A state of affairs worth fighting for: historiography of the Spanish Civil War

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By Doug Enaa Greene

September 24, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”[1]

This was George Orwell’s first impression of revolutionary Barcelona at the end of 1936. In many ways, the phrase, ‘a state of affairs worth fighting for,’ sums up how an entire generation felt about the Spanish Civil War. Whether on the left or right, millions were passionately aroused by the war. Idealistic volunteers from more than fifty countries went to fight on behalf of the Republic. Hitler and Mussolini helped the Nationalist side in their fervent crusade to establish a ‘Catholic Spain.’

The war that aroused the passions of volunteers did not subside after the triumphal march of Franco into Madrid. In the more than seventy years that have passed since the war’s conclusion, historians have crossed swords and pens over the meaning of the Spanish Civil War. One of the most debated areas of the war regards the role of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and the Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM). Both of these parties played prominent roles in the war and informed the subsequent views of historians.

During the war itself, the liberal-left saw the PCE as leading a valiant battle against insurgent fascism. However, after revelations of their behavior in the Republican camp, many leftists saw the PCE as little better than their fascist opponents. The PCE imprisoned their opponents, lied about them, and subverted the Republic. The POUM were among the victims of the PCE. Were the POUM a potential alternative to the PCE? Were they a bunch of romantics? Or was the POUM merely a mirror-image of the PCE? The four schools of historical thought dealing with the POUM and PCE will attempt to sort out the role of the two organizations.

Neither the POUM nor the PCE was formed in a vacuum, but lived in the tumultuous era of 1930s Spain. The Spanish Civil War came as a result of the 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. 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.[2]

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. 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 power. 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.[3]

One of the groups on the revolutionary left was the POUM, a semi-Trotskyist party formed in 1935 and centered in the Catalonia region.[4] The POUM defined themselves as revolutionary Marxists and were composed of various dissident communist groups. One of the groups composing the POUM was made up of Trotskyists. However, the POUM refused to join Trotsky’s international organization and backed the Popular Front pact briefly. Trotsky denounced the POUM, although the party supported many of his positions in regards to the Soviet Union.[5] Despite the POUM’s differences with Trotsky, the party was a genuinely revolutionary one. The POUM was pushing for workers control, land seizures and was a fierce advocate of the revolutionary militias (along with the anarchists). From the onset, the POUM was interested in a genuine revolutionary regime below that did not involve bureaucratic maneuvering or unnecessary compromises with the bourgeois. The POUM wanted to push the revolution all the way to socialism, breaking completely with capitalism. The POUM operated relatively independently of the PCE and the Republican government, which pushed the two sides into opposition. 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 the POUM. 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 Caballeroo was removed in a cabinet reshuffle and replaced by PCE-backed Juan Negrin. The revolution in Spain had come to an end.[6]

The initial views that surfaced in this atmosphere are best exemplified by George Orwell and Claud Cockburn. These men were journalists who reported on the war in 1936-7. Both men believed in the Republic and served in their own way. Neither man one was Spanish by birth, but hailed from Britain and came to Spain following the outbreak of Franco’s rebellion, a sign of the wider passions aroused by the war.[7] Claud Cockburn, a British Communist, fought in the defense of Madrid and reported for the Communist press in Britain. In the aftermath of the POUM’s involvement in the Barcelona May Days, Cockburn spoke against them. “In the plainest terms it [POUM-DG] calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely against the government of the People’s Front and the anti-fascist fighters.”[8] Cockburn’s view of the PCE was decidedly positive, seeing them as the bulwark of Republican resistance and the POUM as traitors. George Orwell on the other hand, fought in the militia of the POUM and was wounded in the process. He was in Barcelona in May 1937 when the POUM and the PCE came to blows in a short-lived civil war within the larger civil war. Orwell saw his comrades arrested and barely escaped the dragnet himself. His view of the PCE was decidedly negative. “In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented the revolution in Spain.”[9] To Orwell and others on the left, the PCE betrayed the revolution and showed its true Stalinist nature in suppressing the POUM.

In the historical debate following the war’s conclusion, the views of Orwell and Cockburn have been the two extremes on the roles of both the POUM and PCE. Yet the historiography surrounding the war and the PCE and POUM has been much more nuanced (in general) than either Orwell or Cockburn. Four schools of thought have developed in their views to the PCE and POUM. These schools are clearly identified here for the first time. The first school is generally conservative and its most able defender is Burnett Bolloten (others in this school proudly acknowledge their debt to him). This school believes that the PCE was devoted to the establishment of a Soviet-style regime (not defending a capitalist republic) from even before the war. The POUM is generally viewed as a potential rival or a bunch of fanatics with the same general views as the PCE. A hallmark of the conservative school is that the PCE was revolutionary throughout its history, something all other trains of thought will dispute. The idea that socialism (or a people’s republic) can come from above, shows a conservative view that can’t distinguish socialism from above to that which comes from below, this can be seen most clearly in the work of Stanley Payne and his views on the Comintern.[10]

A second liberal school tends to defend the PCE, but not in the Stalinist terms found in Cockburn. The best representatives of this school are Gabriel Jackson and Hugh Thomas, who believe that the PCE moderated its revolutionary line by adopting the popular front pact. This school tends to view the PCE as providing the best strategy for winning the war and the POUM as a bunch of unrealistic romantics (Jackson especially takes this line). The suppression of the POUM was necessary in order to restore order in the Republic (albeit regrettable in how bloody the suppression was), but is not the sole responsibility of the PCE.

A third school has developed which tends to be composed of Communists or near-Communists who take the line of the PCE. The best representative of this school is Eric Hobsbawm, who believes that the PCE were the most able and practical defenders of the republic.[11] The anarchists (and by extension the POUM) are seen as inefficient fighters for the Republic. Although Hobsbawm does not believe that the POUM were fascists, others in this school (such as Delores Ibarruri and Arthur Landis) defend that view.

A fourth school has developed which can best be characterized as radical (either anarchist or Trotskyist). Members of this school tend to believe that the POUM and anarchists were suppressed by the PCE. For these historians, the PCE is a counterrevolutionary organization that is Stalinist and willing to make deals with the west at the expense of the revolution. The POUM is generally viewed as a revolutionary group that made mistakes (some very considerable) that was unable to carry the revolution through to the end. One of the foremost representatives of this school is the French Trotskyist Pierre Broue.

Burnett Bolloten is the authoritative historian among the conservatives. Bolloten detailed the manipulations of the PCE in the Republican zone through decades of meticulous research. Other writers such as Stanley Payne and Ronald Radosh seek to fill in many of the gaps of Bolloten’s writing. This is done through the use of declassified Soviet documents relating to the war. In regards to Bollotwn himself, he was a journalist in Spain during the Civil War and spent the greater part of his life seeking to expose the role of the PCE in the war. His definitive work, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution was published over fifty years after the conflict’s end and builds on his earlier works on the war.[12] To Bolloten, the Popular Front pact was not a real change in course for the PCE, but rather the “alliance was merely a transitory coalition, whose purpose was to advance the aims of the Comintern and the party, and that ‘am army of the Popular Front’ would be a determining factor in shaping the present and future course of the Revolution.”[13] To Bolloten, the Comintern (and the Spanish Party) turn to the Popular Front was not a sign of accepting a capitalist regime. “Did that mean that the Comintern had now abandoned its hegemonic aims? By no means. The Congress made it clear that a Popular Front government ‘could become a special transitional form of proletariat rule.’”[14] In other words, the Party was set for domination no matter what. To Bolloten, the PCE wanted Stalinism-style socialism to be implemented in Spain.

For Bolloten, a key component of the tension between the Communist Party and the POUM was the latter’s unrelenting criticism of the Soviet Union.[15] This was closely connected to the POUM’s alleged connection to Trotskyism, than seen as a major enemy of the USSR and the Communist Party.[16] As mentioned above, the Communist Party was seeking hegemony in the Popular Front and thus saw the POUM as a potential rival. The Communist policy in Barcelona was not just about wiping out the POUM as a potential rival, but also about the Party’s continuing conflict with Largo Caballero, who was seen as impeding their control of the army and other workers’ parties.[17] The suppression of the POUM was used as a hammer against Caballero, who was forced to resign as a result to be replaced by the pro-Communist Negrin.[18] Bolloten’s focus on the Communist-Caballero conflict mirrors that of Thomas and Jackson (considered later), but he views it all through the prism of a Communist drive for hegemony.

Stanley Payne, backs up Bolloten in many crucial aspects in his a recent work The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism. Payne argues that the Popular Front was established to advance a people’s republic. He explains that “A Popular Front government would be ‘a democracy of a new type,’ going beyond bourgeois democracy and pointing toward Soviet democracy…The goal remained the insurrectionary seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[19] Payne does not accept a view favoring the moderation of the Communist Party in the aftermath of the February 1936 Elections. “Contrary to the prevailing notion that the Communists occupied a moderate position in the Popular Front, PCE spokesmen were normally the most vigorous and most coherent of all sectors in demanding completion of the Popular Front program immediately so as to move rapidly beyond it.”[20] In Payne’s view, this is clearly a Communist move from the beginning to establish a Soviet-style regime in Spain at the earliest moment. Payne’s view of the PCE will expanded on later in dealing with the war itself.

However, Payne makes a fundamental error in his view of Soviet policy and that of the Communist Party of Spain. Payne believes that the USSR followed “the expansionist ideology of Marxism-Leninism…the guiding orientation of Soviet policy for seven decades, until after 1985.”[21] To Payne there is no difference in the Soviet Union’s fundamental foreign policy regardless of whether the leader was Lenin, Stalin, or Khrushchev. Bolloten only makes only a brief attempt to compare Soviet policy from Lenin’s time to that of Stalin.[22] What Payne doesn’t recognize is that there is a fundamental break in Soviet Union from the Lenin and Stalin periods in both foreign and domestic policy. The Lenin period is characterized by a revolutionary-internationalist foreign policy.[23] The Stalin era is marked by a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy in power more interested in rapprochement with the West than supporting revolutionary movements abroad.[24] In regards to Spain, this is especially important. All historians discussed here agree that the Spanish Communist Party was influenced (to greater or lesser) degrees by the Soviet-dominated Comintern, thus to believe that the USSR was revolutionary or not is also to believe the same about the PCE.[25] What Payne does is to see a revolutionary continuity in the Soviet Union which influences the Party in Spain. For a self-identified Trotskyist such as Broue, the break between the revolutionary Lenin and counterrevolutionary Stalin (at least according to Trotskyists) eras is crucial in analyzing the role of the PCE.[26]

Payne also believes that the Party was “leading the most decisive aspects of the worker revolution in Spain,”[27] such as changes in land ownership and the creation of the Popular Army. He sees the suppression of the POUM as connected with a concerted Communist plan to establish a people’s republic. Bolloten does not make a comparison between the establishment of a people’s republic in Spain and those in Eastern Europe. To Payne, a republic such as this, mirroring later ones in Eastern Europe, the party would “retain a limited pluralism, though excluding all conservative and rightist forces, and still retain certain functions of private property that would be consistent with the initial development of a state collectivized economy.”[28] The suppression of the POUM was seen as connected with this process. According to Payne, the establishment of a people’s republic did not go all the way “because the Soviet dictator clearly did not seek at that time an overtly Communist regime…”[29] Payne also doesn’t believe there was any substantial differences between the Communists and the POUM. “There is a sense, of course, in which all the leftist groups sought some form of people’s republic –that is, a purely leftist and hence nondemocratic regime…rather than a liberal democracy.”[30] It seems that Payne is reading back events from Eastern Europe in the post-WWII era to Spain, believing in some unchanging Comintern policy. As already elaborated above, Payne sees the USSR as revolutionary, refusing to see the imposition of Stalinism as a counterrevolutionary development.

Following Payne is the work of Ronald Radosh and his co-authors. Their book, Spain Betrayed is based on recently declassified Soviet documents, which purport to show Stalin as setting up a Soviet-regime in Spain in line with Bolloten and Payne. Radosh believes that these documents show that “Stalin had sent Alexander Orlov [Soviet Secret Police-DG] to the country and had given him the task of purging the revolutionary Marxist opposition to the Communists, the POUM.”[31] Radosh and company believe that the GRU [Soviet military police- DG] were intimately involved in watching the POUM and seeking to wipe them out.[32] To Radosh, the Communists provoked the POUM and the anarchists in Barcelona, whom they feared would create a rival center of power. The PCE and USSR launched a deliberate propaganda campaign against the POUM once the fighting ended and the repression began.[33]

Although Radosh believes that the Soviet documents present a clear case indicting the PCE and the USSR for dominating the Republic and wiping out their enemies, a dissenting view has emerged. Helen Graham (second school and pro-PCE) believes that the archives actually show that Stalin didn’t succeed in establishing a people’s republic in Spain. Graham believes the documents actually show “Soviet and Comintern officials struggled (often in vain) to understand what was going on in the rarified politics of Republican Spain and how they attempted…to achieve greater military and political centralization.”[34] In regards to the May Days of Barcelona, Graham believes that Moscow is confronted “with the enormous difficulty of knowing what to do.”[35] Indeed, Graham believes that Radosh portrays Spain too simplistically “as a blank screen waiting to be written on by Soviet and Comintern players.”[36] Graham certainly has a point; she brings out a picture of the Soviet Union as a subject operating with incomplete knowledge in the midst of the war. Yet she never actually debunks the fact (nor does she try to) that the USSR was involved in the suppression of the POUM. However, Graham’s own work will see the PCE as not responsible for the repression during the May Days.

The second liberal school of thought is soft on the PCE. The PCE is viewed as having the best practical policy in regards to winning the war, but committed some regrettable acts in doing so. For Hugh Thomas, author of one of the authoritative histories of the War, believes that “the policy of the Comintern was to establish a ‘Popular Front’ of all democratic parties, working class and ‘bourgeois’ alike, to resist ‘fascism.’ From then onwards, therefore, all communist parties, including the Spanish one, spoke of the need to preserve ‘parliamentary bourgeois democracy,’ until it could be replaced by ‘proletariat democracy.’”[37] Gabriel Jackson essentially agrees with this analysis.[38] Although Thomas mentions the Communist qualifier of replacing the Republic by socialism, Thomas does not believe that the Communist Party was interested in a revolutionary Spain.[39] Other historians such as Payne and Radosh take a very different view in regards to that qualifier. The Trotskyist historians Pierre Broue and Emile Temime essentially agree, seeing the Popular Front program as “a liberal program set in a bourgeois framework and deliberately excluded Socialist demands for the nationalization of land and banks and working class control over industry.” [40] [41]

Thomas essentially agrees that the role of the Communist Party was to support the government but hold back the revolution. Thomas says that, “the Communists stood for a disciplined, left-of-Centre, bourgeois regime, capable of winning the war, with private industry limited by some nationalization, but not by collectivization or workers’ control.”[42] Thomas (and also Gabriel Jackson) adds another dimension to the Communists’ fight with the POUM; he does not see it as just an attack on revolutionary power, but on the Prime Minister, Largo Caballero. The conflict with the Prime Minister had been brewing due to the continuing Communist influence in the republic and came to a head in May 1937. To Thomas, “the ‘May Days’ led, too, to the final stage of the communist attack upon Largo Caballero. The relationship between the Prime Minister and the communists had been made worse than ever by an attack on strategy.”[43] Caballero had angered the party by “restricting the commissars’ powers and requiring the appointment of all commissars to be personally approved by himself.” [44] [45] The resulting fury in the government following the May Days led to the resignation of Callabero and the appointment of the Communist-supported Negrin. Jackson believes that Caballero was ousted because he was seen as tolerant toward revolutionaries and impeding the centralizing of the Republican state (and its war effort), the policy backed by the PCE. For instance, Caballero failed to ban the POUM despite the constant urging of the PCE.[46] Caballero is also portrayed as someone unable to compete with the PCE’s publicity campaign.[47]

Jackson sees the May Days mostly through a power struggle between Caballero and others in the government. Jackson takes a relatively dismissive view of the revolution and believes that it was Caballeros’ tolerance that ultimately led to his downfall. He sees Caballero as “an inarticulate man, unable to explain to his followers the need for discipline, for cooperation with the middle class, for subordination to the middle class.”[48] Noam Chomsky takes to task historians such as Gabriel Jackson (and Hugh Thomas to a lesser extent) who see “the liquidation of the revolution in Catalonia was merely a minor irritant diverting energy from the struggle to save the bourgeois government.”[49] Chomsky’s work deals mostly with the United States involvement in Vietnam, but he brings up liberal views on the Spanish Civil War in order to criticize liberal intellectuals who support US power. To Chomsky, liberal elitism supporting capitalist regimes in South Vietnam and Spain makes these intellectuals unable to see the larger revolutionary processes taking place.

Another historian, Helen Graham seeks to show the Communist Party as not responsible for the repression in Barcelona. According to Graham, “the ideological attack on anti-Stalinist dissent was prepared in Moscow, there were simply not enough Comintern functionaries to have carried out – or even supervised – a systematic political repression of the POUM.”[50] Graham sees the suppression as carried out largely by police acting semi-autonomously, which “raises far wider questions about the failure of the Republic since 1931 to reform (i.e. demilitarise) police culture and practice.”[51] Graham also raises the issue of the new Prime Minister in the repression, who had his own reasons for moving against the POUM. Negrin wanted the POUM brought to trial because “in the middle of the war, its leadership had publicly (in its press) approved rebellion against the Republican state.”[52] What Graham is doing here is to bring in a whole array of factors other than the Communists and Stalinism in order to explain the anti-POUM drive. She takes to task the conservative historians who believe that it was basically the PCE that was determining policy in Spain at this point.

Preston sees the suppression of the POUM as needed in order to strengthen the war effort. Preston tries to provide a wider context to the May Days by saying that, “the notorious persecution of the POUM has to be seen in the context of the Russians’ concern…that the war effort needed to more disciplined and centralized.”[53] Preston puts emphasis on the POUM’s provocation of the Catalan government by its “subversive criticisms of the Generalitat, it was almost inevitable that POUM militia units were starved of arms.”[54] Preston sees the Communists’ main objectives as “centralization by ensuring the destruction of the POUM.”[55] Preston sees centralization as essential to winning the war. To the PCE and their supporters, “popular revolutionary movements were an obstacle which not only hindered the central task of creating an efficient army but also threatened to bring down on the head of the Republic an alliance of the conservative Western democracies with the Axis powers.”[56] Thus to Preston, the Communist policy and subsequent repression is to be seen within the confines of a war policy dictated to greater central control. Preston and Graham seem to be willing to shift blame or minimize the role of the Communist Party in the May Days. They see the role of the party as largely influenced by war necessities.

The third school heavily favors the PCE. In other words, the PCE was essentially right in its conduct of the war (and treatment of POUM). Wartime PCE leader, Delores Ibarruri gives a relatively unapologetic view of the PCE’s role during the prewar and war periods. To Ibarruri, the Popular Front was “not concocted in a Moscow laboratory as claimed by the priests of anticommunism.”[57] Ibarruri also believed that the Popular Front “had serious weak spots and deficiencies, in particular its ambiguous stand on the agrarian war question…It [Popular Front-DG] was a weapon of unity…to restore and consolidate democracy in Spain.”[58] Robert Colodny agrees, seeing the pact signed between the Left and the bourgeoisie parties was “around a program which was essentially nothing more than a return to the promised social reforms of the first Republican Cortes [Spanish Parliament-D.G.]”[59] In regards to the POUM, Ibarruri takes the same view as that advanced by the PCE in 1937. She believes that the POUM and anarchists were “presenting an ultimatium…which in effect was a demand for power.”[60] Ibarruri believes that the POUM threatened a second civil war in the Republic, a war that had the backing of Franco.[61]

Arthur Landis essentially agrees with Ibarruri. To him, the POUM are anti-Republican group, so fanatical that they were willing to hand Spain over to Franco. “For to them [POUM and Anarchists-DG] both Fascism and the Popular Front Government of the Spanish Republic were but two sides of the same coin.”[62] Landis sees the POUM as involved in a power grab that sought to destroy the Communist Party. “It was the FAI [Anarchists-DG] and the POUM which first sought control of the Government by demanding, under the threat of civil war, the removal of the PSUC from the Catalan Government.”[63] Landis also believes that the POUM wanted to seize power across Spain[64] and that its troops had not been active on the Aragon Front.[65] Landis also believes that the Nationalist General Staff had been involved in fomenting the May Days. Landis goes as far to state “they [Franco’s agents-DG] were ready for the occasion.”[66] Robert Colodny makes a brief mention of the POUM and the social revolution. Colodny says the Republic was threatened by a Trotskyist-anarchist putsch. His footnote on page seventy-eight makes a claim that Franco had involvement in the May Days.[67]

What Ibarruri and Landis and Colodny to a lesser extent is doing is repeating the worst Stalinist slanders directed against the POUM. They dreg up lies that the POUM and anarchists were engaged in no major battles and that its goal was a power grab not just in Barcelona, but throughout Spain. Even just a skimming of Orwell’s (to name only one) account should be enough to dispel these outright fabrications.[68] Although other pro-PCE historians such as Graham and Preston defend the party’s position on the war, none takes a Cockburn-redux argument as regards the role of the POUM.

The Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm is also a representative of this school. Yet he does not reach the Stalinist levels that are found in Ibarruri and Landis for example. Hobsbawm believes that the PCE was defending democracy in Spain, not promoting a social revolution. The democracy of a new type defended by the PCE would be “a guarantee for the further economic and social advances of the Spanish working people.”[69] However, the democracy of a new type was not like those of Eastern Europe (the view of Payne and Radosh), but that didn’t come to pass until the Cold War.[70]

Although Hobsbawm does not repeat the slanders of Ibarruri in regards to the POUM and anarchists, he is nonetheless critical of them. To him, the anarchists “were incapable of fighting it [the war] effectively either in the military or political sense.”[71] The anarchists were unable to accept the discipline of a regular army and were unwilling to coordinate with the national government.[72] The Communists “whose policy was the one which could have won the war, gained strength too late and never satisfactorily overcame the handicap of their original lack of mass support.”[73] Although Hobsbawm makes no direct reference to the POUM, his critique applies to them since in military respects, the POUM echoed anarchist policy.

The fourth school is that of the radicals, who tend to be pro-POUM (not wholly or uncritically). The foremost representative of this school is Pierre Broue. The Trotskyist historians Pierre Broue and Emile Temime see the Popular Front program as “a liberal program set in a bourgeois framework and deliberately excluded Socialist demands for the nationalization of land and banks and working class control over industry.”[74] To the radical left, a Popular Front essentially means subordinating socialist demands to class collaboration with the bourgeois. They also believe that “in Moscow’s view, the Spanish affair must not, at any cost, provide an opportunity for isolating the USSR and cutting her off from the Western democracies. Add to this that Stalin had not the slightest desire to support a revolutionary movement…”[75] Fellow Trotskyist, Andy Durgan essentially agrees, seeing the Popular Front program “was essentially that of the left Republican parties.”[76] This bloc of historians seems to agree fairly well that the Communist Party of Spain was not interested in a revolutionary seizure of power. In fact, the Popular Front pact is clearly portrayed as a batch of liberal reforms.[77] However, unlike the second school this is not a state of affairs to be praised, but a sell out of the revolution.

To the radicals, what took place in Spain following the coup was the first large-scale social revolution seen in Europe since 1917, despite its failure. Central to the Revolution was its climax in May 1937 with the suppression of the POUM and the central role of the PCE in that suppression. Pierre Broue gives an overview of revolutionary Spain. In many regions of Spain, but especially in Catalonia, peasants formed collectives that divided up land and practiced collective farming to increase food production. To Broue, “the most determined opponents of collectivization, the Communists, created a new peasant organization in the Levante out of nothing in order to fight the movement.”[78] The Communists are seen as supporting the Popular Front alliance against revolutionary forces. “The Communist Party stressed the need to defend the small industrialist and the small tradesman.”[79] Broue quotes the Party secretary-general, “Jose Diaz: ‘We wish only to fight for a democratic republic with a broad social content. There can be no question at present of a dictatorship of the proletariat or socialism, but only of the struggle of democracy against fascism.’”[80] The Communists wanted to gain the support of Western democracies, who were embargoing the Republic. In the Communist view, “London and Paris could envision supporting, albeit very warily, a democratic and Republican Spain, but not a revolutionary one.”[81] Part of that policy meant reestablishing a normal state and a regular army as opposed to militias, which were viewed as lacking discipline. “[T]he Communist slogan ‘popular army’ seemed to many capable of reconciling revolutionary aspirations with the requirements of discipline.”[82] This led to the creation of a regular army as opposed to the more democratic militias. Yet Broue sees the May Days that led to the POUM’s suppression in the midst of a revolutionary upsurge.

To Broue, there was a movement of the POUM “toward a revolutionary opposition, denouncing the results of the anti-fascist coalition that was being turned into a Holy Alliance, the halting and the retreat of the Revolution, and the counterrevolutionary policies of the Communist Party.”[83] To these authors, the subsequent uprising by the POUM was the result of provocation by the Communist Party, which “was one more stage in the restoration of the state.”[84] To Broue and Temime the May Days were part of a counterrevolution, supported by the Communist Party which intended to reestablish a bourgeois state and needed to be rid of the POUM to do so. The anti-POUM Trotskyist, Felix Morrow, essentially agrees with Broue’s view of the war and revolution, but sees the POUM as politically compromising itself in dealings with the Anarchists and the bourgeoisie.[85] Indeed for these authors, the POUM was the revolutionary[86] force in Spain and the PCE counterrevolutionary, a point that puts them at variance with the other schools described above.

The radical school has its own criticism of the POUM that is unlike the other schools that tend to see the POUM as a mirror-image of the PCE, naïve romantics dangerous to the war, or fascist agents A critical account on the POUM from the left can be found in a collection of broadly Trotskyist/dissident communist view on the Spanish Civil War edited by Al Richardson. One of these sources is by Miieczyslaw Bortenstein, a Trotskyist militia member serving in Spain. Bortenstein tends to agree with Morrow’s criticism of the POUM. Bortenstein believes that the POUM “had not formulated a programme to safeguard the revolution.”[87] The lack of a correct program (a Trotskyist one from this viewpoint), resulted in the POUM fluctuating between reform and revolution, which led to the party’s downfall.[88] Morrow tends to be highly critical of the POUM, as shown from above. However, the POUM was in a very complex situation of war and had to formulate a revolutionary program against powerful forces that were seeking to destroy them.

Coming from an anarchist perspective is Daniel Guerin. He believes that the May Days can be understood through PCE hostility to self-management, a point that echoes the Trotskyists described above.[89] The revolution was up against main challenges, but “the major obstacle, however, was the increasingly open hostility to self-management manifested by the various political general staffs of Republican Spain [which includes the PCE-DG].”[90] Guerin puts the responsibility for the May Days (and the destruction of the Spanish Revolution in general) on the PCE and Republican government. This came to a head when “in May 1937, there was a bloody struggle in Barcelona and the workers were disarmed by the forces of order under Stalinist command.”[91] For Guerin, unlike Payne or Radosh, the May Days were not part of a PCE plot to establish a revolutionary regime, but a counterrevolutionary action that restored a capitalist republic.

A final historian considered in this school is not a radical, but tends to support their view (at least in regards to the May Days). Antony Beevor views the May Days and the POUM’s suppression within the general Republican struggle between Caballero and the Communist Party as does the second school.[92] Yet Beevor brings to the fore the Stalinist suspicions that were transplanted from the Soviet Union to Spain (a point he shares with Trotsky).[93] “The Spanish Republic was infected by the grotesque paranoia of the NKVD, yet some Russian historians have recently argued that events in Spain also served to accelerate the ‘mincing machine’ of the Great Terror back in the Soviet Union.”[94] Thus to Beevor, the POUM and Spanish revolution cannot be separated from events in the USSR. Trotsky agrees with Beevor on the centrality of Stalinism in the POUM suppression. “The intentions of Stalin were revealed with exceptional clarity when the GPU, which holds the Spanish police in its clutches, published an announcement accusing Nin and the whole leadership of the POUM of being ‘agents’ of Franco.”[95]

All these schools give a formidable array of interpretations by many reputable scholars. Yet there are many fields of research that seem to have been neglected. The PCE tends to be viewed from the top-down in its relations to the POUM. Scholars haven’t really looked at the base of the party, asking if the POUM’s suppression or the backing of a conservative republic met with dissension in the ranks. Looking at the party in its connection to the USSR is vitally important, but so is a bottom up view to flesh out the picture. As for the POUM itself, there are multiple areas to explore. For instance, the POUM’s military strategy is generally seen from a conservative, liberal, or communist viewpoints as identical to the anarchists, but was that so? Did the party see inspiration in a Red Army modeled on that of Trotsky’s? In regards to the POUM, there are no biographies of the two principal leaders: Andres Nin and Joaquin Maurin. When Nin appears, it is generally as a martyred revolutionary leader, even though he had only minority support in the POUM. Maurin was actually the central leader of the POUM and brilliant intellectual and revolutionary. Maurin was also captured by Franco very early in the war, removing him from leadership. More examination of his ideas seems to be warranted in figuring out the POUM’s worldview and path to revolution.

Did the POUM truly represent an alternative of a socialist republic? Was the only alternative that of the PCE with its grinding machine crushing all before it? To those gripping a gun in 1937, the POUM and like-minded comrades had a state of affairs worth fighting for. If one believes that Marxism or communism is inherently a totalitarian project, than there is no difference between the POUM and the PCE. If the PCE is seen as the lesser evil or the best defender of the democratic republic, the POUM are no more than a nuisance or traitors. If the POUM is seen as upholding the banner of socialism from below, which was crushed by the PCE machine then they were the possibility crushed and betrayed. Despite their mistakes and bad judgments, what the POUM represent is the lost cause of a truly radical socialist republic.

In the final analysis, all of the historians discussed here, continue to fight the Spanish Civil War long after the guns have gone silent. The converging viewpoints and schools of thought show that the passions aroused by the war and revolution continue to simmer and provoke debate. The revolutionary power that came into being in 1936-7 still elicits our sympathy and excites our imaginations. It seemed to many then and now that a new Spain was ‘a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ The suppression of the POUM in 1937 appeared to reveal that “the ‘disciplined machine’ had taken over, but it now lacked the energy of popular support. For many, there seemed to be few ideals left to defend.”[96] That doesn’t seem to be quite true, even in retrospect. From Orwell and Cockburn writing in the heat of the moment to the varied historians coming long after the war, there seems to be many ideals left to defend or destroy.


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[1]           George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1938), 5.

[2]           A good overview of the monarchy’s fall and the early years of the Republic is provided by Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-9 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 11-33.

[3]           Beevor, The Battle for Spain, 34-80 for the Popular Front and the military coup.

[4]           For events surrounding the foundation of the POUM see 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), 11-53. For the POUM’s connection (or lack of) to Trotskyism see Andy Durgan, “Marxism, War and Revolution: Trotsky and the POUM,” Revolutionary History 9 (2006): 27-65. For Trotsky’s estimation of the POUM (not very good from his view), see Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-9) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 282-3.

[5]           See Trotsky, 1973, 312-26 contains a list of Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM in relation to supporting the Popular Front, the Fourth International and tactical mistakes during the Civil War. Trotsky categorized the POUM as centrist, standing between reform and revolution.

[6]           Beevor, The Battle for Spain, 115-128 and 261-270.

[7]           An excellent overview of the British Left’s involvement in Spanish Civil War with focus on both Claud Cockburn and George Orwell is provided in David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Gloucester: Sutton Publishing, 2001), 152-168.

[8]           Claud Cockburn, Cockburn in Spain: Dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, ed. James Pettifer (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), 184.

[9]           Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 57.

[10]          “Marxism, as the theory and practice of the proletariat revolution, also had to be the theory and practice of the self-emancipation of the proletariat.” Hal Draper, Socialism from Below, ed. E. Haberkern (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2005), 321-2. Draper makes the explicit point that socialism is about self-emancipation of the workers and democracy, not about saviors on high (such as the PCE) delivering the oppressed (or at least claiming to). See also ibid. 9.

[11]          Before 1934, the membership of the PCE was miniscule, numbering a few thousand at best. By the end of 1936, PCE membership numbered at least 200,000 to 300,000 in March 1937, see Beevor, 2006, 150. Payne says that according to the POUM, their membership from a prewar 6,000 to 30,000 by the end of the year, see Stanley Payne, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 184.

[12]          Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), xi-xv.

[13]          Bolloten, Revolution and Counterrevolution, 271.

[14]          Ibid. 96.

[15]          Ibid. 408-9.

[16]          Ibid. 406 for the POUM’s lack of Trotskyism, in fact the party had expelled overt Trotskyists from its ranks. Also see Ibid. 501-2 for the view that the Communist Party view that the POUM were actually spies and a fifth column.

[17]          Ibid. 343-54.

[18]          Ibid. 465-6.and 477-8.

[19]          Payne, The Spanish Civil War, 63.

[20]          Ibid. 88.

[21]          Ibid. 2.

[22]          Bolloten, Revolution and Counterrevolution, 77-8 and 96.

[23]          The break is best illustrated in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern: A History of the Third International (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008) and CLR James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1994).

[24]          See Broue and Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), 190-2.

[25]          The Comintern was the abbreviation of the Communist International, the world organization of Communist Parties headquartered in Moscow.

[26]          Broue and Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, 70 and 190-2.

[27]          Payne, Spanish Civil War, 218.

[28]          Ibid. 303.

[29]          Ibid. 305.

[30]          Ibid.

[31]       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.

[32]          Radosh, Habeck, Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed, 121-2. See also document 33 on ibid. 129-33.

[33]          Ibid. 171-8. See also documents 41-44 from Ibid. 178-208.

[34]          Helen Graham, “Spain Betrayed? The New Historical McCarthyism,” Science and Society 68, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 366.

[35]          Graham, Spain Betrayed?, 367.

[36]          Ibid.

[37]       Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 117.

[38]          Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 185-7.

[39]          Part Four of Thomas’ book is called the war of two Counterrevolutions, referring to the Nationalist assault on the left in the insurgent zone and the Communist-inspired one in the Republican zone. See Thomas, Spanish Civil War, 765-6 for a quick view of Thomas’ view of the anti-revolutionary Prime Minister Negrin and the Communist Party support he received.

[40]          Although Broue and Temime jointly authored their book on the Spanish Civil War, Broue wrote the portion dealing with the war and revolution till 1937. Unless otherwise noted, Broue is the historian being referred to.

[41]          Broue and Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain , 76.

[42]          Thomas, Spanish Civil War, 628.

[43]          Ibid. 643.

[44]          Commissars were political officers in the Popular Army who were increasingly coming under the domination of the Communist Party of Spain in early 1937. See Beevor, Battle for Spain, 203.

[45]          Thomas, Spanish Civil War, 637.

[46]          Jackson, Spanish Republic, 370-1.

[47]          Ibid. 373-4.

[48]          Ibid. 373. For Jackson on revolution see ibid. 368.

[49]          Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: New Press, 2002), 100.

[50]          Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 285.

[51]          Graham, The Spanish Republic at War, 287.

[52]          Ibid. 291.

[53]          Paul Preston, Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006), 254.

[54]          Preston, Spanish Civil War, 255.

[55]          Ibid. 261.

[56]          Ibid. 238.

[57]          Delores Ibarruri, They Shall Not Pass: The Autobiography of La Pasionaria (New York: International Publishers, 1984), 147.

[58]          Iburrari, They Shall Not Pass, 161.

[59]          Robert G. Colodny, The Glory and the Tragedy (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 20.

[60]          Ibarruri, They Shall Not Pass, 281.

[61]          Ibid. 282.

[62]          Arthur Landis, Spain: The Unfinished Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 341.

[63]          Landis, Unfinished Revolution, 342.

[64]          Ibid.

[65]          Ibid. 306.

[66]          Ibid. 348.

[67]          Colodny, Glory and Tragedy, 47 and footnote 78 on ibid. p. 90.

[68]          The best place to read is chapter nine of Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, which details the Stalinist press campaign against the POUM 150-79.

[69]          Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 163.

[70]          Ibid.

[71]          Eric Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries (New York: New Press, 2001), 92.

[72]          Ibid. 89-90 and 94.

[73]          Ibid 92. On a footnote at the bottom of the page, Hobsbawm, says that the Communists should be criticized for two things, one being support to Stalin’s secret police and the other for not discouraging the revolution.

[74]          Broue and Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain , 76.

[75]          Ibid. 192.

[76]          Andy Durgan, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007), 23.

[77]          Antony Beevor’s recent account supports this view of the Popular Front as mild pact. See Beevor, The Battle for Spain, 35-6. Although he believes that the Communist Party was interested at eliminating its opponents at an early stage, see ibid. 36.

[78]          Broue and Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, 157.

[79]          Ibid. 162.

[80]          Ibid. 195.

[81]          Ibid. 192.

[82]          Ibid. 219.

[83]          Ibid. 276.

[84]          Ibid. 286.

[85]          Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), 105-7 and 112-6.

[86]          Although Morrow points out that the POUM was a centrist party that oscillated between reform and revolution, he did admit that “In spite of its vacillating policies, the POUM had in its ranks many revolutionary fighters for the interests of the proletariat.” Ibid. 165.

[87]          Mieczyslaw Bortenstein, “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), 174.

[88]          Although Bortenstein’s whole account deals with the Spanish Revolution, the crux of his criticisms of the POUM are contained on Mieczyslaw Bortenstein, The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, 164-178.

[89]          Other anarchist writers who would support similar conclusions would be Vernon Richards and Murray Bookchin.

[90]          Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 139.

[91]          Ibid. 130.

[92]          Beevor, Battle for Spain, 256-60 and 266-7.

[93]          Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 360-2.

[94]          Beevor, Battle for Spain, 268.

[95]          Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 309.

[96]          Beevor, Battle for Spain, 273.