The tragedy of Spanish Trotskyism

Submitted by Matthew on 25 April, 2012 - 9:54

Liam McNulty concludes his article on the Trotskyists in the Spanish revolution of 1936/7. The first part appeared in Solidarity 242.


In December 1936 the POUM was ejected from the Catalan Generalitat (provincial government) 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 same conclusions as Trotsky on the Popular Front. The POUM resolved to call 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 revolutionary democracy had already been destroyed and held illusions in a “peaceful” transfer of power.

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.

Less than three months later the revolution was dealt a final death blow. During the “May Days”, the PSUC (Stalinist)-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.

As the CNT and POUM leaderships hesitated, many of their militants fought bravely on the barricades, joined by the Bolshevik-Leninists and the Friends of Durruti (a group on the left of the CNT, named after the martyred anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti). 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. Their collective defeat brought down the curtain on the revolution.

On 16 June 1937 the POUM’s executive met in Barcelona to discuss the upcoming party conference. After the meeting, a comrade from the party headquarters warned the group that the police 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. They used slander, denouncing revolutionaries as “traitors”, “fascists” and “spies”, torture, and even murder in a network of underground prisons.

Nin was 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 being 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 22 June, an armed group of German International Brigadiers posing as “Nazi agents” sought to “rescue” Nin and took him away. The rescuers had been selected by Alexander Orlov, the Stalinist secret police, NKVD’s man in Spain, and led by Stalinist gangster Vittorio Vidali, who was later involved in the failed assassination attempt on Trotsky in May 1940 in Mexico City. Nin 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...”

At the same time Trotsky 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.”

Now 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 murdering International Brigade captain Léon Narvitch and put on trial for terrorism. The trial was eventually scheduled for 26 January 1939, but 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 a member of the Italian Trotskyist movement. Munis fled to Mexico, where he met with Trotsky, before getting involved with the international Trotskyist movement. He later became disillusioned with “orthodox” Trotskyism.

Like the German Revolution of 1918-23, the Spanish Revolution shows a combination of very favourable objective conditions with a 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: they had to compete with other ideological currents with much deeper roots in the Spanish labour movement; the conditions of the Civil War made conducting political work incredibly difficult; the Stalinists were particularly efficient and ruthless cadres of the counter-revolution.

The “subjective” factor, the role of the revolutionary party, is remains a vitally important discussion.

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 did not subscribe to the principles of organisation worked out by Marxist socialists. People like Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and many others had shaped and clarified these principles in the course of momentous revolutionary struggles. Unity in action, freedom in political debate and absolute commitment to clarifying political ideas and testing those ideas in struggle was the basis of those principles.

Because it lacked such a political “background” the POUM consistently denied genuine factional rights to Trotskyists groups. Because it could not see the point of working at political clarification it cut off all real contact with the Trotskyists abroad.

Some of this can be traced back to the insularity of the Nin’s group criticised by Trotsky in the early years; 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 be allowed to work towards becoming the majority, differences of opinion become entrenched and push towards organisational splits. In Spain many talented militants found themselves isolated, outside any substantial revolutionary organisation. Their advice and experience was ignored; that had disastrous and preventable consequences.

Yet the proper mechanisms for debate are especially important in a revolutionary situation, when 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...”

Tragically, brave and talented militants were to be found within all the revolutionary organisations but they never found the “unity in action and openness in debate” necessary to develop stronger Marxist ideas, still less to reach out and win a mass following. That course was a possibility (the extent of which we will never know), but it blocked, in part, by the substitution of bureaucratic methods for political debate.

The selfless heroism of the Spanish Revolution is an example of the best traditions of our class but the ceaseless squabbles about the tone of inter-party criticism, while big issues of policy were at stake, should stand as a lesson for today.

More than anything Spain demonstrated the dead weight of Stalinism on the working-class movement. It contrasts sharply with the rational, principled and revolutionary Marxism which faces outwardly towards the whole class in order to fight the battle for socialism.

Selected reading

• Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM 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).

• Workers’ Liberty No. 26, “The Spanish Revolution”

• Pierre Broué and Emile Temime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain