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (the man who led the Bolsheviks' assault on the Winter Palace in 1917). At a party conference in February 1937 the POUM belatedly drew some of the conclusions which Trotsky had advocated since the onset of the Popular Front, resolving that 'the war and the revolution and inseparable, and if we permit the triumph of the counter-revolution, the war will be lost.' The POUM called for the formation of revolutionary workers' democracy to consolidate the revolution and argued that to 'maintain the bourgeois parliament is an anachronism that could be fatal.'

However, they underestimated the extent to which the organs of revolutionary democracy had already been destroyed and held illusions in a 'peaceful' transfer of power, as if the counter-revolutionary advances in the autumn had not occurred. Moreover, there was no change in their relationship with the Bolshevik-Leninists. According to Bortenstein, Trotskyist militants in the POUM's militias were expelled from the ranks before the conference was convened.

By February the counter-revolution was well and truly being consolidated. The revolution was dealt a final death blow fewer than three months later. During the infamous 'May Days', the PSUC-controlled Assault Guards seized the Telephone Exchange in the centre of Barcelona from the anarchists. This sparked the final act of revolutionary drama; barricades went up and the most militant workers in Barcelona fought a doomed rearguard action to save what was left of the previous summer's conquests.

The CNT and POUM leaderships hesitated but many of their militants fought bravely on the barricades. They were joined by members of the Bolshevik-Leninists and the Friends of Durruti (a group on the left of the CNT, named after the martyred anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti). Along with the Friends of Durruti, the Bolshevik-Leninists drew up a programme for insurrection which called for a revolutionary front of the POUM-CNT-FAI, and lost a militant from Andalusia, Julio Gaitan Cid, in the fighting. Their collective defeat brought down the curtain on the whole revolutionary process.

The Fate of Andrés Nin

On 16th June 1937 the POUM's executive met in the Virreina Palace in Las Ramblas in Barcelona to discuss the upcoming party conference. After the meeting, a comrade from the party headquarters warned the group that the police apparently had orders to arrest the party executive. Minutes later, at one in the afternoon and in the full light of day, a car filled with police arrived and arrested Nin. More arrests of senior POUM members followed, carried out by the Stalinist-controlled Madrid secret police.

By now the Stalinists, in collaboration with Juan Négrin, were suppressing all genuine revolutionaries. Their arsenal included slander, (usually denouncing revolutionaries as 'traitors', 'fascists' and 'spies'), torture, and even murder in a network of underground prisons.

The fate of Nin is particularly tragic. Slandered as a fascist collaborator (graffiti in Barcelona asked 'Where is Nin?', to which the Stalinists replied, 'In Salamanca or Berlin'), Nin was in fact held in Alcalá de Henares, outside Madrid, where he suffered beatings and torture at the hands of the Stalinist thugs. According to former Communist Jesús Hernández: 'Nin did not capitulate. He resisted, to their dismay. His torturers grew impatient. They decided to abandon the ‘dry’ method. Now came the living blood, the rended flesh, the twisted muscles, which would put to the test the man’s integrity and capacity for physical resistance. Nin bore up under the cruelty of the torment and the pain of refined torture. At the end of a few days his human shape had been turned into a formless mass of swollen flesh.'

On the night of the 22nd June, an armed group of German International Brigadiers posing as 'Nazi agents' sought to 'rescue' Nin and took him away. The rescuers were, in fact, selected by Alexander Orlov, the NKVD's man in Spain, and led by the notorious Stalinist gangster Vittorio Vidali, who was later involved in the failed assassination attempt on Trotsky in May 1940 in Mexico City. Accounts differ on the details of Nin's eventual fate but he died at the hands of these Stalinist thugs without once betraying his comrades.

Trotsky wrote of his old comrade: 'When Andrés Nin, the leader of the the POUM, was arrested in Barcelona, there could not be the slightest doubt that the agents of the GPU would not let him out alive... The members of the POUM fought heroically against the fascists on all fronts in Spain. Nin is an old and incorruptible revolutionary. He defended the interests of the Soviet and Catalan peoples against the agents of the Soviet bureaucracy. That was why the GPU got rid of him...'

However, Trotsky also had words for comrades who uncritically supported in the POUM. It was, he wrote in the aftermath of the May Days, 'at this crucial moment that the Vereeckens, the Sneevliets, the Victor Serges have placed their cudgels between the spokes... The CNT and the POUM have done just about everything to assure the victory of the Stalinists, that is, of the counter-revolution. And Vereecken, Sneevliet, and Victor Serge have done everything to support the POUM on the road to ruin.'

With the POUM smashed, the Stalinists came after the remaining Bolshevik-Leninists. Munis, Carlini and others were betrayed by a Stalinist double-agent, a German political commissar in the International Brigades who operated under the pseudonym 'Max Joan'. They were accused of the murder of the International Brigade captain Léon Narvitch and put on trial for terrorism. Such were the outrageous nature of the charges that the trial had to be postponed several times until it was finally fixed for 26 January 1939. With tragic irony, this was the date Franco's forces entered Barcelona and the trial never took place.

Carlini escaped to France and later became an honorary member of the Italian Trotskyist movement. Munis managed to flee to Mexico, where he met with Trotsky himself, before getting involved with the international Trotskyist movement. He later became disillusioned with the post-Trotsky 'orthodox' Trotskyists, sharing many of Max Shachtman's criticisms at the Second World Congress of the Fourth International.


It is often trite to append 'lessons for today' on to an article dealing with such complex events as the Spanish Revolution. However, some broad points can be made. With the exception perhaps of the German Revolution of 1918-23, the Spanish Revolution is almost unique in having the combination of such favourable objective conditions with the monumental failure to construct a revolutionary Marxist party capable of leading the working-class to victory.

The revolutionaries in the POUM and the small Trotskyist movement had to deal with immense issues: there were other ideological currents with deeper roots in the Spanish labour movement competing for support, the conditions of Civil War made conducting political work immeasurably more difficult, and the Stalinists acted as particularly efficient and ruthless cadres of the counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, the focus of this article is the 'subjective' factor, the role of the revolutionary party, more so than the well-known objective difficulties facing revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War.

Speaking of the revolutionary party, Antonio Gramsci's wrote: 'The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit).'

Such a decisive force was lacking in the Spanish Revolution; the POUM proved to be hopelessly deficient and many of the reasons for this stemmed from the way it operated as a party and the ideas that it held.

The POUM did not subscribe to genuine democratic centralist principles- unity in action but absolute freedom in debate. It consistently denied genuine factional rights to Trotskyists groups and cut off all real contact with the Fourth International. Some of this can be traced back to the insularity of the Nin's group criticised by Trotsky in the years preceding the formation of the POUM; the rest is due to the peculiar centrist character of Maurin's BOC.

Without the freedom to debate and criticise, and for minority opinions to aspire to become the majority, differences of opinion can easily entrench themselves in the form of organisational splits. In this case, many talented militants found themselves isolated outside the substantial revolutionary organisation. Their advice and experience was ignored, with disastrous and preventable consequences.

The proper mechanisms through which to debate ideas are especially important in a revolutionary situation where discussions about tactics and strategy are literally a matter of life and death. As Trotsky wrote in Lessons of October: 'No better test of viewpoints concerning revolution exists than the verification of how they worked out during the revolution itself...' The POUM had armed itself with bad ideas, especially concerning the Popular Front, and closed off the channels through alternative voices could be heard.

Tragically, brave and talented militants were to be found within all the revolutionary organisations but never did they find the unity in action and openness in debate necessary to win a mass following for a correct Marxist line. The course was blocked in part by the substitution of bureaucratic methods for political debate. The selfless heroism of Spanish Revolution is an example of the best traditions of our class but the ceaseless squabbles about the tone of inter-party criticism should stand as a warning for today.

Finally, more than anything Spain demonstrated the dead weight of Stalinism on the working-class movement and the need for a rational, principled and revolutionary Marxism which faces outwardly towards the whole class in order to fight the battle for socialism.


1. Paul Heywood, Marxism and the Failure of Organised Socialism in Spain, 1879-1936, p.61.
2. Ibid., and Paul Preston, Comrades: Portraits from the Spanish Civil War, p.168-174.
3. George Esenwein, Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898, p.212.
4. Paul Preston, 'The Agrarian War in the South' in Paul Preston (ed.), Revolution and War in Spain 1931-1939, p.166.
5. Paul Preston, 'The struggle against fascism in Spain: Leviatán and the contradictions of the socialist left, 1934-6' in Martin Blinkhorn (ed.), Spain in Conflict, 1931-1939: Democracy and Its Enemies.
6. 'The state of the Left Opposition, December 16, 1932' in Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-1939), p.215.
7. Ibid.,
8.Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism: A History of the the Spanish Civil War.
9.Andy Durgan, 'The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM' in Al Richardson, The Spanish Civil War: The View From The Left, p.47.
10. Ibid., p.33.
11. Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism, p.91.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., p.93.
14. 'The treachery of the POUM, January 23, 1936' in Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-1939), p.238.
15. For the Serge-Trotsky correspondence see David Cotterill (ed), The Serge-Trotsky Papers.
16. J. Rebull, 'On Dual Power',…
17. Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism, p.140.
18. Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M Casanova), 'Spain Betrayed: How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco' in Al Richardson, The Spanish Civil War, p.100.
19. Nicola di Bartolomeo, 'The Activity of the Bolshevik-Leninists in Spain and its Lessons', in Al Richardson, The Spanish Civil War, p.225.
20. Domenico Sedran, 'Carlini in Spain: An Italian Trotskyist in the Spanish Civil War' in Al Richardson, The Spanish Civil War, p.253.
21. S. Mangan, 'Spanish Militants Described Their Escape from Barcelona,' in A. Richardson (ed.), The Spanish Civil War, p.307.
22. Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism, p.173.
23. Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, p.144.
24. Jesús Hernández, 'How the NKVF Framed the POUM',
25. 'The murder of Andrés Nin by agents of the GPU, August 9, 1937', in Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-1939), p.309-10.
26. David Cotterill (ed), The Serge-Trotsky Papers.

Selected Reading

• Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism: A History of the P.O.U.M. in The Spanish Civil War (Transaction Publishers).
• David Cotterill (ed.), The Serge-Trotsky Papers (Pluto Press).
• Paul Heywood, Marxism and the Failure of Organised Socialism in Spain, 1879-1936 (Cambridge University Press).
• Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (Pathfinder Press).
• Al Richardson (ed.), The Spanish Civil War: The View From the Left (Merlin Press).
• Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-1939) (Pathfinder Press).


Submitted by guenter on Tue, 10/04/2012 - 13:09

This great and necessary article does, i think, correctly sum up anything about spain.
iam only not sure about a little sidenote on germany, where -as usual in all left publications- only the stalinists get blamed for having hindered the antifascist unity against hitler with their theory of social-fascism. my point is, that the SPD itself same as much wasnt interested in that antifascist unity, and i wonder, if they really had, if they had not been attacked as socialfascists.
in 1914 they agreed with the first imperialist worldwar, in 1929 they did forbid the traditional 1st of may demonstration with 33 workers shot to death by police and many injured, and in 1932 the socialdemocrats voted the rightwing militarist hindenburg as president, who made hitler the chancelor. and any leftwinger did know, as the CP spoke out: "who votes for hindenburg, does vote for hitler. and this means war". the trotskytes should not always forget, to blame the SPD same as much. only their behaviour made it possible 4 the CP, to distribute this "theory" of socialfascists among their members.

Submitted by LM on Wed, 11/04/2012 - 23:39

Hey Guenter,

Thanks for your comments. I take your point; the comment on the Third Period was only to provide a small bit of context and certainly it's a complex issue. As you say, the SPD had an absolutely terrible record in Germany, from the betrayal of 1914, their counter-revolutionary role in 1918-19 etc.

But of course, Trotsky never suggested for one moment that Communists should cease in their criticisms of the Noskes, Scheidemanns and Mullers, and their record. It was not to give cover to the treacherous leaders of German Social Democracy that the United Front was proposed- quite the opposite; it was to unite the the class as a whole against fascism, including Social Democratic workers, and to force their leadership to expose themselves. The one condition was that revolutionaries maintained their ideological and organisation independence.

The United Front is a tactical question and, however distasteful it might have been to German Communists given the recent historical experience, it was necessary to keep in sight the interests of the working class as a whole because it doesn't need to be said now what threat fascism posed to the very existence of the workers movement. To do anything else was sectarianism and whether revolutionaries liked it or not, many workers still supported the SPD and it was to ignore reality to pretend otherwise. As Trotsky put it in 1931:

"It is necessary to show by deeds a complete readiness to make a bloc with the Social Democrats against the fascists in all cases in which they will accept a bloc. To say to the Social Democratic workers: “Cast your leaders aside and join our “nonparty” united front” means to add just one more hollow phrase to a thousand others. We must understand how to tear the workers away from their leaders in reality. But reality today is-the struggle against fascism. There are and doubtless will be Social Democratic workers who are prepared to fight hand in hand with the Communist workers against the fascists, regardless of the desires or even against the desires of the Social Democratic organizations. With such progressive elements it is obviously necessary to establish the closest possible contact. At the present time, however, they are not great in number. The German worker has been raised in the spirit of organization and of discipline. This has its strong as well as its weak sides. The overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic workers will fight against the fascists, but – for the present at least – only together with their organizations. This stage cannot be skipped. We must help the Social Democratic workers in action – in this new and extraordinary situation – to test the value of their organizations and leaders at this time, when it is a matter of life and death for the working class."

But I'm sure you know all this and yes, without the treacherous conduct of the SPD it would have been more difficult for the Stalinized Comintern to feed the "social fascist" line to its sections. I would say, though, that the usual Trotskyist criticisms of the KPD's role in the rise of Hitler take for granted the treachery of the SPD; in the Stalinists' case, however, it was a betrayal by a party that was until then presumed to know better. That, too, was why 1933 was the turning-point at which the historical necessity for a Fourth International was demonstrated beyond all doubt.


Submitted by guenter on Thu, 12/04/2012 - 12:56

Liam, i agree fully with what trotsky said/wrote about germany 1933; i even consider this as the most excellent and most foreseeing of all his writings. my little point was only, that nowadays same trotskyte groups blame the stalinists alone for having hindered a united front against hitler, without blaming the hindenburg-voting SPD same as much. we can say, the socialdemocrats voted for hitler....

i also agree with u, that after 1933 was an absolute turning point which demonstrated the necessity of an new international. i dont belong to those, who blamed trotsky for havng "sectarian" founded the 4th international too early, instead of waiting till one or the other section was an massparty. in the shadow of the upcoming worldwar, the revolutionarees would have been without own organisation then and individually got lost till the end of the war. moreover, i think that trotsky did perhaps found the new parties too late- not too early. couldnt trotsky have had more followers, if he had called for new parties before 1927, before he lost any influence in USSR? the "democratic zentralists" argued for an new party since 1926. i think, they saw it earlier than him, that the stalinist parties couldnt be reformed no more. for me, it was a bit bizarre, that tortsky, for some years after he and his followers had been booted, still saw them as an faction of the party/the communist international. if one is out, how can he still act, as if he was in? in the moment he was epelled and brought abroad, this should have been more clear to him. what do u think?

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