The POUM, in their own words

An introduction to an introduction

On my first day in Barcelona during a trip a few years ago, I was walking down the fabled Ramblas street. Barcelona is a very dynamic city, with a much more “European” feel than Madrid, and there’s quite a lot to draw your attention. But it was a municipal library which caught my eye more than anything else, and stands out to this day: the Biblioteca Andreu Nin. When I asked the librarian inside, she explained that this was where the POUM’s headquarters had been during the Spanish Civil War, “hasta que lo desmantelaron”, until they dismantled it.

The POUM, or the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (the name is only slightly less clunky in Spanish) is best known in the English-speaking world as the party whose militias George Orwell fought with during the Civil War. Fans of Ken Loach will also remember that this party was central in Land and Freedom. Yet, although the Spanish Civil War is second only to the Russian Revolution as a historical reference for sect-ists of all types, the reference is always to the dramatic moments and the assorted leaders, with very little attention paid to what the mass of participants, including those in organizations, were thinking or doing.

Until they dismantled it” – “they” here does not refer to the fascists headed by General Franco, but to the Spanish Republican State, under the influence or domination of the Soviet Union. There’s a common refrain in Anarchist milieux that “Leninism” is in itself inherently counter-revolutionary, that all “Leninists” will always repress “Anarchists”, and that the proof lies in the repression of the Red Army against revolutionary Ukraine in 1918-1920, or of Republican Spain against the CNT during the Civil War. And yet the POUM were repressed alongside the CNT in Spain, despite being “Leninists” just like the advisors from Stalin’s NKVD. In fact, they were repressed first, as a test of strength for the government before going after the CNT, not to mention that the CNT leadership had bought itself some time after the showdown of May 1937 by calling for the working class to lay down its arms – a compromise which the POUM did not make. Without denying that there are definitely counter-revolutionary ideologies and positions, perhaps materialists would also do well to look at the relationship to the means of production when we ask how a party or individual transitions from revolution to counter-revolution.

The POUM is generally not discussed in those narratives, and certainly not in detail. When they are mentioned, one almost gets the impression that the POUM were anarchists without knowing it, that their Marxism was nothing more than an embarassing accident, and that they were simply unaware of the counter-revolutionary path that it would inevitably lead them on. Very conveniently for this narrative, there is almost nothing about the POUM’s activity or set of ideas available in English. (A notable exception is the hard to find Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism, also by Victor Alba.) Today, on May 4th, it seems appropriate to mention what happened on May 4th, 1937. From Wikipedia:

At eleven o’clock the delegates of the CNT met and agreed to do everything possible to restore calm. Meanwhile, the anarchist leaders Joan García Oliver and Federica Montseny heard an appeal on the radio asking to their followers to lay down their weapons and return to their jobs. Jacinto Toryho, director of the CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera, expressed the same sentiment. […] By five in the afternoon, several anarchists were killed by the police near the Via Durruti (current Via Laietana). The POUM began to support resistance publicly.

It was on that same trip, at a CNT-affiliated bookstore called La Rosa de Foc, that I ran across an old paperback whose title caught my eye: La Revolución Española en la Práctica. Documentos del POUM. I bought it without hesitation. When I had time to crack it open, I was engrossed. As an anthology, it is in a genre which must have very few other members: a collection of documents dealing with the problems of a revolution, made by participants in that revolution, during the process of the revolution itself. The documents deal with concrete problems of agriculture and industry, public health and the military situation, the dynamics of the various workers’ organizations and of the growing reactionary influence of the Soviet Union in Republican Spain. They were not written ahead of time, full of references to Lenin, nor were they handed down from the Party leadership. They read very well even today, and I would say they are worth reading for more than just historical interest. I would like at some point to translate some of these documents – as Victor Alba states in the introduction, which I have translated below, they have a refreshing mix of realism and idealism.

But I’ll try to let Victor speak for himself, as I think he’s more than capable. As he says, when something is thought through clearly, it is expressed clearly. I’ll make only a few other points here. First, there is a common thought that revolutionaries should form organizations based primarily on their specific ideas, and that the organization’s actual relationship to the class struggle is only a secondary matter. The problem, when the only discernible difference between one organization and another is a slightly different set of ideas, is that any new ideas in either organization will logically lead to a split. As Hal Draper put it in The Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,

As long as the life of the organization (whether or not labeled “party”) is actually based on its politically distinctive ideas, rather than on the real social struggles in which it is engaged, it will not be possible to suppress the clash of programs requiring different actions in support of different forces. The key question becomes the achievement of a mass base, which is not just a numerical matter but a matter of class representation. Given a mass base in the social struggle, the party does not necessarily have to suppress the internal play of political conflict, since the centrifugal force of political disagreements is counterbalanced by the centripetal pressure of the class struggle. Without a mass base, a sect that calls itself a party cannot suppress the divisive effect of fundamental differences on (for example) supporting or opposing capitalist parties at home in the shape of liberal Democrats and such, or supporting or opposing the maneuvers of the “Communist” world.

The POUM provides an example of the opposite process, of a movement where the life of the organization is based on the real social struggles in which it is engaged, and which does allow for the free play of ideas about the best program to move forward. As Alba mentions, the POUM published classics by Marx, Riazanov, Bebel … and Kautsky.

The second point to make here is that the crucial thing for American revolutionaries should not be to have the right “line” on Spain, or on Russia – we should try to figure out America, and the contradictions that are present here. One of the POUM’s strengths, which Alba will show better than I can, is that the POUM attempted to use Marxism to work out a revolutionary strategy for Spain, rather than to take ready made answers from others (whether Stalin, Trotsky, or anyone else) and apply them rigidly. My purpose in translating this text is not to raise the understanding of what did or didn’t happen, what could or couldn’t have happened during the Spanish Revolution (though I’m not opposed to those dicussions), but to contribute to the questions that can be asked about what an American socialist workers movement would look like. To paraphrase Alba one final time, there are many differences between America in 2015 and Spain in 1937 – but perhaps not as many as we’d expect.


 Introduction from La Revolución Española en la Practica, by Victor Alba

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last. Except at night, when a surprise attack was always conceivable, nobody bothered about the enemy. They were simply remote black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro. The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.”

George Orwell, who wrote this paragraph, says in his book about the Spanish civil war that every war, whatever its motives, and whatever animates its combatants, is dirty, boring, and sad. He adds, elsewhere, that

“the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In this community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.”

Orwell knew what he was talking about, because he fought with the militias of the POUM on the Aragon front, where he was wounded, and he lived for weeks and months with the militia fighters, who had no idea that they were with a first-rate writer. This was before Orwell became famous, and he didn’t tell anybody that he was a writer. For his comrades, he was just one more foreigner who had come to Spain to fight against fascism. And this seemed natural to all of them. Because in times of revolution, the most unexpected and the least probable things are exactly those which appear most natural and logical.

But revolution, like war, is dirty, sad, monotonous, full of errors and even corruption, just like any other moment of life in any society. And in a revolution, firewood, tobacco, food, and candles are much more present than the enemy, that is, the society that we want to replace and its representatives.

Outside of some spectacular moments of collective emotion – which, however, move only a minority – revolution is a test of patience, as someone once brilliantly put it.

This is because a revolution does not come from a heartstroke, a romantic outburst, but rather arrives because a given society no longer functions well, and cannot resolve its problems. Revolution, after its heroic and exciting gestures, consists in making society function better and solving its problems. If it doesn’t achieve both things, it fails, it ceases to be a revolution and converts itself into a continuation, under a new appearance, of what had existed before.

Just as in a war it’s very easy to be like Fabricio from The Charterhouse of Parma, fighting in the battle of Waterloo without realizing that it’s Waterloo, in a revolution it’s very easy to to be occupied with the functioning of an office, a farm, a school, without realizing that one is undertaking a revolution.

In the same way that during a war, the emotional moments – except for fear, which is permanent – moments of heroism and grandeur are the exception, in a revolution the moments of enthusiasm, of vociferous hope, are also exceptional. It’s the routine things which are constant, important, and decisive: the daily tasks, everybody in their small plot, doing what needs to be done and doing it in such a way that the result can only be a bit more equality, a bit more freedom.

Because of this, when the emotional moments of a revolution have passed, only the very convinced, the militants and leaders, keep the enthusiasm alive and the hope awake. The others return to their daily routine, without noticing that the context of this routine is different.

The myth of the romantic revolution causes us to lose sight of the reality of the prosaic revolution. The occasional heroism causes us to forget the everyday administration. But without monotonous labor, and without mundane administration, there is no revolution that could win or even be worthy of the name revolution, because the core of the revolution, it’s real reason for being, depends not on the heroic and dramatic, but on the mundane and monotonous: the solution of problems, the better functioning of society. “Better” means, of course, less unequal or more equal, freer, more fraternal…

Under the apocalypse of fraternity, which is how André Malreaux described what he saw of the Spanish revolution, there was the routine of efficiency, learning to administrate, direct, make decisions. As in any society, inevitably. But with one difference – and this difference in and of itself was the revolution – that they didn’t seek efficiency for efficiency’s sake, nor good administration for the simple pleasure of seeing things function. Everything was done because they thought that by doing it they were creating a bit more fraternity, a bit more of that “innate decency” and “anarchist tint” that, according to Orwell, make the initial stages of socialism tolerable.

In the books about the Spanish civil war, which are legion, and about the Spanish revolution, which number far fewer, the writers describe the diplomatic intrigues, the political maneuvers, the good choices and the bad, the heroism and the crimes. But they almost never, not even in passing, refer to the fundamental problems of how to make things function in an age in which the combination of war and revolution paralyzes everything.

What’s clear is that things kept moving. In some cases, better than before. In many cases, not worse than before, and almost always, with enough efficiency that nobody suffered for lack of functioning.

I believe that it’s an injustice on the part of intellectuals – who are the ones that write the books – that they didn’t highlight just how fantastic, how incredible, how surprising and formidable was this fact, so simple in appearance, that things kept going. Because the ones that kept them going were the same ones who’d never learned to make them function,  who’d never had a chance to decide anything about how they should function, nor to what end: the workers, the ones who had made the things, but had never enjoyed them.

Writers of books take it for granted when everything works. It’s an assumption with no basis, because in every past revolution, from the North American to the Russian, it took a long time to get things working again, and many things worked worse than before for quite some time. In Spain, in the Republican zone, things didn’t stop working for more than two days – when the militants went to fight in the streets – and when they began working again, they worked as well as before, in some cases better than before, and for different ends than before. That’s the important thing.

Now, what the writers find so normal, and which in reality is so surprising, did not happen by chance, nor was it inevitable. Things kept working because the workers made them work.

Things worked well because the workers were organized and they had unions and parties which occupied themselves with studying the way things worked, with seeing the problems and finding solutions.

We have to insist that it was no accident that things worked well. They worked well because the workers and their organizations took it upon themselves to make things work well. Their goal was not just for things to work – their goal was that things should work in a way that one could hope that, with things working, it would create conditions which would make more fraternity, more freedom, more equality possible.

These phrases seem empty. But those who were in the oversight committees, the village committees, the militia committees, really did think this way. Because they thought this way they could – despite a war, despite internal struggle and rivalries, despite hunger in many cases, despite bombardings and privations – they could occupy themselves not just with making things work, but with finding new ways, less injust ways, for things to work. The grand phrases – in reality, the grand dreams – gave them the strength for the routine and learning, when it would have been much simpler to unload the weight of things onto the politicians and the bureaucrats, and to be content with going to work as before, with getting paid as before, and, most of all, with going to war.

This desire to do things in a different way is, in a way, what makes a revolution. But this desire does not become reality through phrases. The phrases are just to hold on to the desire. To satisfy it, we need many hours of monotonous work, many exasperating discussions, many failed tests, many frustrations, much adding water to the wine of wishful thinking, many balance sheets, and only a few flags being waved in the wind.

It’s precisely when there are more balance sheets than flags, but the sheets are being balanced in a different way, that we can see that the revolution is passing from words into deeds.

There is little documentation about these everyday, practical (and therefore vital) aspects of the Spanish revolution. By this I mean the revolution undertaken by the workers – especially those in Catalonia – between July of 1936 and May of 1937, when the counterrevolution began under the Negrín government and the worker’s realizations were systematically destroyed, denaturalized, or put under the control of a government which was created to destroy them.

We can resume the political aspects of the revolution in two phrases: the workers wanted to be masters, and without the revolution we could not win the war. The first appears undeniable; the second, there was no time to put to the test, although it’s enough to say that during the time time of the militias and the collectivizations the fascist advances were halted, Madrid was saved, and only militarily marginal places were lost (Málaga). Later, when the other position dominated, that of “first we must win the war” (which meant, in fact, destroying the revolution), we lost the North, the fascists arrived at the Mediterranean and then occupied Catalonia, and finally won the war. Although we don’t know what the results of the revolutionary position would have been, on the other hand we do know the results of the counterrevolutionary position: the war was lost, despite the counterrevolution “justifying” itself on the idea that only by destroying the revolution could the war be won.

Much has been written about this. But little has been written, and only tangentially, about other aspects of the revolution, beginning with the fundamental ones: the problems that the collectivizations tackled, and the solutions which they proposed. Practically nothing has been written about health, the condition of women, the changes in the youth, the transformation in the countryside, the type of army that the revolutionaries extolled, or the question of housing.

The CNT should have information in its archives which I hope that they will eventually publish. The POUM dedicated many of the leaflets that it published to these questions, and it did so without sugarcoating, calling things by their names, without worrying about boring the reader. Reading these pamphlets is essential not only to understand the Spanish revolution, but also to think of the future.

That would be enough to justify publishing this collection of the POUM’s pamphlets. I would have wanted it to contain pamphlets from other organizations, from the anarchists to the communists, but I’ve found, after consulting the collections, that the majority were about abstract questions and principles, not about political practice. I suppose that these aspects must lie in the archives, in bulletins and decisions, minutes of meetings and research. They certainly aren’t in print, accessible in any way.

There’s another reason why this anthology, by reducing itself to the pamphlets of just one party – and not even one of the main parties – becomes interesting.

That reason is the POUM itself.

The fundamental strategic position of the POUM is still valid, in the minds of many, for today’s Spain. It can be summarized like this: Spain, in 1931, as in 1936 (and I’d say this still holds for 1976), needs to carry out a democratic-bourgeois revolution; the Spanish bourgeoisie is incapable of carrying it out and therefore the working class has to bring it to its conclusion, in order to pass from it to the socialist revolution. In reality, in July of 1936 we saw how this was completed, in just a few days, without need for decrees and with occasionally brutal methods, how the democratic revolution was completed and the socialist revolution was begun.

These things were felt in other movements – the anarchosyndicalist, the left of the socialists – but, whatever the reasons (ideological formation, in my opinion), only the POUM said them explicitly.

The position of the POUM toward the problems both practical and political of the revolution means that this party was far more important in the overall Spanish worker’s movement than its modest size would imply.

     An old militant, a founder of the Spanish Communist Party and later the POUM, has given a summary, forty one years later, of what the POUM was:

     “The Workers Party of Marxist Unification has more than forty years of history behind it. It was born in the last months of 1935 out of the fusion of the Workers and Peasants Bloc, and the Communist Left. But its origins reach to the year 1920, in which the Spanish Communist Party was founded. Almost simultaneously, a group of militants from the CNT placed themselves resolutely on the side of the Russian Revolution and adopted the principles and tactics of the communists. From 1920 on, these militants of the CNT were grouped around the weekly Acción Sindicalista, from Valencia; after 1921, around the weekly Lucha Social, in Lérida; and in 1922 they adopted La Batalla, from Barcelona, as their mouthpiece while they were organizing the Revolutionary Union Committees. In 1924 this group of militants joined the Spanish Communist Party, and they exercised a decisive influence in the Party’s Catalan-Balearic Federation. In the first months of 1931 this federation fused with the Catalan Communist Party, which had unsuccessfully tried to be admitted as a national section to the Communist International. After fusing, both organizations created, to give the new party a greater power of attraction, the Workers and Peasant’s Bloc, and the new party was known under this name, even though the nucleus that it revolved around retained the name of Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation and, after 1932, when its forces began to grow outside of Catalonia, it took the name of Iberian Communist Federation. The Communist Left was the primitive Communist Opposition constituted around the figure of Leon Trotsky, with whom it had broken when he advised his troops to enter the ranks of Social Democracy. The POUM, then, is a legitimate heir of the communist movement’s heroic years, of the first years of the Russian revolution, and it contained a mixture of people from the communist old guard as well as those who brought the traditions of struggle from Spanish anarchosyndicalism, militants who had participated in the great battles of 1917, 1918, 1919, and 1920. […] The Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation began to differentiate itself during the years of the military dictatorship [by Primo de Rivera, from 1923-1931], a little bit more every day, from the leadership of the Spanish Communist Party, which in those days was in the hands of the Trilla-Ballejos group. Above all, the Federation opposed the Communist Party’s attempts to carry out splits in the heart of the CNT, an attempt which was disguised under the name of a Committee of Reconstruction. To the degree that Stalin was imposing his methods on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and on the Communist International, and through this on its various sections, the Federation was distancing itself from the international communist organization, which, after a period, it openly confronted. And the POUM was the only party of communist origin which, having broken with the 3rd international, succeeded not only in continuing to exist, but actually consolidated and considerably incremented its forces and its influence. But this was something that, in a time in which the Communist Party claimed everywhere to be the party of the workers, in which the official section of the Communist International in every land claimed to have a monopoly of revolutionary action, in which the communist movement was rigidly monolithic, the International inspired by Stalin and guided in every moment by one or another of his cronies could neither allow nor forgive. The circumstances created in Spain by the Civil War gave Stalin the opportunity to present the bill to the POUM, with heavy interest, for resisting submission to his orders.

After July 19, 1936, in the parts of Spain where it had any forces worth considering, particularly in all of Catalonia, in Valencia, in Castellón, and in Madrid, the POUM’s militants went arms-in-hand to confront the military rising, and then organized militias which fought valiantly, frequently heroically, in the field. Many of our comrades died fighting fascism. But if the workers confronted the mutineers, rifle-in-hand, it wasn’t to simply begin the game again, to return to the situation that had made the Civil War possible. That’s why the struggle took on a revolutionary character in the parts of the country where the mutiny had been smashed in the first moments, that’s why the war and the revolution appeared intimately linked in the eyes of the working class. The petty bourgeoisie, whose political expression took the form of the republican parties, found itself overwhelmed in the early moments by the revolutionary tide, but bit by bit, as the war dragged on and the difficulties inherent to any armed conflict piled up, they recovered the positions they had lost. In this they could count on the support of the Communist Party as well as a large part of the Socialist Party. The scant aid which the Spanish republic received from the democratic governments, scared as they were of a revolution in the south of Europe, and nervous about irritating the fascist states, in contrast with the considerable, although not disinterested, aid which the Soviet Union brought from the early stages of the Civil War, gave the Communist Party enormous possibilities to augment its forces and its influence in Spain. Over time the Soviet Union, in return for its aid in war materials, was able to steer the policy of Republican Spain and introduce its agents and methods into the government, the army, the police, even into the economy, into some parties, and into a large part of the union organizations. The idea that Spain should become a socialist country never entered into Stalin’s mind, as this would have created difficulties for the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, which at that time was playing the card of military alliance with the democratic states without losing hope for a possible understanding with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. From this stems its determination to strip the Spanish Civil War of its revolutionary character, to separate the war and the revolution. While it’s true that perhaps the war could have been won even if the revolutionary conquests of the early days had been lost, and that without securing the military victory, the revolution would certainly have succumbed, it’s no less true that those who wanted to sacrifice the revolutionary conquests to win the war lost everything. The POUM considered the war and the revolution inseparable and opposed the policy of the Communist Party and the petty bourgeoisie. This gave cause to the agents of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party to unleash a campaign of lies and slander which was unprecedented in this country, the first step to the repression which began in May of 1937, in which many of our best militants were assassinated, including Andrés Nin, political secretary of the POUM. The very tribunal which judged the leaders of our organization, although it condemned them for high treason for their attitude around the events of May 1937 in Barcelona, solemnly recognized their spotless revolutionary past, and rejected the calumnious accusations that they had been subjected to. History has judged all of us, slanderers and slandered, persecutors and persecuted. It’s clear now that those who once upon a time defamed and persecuted us don’t feel proud today about their past behavior.

At the end of the civil war, the POUM was caught by two overlapping repressions: the first, undertaken by the Communists, was joined by the other, the repression which hit all of Republican Spain. Even in 1939, our militants who refused to leave or could not leave Spain began to regroup themselves and to carry out clandestine action, under great risk. In September 1939, in Barcelona alone, 26 of our militants were executed. It was our Party who denounced the execution of Catalan President Luis Companys in a manifesto. In 1945-1947 the POUM collected, above all in Catalonia, a growing number of enthusiastic militants. Just like the other parties, after this year our party suffered due to the continuing repression as well as the demoralization caused by the survival of the Franco regime after the victory of the allied armies over the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis. Additionally, there was the difficulty that every party and union experienced to one degree or another caused by the existence of two leaderships, one in exile and one in the interior, or else just the exile leadership.”

Even though it wasn’t one of the biggest workers organizations, the POUM, in the context of that time in Spain, was the second largest workers party in Spain, much smaller than the Socialist Party, but, at least until November of 1936, much larger than the Communist Party, if we take into account the numbers produced by researches and not those given by the CP itself. The unions which the POUM led in Catalonia united 60,000 workers. That is to say, they formed the third largest union federation in the country, a distant third after the CNT and the UGT.

But to say just this would be misleading. The POUM was still a small party. It made its influence felt in in Catalonia, the key location of the Spanish workers movement, and it had began radiating out into the Levant, where it had growing sections, as well as Asturias, where its sections had participated in the Workers Alliance [a cross-organization alliance involved in the abortive 1934 uprising], and it was beginning to set down roots in Madrid, Extremadura, and other isolated locations.

So it wasn’t a party whose positions could decide anything in the march of Spanish politics. But the POUM had some very prestigious leaders and well-rounded militants, with a long history of struggle. This, then, both allowed and obliged it to take clear positions about the principal problems. Even knowing that they wouldn’t necessarily be followed, since it couldn’t bring the masses around to them, we trusted that they would influence other organizations and help to create the zeitgeist that the POUM desired.

The civil war arrived before the POUM, which was a product of a recent fusion, could completely unify. Its principal leader and general secretary, Joaquín Maurín (1896-1973), was surprised by the military uprising during a propaganda trip in Galicia, where he hid. Finally detained, he was placed on a list for prisoner exchanges and therefore his life was spared, although he was held in prison until 1946.

Andrés Nin (1892-1937), who took his place, was arrested in June of 1937 by the communist police, tortured by Russian NKVD agents, and died without “confessing” to the existence of something which never existed: the complicity with Franco that the communists accused the POUM of. Many members of the POUM were themselves assassinated, others died at the front, still others were executed in Spain after 1939, more would end up in Nazi concentration camps for their participation in the French resistance, and some were assassinated by Spanish Communists in that very resistance.

If we look at it this way, the history of the POUM appears to be a bloody list of victims. And indeed it was. But, at the same time, it was a long series of actions, of hopes, of initiatives, of opinions. It was these, more than the victims, that gave the POUM its place in the history of the workers movement.

The POUM was the first party which dissented from the official communist movement which succeeded in becoming larger than the party from which it had separated (at least until the end of 1936, when the ranks of the Communist Party were swelled by the blackmail of the Soviet arms and its own counterrevolutionary policy). During an era when there was a blackmail of silence “to avoid favoring Hitler”, the POUM was one of the few parties who denounced the Moscow Trials, and which began a Marxist analysis of the phenomenon of Stalinism (even if there were still many illusions about the supposedly working-class and socialist character of the Soviet system, which the reader will note in the texts). The members of the POUM, and Nin above all, succeeded in doing what the Old Bolsheviks, Lenin’s former comrades, had not: they resisted the tortures and the pressures of the Stalinist police. At the same time, they knew to maintain their distance from the politics of Trotsky, whom they considered both dogmatic and ignorant of Spanish reality. The POUM formed part of the nucleus of revolutionary socialist parties that, separated from both the Second and Third internationals, tried to create a new independent movement with the International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Parties.

On the other hand, the POUM was probably the the only Marxist party which gained the respect and the solidarity of the anarchists, not so much for its viewpoint (as we in the POUM would have preferred), as for its activity and its independence.

This irreducible independence cost the POUM its best militants, inspired many calumnies, and caused it to be outlawed. But it was this same independence which gave it the place it occupies in the history of the workers movement, in a moment when the majority of the workers organizations allowed themselves to be blinded or manipulated.

The POUM had concrete opinions about the problems, whether economic, social, political, educational, or martial, of the Spanish revolution. While the socialists were absorbed in the intrigues of their leaders (Prieto and Negrín with the communists against Largo Caballero, then Negrín and the communists against Prieto), while the communists turned their backs on the entirety of their traditional rhetoric to take up the first counterrevolutionary campaign of their history, and while the anarchists and the anarchosyndicalists believed that with self-management (the collectives, as they were called then) they already had the revolution, the POUM received the not always satisfying mission of of trying to keep some here and there from forgetting that the civil war could not be won without the revolution (in which it agreed with the anarchists) and that the revolution could not be won without the working class taking political power (which is where the anarchists departed).

     At the same time that they were repeating these general principles, the POUM’s membership (10,000 in June and July of 1936, 35,000 in December, 70,000 in March of 1937 and hundreds of dead, imprisoned, and persecuted after June of 1937) formed part of the militia committees, of the staff of the militia columns, of the Generalidad government, of city councils, of the oversight committees for the collectives in the city and the country, as well as the committees in unions and cooperatives. In addition to making propaganda for theoretical positions, they had to develop day by day a practical labor, nothing romantic, of administration, leadership, legislation, execution of laws, that is, they had to participate actively in this unspectacular but fundamental part of every revolution, which deals with making life work for the citizens. They knew, as well as anyone else, that though it was monotonous and routine, this activity was vital for the triumph of the revolution. Some members, personally or as members of committees, wrote about the problems that were stirred up by the revolution’s development. It is these writings, above all, which are collected in this book. Because it is these that are not found anywhere else and which carry the most lessons for the future.

It’s time to resume the most important of these lessons – which each reader can, for their part, add to those that they’ve learned in their personal experience. Here they are:

The independence of an organization, that is to say, its ability to to adopt decisions by itself, without having to deal with exterior influences, is fundamental to its ability to analyze realistically the situation of a country, recognize the yearnings of the class that it belongs to, and try to represent them. The POUM was absolutely independent, it didn’t need to give answers to anyone but itself, that is to say, to its own members, who were the ones who decided on its political line and elected the leaders who were responsible for carrying it out. The lack of this independence among the communists caused them to adopt positions which, in all probability, they would not have wanted if they were independent of the Third International and the Russian Communist Party. The lack of independence made them counterrevolutionaries when many of them (at least those who were already members before February 16, 1936) would have spontaneously been inclined towards the revolution.

Flexibility with one’s own ideology is another condition of being realistic, that is to say, in order to analyze the situation and to act according to this analysis. The POUM, as its title indicates, was marxist, but its marxism was not fossilized by dogmas, its ideology was flexible, in the sense that it responded to reality instead of trying to to place reality in the straitjacket of ideology. If the anarchists had been more flexible on the question of their anti-political stance, they would have taken power on July 19, 1936, when it was lying in the street and they had enough strength to take it and share it with other workers tendencies. They didn’t do so and therefore were forced, by the circumstances, to be flexible, but with fewer results, that is, by entering two governments – the central and the catalan – alongside the bourgeois forces, and they saw themselves limited, by that participation, to defending what had already been conquered in the early days, rather than expanding it.

Economic power alone is not sufficient to guarantee it’s own continuity. Feudalism and capitalism both knew this, which is why the lords and the bourgeois did not stop at the possession of the means of production, but in order to protect those means they also exercised political power. The conquest of the land and the factories, in the days that followed July 19, was indispensable. But these fields and factories could not remain in the hands of the workers unless the workers defended them through political power, whether this government be called a committee of militias or anything else. Not taking power on July 19 led, in time, not only to the government of Negrín and the communists, and with that to the loss of the revolutionary conquests, of the means of production, but also to the loss of the civil war.

Psychology has an enormous influence in both politics and economics. The bourgeoisie knows this very well, while it has been completely forgotten by the workers movement, especially the Marxist part. The POUM’s standpoint, which was also shared to a lesser degree by the CNT and the left of the Socialist Party, was that the war and the revolution were inseparable, that without making the second the first could not be won. This view was based on psychological factors. Basically, while it was lacking in military organization and experience, in arms and in officers, the working class could only compensate for this imbalance through their enthusiasm, and this enthusiasm could not come from the idea of defending a republic which had persecuted a large part of the workers movement and had permitted the civil war to erupt.

Finally, the months of revolution – from July 1936 to May 1937 – showed that the workers didn’t just believe themselves to be as capable or more than the bourgeoisie to administer the economy, to direct the factories, but that in fact they were. With all the the defects, corruptions, errors and exaggerations that might be named, the collectives functioned, they functioned in particularly difficult conditions – all-out war, with few arms and no military organization – and they functioned thanks to the workers. The reader will see that the studies included in this volume were made by workers, on the move, confronting the problems which surged from reality, and that these studies were analysis of problems and proposals for solutions which could easily rank (and with less pedantic language) with those made by the technicians, economists, and managers from the bourgeoisie. The capacity of the workers to administer was proven. Unfortunately, the lack of ideological flexibility among some, and of political independence among others, prevented the workers from showing their capacity to govern, from showing their political quality.

Whoever lived through those days of July 1936 and remembers how things actually happened, how decisions were adopted, how the situation was analyzed and how solutions were sought and applied to the problems will arrive, I believe, at another conclusion that is generally applicable: the proletariat, and and in a wider sense the Spanish people, is better than its leaders, it has more determination, more combativity, and, at the same time, more sensibility. The event that we call the Revolution of July 1936 was not made by the organizations, nor the leaders, but rather by the people, the workers, without waiting for orders or signals from anyone; they acted independently of their own organizations and ideologies, reflecting only their intimate convictions, their deepest yearnings. That is what would allow them to win and to show themselves to be effective and full of imagination.

We could also point out that revolutions, despite a certain mythology which is in vogue, do not appear in moments of desperation and misery, but rather in moments of hope and some improvement in living conditions. The situation of the people in July of 1936 was better than in 1931 or 1919, for example. Even if slowly, things had begun to change with the Republic. It was this relative wellbeing, this hope, which made the people want more changes and more wellbeing, and strive to achieve this in the opportunity created by the coup of the Right.

All of this, expressed directly or even implicitly, can be found in the texts that were selected for the volume.

     A few clarifications, then, about the criteria that guided this selection.

First of all, why documents of the POUM and not of other groups or multiple organizations? The reason is practical, and was already touched on: because only the POUM, for some reason which should be analyzed in detail, publicly presented the problems of the revolution and proposed solutions to the same.

This doesn’t mean that other organizations and parties didn’t deal with these problems, they certainly studied them and tried to bring solutions. But they did this in private, inside the committees, and they didn’t publish the results of these studies. Only the CNT, in its economic conference, did something of the sort.* [*See Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, chapters 17, 19, and 26. – VA]

Therefore, the material of the POUM is the only material we have access to that’s available, printed, done in the trenches, not a posteriori.** [** It wouldn’t be out of place here to clarify that even though they had many more resources than the surviving groups of the POUM, the other organizations which participated in the civil war, on both sides, have not gathered, as we have here, their documents of 1936-39 (except, fragmentarily, the CNT). There must be a reason… – VA]

     On the other hand, the POUM constituted a rare case in the context of Spain at the time: A party which was a minority but not weak, Marxist in a land where the worker’s movement was divided between reformists and anarchists, communist but anti-stalinist and independent, always between the wall of fascism and the saber of the official stalinists. The POUM had militants who, even if only to stand up to the strong “competence” of the more powerful organizations, had to be prepared and maintain the habit and the strength of going against the current. The members of the POUM sincerely believed that “the truth is revolutionary”, as Marx and Lenin had affirmed, and they tried to say the truth, even if they had to risk their hide – and many of them lost that for saying it. The members of the POUM weren’t better, clearly, but they were obliged by their situation to be more realistic and, at the same time, more idealistic than the rest.

Between its constitution in September of 1935, and July 19 1936, the POUM published only one pamphlet, presenting itself to the workers. This pamphlet is a synthesis of its thought, its strategy, its tactics, and its organization.

It also had the weekly papers Avant, in Catalan, and La Batalla, which had a long tradition stretching back to its foundation in 1922, as well as the monthly review La Nueva Era.*** [***To see more about what was published in this, consult La Nueva Era: Antología de una revista revolucionaria. Ed. Júcar, Madrid, 1977 – VA]

After July 19, 1936, La Batalla became a daily paper, and daily or weekly POUM papers were published in multiple Catalan and Levantine cities. This press was not appropriate for serious inquiries. Those were published by the Editorial Marxista, founded in 1936, which during the 11 months that it operated published a dozen classics of Marxism (Bebel, Kautsky, Riazanov, Marx) and some fifty-odd pamphlets, of which more than half were translations. Furthermore, it published a monthly international review in German, French, English, and Italian.

In June of 1937, when the Communist police seized the offices of the POUM, tens of thousands of the Editorial Marxista’s books and pamphlets were destroyed. Only the copies held by individuals survived, since the police, following a process which has continued without interruption to present-day Spain, looked over all of the newsstands and bookstores, seizing the copies that were already distributed for sale.

From June of 1937, when the Negrín government obligated the POUM to go underground, until the fall of Barcelona in June of 1939, La Batalla, Juventud Obrera, and several pamphlets were published, aiming at agitation as well as defense of the persecuted POUM members. A large amount of this material was lost at the end of the civil war. But we have been able to find copies of the most important pamphlets and studies, which are the ones that we are reproducing here.

In choosing them, we have begun by eliminating everything which doesn’t refer directly to the revolution and which wasn’t produced directly by POUM members. Then, we classified the documents into several sections: the party; politics; the economy; the society; persecution. In front of each text there is an explanatory note, which situates it in its moment. For reasons of space, we have cut out some prologues dealing with the circumstances, and some resolutions of very local or transitory interest. None of this alters the ideological content of the texts. These cuts are indicated wherever they occur. At the end, the reader will find a bibliography about the POUM.

The reader should remember, when reading these texts, that every single one of them was written and edited by workers. There were no intellectuals in the POUM. Sure, there were a few teachers, doctors, journalists, and students. But they did not produce the bulk of the writing that we’ve collected here. It was written by workers who had prepared for the moment of the revolution in the Marxist School which was run by the POUM (and the BOC before it), and who had been working with the worker’s press for a long time already.

The militants of the POUM were young. The members of the Executive Committee, when they were judged, were less than 40 years old. The majority were Catalan, but there were others from the rest of Spain, particularly from Madrid and the North (Basque Country and Asturias).

I don’t say this to try to excuse poor quality in these texts. On the contrary, these documents have depth, and they present original or necessary ideas. Whether compared with the political literature of their age or of ours, they hold up very well. Above all, they remain accessible for workers, without making concessions to simplification or to reducing things to schematics. To put it simply, they explain complex ideas in a language which is sympathetic to the reader, and they do this because, as they say, whatever you think through clearly, you can express clearly.

This is not, I believe, the smallest lesson that the reader might take home.

It’s not the only lesson, either.

The problems we face in a comparable situation in the future will be different (though perhaps less different than we believe). But the problems which come from trying to apply solutions which are handed down will be very similar, even if the solutions handed down are different from those which were handed down in 1936-37.

In the future, as in 1936, solving the problems of a revolution will require real independence on the part of the workers movement, in regards to countries as well as dogmas; it will require self-confidence on the part of the workers, in their capacity to reach better solutions than the bourgeoisie; it will require a desire to replace the latter; and it will require a mixture of realism and idealism which is, perhaps, the note which stands out the sharpest in all of these documents from forty years ago.


5 thoughts on “The POUM, in their own words

  1. Hi, have you an email I can contact you on? I enjoy your blog, and want to ask if you’d review something i’ve been writing. I can be contacted at understandingmanagementtheory [AT]


    1. I’ll email you privately. I’ve been enjoying your blog too and plan to write something in response to some of your ideas.


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