The POUM: Those who would?

On January 3, 2015, historian Doug Enaa Greene led a discussion on the history of the POUM and the lessons to be drawn for today. It was presented to the Center of Marxist Education. His talk was based on the text below.

By Doug Enaa Greene

January 7, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- For generations of leftists, the most recognizable images of the Spanish Civil War is from May 1937 comes from George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia of anarchist and POUMist workers defending the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona from the Communist Party. This image is said to represent the betrayal of Spain's libertarian communist revolution by agents of Moscow. In the decades since May 1937, a great number of polemics have been exchanged on what went wrong and on many “what ifs” on how the revolution could have won in the streets of Barcelona.

The basic picture that Orwell presented still holds for much of the writing related to the Spanish Civil War, even from non-leftists. Yet the picture is not so clear in hindsight. The truth is, any chance for a successful revolution was lost in Spain long before May 1937 and the blame for this is not to be laid at the feet of the “Stalinist” Communist Party – but on the anarchists themselves for throwing away their chance at seizing power.

When the Nationalists began their military coup to bring down the Spanish Republic, workers, peasants and soldiers rose up in response not only to defend the Republic, but to make their own social revolution. In Catalonia, the anarchist unions were the strongest left-wing political force, leading the successful resistance to the military rebellion. Once the Nationalists were crushed, the anarchists were masters of the streets and power was in their hands. Yet the anarchists refused to take power – not merely because they didn't know what to do with it, but because they didn't want to be “Bolsheviks” and establish their own revolutionary dictatorship. The anarchist conception of the revolution only involved abolishing the state and establishing libertarian communism. The anarchists hoped that their militia, fired by revolutionary elan would be enough to defeat Franco and defend the revolution. Despite their undoubted heroism, the militia quickly proved themselves to be unable to win in the field.

Yet the necessities of the Spanish Civil War, fighting against a determined and heavily armed adversary, precisely meant that a state was needed in order to reconstruct a regular centralized army, develop a central command to plan military strategy, coordinate resources and plan production. And while the anarchists refused to take power, they wound up accepting the existence of the Republican state and its priorities for the war when they joined the government in September 1936. And despite many anarchist criticisms of the conduct of the war by the Republic, which came to a head in the crisis in May 1937, the majority of their movement was willing to break away and push aside the Republic. Although the anarchists accepted the end of communism, they neglected the means necessary to get there – revolutionary dictatorship – ensuring their defeat in advance.

This is only part of the story though. There were others, in theory at least, who recognized what the anarchists ignored – the need for the seizure of power. These were the brave and dedicated militants of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) who fought alongside the anarchists. The POUM recognized that the militia would not win the war, but whereas the anarchists accepted the government line of a centralized army, the POUM by contrast had the idea of creating a revolutionary centralized red army - combine the revolutionary elan of the masses with a centralized and disciplined coordinated command that could potentially win. However, the POUM had no chance to really implement these ideas.

For one, the POUM had made a number of strategic political mistakes before the war that left them isolated in Catalonia, not joining the radicalizing Socialist Youth and not orientating their union work towards the anarchists to influence them. During the war, the POUM leadership did not make a bid for power, but supported “with reservations” the government of the Popular Front – this no doubt served to disorient their supporters and potential allies. Ultimately, even if the POUM wanted to implement their policies in Spain, they could not since they were largely isolated in Catalonia – and even there, they were dwarfed by the larger organizations of both the anarchists and the communists.

In the end, the only party that possessed a viable strategy to win the war and the will to carry it out was the Communist Party. The Communist Party foreswore any revolutionary aims in its pursuit of victory against the Nationalists. This meant the Party became the principle supporter of the efforts of the Republican government to reconstitute its authority, develop a centralized army and secure Soviet and Western military aid. Yet the Communists believed that by subordinating and rolling back the revolution that they could make the Republic appear reasonable in the eyes of the Western bourgeois democracies of France and Britain and gain military and political support along with advance Soviet aims for collective security.

The Communist strategy in regards to the Western powers was flawed in that no matter how non-revolutionary the Republic may have appeared, France and Britain had no desire to see the Republic win, but their ruling classes were only too willing to collude with Franco's backers. Yet the Communists correctly saw the need for a centralized army that was needed to win the war. And without centralizing its armed forces and reconstituting the state power and securing Soviet aid, the Republic arguably would have lost much sooner. So in light of the fact that no other political force was able to put forward or implement an alternative strategy, it was the Communist Party however non-revolutionary it may appear, that possessed the only realistic option to win the war.

Thus the central tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that the anarchists possessed the numbers and organizational muscle for power, but refused to take it. The POUM had a program for waging revolutionary war, but lacked the mass influence, allies and the leadership needed to win. Ultimately those who would couldn't and those who could wouldn't.

I. The Spanish setting[1]

Unlike many other countries in Europe, Spain was not a developed capitalist society but had a powerful landowning class and a monarchy. Spain was burdened with a large landowning class, a small bourgeoisie, and a large peasantry.[2] Since capitalist development was delayed in Spain, its working class was small but highly combative and influenced heavily by anarchist and syndicalist ideas.[3] Spain did have a small socialist party, but it believed that “the class struggle should be waged in a moderate and evolutionary manner (the PSOE did not formally repudiate the monarchy until 1914).”[4] Needless to say such a moderate course did not find too many adherents among the militant workers of Spain. Following major labor strife in Barcelona in 1908-9, a national workers federation was founded in 1910. The National Confederation of Labor (CNT) was dominated by anarchists from the beginning and influenced by “ideas from France, the articulate leaders of whose working class were in the full flood of enthusiasm for ‘syndicalism’ and the idea of economic warfare to the death.”[5] The CNT pursued a revolutionary strategy of strikes, riots, and sabotage that they hoped would lead to a new society.

The CNT expanded rapidly over the next several years, engaging in desperate struggles on behalf of the working class. However, it was the outbreak of World War One that saw the CNT, socialists and the bourgeois republicans make a bid for power. Spain was neutral during the war, supplying vast amounts of raw materials to the allies. The consequence was a vast enrichment of industrialists and stagnation for the wages and conditions of the working class. Following the conclusion of the war, exports to the Allies suddenly dropped off and unemployment swelled. People were swarming into the cities, but there was no work to be found. The established politicians offered no solutions. Protests largely came from the Anarchist trade unions (CNT) which staged major protests in Barcelona and Andalusia from 1917-1920. The government sent in the police to crush strikes and assassinate union leaders.

The industrial and political unrest in Spain coupled with military reversals in Spain highlighted the crisis of the monarchy and led to calls for order. To halt the chaos and provide stability, an officer Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military coup in September 1923 and took power. Primo de Rivera hoped to deliver Spain from ruin, end the crippling protests and regenerate the country. His ascension to power was welcomed by military officers and industrialists. However, no major effort was able by Primo de Rivera to deal with the agrarian question which would have required him turning against his main supporters among landlords.[6] In order to end strikes and promote class harmony, the dictatorship attempted involve worker organizations in arbitration. The Socialist union leader, Francisco Largo Caballero was a willing collaborator in this endeavor – using the power of the state to increase support for the Socialist UGT despite opposition from other socialists and the anarchists.[7]

However, the dictatorship's modernization was half-hearted and poorly planned. The deficit doubled from 1925 to 1931, currency speculation caused the peseta lost half of its value and capital left the country. Primo de Rivera managed to alienate the industrialists with ill-conceived industrialization plans and perceived friendliness towards the workers. The dictatorship's interference in the universities turned the liberals against him and by 1930 the Socialists had turned against him (causing the numbers in the UGT to rise rapidly).[8]

Finally in April 1931 after a general strike and a failed plebiscite to restore confidence in the regime, Primo de Rivera and King Alfonso XIII were informed that the military had turned against the Crown. The dictatorship thus came to an end on April 14, 1931 when the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed and a coalition of liberals and socialists assumed power.[9]

II. Changes in the revolutionary left

a. Joaquin Maurin and Andres Nin

The period in Spain from the first World War to the foundation of the Second Republic not only saw the explosion of working class militancy, but significant changes on the revolutionary left. Two of which will concern us here – the development of the Spanish Communist Party and changes within the anarchist movement. The Russian Revolution influenced a section of Spanish radicals, both socialist and anarchists, to follow the Bolshevik example – seeing it as the wave of the future.[10] However, these communists were a decided minority in the Socialist Party, the bulk of the PSOE remained faithful to the reformist politics of the Second International by a vote of 8,270 to 5,016 with 1,615 abstaining.[11]

Radicalized elements in both anarchist and socialist movements took the Russian example as the wave of the future and broke with their organizations. However, the bulk of the Socialist Party was not willing to go over to the revolutionary road, its leadership remaining faithful to the Second International.[12] The minority of Bolsheviks left the PSOE and formed their own organization, the Workers' Communist Party which fused with other groups at the Third Comintern Congress to become the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).

The anarchists were also tempted by the Bolshevik example. For these anarchists, even though the Bolshevik Years of 1917-20 had shown the potentialities for mass action within the working class of Spain, they also showed its limitation, particularly with regard to political organization. The Catalan anarchist Joaquin Maurin concluded that "The labor movement has been characterized in these last years by a dispersed, atomistic, and undisciplined activity. What happened was very sad. When one of the great capitals was at white heat, the rest were cold...All [struggles] were isolated combats impregnated with an excess of localism that made a unified [revolutionary] movement impossible."[13]

Joaquin Maurin, who would later play key roles in both the Communist Party and the POUM, was at this time a major figure in the CNT. Maurin was born in 1896 in Catalonia and originally trained for the priesthood, but became a schoolteacher. From teaching, Maurin moved to journalism and work in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. In line with the CNT, Maurin had looked upon the socialists contemptuously with their “sense of responsibility.”[14] Maurin’s journalistic articles cited Georges Sorel favorably. Maurin was later to say of Sorel’s ideas, that they were “grounded in what is solid in Marxism, pragmatic and creative, favorably answered my questions.”[15] One of the questions that interested Maurin was: what would be the necessary revolutionary vehicle for Spain?

According to the historian Stanley Payne, Maurin’s reading of Sorel “helped convince of him of the need for revolutionary dictatorship and violence.”[16] This would be a natural position for Maurin to take from 1917-20. During this period, Maurin worked as a union educator and militant for the CNT in Barcelona (eventually rising to head of its Catalan section), scene of insurrections and assassinations. Maurin agitated for amnesty for union militants arrested in the various crackdowns.

While Spain’s strikes were not leading to revolution, Maurin like many other CNT members looked to the fledgling republic of Soviets in Russia. In 1921, the CNT was considering affiliation to the Comintern, the International organization of Communist Parties affiliated to the USSR. Maurin was one of the CNT delegates sent to the USSR. While there, Maurin was dazzled by “the spectacle of revolutionary Russia, its iron dictatorship and organized legions of workers and soldiers.”[17] Maurin quickly became an adherent to Bolshevism. While in Russia, Maurin’s views changed from syndicalism to Bolshevism. As an adherent to Sorel, Maurin had advocated a general strike and violence. Now Maurin saw “syndicates playing the leading role of Soviets.”[18]

Maurin though was more critical of anarchists, believing that they were “more effective in creating a revolutionary feeling and situation among Spanish workers, [the CNT] lacked the necessary qualities for carrying a revolution out.”[19] Maurin saw the answer in “that a workers’ revolution must rely on syndicates [unions], but only as the main instruments of a more centralized political struggle.”[20] For Maurin, what was essential for a more centralized struggle were “reliance on professional revolutionaries…while insisting that syndicalist morality must be based on the concept of collective violence.”[21] What Maurin was advocating here was the need for a revolutionary party to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. Maurin’s views were not accepted by the CNT though. The Spanish anarcho-syndicalists ultimately rejected affiliation to the Comintern.

Another CNT member who followed Maurin's embrace of Bolshevism was Andres Nin. Nin, born in 1892, was originally a schoolteacher in various worker schools in Barcelona and later a journalist. By 1919, Nin was a key figure within the CNT (and a member of the PSOE), he was President of the Union of Professionals and a close friend of Maurin. Following the murder of CNT secretary general Eveli Boal by assassins in the pay of the Catalan employers, Nin was designated to take over the position. Nin, by this time was growing extremely sympathetic to both Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1921, Nin and Maurin traveled to Moscow to attend the first conference of the Profintern (The Red International of Trade Unions) as part of the invited CNT delegation. Although other CNT delegates were not won over to Communism in the Soviet Union, both Nin and Maurin argued that the anarchists should affiliate to the Profintern. In the end, the Maurin and Nin provisionally affiliated the CNT to the Comintern, but this angered anarchist opponents of Bolshevism back in Spain. And this ultimately meant that Nin and Maurin only had a political home in the Communist International and the PCE.

Nin was unable to return to Spain because he was (wrongly) connected to the assassination of the Prime Minister, Eduardo Dato, he ended up staying in Spain. Nin remained active in the Profintern, rising to assistant secretary, joined the Soviet Communist Party in 1923, married a Russian woman and had two children. In 1926, Nin sided with the Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky, which caused him to be removed from all political activities and expelled from the PCE and the CPSU. Nin lived in an uneasy existence in the USSR until 1930 when he was allowed to return to Spain, where he joined a Trotskyist group, the Communist Opposition of Spain, quickly rising to a leading position.[22]

On the other hand, Maurin did not stay in the USSR but returned to Spain to do political work for the PCE. On February 22, 1922, Maurin was arrested in Barcelona. While in prison, Maurin's opponents in the National Committee took over and withdrew the CNT from the Profintern. Maurin was dismayed by the CNT's decision and attempted to organize against Anarchist tendencies in the union by creating the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees (Comites Sindicalistas Revolutionarios) or CSR which were intended to “coordinate the actions of their sympathizers, supporting them in union assemblies, so they could gain new leadership positions and in this way, little by little, come to lead the CNT.”[23] Although the CSR put out a newspaper, La Batalla and gained the affiliation of three Barcelona unions, but by 1924 the organization ceased to function.[24]

The remainder of the CSR in Catalonia, numbering approximately 100, joined the PCE in October 1924 as the Federacion Comunista Catalano-Balear (Catalan-Balearic Communist Federation or FCC-B) and Maurin represented the Federation at a national plenum of the PCE. Maurin was joined by other Communists from Bilbao in denouncing the leadership for showing passivity in the fight against the dictatorship. The Central Committee resigned in December 1924, allowing Maurin and his supporters (with support from Nin and the Profintern in Moscow) to gain a provisional hold on the Party leadership. However, Maurin was arrested the following month and spent the next three years in jail with PCE leadership passing to Jose Bullejos.[25]

When Maurin was released in prison in 1927, he found the political situation in the PCE decidedly changed. The Bullejos leadership was seeking to achieve a degree of unity in the factionous party, and to gain control over the FCC-B. Those efforts were not easy, which caused the Party leadership to begin a campaign against Maurin (accused of being insufficiently Marxist, factional activity and allied with Trotsky). Maurin managed to go to Moscow and successfully argued his position.[26] Continued factionalism in the PCE following Bullejos's arrest led to the creation of a separate Communist Party of Catalonia.

Maurin though found himself opposed to the PCE's line that the post-dictatorship regime would be a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, arguing for a federal democratic republic. Maurin's line was rejected, but he continued activity in the FCC-B in 1930 supporting the PCE line of a workers' republic that “would establish an alliance to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution and prepare for the socialist revolution...” but this was denounced as a “rightist deviation.” In July 1931, Maurin left the PCE, taking the majority of the FCC-B with him. However, by this time the FCC-B and the Catalan Communist Party had already formed their own organization, the Workers' and Peasants Bloc (BOC) with about 700 members with a history of working class activism.[27]

b. Changes in the Anarchist Movement

Following the Communist splits in the CNT in the early 1920s, the movement reaffirmed its anarchist principles by affiliating with the International Working Men's Association, an anarchist international in 1922. The following year with the installation of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, the CNT was outlawed, its papers banned, and militants thrown in jail. This had the result of revealing more underlying fissures within the anarchist movement. On the one hand were the Los Solidarios led by Buenaventura Durruti which attacked military installations, carried out political assassinations and planned for a revolutionary general strike to bring down the dictatorship.[28]
However, the CNT also saw pulls among its membership for a more political direction of dealing with the state. As Helen Graham argues, the CNT was not a homogenous organization but

one whose regional components each formulated a political and ethical practice in the light of the material circumstances of their particular memberships. In a country with such disparate levels of development as Spain, this obviously also made for significant diversity within the organizations of the left. As well as the southern millenarians and Catalan and Aragonese street warriors, the CNT also included a Northern (Asturian) federation in which skilled workers and artisans predominated. It was in the presence of this syndicalist component that had reassured the UGT leaders sufficiently to make possible the historical Labour Pact of July 1916. A year later, a group of self-proclaimed parliamentary syndicalists from Gijon even called for the formation of a parliamentary party to represent the CNT's interests. Although this did not prosper, the very fact that it was mooted demonstrates the clear political affinity of some parts of the CNT for the UGT....At the same time, the fact that some cenetistas saw the value of elaborating a parliamentary political strategy highlights how the war-induced surge in labor mobilization had crystallized important differences inside the CNT over ideology and practice – and in particular how to deal with the state.

The very fact that were anarchists who sought to steer the movement into engagement with the state or the parliamentary socialists meant that political leadership of the CNT was desperately needed. In 1927, this led to the foundation of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) to defend anarchist orthodoxy within the CNT. The FAI was a loose network of individuals, not a centralized vanguard which was its weakness.[29]

However, the foundation of the FAI did not end the dispute within the CNT between the reformers and the orthodox. Rather, the issues grew in their importance especially with the foundation of the Second Republic. Anarchist purists still dreamed of establishing libertarian communism and staged a number of ill-fated uprisings in 1932.[30] Yet there anarchists who saw, in Helen Graham's words, “an enhanced opportunity for the organization's partial political incorporation – at least sufficiently to defend its members and social constituencies through the newly available channels of municipal politics and state labor agencies.”[31] There were CNT militants such as Angel Pestana and Juan Peiro, who argued that the anarchists should abandon their anti-parliamentarism and engage in political action to advance their interests.Failure to do so, they argued, only hurt CNT members and allowed the rival Socialist UGT to gain ground.

Although the CNT remained able to mobilize a vast amount of industrial and agricultural workers, especially in Catalonia and Aragon, the organization saw its membership drop during the Second Republic from 300,000 in 1931 to 160,000 in 1936. In 1931, skilled workers' unions in Catalonia and Valencia left the organization as part of the reformist treintista split.[32] The CNT reformers remained a minority within the organization, as the anarchists faced the reality of the Republic with its slow reforms, state repression and the exclusion of the left after 1933. The CNT also remained organizationally unable to communicate and coordinate its activities.

Although the CNT was organized on an industrial basis, which meant that unions in a branch of industry were brought together in a single union, efforts to build national federations were defeated by anarchist radicals. This meant that instead of cohesive and centralized organization that the CNT's “regional federations...[were] virtually autonomous entities. The national leadership was elected to represent, but it had no power to enforce policy or organizational directives. In the course of the strikes in the 1930s the CNT did not even have the organizational means to communicate with its own constituent unions – which seriously inhibited their efficacy.”[33] This meant that the vast power of the CNT was never able to be centralized or wielded effectively, since it was undone by anarchist decentralization.

In May 1936, shortly before the outbreak of Civil War, the CNT held their annual congress in Saragossa. The congress ended the split with treinistas by incorporating some of the unions back into the Confederation. While traditional anarchist positions such as anti-parliamentarism and libertarian communism were upheld, differences were merely papered over. On the one hand, the CNT supported efforts to reach an agreement with the Socialist UGT in light of the strike wave, but seemed oblivious to the impending fascist threat and opposed the creation of a revolutionary army. The conflict between the radicals and reformers would come into the open after Franco's coup. The result of the Saragossa Congress meant that “the lack of national federations would seriously hinder the coordination of resistance. Moreover, it would also mean, ironically that radical anarchists would have no integrated organizational base from which to contest war policy with their political opponents in the Popular Front.”[34]

III. The Second Republic

The Spanish Civil War resulted from unsettled problems following the formation of the Second Republic in 1931. The country was beset with agrarian problems and labor disputes that had been ignored and brewing for generations. A mildly reforming left-liberal government faced opposition from an entrenched right-wing in tackling land reform and curbing the power of the Catholic Church. As left reforms became bogged down with the deepening Depression, this led to protests against the government. The left government fractured and the right gained power in 1933, promising to turn back the clock. The right that gained power in 1933 was being increasingly influenced by fascist theories from abroad. This produced a major backlash from the left, among both reformers and revolutionaries that led to an abortive revolution in 1934 centered in Asturias.[35]

The revolution was put down, but the left, which had been divided since the foundation of the Republic was searching for unity and becoming increasingly radicalized. In this atmosphere, the PCE, which had previously been miniscule and isolated in Spain’s largely anarchist-dominated left, was gaining support in its own push for unity which fit in nicely with the wider left’s desire to unite. This policy would become enshrined in the establishment of a Popular Front between the PCE and the left. The Popular Front was not a revolutionary pact, but rather a mildly reformist program from the worker and bourgeois parties. The PCE was a vocal and active supporter of the Popular Front which brought increased strength to the party. The growing strength of the PCE would later prove influential to the course of Spain before and during the civil war.[36]

Following elections in February 1936, which resulted in the victory of the Popular Front, Spain moved rapidly toward a pre-revolutionary situation. Mass strikes and land seizures were common across the country. Left and right fought in most of Spain’s major cities. Spanish capitalists and landlords saw the country descending into chaos. A military coup which eventually centered on General Francisco Franco erupted in Morocco and spread across the peninsula in July, beginning a three year long civil war.

IV. Origins of the POUM

a. The Workers' and Peasants' Bloc

Maurin's Worker-Peasant Bloc/BOC considered itself Communist, but outside of the existing Internationals (whether the Comintern or Trotskyist). Despite the relatively small size of the BOC, it had an impressive array of satellite organizations: a youth wing, woman’s section, electoral secretariat, defense guards and it put out a regular paper.[37] The BOC program set forth the following analysis as elaborated by Maurin: The Republic was not stable enough to survive and the base of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Spain was weak among the capitalists, who were not willing to challenge the basic inequities of Spain (the influence of the Church, the agrarian question, and the national question), therefore the working class needed to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution.[38] Part of the BOC program was self-determination for national minorities in Spain such as Catalans and for colonies such as Morocco and to replace the current domination of Spanish imperialism with a free Iberian union of socialist republics.[39]

The BOC did not believe in collaborating with the bourgeois (despite their limited participation in the electoral process), but in rallying workers and peasants around juntas (or soviets) which would break the power of the church and give land to the tiller. By challenging conservative power and moving society toward the workers, this would complete the democratic revolution and open the road to socialism. Since they believed that the Republic was on weak grounds, BOC believed that this could only be accomplished through a revolutionary seizure of power, not by an electoral road. However, this did not mean that the BOC did not participate in electoral politics. Their candidates in the 1931 elections won only 20,000 votes, a fraction of the official Communist Party. In 1933, the BOC formed a coalition with the Socialist Party, under the banner of the Workers Front (Front Ober) and their ticket received “5,745 votes in Barcelona, 2,758 in the province of Barcelona, 8,103 in Gerona, 1,921 in Tarragona, and 5,531 in Lerida, for 24,048 in all of Catalonia.”[40]

Considering that the BOC took practically the whole of the Catalan section of the Communist Party with them during the split, there were some efforts by the PCE to win them back. The PCE Politburo invited Maurin and other members to return, even suggesting that Maurin go to Moscow to make his case (which he refused to do). A further attempt by the PCE to win over the Bloc from Maurin was made in June 1931, which was ignored in 1932. By 1932, the PCE had given up its efforts to win over the BOC, forming the Communist Party of Catalonia in March 1932.[41] Thereafter, the PCE considered the BOC to be renegades from Communism.

The BOC believed that the foundation of the Republic would cause many workers to have illusions in the Republic and to combat this, they proposed to the CNT that the two organizations form revolutionary councils. However, as Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz point out, the CNT refused the overture because they “wanted to help the Republicans gain time.”[42] Although many left-wing organizations seemed to doubt the Republic, the BOC was determined that the only lasting basis of the revolution would have to be done in the streets. This position attracted a considerable base to the BOC and in two months their membership doubled.[43]

However, this did not end efforts by the BOC to build relations with the CNT. According to Maurin, “lacking a genuine revolutionary party, the masses oriented themselves towards the CNT...Anarcho-syndicalism revived in an unexpected manner...In 1931, the CNT-FAI occupied, in their own way, a historical place comparable to that of the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917.”[44] The CNT was already facing internal fissures of its own due to the challenges and opportunities opened for political action under the Republic – now it had to deal with the BOC on top of that. The BOC organization in the CNT, Revolutionary Union Opposition (OSR) argued for changes in the CNT where “all the tendencies could coexist and that would participate in future revolutionary actions alongside the rest of the workers' movement and not only in their own interest.'[45] However, the OSR was unable to gain a major footing in Barcelona, although they won a base in unions in Girona, Tarragona and Lerida.[46]

Once the anarchist purists of the FAI gained control over the CNT in 1932, this caused not only the reformists to split away, but the FAI expelled the BOC affiliated unions, who formed their own opposition federation.[47] Yet the BOC did not try to alienate the anarchists, but to win the rank-and-file anarchist workers over to a Marxist position. And this was done by defending the CNT from state repression, but also pointing out the inadequacies of their policies. According to the BOC, “anarchism has been indirectly an ally of the bourgeoisie, which has used it as a wedge into the labor movement...[anarchism] served as a springboard for bourgeois radicalism....[and when the anarchists] intervene in politics, have done it through secondary parties; supporting candidates from the bourgeoisie.”[48] Thus anarchism, despite the heroism of its militants, prevented the working class from coming forward with their own demands and policies, handcuffing workers to their class enemy. However, there were clashes between the BOC and members of the FAI who assaulted BOC meetings.[49]

Even though the BOC was small, its influence was growing across the Catalan working class movement. The BOC managed, through well-prepared intervention and dedicated activism, to gain influence in the unions of white collar clerical and sales employees in Barcelona in 1933. In November 1933, BOC activists were able to lead one of the most important union struggles of the Second Republic, involving 80,000 clerical workers, to victory.[50] The BOC also took initiative in peasant and unemployed struggles, winning some not insignificant successes.[51]

The BOC made a major change in political approach in 1933, following the worsening political situation in Spain and the Nazi rise to power in Germany. In Spain, the Republic's reforms were proving slow and half-hearted and the danger of reaction loomed as a result of an abortive military coup by Jose Sanjurjo in 1932. In Germany, Hitler had come to power despite the presence of the world's largest socialist and communist parties, who remained disunited in face of the fascist threat. IN May 1933, the BOC analyzed what happened in Germany and “condemned the policy of both the Socialist and Communist Internationals, and demanded a union of worker forces to struggle against fascism and, for the moment, to prevent it conquering new positions.”[52] Out of this developed the BOC initiative of the Workers' Alliance, established in December 1933, which would unite revolutionary, worker and left forces against the fascist threat.

The Workers' Alliance formed in Catalonia, which brought together forces ranging from the CNT, anarchist splinter groups, Socialist Party, UGT, and the Trotskyists, and the BOC. The Workers' Alliance saw its first action in early 1934 during a general strike in Catalonia in support of the Madrid UGT. Despite limited success in Barcelona, the strike managed to shut down the rest of the province. As a result, the example of the Workers' Alliance began to spread throughout Spain.[53] According to Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, “the facts demonstrated that the alliance was neither a political trick, nor a maneuver, but that it responded to a need. And it began to be seen that it responded to a desire on the part of the masses. The workers, in effect, had begun to become alarmed.”[54]

While most of the left was coming around to support of unity, the Communist Party remained outside of the Alliance. The PCE refused to ally with the “Socialist traitors” and in April 1934, they formed their own trade union federation. Yet due to changes in the Comintern as a result of Hitler's rise to power and an abortive fascist coup in France, the PCE line began to change. By September 11-12 1934, the PCE endorsed the Workers' Alliance.[55] Now practically every section of the Spanish left and working class movement were united.

The culmination of the Workers' Alliance came in October 1934 when the far right party CEDA entered the government. This became a signal for revolution across Spain. Although the revolution was quickly put down in Catalonia and Madrid, the miners of Asturias led by the Alliance, representing the whole Spanish left, took power and held it for two weeks. The Republican government sent in the Foreign Legion commanded by General Francisco Franco to put down the revolt. Despite fierce fighting, the workers were defeated with 2,000 dead and at least 30,000 were herded into prison.[56] Despite the repression, Asturias had shown the possibilities of what united action could achieve for the left. And Maurin's BOC, now with several thousand members and a strong base in Catalonia (and sections in Madrid, Asturias, and Valencia), reached out for more allies to form a revolutionary party in Spain.

b. The Communist Left

The Spanish section of the International Trotskyist movement, the Communist Left (ICE), led Andres' Nin was never as large as the BOC or other leftist organization. At its height, the Trotskyists had at most 800 members.[57] Like the BOC, the ICE was centered in Catalonia, with half their membership in Lerida centered around the town of Llerena among farm workers, with small groups in Madrid and Catalonia.[58]

The relations between the ICE and the Trotskyist international movement were rocky from the beginning. Trotsky argued that Nin and the ICE should develop their own international organizations and not orient themselves towards the BOC, which he considered to be a rightist and opportunist organization.[59] Nin made an effort to join the FCC-B, but was rejected for being too narrowly sectarian and too tied to Trotskyism. According to Andy Durgan, “Nin favoured working inside the BOC basically for two reasons. Firstly, by early 1931 the majority of Spanish Communists were outside the PCE, and the formation of an independent Communist grouping appeared as a real possibility. During early 1931 Nin favoured forming part of such a grouping rather than maintaining the fiction of the OCE being a faction of the PCE.

Perhaps more significant was Nin’s friendship with the BOC’s undisputed leader, Joaquin Maurín. Outside the ranks of the Trotskyists, Maurín was the most able Communist leader and theoretician in Spain. His writings on the historical development of the Spanish revolution alone testify to that.”[60]

The ICE remained opposed to BOC seeming separatist as opposed to class politics and the BOC's calling on the CNT to take power, which confused the role of unions in the revolution. By contrast, the ICE argued that it was necessary to dispel the illusions that workers had in the Republic by calling on the Socialists to end collaboration with the bourgeoisie and call for partial demands. By contrast, the BOC was making generalized calls for the seizure of power, rejecting this agitation.[61] The Trotskyists believed that the opportunism that characterized the BOC was due to its uneven relation with the Comintern and its social base.[62]

By 1932 and 33, things began to change. For one, although the BOC took positions that mirrored those of the Trotskyists on many levels – condemning Comintern policy in Germany and supporting a call for a new international. And while the BOC remained opposed to Trotskyism, with Maurin calling it “civil war in the worker's movement,” Trotsky himself was a different matter. Articles by Trotsky appeared in the BOC press and Trotsky was defended from attacks by the mainstream Communist Party and the USSR.[63] And perhaps most importantly, the BOC moved toward positions very similar to those of the Trotskyists in regards to the USSR, the Comintern, socialism in one country, and persecutions under Stalin.[64] All of this left open hope to Nin and the ICE that they could influence the BOC.

However, the chances of a growing rapprochement between the ICE and BOC were not looked upon favorably by Trotsky or the International Trotskyist. In September 1931, Trotsky had called on the Spanish section to break all relations with the BOC. Relations between Nin and Trotsky cooled, although no break came.[65]

Meanwhile, the growing political convergence developed between the two organizations. Maurin and Nin, both Leninists, recognized that Spain needed a vanguard party encompassing the whole country if the revolution was to succeed. The BOC and the ICE worked together in the Workers' Alliances, believing the alliance “could mobilise the workers on a daily basis, and consequently build up their confidence and militancy. In contrast, the left wing Socialists and Syndicalists saw the alliances as purely “insurrectional” bodies. In fact, the Socialists opposed many “economic” struggles throughout 1934 as “wasting the workers’ energy”.”[66] The positions of the two groups coincided in supporting calls for an all-Socialist government and in their analysis of the weaknesses of the developing left within the PSOE. On the national question, the BOC moved away from separatism and towards a more orthodox position on self-determination just as Trotskyists began to recognize the significance of national movements in Spain.

Maurin also saw the advantages of unification since, according to Durgan, it would “ appeared as a means of overcoming their relative isolation and lack of significant growth. This was particularly the case for the ICE, which, apart from a few scattered groups, had been unable to overcome its organizational weakness. For the BOC, and Maurín in particular, it meant the gaining of a number of useful nuclei throughout Spain, and hopefully the beginnings of real expansion outside Catalonia. Despite the BOC’s declared intention to create a state-wide organisation, it had had little success apart from in nearby Castellon, Valencia and the Catalan-speaking area of Aragon. Away from Catalonia, its only group of any relative importance was in Asturias.”[67]

Finally in 1934, the ICE broke with Trotsky over the tactic of “entryism” whereby the Trotskyists were encouraged to enter the Socialist Parties and win them to a revolutionary line. By contrast, Nin saw that a more fruitful approach could be achieved by fusing with the BOC. Yet as we shall see, there was a real possibility of winning a significant section of the PSOE to revolutionary politics and building a mass revolutionary party in Spain. When Nin, and Maurin, missed the opportunity of influencing this radicalization of the PSOE, they ended up creating a small, albeit significant party, limited largely to Catalonia. This effectively isolated and limited the influence of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War.

c. The Socialist Party

By 1934, the BOC and ICE were not the only left forces in Spain who were in favor of a unified Marxist party. The Communist Party was moving towards a more inclusive approach that would lead to the Popular Front and leftists were gaining influence within the Socialist Party. It is to the latter that we now turn. The PSOE, for so long a reformist party, was changing under the Republic. The depths of the economic crisis, the unfulfilled dreams of the Republic, the threat of fascism and the example of the USSR were bringing radical elements to the fore. One of the main voices of this radicalism was longtime Socialist UGT leader, Francisco Largo Callabero, and despite his motives, he “after the experience of these years, he was doubtful of possibility of winning even the most minimal demands of the proletariat within the bourgeois republican framework. He believed that Spain was on the eve of the social revolution, and set before the youth the mission of encouraging the indecisive and of driving out of the party the passive elements that were no use to the revolution."[68] Whether Largo's radicalization was genuine, and his subsequent behavior argues against it, he tapped into the mood of the militant Socialist Youth.

Although the Socialist Youth (FSJ ) were historically a small and reformist subsidiary organization of the adult party, by 1934's Revolution, the Party left and youth “openly proclaimed that this insurrection would be nothing else than an insurrection for power, for the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[69] The leftists of the FSJ took control of the 200,000 member organization by April 1934. One of the new young Socialist leftists, was the nineteen year old General Secretary Santiago Carrillo. The leftists backed Largo's left faction in the adult party and hoped to capture and purify the PSOE. According to Pierre Broue, "The political thought of these young people was certainly far from being perfectly clear. Their adversaries could often, and without great difficulty, detect their contradictions and sudden reversals of line. But the axis of their orientation was very clear. They believed that the proletarian revolution was on the immediate order of the day in Spain, and that as a result of the facts of history and the present consciousness of the masses the instrument of this proletarian revolution could only be the PSOE which they believed had to be swept clear of its reformist elements and reinforced by revolutionary elements from outside.”[70] Thus, there was a possible base in the PSOE for the Trotskyists to influence.

\However, there were FSJ radicals such as Federico Melchor who stressed their agreement with the positions of the Fourth International and went so far as to declare “that the Trotskyists and the Socialist Youth were fighting the same struggle to break with “Stalinism and revisionism”, but that he did not believe in the construction of the Fourth International and wanted the support of the Trotskyists to help to defeat the reformist faction in the Socialist Party.”[71] Carrillo was also criticizing the PCE, saying that the developing situation was forcing through a united front via the Workers Alliance that would lead to power.[72] Here were positions that both Nin and Maurin could support and use to draw the FSJ over to them.

The failure of the 1934 revolution did not dampen the flames of the militant FSJ, but only fueled them. The FSJ increasingly targeted the reformists within their own ranks and called for their ouster. They also wanted the PSOE and the FSJ to break with the Second International. Although the FSJ regarded the slogan of a Fourth International as “an unfortunate slogan”. They regarded it as possessing no real base and therefore no possibility of development, precisely since the Third International had abandoned its sectarian policy which had led to the disaster in Germany. Moreover, they believed that Trotsky himself had “tacitly renounced” the slogan – apparently since he advocated the policy of “entrism” into Social-Democracy.”[73] Yet the FSJ remained opposed to the PSOE joining the Comintern.

In the FSJ manifesto, according to Broue, there was a mix “legitimate ambition alongside the manoeuvres of politicians, the pressures exerted by the masses alongside the concerns of men of the apparatus. Yet nothing was settled: the historic fate of the leadership and of the Socialist Youth of Spain was not yet sealed.”[74] Although a small number of Trotskyists in Spain, the majority of the ICE rejected any entryism into the PSOE.

Yet Carrillo was reaching out to both the BOC and the ICE, inviting them to join the PSOE and fight for Marxist principles there.[75] However, Maurin did not seem to understand the stakes in the PSOE and “believed the entry of the Bloc into the PSOE would mean the disappearance of its influence. Carrillo answered that what had happened elsewhere would not necessarily take place in Spain.”[76] Even though there was some opposition to Maurin's position, his line carried the majority in the BOC.[77]

The irony was, that Carrillo ended up joining the Communist Party after spending so much effort attempting to formulate an alternative. Following a trip to Moscow in March 1936, Carrillo and the Socialist Youth entered into discussion with their Communist counterparts. In June, shortly before the outbreak of Civil War, the two youth leagues united to form the Unified Socialist Youth, which was effectively under the control of the PCE.[78] This fusion provided the Communist Party with a much broader base, propelling its transformation into a mass party and the broader influence it would gain during the Civil War.

Although there is no guarantee of a different outcome if the ICE or BOC entered the FSJ, Pierre Broue argues in favor of entryism, saying “The contradictions, the oscillations and the uncertainties which the Carrillo current displayed were never in fact subjected to the fire of serious internal criticism or the test of coherent contradiction – which would have been the case if the Trotskyists had entered and which was purely a matter of their choice. It seems to me especially that the companions of Carrillo displayed, in relation to the history of the Soviet Union and of Stalinism itself, a lack of comprehension and of knowledge so profound that we may rightly suppose that they would never have offered any insuperable barrier to the analyses of the Trotskyists... This is what Trotsky, in any case, criticised especially in his Spanish comrades; they observed and commented, without intervening, and in this way allowed this considerable, generous, devoted militant force, which was ready for every sacrifice, to fall in the end into the hands of Stalin and of the fresh young Stalinists as the instrument which betrayed the Spanish revolution in the name of “the defence of democracy”, which, precisely they had rejected at the outset as a deception!”[79]

The end result of the failure of the ICE and BOC to grow into a truly mass party would mean that they would be unable to influence events in the Civil War. The POUM itself may have the correct ideas, but they would remain isolated and unable to put their plans into action.

d. The foundation of the POUM

The first attempts at building a unified Marxist movement occurred in February and April 1935 between six organizations: BOC, ICE, PSOE, PCE, the Social Democratic Catalan Socialist Union (USC), Catalan Proletarian Party (PCP). However, the latter four parties eventually withdrew from unity talks and in July 1936 formed the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) – effectively the Catalan section of the PCE.[80] Negotiations advanced between the BOC and the ICE though, resulting in the formation of a united party on September 29, 1935.

The resulting organization, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) was made up largely of blue collar and service workers with a significant core of intellectuals with a membership of approximately 6,000.[81] Even though, according to Burnett Bolloten the proportion of BOC members to ICE was twenty-three to one at the time of fusion, this did not prevent the ICE from possessing twelve out of forty-one seats on the new Central Committee.[82] During the civil war, when Maurin was captured by the Nationalists and Nin catapulted into the leadership, he was not speaking from a strong base of support within the POUM. Although the POUM possessed significant bases of support in Valencia and Aragon, its center of strength was in Catalonia – making it the strongest socialist party in Catalonia. The POUM union federation, Workers' Federation for Trade Unity (FOUS), had approximately 60,000 members, was dwarfed by both the CNT and UGT. The FOUS worked to unify the two major union federations, but by functioning as a national federation and attending to immediate struggles, the FOUS found itself opposed to the CNT.[83]

The basic positions of the POUM were summarized as follows in a 1936 pamphlet worth quoting in full:

First: The Spanish revolution is of a democratic socialist type. The dilemma is socialism or fascism. The working class will not take power peacefully but through armed insurrection.

Second: Once power is achieved there will be a transitional dictatorship of the proletariat. The organs of power will be the Workers’ Alliances. The dictatorship of the proletariat presupposes the most wide and complete workers’ democracy. The revolutionary party should not and cannot smother workers’ democracy.

Fourth: Recognition of the problem of the nationalities. Spain will become an Iberian Union of Socialist Republics.

Third: The need for the Workers’ Alliance both locally and nationally. The Workers’ Alliance must necessarily pass through three phases: Firstly, as the organ of the United Front leading both defensive and offensive, legal and illegal actions. Second, leader of insurrection; and thirdly, instrument of power.

Fifth: In the first period a democratic solution to the land problem. The land for those who work it.

Sixth: Faced with war the transformation of imperialist war into civil war. No confidence in the League of Nations which is imperialism’s United Front.

Seventh: The united party will remain outside the Second and Third Internationals, which have both failed, and will fight for world revolutionary socialist unity built on new bases.

Eighth: Defence of the USSR but not by support for its policy of pacts with the capitalist countries, but through international revolutionary working class action. The right to criticise those politics of the USSR’s leaders which are counterproductive to the march of world revolution.

Ninth: A permanent regime of democratic centralism in the unified party.[84]

In terms of program, the POUM only differed with the Trotskyists on two positions: entryism and the call for a Fourth International.[85] Both Nin and Maurin believed that their views were reflected in the party program. According to Andy Durgan, the ICE decided against entryism in the PSOE because of past experience in the UGT and the recent expulsion of Trotskyists from the French SP, but the ICE believed “that they had a better chance of influencing the radical elements of the Socialist Party by presenting them with a clear and independent alternative outside the party.”[86] And entryism into the PSOE was opposed because it would hamper the ability of the POUM to win over the CNT who “were traditionally hostile towards the Socialists – and often for good reasons....An entrist group, therefore, would have arguably found it more difficult to relate to Anarcho-Syndicalist militants than an independent organisation.”[87] As it would stand, the POUM would fail to win over either the PSOE or the CNT to their line.

No sooner was the POUM formed than the Popular Front was formed in Spain to contest the February 1936 elections. Although the POUM was critical of the Popular Front line, believing it to be a form of class collaboration between the proletariat and bourgeois parties. However, the Popular Front was generating momentum and drawing every left-wing organization into its wake and were determined not to be left behind.

On January 1, 1936 the POUM announced their adherence to the Popular Front and within two weeks they were accepted. The POUM put up one candidacy, that of Maurin in Barcelona who was elected to the Cortes. According to one POUMist, the Popular Front gave “our newly created party a magnificent opportunity to make itself known at electoral meetings which... reached hundreds of thousands of people.”[88]

The POUM hoped that the Popular Front would be a transitory step towards securing amnesty for all political prisoners and to deny victory to the bourgeois. During election speeches, the POUM presented a radical image, as evidenced by this speech of Maurin who presented the election in the following contrast:

On the one side is the Socialist-democratic front, and on the other only thieves and murderers ... We are going to the elections thinking not only of our dead and prisoners, but also of the victory of our revolution that will trace a diagonal line through Europe between Madrid and Moscow that will contribute to the sinking of Fascism throughout the world.[89]

The POUM's electoral strategy was not a democratic road to socialism, but merely to prepare the proletariat for revolution. Some members thought that the POUM should push the workers to take the lead in a Popular Front government, which was not done. The POUM directed its fire against the reformists and the PCE, who they argued were holding back the masses and fostering illusions in the ballot box. Ultimately, they believed the electoral alliance of the Popular Front had no future.

Although the program of the Popular Front did not call for socialism or nationalization, the victory of the Popular Front alarmed sectors of the right from traditionalists to monarchists to fascists. The Popular Front had raised expectations among the workers and peasants of Spain. Strikes erupted across Spain, land was seized and street violence was rampant. Prisoners from the Asturias region were released en mass, before any amnesty was declared. The acceleration of the masses was enough to provoke fears in the right of revolution and chaos that culminated in the July coup.

As the situation in Spain boiled over, the POUM argued that while the situation was not ripe for the workers to seize power, preparations could begin. However, the POUM believed that if the government didn't act boldly, the fascists would make headway, so they proposed “independence of the workers' movement with respect to the bourgeois Republican parties, trade union unity, a new Workers' Alliance and the rapid formation of a revolutionary party.”[90] Needless to say, the POUM was not listened to.

However, Trotsky was infuriated with the POUM's adherence to the Popular Front pact, saying that they “have turned into a mere tail of the 'left' bourgeoisie. It is hard to conceive of a more ignominious downfall!”[91] Although there were other issues in regards to the POUM that Trotsky took issue with – notably Maurin's line of a democratic-socialist revolution in Spain as stagist, their line on the Fourth International, the question of entryism – he had been willing to accept them into the Fourth International (which the POUM refused).[92] However, the POUM joining the Popular Front was the final breaking point between them and Trotsky.[93] Although there would be a separate Trotskyist (or Bolshevik-Leninist) groups in Spain, some of whom would work within the POUM, the organization was now effectively on its own.

V. The Spanish revolution

Shortly after launching his rebellion, Franco and his rebels received money and military aid from Germany and Italy, while the western democracies maintained an embargo on the Republic. The Western powers hoped to contain the fighting in Spain, preventing a larger European war and to prevent aid to a revolution that threatened their class interests. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico provided limited amounts of arms to the Republic. Workers and peasants in many places took up arms and formed revolutionary organs of power to fight the rebels.[94]

The anarchists spearheaded many of these revolutionary efforts, creating the foundations of a libertarian communist society in Catalonia and in other parts of Spain. Neither the anarchists nor any of the other revolutionary groups overthrew the Republican government and took power on their own. The necessities of waging the war caused the anarchists to enter the Catalan government in September and the Republican government in November.

The PCE tried its best to create a centralized government and army along with attempting to gain aid from the capitalist democracies. To gain that aid, the government (and PCE) needed to rein the revolution. The central government and the PCE found themselves trying to restore governmental power in revolutionary Barcelona, one of the centers of influence for the POUM and radical anarchists. Barcelona eventually exploded when the Republic, spearheaded by the PCE sought to regain control. In the ensuing clash, the POUM was suppressed as a fascist group, its members arrested and the PCE came to dominate. The POUM was branded as a fascist organization due to the prestige of the Communists and the Soviet Union in supporting the war effort and the strength of their press. The previous Prime Minister Largo Caballero was removed in a cabinet reshuffle and replaced by PCE-backed Juan Negrin. The revolution in Spain had come to an end.[95]

VI. War or revolution?

a. The dilemmas of anarchism

The military coup of July 17, 1936 shattered the pre-war Spanish Republic. In regions that fell into the hands of the Nationalists, mass repression was unleashed against the organizations of the left and the masses as an authoritarian fascist-influenced system was installed to wipe away any vestige of the Republic.[96] In the Republican (or Loyalist) zone, the coup resulted not only in a breakdown in state authority, but in a massive revolution spearheaded by the anarchists. The revolution was centered in Catalonia, but spread to Aragon, Andalusia and the region near Valencia. Workers gained control of their factories, in the countryside was seized and collectivized.

New organs of power emerged to replace the old institutions called committees and armed militias. “[L]ocal Committees, virtual governments on a regional and provincial scale. In them was vested the new power, the revolutionary power that was being organized at full speed to deal with the enormous tasks...of pursuing the war and resuming production at the height of a social revolution.”[97] By 1937, the revolution was largely being rolled back due to the necessities of war and the reassertion of state authority by the Republic.[98] The question that concerns us here is – why were the anarchists, who undoubtedly possessed mass support throughout Spain unable to topple the old order and lead the revolutionary transformation of society?

To answer this question, let us turn to Barcelona on the morrow of revolution in July 1936. The workers and soldiers of the city had risen up in response to the Nationalist coup and defeated them. Those workers were armed and masters of the streets of the city.[99] They formed new organs of power, took control of the factories and began a reconstruction of society. All that was needed to crown this achievement was for the anarchists to sweep away the old state power and institute their own. The old state power in Catalonia was represented by the Generalitat by President Luis Companys of the bourgeois Republican Left-wing Party.

After the defeat of the military rising, on July 21 Companys was approached by the anarchist leaders Garcia Oliver, Abad de Santillan, and Durruti. These men were armed as they sat before the President, who spoke the following words, which deserve to be quoted in full:

First of all I must say that the CNT and the FAI have never been treated as they deserve in view of their real importance. They have always been harshly persecuted; and I, most regretfully, but forced to do so by political realities, who was once on your side, was later forced to persecute you. Today you are the masters of the city and Catalonia, because you alone have defeated the fascist military and I hope that you will not think it offensive on my part to remind you that you have not lacked the help of the few or many loyal men from my party and from the guards and the stable attendants….

But the truth is that, although harshly persecuted up until just yesterday, today you have defeated the military and the fascists. I therefore cannot, knowing you and the kind of people you are, use any but the most sincere language. You have won and everything is in your power, if you do not need me or do not want me to continue to serve as the President of Catalonia, tell me now so that I can join the ranks as one more soldier in the struggle against fascism. If, on the other hand, you believe that in this post that only death could have caused me to yield to victorious fascism, I can, with the men of my party, with my name and my prestige, be useful in this struggle, which, if it has turned out so well today in the city, we do not know when or how it will end in the rest of Spain, you can count on me and on my loyalty as a man and as a politician, a man who is convinced that today an entire disgraceful past has perished, and that I sincerely desire that Catalonia should march at the head of the most advanced countries with regard to social questions.[100]

All that the anarchists needed to do was to have Companys step aside and establish their own power. However, this was not done. Companys and the Generalitat were allowed to remain in place alongside the new popular organs and worker-run factories. According to Garcia Oliver, “The CNT and the FAI decided on collaboration and democracy, renouncing revolutionary totalitarianism which would lead to the strangulation of the revolution by the anarchist and Confederal dictatorship. We had confidence in the word and person of a Catalan democrat, and retained and supported Companys as President of the Generalitat.”[101] Abad de Santillan says similarly, “we could have been supreme, imposed an absolute dictatorship, declared the Generalitat a thing of the past, and instituted in its place the real power of the people...But we did not believe in dictatorship when it was exercised against us, nor did we wish to exercise dictatorship at the expense of others.”[102] Just when power lay in their hands, the anarchists threw it away.

Whereas Santillan said that the anarchists did not want dictatorship, the facts of revolution showed that they were exercising many of the functions of a revolutionary dictatorship. Anarchists, or those working under an anarchist banner, had not only taken factories from capitalists and land from the landowners, but they were repressing Catholics, fascists, and reactionaries whom they believed to be in league with the Nationalists.[103] Yet the anarchists refused to take the next logical step and take power. Yet that was impossible for the anarchists to do without ceasing to be anarchists.

Here anarchism broke down. The realities of the Spanish civil war – organizing and planning production, maintaining an army, developing a centralized command to fight the enemy entailed the use of a state of some sort – especially against the better armed Nationalists. The anarchists had no conception of this. At the Saragossa Congress, only months before, they had envisioned libertarian communism as occurring in one act and had no conception of what was needed on the day after the revolution. Now they were confronted with a situation for which their doctrine had ill-prepared them for.

Soon, anarchist publications were recognizing the reality of their situation. In the libertarian paper, Spanish Revolution, one writer said, “The course now followed by the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain is full of compromises and concessions. Everyone realizes that the program now carried out by them is yet far from the full idea of anarchism which has been and still is the guiding faith of millions of organized workers in Spain.

The present day policy is partly dictated by the demands of the war situation. But to still a greater extent it is guided by the realization of the necessity of a transitional system for the present period. Libertarian communism cannot be carried out immediately after the breakdown of the power of the capitalists. It presupposes a system of transitional measures in the domain of political and economic relationships which will clear the way for the active forces remolding life in the direction of our ideal.”[104]

As the necessities of war took hold, the anarchists found it necessary to wielding state power, even if they refused to call it by that name. In Catalonia, at the end of September 1936, the anarchists dissolved their own committees and joined the government of the Generalitat. The CNT recognized the need for state intervention in the economy and that disorder in the Republican ranks could only aid the Nationalists.[105] Even though the anarchists were scaling back their zeal, the revolution of July had frightened propertied elements and those who supported order, who increasingly grouped around the PSUC.

The decision to enter the Generalitat provided a precedent for the anarchist inclusion into the Republican government in November. By now, the military situation in the Republic was growing desperate and Prime Minister Largo Caballero wanted the coalition to reflect the broad range of anti-fascist views and to “relegitimize and consolidate Republican government and state functions so badly eroded by the military rebellion.”[106] Negotiations between the CNT and Largo began in September, when the anarchists initially proposed that the state be reconstructed on syndical lines (which was rejected). Finally, on November 4, four members of the CNT entered the government. The anarchists recognized, in practice if not in theory, that defeating the Nationalists required state authority which could channel popular mobilization.

The CNT's new line was reflected in their paper as follows: “We are taking into consideration the scruples that the members of the government may have concerning the international situation...and for this reason the CNT is ready to make the maximum concession compatible with its anti-authoritarian spirit: that of entering the government. This does not imply renouncing its intention of fully realizing its ideals in the future; it simply means order to win the war and to save our people and the world, it is ready to collaborate with anyone in a directive organ, whether this organ be called a council or a government.”[107] Now the anarchists, despite the grumbling of their base, were sharing in the responsibilities of defending the Republic – which they would do until the end of the war.[108] And they would serve as peacekeepers against radicals, such as the masses of Barcelona, who threatened disunity and to open the way to Franco.

The dilemmas of anarchism in renouncing the seizure of power are best expressed in this passage from the libertarian militant Helmut Ruediger:

Those who say that the CNT should have established its own dictatorship in 1936 do not know what they are demanding...The CNT would have needed a government program, a program for exercising power; [it would have needed] training in the exercise of power, an economic plan centrally directed, and experience in the use of the state apparatus...The CNT had none of these. Nor do those who believe that the CNT should have implanted its own dictatorship have such a program, either for their own country or for Spain. Do not let us delude ourselves! Furthermore, had it possessed such a program before 19 July the CNT would not have been the CNT; it would have been a bolshevik party, and had it applied such methods to the Revolution, it would have dealt anarchism a mortal blow.[109]

And this was the point. Even though the anarchists were the largest revolutionary force in Spain, they had no conception of the realities of revolution. In renouncing leadership, they surrendered it back to the Republic. The revolution was not lost in May 1937, it was lost in advance in July by the anarchists themselves. They were not prepared to be Bolsheviks. Nor could they be because their whole doctrine precluded it. They possessed no viable plan for winning the war, as we shall see below when discussing the militia, and those who possessed an alternative not only had a better grasp of reality, but had the power to implement it.

b. The militia

Although the army revolted with the Nationalists, the uprising was defeated in a number of cities across the mainland of Spain by popularly-armed militias. In cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, it was the intervention of the armed workers that swung the tide against the Nationalists. The Spanish workers, fired by revolutionary courage flocked to the militia and to go to the front and fight the Nationalists – within a few weeks, unions and left-wing parties organized upwards of 150,000 soldiers.[110] CNT militiamen numbered 50,000, UGT 30,000, PCE 10,000 and POUM 5,000 men under arms. All of the militias were poorly trained and equipped.[111] The militias were organized democratically, their members politically conscious – electing their officers and discussing orders. No formalized chain of command existed.

Although the revolutionary discipline horrified army officers, George Orwell a volunteer in the POUM militia defends its use as follows: “'Revolutionary' discipline depends on political consciousness--on an understanding of _why_ orders must be obeyed; it takes time to diffuse this, but it also takes time to drill a man into an automaton on the barrack-square. The journalists who sneered at the militia-system seldom remembered that the militias had to hold the line while the Popular Army was training in the rear. And it is a tribute to the strength of 'revolutionary' discipline that the militias stayed in the field at all.”[112] And for the anarchists, their militia was seen as an alternative to the old army that defended privilege and oppression while their forces were driven by equality, liberty and freedom from authority.

And yet, while militia were brave and fired by revolutionary ideal, they were not going to win the war against a better armed, organized and supplied Nationalist force. The militia were ill-trained, lacking discipline, short of arms, and refused to follow orders. Furthermore, the militia were under the control of various political parties, which inhibited the development of a centralized command. Soldiers would leave the front without authorization. For instance, the militia were unable to stop the advance of General Yague and the Foreign Legion which moved up the peninsula in September, threatening the capital.[113] Militia ill-discipline and poor coordination meant that their overwhelming numbers could not break the stalemate on the Aragon front.[114] As the war progressed, the Republic began to organize a regular army with a centralized command and military discipline.

Before passing onto the alternatives to militia system proposed by the POUM and the Communist Party, it is necessary to look at the position of the anarchists. Although the anarchists supported the egalitarian ethos of the militia system and believed that winning the war was inseparable from the revolution, their own actions spoke otherwise. On the one hand, as we have seen, the anarchists entered the Generalitat and the Republican governments which were working to restore state authority and create a centralized army. In theory, the anarchists feared that a centralized army would reconstitute the old state apparatus and exploitative system, and would ultimately mean that the revolutionary zeal of the militias would be sapped. And while Orwell may have been correct that “even if one had heard nothing of the seizure of land by the peasants, the setting up of local soviets, etc., it would be hard to believe that the Anarchists and Socialists who were the backbone of the resistance were doing this kind of thing for the preservation of capitalist democracy...”[115] The anarchists themselves recognized that the militia was not feasible.

During the battle of Madrid, the CNT issued directives that read “every militiaman shall fulfill the regulations issued by battalion committees and century and group delegates. He shall not act on his own account in matters of war and will accept without discussion, any post and any place to which he is assigned, both at the front and at the rear.”[116] In response to the PCE calls for a centralized army under the Republic, the CNT called for a centralized army with compulsory service under the command of the trade unions, which essentially meant ditching their own anti-militarist and anti-government positions.[117] The defects of the militia system pushed the anarchists to accept the logic of a centralized army. Anarchist soldiers at the front, aghast at the ill-discipline of the soldiers under their command, began to demand a centralized and effective command.[118] CNT units in Madrid argued for the creation of discipline and an officer corps. At the Jarama Front, the CNT journal demanded the death penalty for soldiers who refused to obey orders.[119] Although the CNT tried to maintain a modicum of the old militia system as the People's Army was developed, and many of their militants remained opposed to a traditional army, their overall course was one of rejecting anarchist principles in favor of a disciplined centralized army.

c. The POUM

Despite the accounts of observers such as George Orwell, who present the POUM as pursuing a revolutionary program, their own situation was much more ambiguous during the Spanish Civil War. On the one hand, the POUM grew exponentially, like other left parties, numbering 30,000 by the end of 1936, most of them concentrated in Catalonia.[120] Like the anarchists, the POUM was an advocate of workers' control and land seizures, along with supporting new institutions of popular power. The POUM's seeming revolutionary alternative, along with their independence of the PCE and criticism of the USSR would cause the latter (supported by the Republican government) to move against them in May and June in 1937 after the May Days.

However, the POUM was not guided by clear cut revolutionary program, possessed an ineffective leadership, and lacked any allies. Andres Nin had taken over leadership of the POUM following Maurin's capture by Nationalist lines. As we have seen, the bulk of the POUM was made up of supporters of the BOC, while Nin's supporters were vastly outnumbered. Nin did not possess the undoubted political skill of Maurin. And Nin's political past as a Trotskyist, criticisms of the USSR and the Moscow show trials, and independence from the PCE made him a target. By contrast, the anarchists refrained from criticizing the USSR, who were the main supplier of arms.[121]

The POUM organizationally did not follow a single course. In Valencia, the Party positions were virtually identical to those of the PCE, while the Madrid section was close to the position of Trotskyism.[122] This ambiguity was reflected in the fact that while the party proclaimed an anti-capitalist revolution, it had supported the Popular Front before the war. And now during the war, the POUM called for revolutionary power, but Nin entered the Generalitat in September 1936 along with the anarchists. While Nin was in the Generalitat as minister of justice, he “took a conciliatory line over the question of unions versus soviets as the appropriate instrument of revolution.”[123] Nin was also a critic of the CNT excesses over collectivization, cooling relations between the two. Furthermore, the CNT saw the fighting between the POUM and the PSUC as infighting between two groups of Marxists where they didn't have a stake. Following Nin's public criticism of the USSR in November, the PSUC and other parties demanded his removal from the government, which they achieved in December with a cabinet reshuffle. The Soviets weighed in, linking POUM removal from the Generalitat with continuing military aid to Catalonia.

The POUM, differed from the anarchists on the military question. While the POUM, like the anarchists, believed that the militia were filled with revolutionary fervor and zeal. And the POUM believed that there was a danger of the militia being made subordinate to the regular army and escaping from working class control.[124] Yet the POUM also recognized the defects of the militia. Their solution was the same as the anarchists – a centralized army, but with one crucial caveat – they wanted a centralized Red Army. The POUM position was summarized in this editorial, “For a Red Army of Spanish Workers” from their paper on October 28, 1936 worth quoting in full:

To conquer, fascism will go to the most barbarous extremes. But when we take into account the monstrous means to which the fascists have recourse, even when they are making war between themselves, we cannot be surprised that such proceedings are carried to their very limits when it is a question or strangling the revolution. But if all the workers organisations will work together, we will make fascism retreat to where the peninsula meets the sea. In the cause, we find ourselves in complete agreement with the ((professed aims)) both of the recent governmental reforms in Catalonia and the new military measure looking towards a unified command and a more effective army: but this army must be the Red Army of the workers. Revolutionaries are not mercenaries; they are the autonomous heroes of the proletarian revolution. Without damaging the perfect right of everyone to express his political opinion and social ideas, it is necessary to keep the strictest discipline in the military sense and to carry out to the letter all orders coming from the unified command. From every combatant must be exacted unshakable revolutionary conscience and self-denial. But if it is necessary to abolish the Antifascist Militia Committee in order to avoid the dangers of dual power after its mission is accomplished, it is not necessary to recreate the army of the state, the tool of government, capable one day of being used against the people and against the cause for which we are struggling and daily offering our lives. We object to the present measures which create an army other than the Red Army. The combatants of the revolution must not be the headless automatons who so efficiently click their heels and do and die for Hitler and Mussolini. They must be the red army of the workers, fighting under a coordinated military command capable of winning the war...[125]

The POUM line was reaffirmed at their party's military conference in January 1937. They called for replacing the militia system with a regular centralized Red Army (modeled on the Soviet Army) which would harness the revolutionary and voluntary nature of the militias. At the same time, officers would have no privileges and the democratic rights of soldiers would be respected. The Red Army would ultimately be subordinated to that of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.[126]

However, in order to implement this plan the workers would need to come to power in Spain. And that would mean that the anarchists would need to come around to the need to take over. However, while the anarchists had in practice recognized the need for state power during the revolution, according to Nin:

The militants of the C.N.T. and the F.A.I. realize that the titanic struggle which is developing in Span now demands important corrections; but they do not dare to carry these to their logical conclusion. Correction of their inveterate apoliticalism has led them to participation in the governmental organs, that is to say, collaboration with the bourgeois parties. If they arrive, with us, at the conclusion that the only solution of the situation is a workers and peasants' government, the revolution will be saved. What obstacle can there be to this? It is easier to make the workers of the C.N.T. understand the consistency of participating in a revolutionary workers' government, than of collaborating with a capitalist democratic government. Can the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat be an obstacle? We will not dispute over mere words. What is important is to agree on their content. And we have not the least doubt that the anarcho-syndicalist workers are convinced, with us—practical experience has demonstrated it— of the necessity of smashing the capitalists, of denying them all political rights, of not letting them breathe again until the workers have destroyed the roots of all possibilities of a restoration of capitalism. Destroy all classes, and as a result revolutionary power will become superfluous and human society will be freed of the chains of the state. Do they hate the term “the dictatorship of the proletariat”? We can do without it.[127]

So while the anarchists showed themselves to be devoted to the cause of revolution, they never truly confronted the reality of what it would take to win. Their own lack of interest in politics and strategy did not mean that those questions went away. The necessities of war forced the anarchists to violate their own principles. Yet once the anarchists made their choice to support the Republic, they never considered the option of the POUM for a Red Army. They possessed no vision for strategy and victory. And while the POUM, potentially at least, had a vision and strategy, they lacked the means to carry it out.

The two forces, POUM and anarchists remained fatally divided as events in Catalonia in May 1937 proved. Tensions between the PSUC and the Republican government and the POUM and anarchist radicals in Catalonia boiled over. The former wanted to restore governmental authority in the province in order to facilitate conducting the war. And in the case of the PSUC, the campaign against the POUM was motivated by Soviet anti-Trotskyism then reaching fever pitch with the Moscow trials.[128] As the war dragged on and life grew harder in Catalonia, tensions would explode into open fighting in May between the POUM and anarchist radicals versus PSUC and the Republic.

However, the May Days were far from being a revolution that missed its chance at power due to the betrayal of the Communists, were in actuality a rearguard action. For one, the POUM were not prepared for revolution. Only weeks before in April, Nin said “that the working class could take power without recourse to armed insurrection. What he meant was that the weight of the working class remained so great that, with sufficient political will, bourgeois power could be overthrown. The strength of the CNT and POUM in the factories and the army was such that insurrection was necessary, given that the workers were armed. It would be sufficient for them to announce to the Generalitat that they had taken power. The government would probably have given away without bloodshed.”[129]

However, the CNT with far greater muscle, had refused to follow this course in July. Even if the POUM possessed the political will to take power, they were too isolated to wield it.
During the fighting of the May Days, resulting from efforts by the PSUC to seize the anarchist telephone exchange, the anarchist masses, who included the radical Friends of Durruti and the POUM fought for five days against the Republic.[130] The leaders of the CNT, by contrast called for calm and did not want a civil war within the civil war. The leaders of the POUM, even though outwardly militant, confessed that they “did not feel ourselves spiritually or physically strong enough to take the lead in organizing the masses for resistance.”[131] Eventually, the POUM and the anarchist workers of Barcelona stood down, allowing the Republic to restore order – which included the suppression of the POUM, the murder of Nin and rolling back the anarchist revolution.[132]

d. The Communist Party of Spain

So if the options of both the POUM and the anarchists were non-starters, what was left? Quite simply, the line of the Communist Party which was to win the war, secure the bourgeois-revolution, and form a centralized army. It is no accident that the PCE became hegemonic within the Republic, through a viable strategy and the means to carry it out.

During the war, PCE membership shot up from 30,000 members at the beginning of 1936 to more 200,000 by the end of 1936 and to 300,000 in March 1937.[133] A number of factors explain this policy. For one, the PCE was successfully able to lead a vast social constituency throughout Republican Spain. The PCE not only had a core of worker support, but elements of the middle classes and the peasantry. The Party also developed links to militant young radicals in the FSJ and the military command who wanted a disciplined army. As Helen Graham argues, “the PCE's ability to address and incorporate a range of different social and political constituencies, and to varying political discourses accordingly, meant that the PCE was the first party on the left to go a significant way to realizing the fundamental challenge of Spanish politics since 1931: that of achieving mass political mobilization across class boundaries.”[134]

In Catalonia, the PSUC appealed to the peasantry and small business owners threatened by the revolution.[135] In the army, the PCE appeals for discipline and centralization appealed to the officer corps, whether or not they joined the PCE.[136] The heroic defense of the Communists in Madrid and the fact that the USSR was the only country providing arms to the Republic increased the appeal of the PCE. For the government, whether under Largo Caballero or Juan Negrin, the PCE was a valuable ally who supported their efforts to reconstruct authority, develop a centralized army, and to fight until victory.

The PCE placed top priority on winning the war before carrying out the revolution: “If the war were not won, maintained the communists (with the agreement of the Republicans and right-wing socialists), the revolution could not triumph. Losing the war meant losing the revolution.”[137] The communists believed that by fighting for a purely democratic revolution that they could gain the support of foreign powers (and a steady supply of arms).[138] To carry through this type of war, the PCE didn’t want to antagonize foreign powers by pushing for revolution. As PCE General Secretary Jose Diaz argued, “we want [the democratic states] to help us...and believe that in this way they will be defending their own interests. We try to make them understand this and to enlist their help...”[139] However to do this meant not only scaling back the revolution, but to hold back fomenting revolt in Franco's rear such as in Morocco, of which Orwell said “the best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the hope of placating French and British capitalism.”[140]

However, the PCE made a fatal calculation in courting western aid by rolling back the revolution. The Western powers did not want even a reformist Spanish Republic to win, but saw their class interests more closely reflected in the Nationalists who were staunch defenders of capitalism. This was reflected not only in the two-faced neutrality policy of the Non-Intervention Committee which the bourgeois democracies used to deny aid to all sides in Spain. This starved the Republic of arms, but the German and Italians violated the embargo anyway.[141] And the USSR also hoped that if the PCE and the Republic pushed a moderate course, that this would convince Britain and France to join them in a collective security pact against the fascist powers.

And this was also a miscalculation since the Western powers were colluding with the Nazis and arguing for them to go East. As Bolloten argues, “although British historians have on the whole avoided coming to grips with the thesis that Britain's aim was to turn Nazi aggression eastward, where the two totalitarian powers would exhaust themselves - a thesis which, in view of the fear of communism, has at least the merit of logicality – and have stressed other reasons for the policy of appeasement, evidence is overwhelming, despite the supervised release and even the disappearance of official documents from the records, that there were powerful currents in high level political and social circles that hoped that Germany would serve as a counterweight to Russia against the spread of communism.”[142]

Due to the arms embargo and the collusion of the Western bourgeois democracies with the Nationalists and fascist powers, this left only one major source of arms for the Republic: the Soviet Union. Beginning in October 1936, the USSR began sending tanks, planes, weapons, ammunition, advisers, and - through the Comintern – tens of thousands volunteers from more than 50 countries. Soviet advisers, diplomats and Comintern representatives had to navigate the Republican political landscape and deal with a fractured society, along with being caught up with the mania of the purges then taking hold in Russia (and that they carried over into Spain when dealing with the POUM).[143]

Despite this, they were able to play a major role, along with the newly reorganizing Republican army, at the crucial battle of Madrid. A quick overview of the Nationalist and Republican forces at Madrid will help elaborate upon this.

The Nationalists hoped that by taking Madrid in a swift blow that centralized resistance would collapse.[144] The Nationalist Army which moved on Madrid consisted of seasoned Moroccan and Foreign legion troops consisting of four columns. The Nationalist army numbered about 25,000 and was led by experienced officers.[145] The Nationalists sought to move north from Granada and link up with their comrades in the north. They hoped to encircle Madrid and to cut it off from all hope of outside aid, forcing capitulation. From July to November, the Nationalists made a rapid thrust north from Morocco through Granada to the gates of Madrid. In their path, they fought only poorly organized, but immensely brave, Republican militias. The Nationalists hoped to surround the city and squeeze its surrender. Franco sought to concentrate his forces for a major strike across the Manzanares river to capture University City and then move into the center of Madrid.

Facing the Nationalists was a disorganized regular army and a vast assortment of militias which had few arms and these were of debatable quality.[146] Their numbers were roughly 40,000. The Madrid government evacuated the capital for Valencia, leaving a hastily organized Junta of generals to manage the defense. The Junta with the cooperation of the Popular Front parties sought to place the defenders under a single and organized command.[147] The outrages of Nationalist troops made the population determined to resist. Trenches were dug on the western flank of the city and civilians helped to construct barricades.[148] The Republicans had no real strategy beyond holding the city and pushing the Nationalist Army back.

Due to the fall of rebel orders into the hands of the Republicans, they knew that the main offensive would be directed toward University City.[149] The Junta concentrated their troops their while the Nationalist bombarded with artillery shells. The Republic thus met the Nationalists in a massive show of force. Fighting was savage throughout University City, often occurring from house-to-house. The Nationalists were able to advance across the river, but their troops were exhausted and numbers were decimated by fanatical Republican troops. Two thousand International Brigade troops (largely German) also proved to be shock troops for the Republicans fighting in the ruins of University city with 30 percent of their forces killed.[150] Franco lost many of his best troops and suffered a stalemate and the lines stabilized around Madrid despite other battles from December to March 1937.[151]

Soviet aid, leaving aside the International Brigade was not inconsequential to the outcome of the battle of Madrid. For example, in October the Republic purchased 15 Chato biplane fighters and 16 Mosca fighters were purchased in October. Soviets T-26 tanks were also used, but not in massive numbers.[152] Between mid-October and early November, the USSR provided the Republic with 132 aircraft along with an assortment of armored cars, small arms, ammunition and cannon.[153] However on top of this was the moral effect of Soviet aid coming to Spain for the battle. Crowds came out to cheer the International Brigades and Soviet advisers, which showed the populace that they were no longer alone. And Soviet support no doubt increased the appeal of the Communist Party.

By contrast, we can see the detrimental effect on the arms embargo on the Republic clearly in the later battle of Ebro. The battle of the Ebro river lasted from July to November 1938 and was the last Republican offensive of the war. Before the battle, there had been a brief opening of the French border, allowing for Soviet and other arms to arrive. The influx of arms along with intensive conscription was enough to quickly replenish the Republican army.[154]

In March of 1938, the Nationalists advanced through Aragon to the Mediterranean, cutting the Republican zone in two. The Republic was now reduced to Catalonia west of the Ebro and central Spain (Madrid and Valencia). A renewed Republican offensive would serve three purposes. Number one, a victory would serve to boost morale and silence defeatists within the Republic. Secondly, the offensive was supposed to link the two halves of the Republican zone.[155] The republic also hoped to hold out until a general European war erupted, which they would become involved in and hence receive international aid.

A force of 80,000 men supported by 70-80 field batteries and 27 anti-aircraft guns was gathered for the offensive.[156] The Republican troops crossed the Ebro on 16 points on the night of July 24. The army was supported by 22 T-26 tanks and 4 companies of armored cars.[157] Within three days, the Republic had penetrated 25 miles and captured 6,000 prisoners.

Franco sent eight divisions to halt the offensive within several days. The Condor Legion and the Italians Expeditionary Air force were sent into action. Nationalist planes arrived in overwhelming numbers and strafed the crossing points.[158] The Republican air force was no match for the Nationalists who controlled the air.

The Nationalists managed to push the Republicans back across the Ebro, but success only came in November. the Republic fought a desperate and savage battle, surrendering ground only at massive cost. “Lines of trenches were constructed in-depth on every hill and valley. Thousands of machine gun nests were created...”[159] One example of resistance was Hill 666 held by the Lincoln Brigade for 10 days despite air and artillery attacks with heavy losses. In the end, the Republic lost the battle and the bulk of their air force and 75,000 casualties – most of which could not be replaced. By contrast, Franco was still receiving regular arms shipments.

In the end, only the Soviet Union aided the Republic with weapons for the duration of the war, but their supply did match that of the Nationalists. As Stanley Payne says, “there is no doubt that Italo-German aid to Franco greatly exceeded in quality and effect, and also somewhat in sheer quantity and effect, the assistance from the Soviet Union and elsewhere for the Popular Front regime. The number of German military personnel in Spain was evidently at least twice as great as that of Soviet personnel, and the 70,000 Italian troops in Spain at the high the late winter and spring of 1937 exceeded the total number of volunteers in the International Brigades.”[160] The Germans and Italians were aided in their efforts not only by shorter supply lines, but by the willing collusion of Britain and France. The USSR was hampered not only by a much longer supply route, where they were likely to be attacked, and that their overall strategy (and that of the PCE) of reaching rapprochement with the western powers was doomed to fail.

The PCE believed that without a centralized army, an economy geared for war, and the support of both the USSR and the west that the Republic was likely to fall. And the goals of the PCE, along with their means appealed to many disparate social and political forces in the Republic. And the battles around Madrid showed the fighting capability of the Republic. Even the late offensive at the Ebro showed that with adequate supply that the Republic could still resist. And in order to accomplish their goals, the PCE was willing to roll back the revolution not only order to secure foreign aid but to help restore a working government that could organize the defense. And it is true that the PCE line was hampered by flaws, including a poor position on Morocco, infighting with other left parties, and the often incompetent Republican officer corps. And it is arguable if their line could have brought victory to the Loyalists. Yet the PCE strategy was a viable option for Spain, because unlike the anarchists and the POUM, they possessed both the means and the will to carry it out.

VII. Conclusion

In the end, the revolution in Spain was lost not during the May Days of 1937, but long before. While the POUM arguably possessed a revolutionary program of victory, they had made a number of strategic errors before the war which isolated their influence to Catalonia. And during the war itself, the POUM's policies were two-faced: looking toward the Popular Front and for revolution. This was not helped by their ineffective leadership and their lack of allies.

The anarchists by contrast had the potential mass influence and zeal to carry a revolution across Spain. However, their own doctrine prevented them from doing what was necessary in order to win. At the moment when victory was possible, and power was in their hands, they threw it away. The Spanish Civil War also threw up new problems that anarchism couldn't comprehend. It showed that the path to victory was not as easy as abolishing the state and proclaiming libertarian communism. Rather, a state was needed to plan production, organize the war effort and mobilize the populace. And despite the later myth-making, the Spanish anarchists recognized this in practice when they joined the Generalitat and Republican government to prosecute the war.

And in light of the fact that neither of the options proposed by the POUM or the anarchists were viable options – whether through lack of will or ability – that left only the Communist Party's strategy. The PCE, whatever other mistakes they may have made, clearly recognized that a centralized regular army was needed to win the war. And in light of everything, they possessed both the means and the will to put their plans into action.


[1] Sections one, three and five are borrowed with slight revisions from my essay Doug Enaa Greene, “A state of affairs worth fighting for: historiography of the Spanish Civil War,” Links International Journal for Socialist Renewal. [Accessed November 30, 2014].

[2] See Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), 8-16 for the backward nature of Spanish capitalism.

[3] For a brief history of anarchism in Spain see Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth: The Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 131-69.

[4] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-9 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 12. Socialist strategy was also hampered by the corrupt voting practices and lack of effective representative institutions found in Spain. See Brenan, 2008, 217-8.

[5] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 63.

[6] Beevor 2006, 17.

[7] Thomas 2001, 39.

[8] UGT membership stood at 211,000 in 1923, increasing to 277,000 in 1930 and reaching 2.5 million in 1932. See Beevor 2006, 18.

[9] For a brief overview of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship see ibid. 16-20.

[10] For a much more detailed analysis of the ‘three years of Bolshevism’ see Beevor 2006, 13-16.

[11] Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union and Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 11. Thomas 111 for the voting results.

[12] Payne 2004, 11.

[13] Quoted in Ralph Darlington, Radical Syndicalism: The Rise and Fall of Radical Unionism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 264-5.

[14] Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism and Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 6.

[15] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 6.

[16] Payne 2004, 13.

[17] Ibid. 13.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Brenan, 2008, 187.

[20] Payne, 2004, 14.

[21] Ibid.

[22] For Nin's background during this period see Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: Oxford 1975), 275-6; Alba and Schwartz 2009, 13-4; and Andy Durgan, “The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM,” in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, ed. Al Richardson (Monnow: Merlin Press, 2007), 13.

[23] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 9-10.

[24] Ibid. 10-11.

[25] See Payne 2004, 18.

[26] Ibid 19-20.

[27] For Maurin's exit from the PCE see ibid. 19-21 and Alba and Schwartz 2009, 23.

[28] For more on Durruti, see Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (Oakland: AK Press, 2007).

[29] Thomas 2001, 66.

[30] Ibid. 75-6.

[31] Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 16.

[32] Ibid. 47-8.

[33] Ibid. 50.

[34] Ibid. 51. See also Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (London: Freedom Press, 1995), 25-27 and 207-212 for an anarchist critique of the Saragossa Congress.

[35] For a first-hand account of the Asturias Uprising see Manuel Grossi, The Asturian Uprising: Fifteen Days of Socialist Revolution (London: Socialist Platform, 2000).

[36] A good overview of the monarchy’s fall and the early years of the Republic is provided by Beevor 2006, 11-33.

[37] Robert J. Alexander, The Right Opposition: The Lovenstoneites and the International Communist Opposition of the 1930s (London: Greenwood Press, 1981), 193.

[38] Payne 2004, 39 and Alba and Schwartz 2009, 38-9.

[39] Payne 2004, 40-1 and Alba and Schwartz 2009, 24.

[40] Alexander 1981, 194.

[41] Ibid. 194 and Alba and Schwartz 2009, 41-44.

[42] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 26.

[43] Ibid. 26-27.

[44] Quoted in ibid. 31.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid. 32.

[48] Ibid. 33.

[49] Payne 2004, 41.

[50] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 59-61.

[51] For peasant and unemployed struggles of the BOC see ibid. 44-7.

[52] Ibid. 59.

[53] Ibid. 61-8.

[54] Ibid. 64.

[55] Alexander 1981, 198-9.

[56] Thomas 2001, 129-36 and Grossi 2000.

[57] Payne 2004 74 and Durgan 2007, 14.

[58] Graham 2002, 67 and Alexander 1981, 204 gives a different distribution of the ICE.

[59] Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-9) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 151-5. For Nin's criticism of Maurin see “Mistakes of Comrade Maurin,” Marxist Internet Archive. and [Accessed November 30, 2014].

[60] Durgan 2007, 16-7 and also see Alba and Schwartz 2009, 40-1.

[61] Durgan 2007, 19.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid. 21.

[64] See ibid. 29.

[65] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 40-1.

[66] Durgan 2007, 28.

[67] Ibid. 30.

[68] Pierre Broue, “Socialist Youth in Spain (1934-1936),” Revolutionary History 9.4 [2007]: 193.

[69] Ibid. 197.

[70] Ibid. 199.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid. 200.

[73] Ibid. 213.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid. 215-6. For Carrillo's invitation see “The Spanish revolution in practice: why we make this invitation,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed November 30, 2014].

[76] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 81.

[77] Alexander 1981, 202.

[78] Thomas 2001, 190-1.

[79] Ibid. 225.

[80] Durgan 2007, 30-1.

[81] Payne 2004, 74 and 184.

[82] Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 406. Payne 2004, 74.

[83] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 95 and 104-6. Trotskyist Mieczyslaw Bortenstein says that the POUM's failure to influence the CNT was due to it having a separate trade-union federation and being close to the UGT.

“The way for the POUM to join with the ranks of the CNT was via the re-entry of its FOUS trade unions into the revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalist centre. This way was pointed out on several occasions by the representatives of the Fourth International. Unfortunately, and this was one of its most serious mistakes, the POUM, with the trade unions that it influenced, joined the sclerotic, reformist UGT, which at the start only included petit-bourgeois elements. Because of this, in the eyes of the CNT workers, the POUM was seen as similar to the Stalinists, the Esquerra and the petit-bourgeois elements in general. Obviously, the job of working inside the CNT was not easy; the ‘anti-political’, and ‘anti-statist’ bureaucracy also knew how to use coercive methods with regard to the revolutionaries. But in which book has it ever been taught that revolution is an easy matter? Entry into the CNT was the only way.”
“Spain Betrayed: How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco,” in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, ed. Al Richardson (Monnow: Merlin Press, 2007), 173.

[84] “The Programme of the POUM in 1936,” Marxists Internet Archive. [November 30, 2014].

[85] See Durgan 2007 for the debate over the Fourth International in relation to the POUM 37-8.

[86] Ibid. 36.

[87] Ibid. 37.

[88] Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain: An Oral history of the Spanish Civil War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 560. The POUM only gained one seat in the election, that of Maurin.

[89] Durgan 2007, 42.

[90] Alba and Schwartz 2009, 100.

[91] Trotsky 1973, 238-9.

[92] Payne 2004, 74.

[93] Although Trotsky would remain critical of the POUM, both Nin and Maurin continued to speak of him in glowing terms. Durgan 2007, 46.

[94] Beevor 2006, 34-80 for the Popular Front and the military coup.

[95] Ibid. 115-128 and 261-270.

[96] See ibid. 88-94 for the initial Nationalist conquest. Repression was especially harsh in areas where unions were strong or the Popular Front won the elections.

[97] Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), 121-2.

[98] The story of the revolution can be found in a number of places. For some anarchist accounts see Murray Bookchin, Murray, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 (San Franscisco: AK Press, 1994); Robert Alexander, Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War: Volume Ones and Two (London: Janus Publishing Company, 1999); Richards 1995. See also the classic account of George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1938), 1938. For a Trotskyist account – see Broue and Temime 1970,150-212.

[99] For an overview of the rising in Barcelona see Thomas 2001, 221-5.

[100] There are slightly different translations of Companys' remarks found in most accounts of the Spanish Civil War. For Companys' speech see Richards 1995, 34.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Bolloten 1991, 391.

[103] For the Red Terror in the Republican Zone see Beevor 2006, 81-7.

[104] For the CNT December 9, 1936 issue of Spanish Revolution see

[105] See Durgan, Andy. 2011. Workers' Democracy in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1937. In Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, ed. Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, 217-236. Chicago: Haymarket. And Graham 2002, 217-36.

[106] Graham 2002, 135.

[107] Quoted in Bolloten 1991, 202-3.

[108] Thomas 2001, 652.

[109] Quoted in Bolloten 1991, 392-3.

[110] Durgan, Andy. 2013. The People in Arms: Spain 1936. In Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, edited by Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat, 130. New York: Pluto Books.

[111] Broue and Temime 1970, 1970, 141 and 143. CNT militiamen numbered 50,000, UGT 30,000, PCE 10,000.

[112] Orwell 1938, 28.

[113] Thomas 2001, 357-60.

[114] Beevor 2006, 126-7 and Thomas 2001, 480-81.

[115] Orwell, 1938, 50.

[116] Bolloten 1991, 264.

[117] Ibid. 324.

[118] Ibid. 325-6.

[119] Ibid. 327-9.

[120] Payne 2004, 184.

[121] Fraser 1979, 344.

[122] Morrow 1974, 123 and 139.

[123] Graham 2002, 237. Trotsky was furious at Nin's entering of the Generalitat, see Trotsky 1973, 287-90.

[126] See February 17, 1937 issue of Spanish Revolution for resolutions at
And Durgan 2013, 139-40. See also the account of a POUM militant:

In January a military conference of the POUM took place in Lérida, in which all the important political and military cadres participated. This conference adopted, among other things, an excellent and thorough resolution on the soldiers’ councils in the military formations. All the decisions were published in a small pamphlet, The Military Policy of the POUM. At this moment I do not have this pamphlet, which only exists in Spanish, to hand to be able to quote from it. However, the basic concept expressed therein in respect for the necessity of soldiers’ councils consists in the recognition that:

1. The tendency towards the use of modern methods in present-day wars is no longer in doubt, and success depends upon the creation of a unified central supreme command.

2. That the forms of independent, federalist party militias must be replaced by the formation of a revolutionary army.

3. Consequently, a concerted move towards revolutionary militarisation must be started.

4. That in this process the soldiers’ committees are to be the democratic organs of the soldier masses, just as the factory committees, the political control committees and the village committees embody the proletarian democracy of the working class in the towns and countryside.
A thoroughgoing military policy based on this resolution would have resulted in the CNT and POUM militias combining to form revolutionary army units. The conference also took concrete decisions on the structure, tasks and rights of the soldiers’ councils, and on the political commissars of the revolutionary army.

See A Brandlerite Militant, “Three Months on the Huesca Front (April-June 1937) in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, ed. Al Richardson (Monnow: Merlin Press, 2007), 290.

[127] See the March 31, 1937 issue of Spanish Revolution
Interestingly, Trotsky also had a rather detailed twelve point program on what a Red Army in Spain would entail. See Trotsky 1973, 370-2.

[128] Bolloten 1991, 408 and 414.

[129] Fraser 1979, 343.

[130] Bolloten 1991, 427, 434-5. Ultimately, the Friends of Durruti were expelled from the CNT for their part in the May Days.

[131] Ibid. 434-5.

[132] Broue and Temime 1970, 279-90, 296-318.

[133] Beevor 2006, 37, 150.

[134] Graham 2002, 183.

[135] Bolloten 1991, 490-8.

[136] Ibid. 266-272.

[137] Fraser 1979, 323.

[138] Ibid. 325-6.

[139] Bolloten 1991, 184.

[140] Orwell 1938, 70. The POUM by contrast argued for supporting independence and revolt in Morocco. See the December 23, 1936 issue of Spanish Revolution at

[141] Bolloten 1991, 172-3 and Beevor 2006, 287-292.

[142] Bolloten 1991, 178. Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel, In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion (New York: Monthly Review, 1998) argues that Munich was not appeasement by the West of Nazi aggression, but collusion with them in order to turn Germany east.

[143] “Stalin had sent Alexander Orlov [Soviet Secret Police agent-DEG] to the country and had given him the task of purging the revolutionary Marxist opposition to the Communists, the POUM.” Ronald Radosh and Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, ed., Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 106. For more on Soviet involvement in the suppression of the POUM following the May Days see 121-2. See also document 33 on ibid. 129-33. For a Trotskyist perspective on the repression of the POUM and the Revolution see Vadim Rogovin, 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror (Oak Park: Mehring Books,1998), 335-373.

[144] Robert G. Colodny, The Struggle for Madrid: The Central Epic of the Spanish Conflict (New York: Paine-Whitman Publishers, 1958), 11-12.

[145] Ibid. 13. The number of troops fluctuated due to resupply and redeployment during the advance toward Madrid. Supply of troops and equipment was maintained by German and Italian airlifts.

[146] Beevor, 2006, 195. Most militias consisted of workers with little military experience. They did not know how to use maps and did not bother to dig latrines. The Nationalist Army of Africa was accustomed to taking advantage of folds in the ground and the use of knives. Republican militias were known for being brave to the point of ordering suicide charges.

[147] Ibid. 174.

[148] Ibid. 171.

[149] Colodny, 1958, 55.

[150] For a good quick summary of the battle see Robert G. Colodny, Spain: The Glory and the Tragedy (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 37-45.

[151] Casualties from the battle numbered about 10,000 see Thomas, 2001, 473.

[152] Beevor, 2006, 174. Mexican aid came right before the battle consisting of 20,000 Remmington rifles and 20 million 7 mm cartridges see Francisco J. Romero Salvado, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2005), 80.

[153] Michael Alpert, A New International History of the Spanish Civil War (New York: Palgrave

Macmillan, 2004), 79.

[154] Beevor, 2006, 349.

[155] Ibid. 349-50.

[156] The Republic also had Supermosca and Superchato fighters from Russia for air support. Thomas, 2001, 813.

[157] Ibid 816.

[158] Nationalist air power consisted of Stukas, Heinkels, Junker 6s and 52s. For a complete list of Nationalist air support see Beevor, 2006, 352.

[159] Arthur Landis, Spain: The Unfinished Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 385.

[160] Payne, Franco Regime 156-7. For a fairly complete list of foreign aid to both the Republic and the Nationalists during the duration of the war see Thomas 934-44. Even though it is often claimed that the USSR scaled back their aid to the Republic after the summer of 1937, Soviet documents prove otherwise: “Although they reduced somewhat the level of aid shipped to Spain, the Soviets continued to send tanks, aircraft, artillery and tons of supplies until the very last months of the conflict.” Radosh, Habeck, Sevostianov 2001, 422 and see also 425-430.


Against Treachery of the POUM

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Against Apologists for the Treachery of the POUM, Then and Now. Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War ("Spartacist" English edition No. 61, Spring 2009)

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