Popular Fronts vs Proletarian Revolution: Russia-Spain-Sri Lanka

(Two presentations given at the Permanent Revolution Group Winter School, Wellington, New Zealand, 19-20 August 1989)


  1. Preface, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), May 1993
  2. The Russian Revolution and the Popular Front: How to Defeat Reformism by Marcus P
  3. Coalitionism in Spain and Sri Lanka by Bill Logan [below]

Coalitionism in Spain & Sri Lanka

A talk given by Bill Logan at the Permanent Revolution Group Winter School, Wellington, New Zealand, 19-20 August 1989

We talked this morning about the Bolsheviks’ struggle against Kerensky’s popular front of 1917, the coalition government with the Russian Kadet party. I want to look now at some other examples of coalitionism, concentrating on the cases of Ceylon/Sri Lanka and of Spain; doubtless comrades will want to talk a little about some other examples in the discussion period.

The term "popular front" is not a Trotskyist term: it is a Stalinist term denoting a Stalinist tactic. As a term it was invented by French Stalinists in late 1934, and it was adopted by the Third International at its Seventh Congress in August 1935. So what does "popular front" mean?

"Popular Front" a Stalinist Term

There is a thoroughly disgusting Australian Stalinist thing from 1946 called a "Marxist Glossary".1 Its entries on the "united front" and the "popular front" are interesting. It defines a "united front" as:

Unity in action between the Communist Party and the reformist party and nonparty workers on given issues upon which agreement is reached, eg, a campaign for higher wages, defence of democratic liberty, etc.

And the definition it gives for a "popular front" is this:

An alliance between the organisations of the working class and those of the working farmers, civil servants, small business people and others...

My argument today is that this Stalinist definition is about right. It is consistent with Trotsky’s use of the word, and with that of most other people. To understand a popular front in this way actually helps orient you to the real world.

The formative experiences in my own understanding of the popular front occurred in January 1972 in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, where there was at that time a popular front in power. Adaire Hannah and I had just spent six months in the United States, and were returning to New Zealand. The Spartacist League office in New York had received some correspondence from two groups in Ceylon, one led by Edmund Samarakkody and one led by Mannikam.

Both seemed very close to our politics, and both wanted to explore the possibility of fusion with the Spartacist League. Adaire and I were sent to talk to them on our way back to New Zealand. I had been in the Trotskyist movement for two years, mostly isolated in New Zealand, where the Trotskyist tradition is almost nonexistent. And we had to deal with a movement where the Trotskyist tradition was in some ways stronger than anywhere else in the world, and with people who had been in the movement for forty years.

It turned out, in fact, that Mannikam was a young man who actually did not have a group at all. But, like large sections of the Ceylonese working class at the time, he did have a certain level of Trotskyist culture, and he was the political advisor to an important Tamil tea-plantation union run by an old man called Illianchellian. The Tamil tea-plantation workers were a crucial layer of the proletariat, kept separate from the Sinhala proletariat by chauvinism, which of course was fostered by government policies.

Samarakkody and Ceylonese Trotskyism

Edmund Samarakkody’s group was the left-most fragment of the historic Trotskyist party of Ceylon. As a young lawyer, he’d been recruited to Trotskyism in the early 1930s, to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). You’ve got to understand that the LSSP was the most important mass working-class party in Ceylon. Edmund became one of its early leaders, fighting against British imperialism through proletarian revolutionary struggle. His particular assignment was among transport workers and he built a mass union; and when the Second General Imperialist War arrived he played an important part in the mobilisation against the war. They didn’t win, and Edmund had to be put in jail.

Edmund had some good tales to tell about jail. He recruited his guards, so he could get out to Central Committee meetings. But he didn’t like jail much. The rats were intimidating, and he was glad when it was appropriate to escape.

After the war Ceylon became a dominion, and Edmund became a Trotskyist Member of Parliament. From about 1957 on, he and a number of the other members of the LSSP started to get very worried about the direction their party was moving in: it was moving towards an alliance with the liberal party of the bourgeoisie, Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Edmund became the leader of the anti-coalitionist tendency in the LSSP. Edmund knew his Trotsky well, and knew all the stuff on the popular front of the 1930s, and he used it well against the leadership of the LSSP. He did not actually call his struggle a fight against "popular frontism". He called it a struggle against "coalitionism", which was probably because he’d learnt his Bolshevism before the period of the Popular Fronts of the 1930s.

When it was necessary, at the point that the LSSP actually consummated its alliance agreement with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, they split from the LSSP, and established the LSSP(R). The "R" was for "Revolutionary".

This was in 1964. Edmund and comrade Meryl Fernando were still in Parliament, but now as members of the LSSP(R), and they faced a coalition government of the LSSP and the SLFP, a coalition government with a very narrow parliamentary majority.

No Confidence Vote Topples Popular-Front Government

There is an inevitability about what follows: the programme of the coalition government was read by the Governor-General from the throne at the opening of parliament, the address-in-reply was duly moved by a government member of parliament, a member of the opposition moved a no-confidence amendment saying that the programme was not so good for the working class, Edmund and Meryl voted for the amendment, and the popular-front government fell.

That is an important element of our history, comrades.

In the elections that followed the right took office again, of course, and Edmund and Meryl lost their seats. And the LSSP(R) were for a time not so popular among reformists in the workers’ movement.

Unfortunately Edmund and the LSSP(R) later came to regret their vote, and resumed giving critical support to the LSSP, despite its involvement in the coalition. Their new argument was that coalitions should be fought, but that you should still give critical support to the reformist workers’ organisations in these coalitions, because in that way you would be better heard by the working class. It is a tragedy that the LSSP(R) did not maintain its position of refusing to support the LSSP while it was in a coalition with an open party of the bourgeoisie.

By the time Adaire and I visited Ceylon in January 1972 the LSSP-SLFP coalition was back in power. We talked to representatives of the various organisations in the workers’ movement.

The Tamils in the tea plantations hated the government’s guts. Illianchellian, the old Tamil trade unionist said: "Yes, Edmund is a good man. When he was in Parliament he would always help. And when our union needs legal assistance he can be good. When there were race riots in Jaffna once, he would walk where no other Sinhala would be safe. And he stopped the fighting. He said both sides should be fighting against the government."

"But", said Illianchellian, "we cannot go with Edmund politically. He says we’ve got to vote for the LSSP, and the LSSP are with Bandaranaike. Those people kill us. We don’t know much about politics", said Illianchellian, "but Edmund can’t expect us to support the people who kill us."

Sinhala Guerrilla Movement

It wasn’t only the Tamils who were alienated in 1971-72. The Sinhala proletariat was unhappy, too, especially the youth. A militant, proto-Stalinist guerrillaist youth movement developed, the JVP, which was opposed to the popular-front government.

Had they maintained an intransigent stance against the coalition, not just in words but also by withdrawing critical support from the LSSP, Edmund’s group might have become a pole of attraction before and during the JVP uprising of 1971, and might even have prevented its brutal smashing just a few months before our visit.

Edmund and one of his comrades, Nihal Perera, had talks with the JVP, and Nihal ran some classes for their leadership. But as Nihal said: "They wouldn’t come with us, because they think we are partly responsible for this Bandaranaike government. I just couldn’t get them to understand the tactic of critical support. They were intent on an uprising. And, of course they got caught."

Adaire and I were talking to Nihal in his home just a few months after the events. "The firing squad did its work very near here. We could hear the shooting", he said. "It went on and on, every night, those boys and girls that I knew. They were very sincere. If only they had understood critical support."

The government cracked down very hard. Edmund–with an organisation of about thirty people–simply had no perspective to intersect events; but he wanted to play a part in the resistance. His family and comrades had to imprison him, quite rightly. Events had passed him by.

"If only they had understood critical support", they said of the JVP.

Class Struggle Blocked by Coalitionism

Of course, we looked at it the other way around: if only Edmund and his comrades had understood coalitionism–if only they had maintained their former understanding of coalitionism–they might have been able to intersect events and Sri Lanka today, and beyond Sri Lanka too, might have been a very different place. But coalitions between bourgeois-workers’ parties and outright parties of the bourgeoisie prevented a proper class polarisation, compounded, of course, by incomplete Marxist opposition to such coalitions. Instead of class polarisation, the polarisation in Sri Lanka has been racial. The JVP might have been recruited to revolutionary Marxism; they are now Sinhala fascists.

Adaire and I felt very junior in Ceylon in 1972. We presented our politics as best we could, but we did not argue long and hard. It was our job to observe and report. Two years later though, in 1974, Edmund and the national secretary of his organisation, Tulsiri Andrade, visited North America for fusion talks with the Spartacist tendency. As chair of the Australasian section and as someone with direct (if limited) experience in dealing with mass bourgeois-workers’ parties, I was called in to help present the Spartacist position.

Edmund made the point very forcefully that bourgeois-workers’ parties are based on a wholly bourgeois programme. The North American comrades sometimes found this difficult to understand. They imagined reformist organisations as being far nearer revolutionary politics than they really are. So, said Edmund, we have nothing programmatically in common with the bourgeois-workers’ parties whatsoever. We give them critical support, he said, because they are organisations of the working class, not because of their programme. And, said Edmund, they are just as much organisations of the working class when they are standing in elections in a coalition with an openly bourgeois party.

We are against the coalition, he said. We say it is a bad policy. We say the coalition must be broken. But still we give critical support to the workers’ party in that coalition.

Working-Class Independence

The reply, of course, was that yes, Edmund was right, bourgeois-workers’ parties do in fact have bourgeois programmes. But there is one vital exception to that. Bourgeois-workers’ parties stand organisationally against the bourgeoisie as a class. They pretend to represent the working class as a class with interests separate from other classes. And of course building the working class as a class against the bourgeoisie, building a working class conscious of itself as having separate and unique interests is the most central and fundamental point in our programme. It is their approximation to this principle that is the programmatic basis for giving bourgeois-workers’ parties critical support.

We don’t give critical support to a liberal party of the bourgeoisie, even if there is no bourgeois-workers’ party. We don’t give critical support to a liberal party of the bourgeoisie even if the most militant layers of workers support it. We don’t for example give critical support to the Democrats in the United States. We don’t support the Democrats because they in no sense pretend to represent the workers as a class; they do not in any sense whatever embody class consciousness.

No Basis for Critical Support

When it is in a coalition with an open party of the bourgeoisie, we don’t have any programmatic basis for critical support to a bourgeois-workers’ party. We give critical support to workers’ parties, even sometimes quite right-wing workers’ parties, because they oppose the open parties of the bourgeoisie. But when they’re in coalitions with the open parties of the bourgeoisie there’s nothing there to support.

We did not win this argument with the Revolutionary Workers Party of Sri Lanka, as they were by now known, and fusion was impossible.

There is a footnote to this: I met Edmund next five years later. His politics had not changed, nor had that of the Spartacists. But Edmund had continually tried to get into the Spartacist tendency despite the differences, and in 1979 the iSt thought they could look at that possibility.

In August 1979 the Spartacists held the only international conference they ever had, and one of its functions was to expel me from the tendency for "gross moral turpitude". Edmund was a member of the trial body set up by the conference. It was the intention that his mana be leant to the proceedings, but things did not quite work out as the Spartacist leadership expected. Despite extraordinary pressure he refused to go along completely with its judgement against me. Needless to say, fusion between the Revolutionary Workers Party and the international Spartacist tendency did not take place, to the RWP’s great disappointment. Edmund Samarakkody is a man of integrity. But he is a centrist.

The debate with Edmund, of course, was heavily based on the Trotskyist experience and analysis of the Stalinist Popular Fronts of the 1930s. I want to talk a little about that experience and analysis.

The Stalinist "Third Period"

After the Comintern’s disastrous bloc with the Kuomintang in China, the Stalinists in 1928 proclaimed what they called the "Third Period" of the capitalist epoch, an ostensibly final period in which capitalism was about to succumb to socialist revolution. This called, said the Stalinists, for especially militant and left-wing tactics–it was now direct struggle between communists and all other tendencies. Bourgeois-workers’ parties, that is, the social-democratic and labour parties, were now designated as "social fascist", in that they were just a slight variation on the mainstream fascists. It was, the Stalinists claimed, unprincipled to have united fronts with them.

Indeed the Stalinist’s Third Period was characterised by a redefinition of the united front. Instead of being a device to get unity on the basis of a nonrevolutionary programme with reformists, the united front became a slogan addressed directly to the masses to fight for revolutionary politics. This was the Stalinist tactic of the anti-capitalist united front–the "Red" united front. The "anti-capitalist united front" is a Third Period Stalinist tactic, and it allowed Hitler to take power in Germany.

From a revolutionary point of view the united front cannot and must not be revolutionary. The exception to this–and it is an obviously crucial exception–is after a period of dual power in the actual movement of taking state power.

Trotsky’s writings against Stalinism in Germany are extremely instructive. He shows how the Stalinists’ "Red" united front in fact constituted a refusal to get close to the masses of the working class, which of course was necessary if there were to be any actual fight for socialism. In the circumstances of Hitler’s rise toward power in Germany the anti-capitalist united front policy was a cowardly refusal to enter into any meaningful fight against him. It was a matter of posturing as extreme revolutionists, without actually doing anything about it.

Inevitably, in the absence of a revolutionary party with a correct united-front policy, Hitler took power. This was a world-historic defeat for the working class, and was widely understood as such. The Stalinists were disgraced. The Trotskyists gave up on them, moving from the stance of being an expelled opposition of the Third International to that of fighting to build a Fourth International.

Growth of Militant Left Wing Inside Social Democracy

But it was not only the Trotskyists who gave up on the Stalinists. For a time many of the better elements of the working class gave up on the Stalinists, too. Instead of looking to the Stalinists for leadership, they started looking to the social democrats for leadership.

So after the defeat of Hitler there were several important processes going on in the working classes of Europe. One of the things which happened was that the Stalinists moved rapidly to the right, seeking unity with anyone they could on the basis of any policy at all–anyone, that is, except the Trotskyists.

Another of the things which happened was that the social democrats moved rapidly to the left, or at least they developed militant left wings. It was some of these processes which Trotsky sought to intersect by means of the French Turn of 1934-35.

The Stalinists moved to the right through various phases. They first sought unity with other reformist, working-class organisations: during 1934 the French Communist Party (CPF) oriented towards what they called a united front, or sometimes "organic unity", with the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), the French social-democratic reformist party. But then they broadened their net, seeking unity with parties of the left wing of the bourgeoisie–so in October 1934, CPF General-Secretary Maurice Thorez went to the Congress of the Radical Party.

French Stalinists Court Bourgeois "Radicals"

Now the French Radical Party was in no sense a proletarian organisation. It was a party coming out of the degenerated liberal-radicalism of the French bourgeois-revolutionary movement. Thorez proposed a policy which took the united front beyond only workers’ parties to include the French Radicals. And he had a new phrase for it: "Front Populaire", variously translated as "Popular Front" or "People’s Front".

It was quite important for him to have a new phrase for it, because there were already a lot of discredited old phrases. The social-democratic SFIO, for example, had often tried to build (and had sometimes achieved) what they called a "cartel" with the Radicals. The Stalinists, as well as the Trotskyists, had always polemicised against "cartelism". In fact what Thorez was proposing was precisely a form of cartelism–but he obviously couldn’t use that word and so chose "Popular Front" instead. And of course, in the French Trotskyists’ polemics against the Popular Front, they frequently made the point that this was just the Stalinist version of cartelism.

Comintern Congress Codifies "Popular Front" Turn

It was a while before there was much action on the Popular Front, but it was under way. And at the beginning it was quite explicit: a "popular front" was to be characterised by having in it an open party of the bourgeoisie. This was codified as the policy of the Third International at its Seventh (and last) Congress in August 1935.

There is a disagreement, as most of you know, between the Permanent Revolution Group and the Communist Left on what constitutes a popular front. As I understand it, the CL believe that a popular front is any organisation with bourgeois politics in or around the workers’ movement. But Trotskyists have always fought against bourgeois politics–their fight against popular frontism was targeted at a particular form of bourgeois politics.

So let us look at the case of the defeated Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. The Left Opposition, the international Trotskyist movement, did not at first have strong forces in Spain. However, it did have an extremely experienced communist leader, Andrés Nin, a founder of the Spanish Communist Party and former secretary of the Red International of Labour Unions, who had sided with the Left Opposition and been expelled from the CP in 1927.

Nin was a close political friend of Trotsky’s and they exchanged a vast number of letters, only fragments of which are available in English. Trotsky had a range of differences with Nin which he saw as crucial, but he dealt with them with a patience which he later came to think might have been mistaken.

Some of the things which divided them were small, and discussing them today we find an extremely pointed historical irony in some of them.

The Spanish "Communist Left"

One of them I can’t resist. Trotsky was annoyed about the name that Nin chose to call his initially small group of friends. Trotsky said that the name was, to use his words, "obviously false ... from the standpoint of theory".2 The name in question was of course, "Communist Left".

[Interruption: No, it was Left Communists.)

Well, there are alternative translations, but until the Pathfinder 1973 edition, the usual one in the Trotskyist tradition was Communist Left.3

More important than the argument over the name was the fact that the Communist Left simply refused to recruit, although it seemed to Trotsky that the circumstances should have been ideal for recruitment. He was worried that Nin was not actually getting more people involved as members in his organisation, but instead sought to work through various nonrevolutionary alliances and blocs and federations.

In early 1931 the King of Spain abdicated, and from 1931 to 1933 was a period of Republican-Socialist coalition government. There was an upsurge of workers’ struggles, which were never decisively resolved, providing a climate for the growth of right-wing political forces. At the end of January 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. This was a felt defeat for the working class of Europe as a whole, and a victory for the right. Eventually Spain became ungovernable for the coalition and it resigned.

Spanish Workers Suffer Biennio Negro

In the November elections of 1933 the right wing won, and the Spanish working class and peasantry suffered the biennio negro–two black years of repression. However, the Spanish working class had developed some experience in resisting repression, and it was never decisively defeated.

The two black years in Spain corresponded with the period when international Stalinism, because of its traitorous role in Germany, was widely discredited among the better elements of the working class, and much of the resistance to the repression in Spain was directed through the Socialist Party. Nineteen thirty-four to ‘thirty-five was, in Spain as elsewhere, the period in which Trotsky advocated the entry of Trotskyist forces into the social-democratic parties. The Socialists were out of government, had some very left-talking leaders, and were not in a coalition with anybody. And their left wing and rank-and-file were central to a process of militant resistance to the forces of reaction.

By this time the Communist Left had overcome its reluctance to recruit, and had become one of the larger sections of the International Left Opposition. But it refused to do any entry job on the Socialists. Had it done so during this period, it would have been possible to win considerable forces to a revolutionary programme, and to have dismantled the Socialist Party which was a major obstacle to revolution. Trotsky always saw this as a crucial opportunity missed.

Spanish Left Opposition Fuses with Bukharinites

Instead of the Socialist Party, the Communist Left looked to the Workers and Peasants Bloc centred in Catalonia, a Bukharinist organisation which had been formed out of a right-wing split away from the Communist Party. This was a fuzzy sort of outfit that thought there was such a thing as "a workers’ and peasants’ state". In September 1935 the Communist Left split from the international Trotskyist movement and fused with the Workers and Peasants Bloc to form the "Workers Party of Marxist Unification" (POUM). Meanwhile, in the face of working-class conflict, the right-wing government of Spain started to unravel.

Now, as you remember, in August 1935 the Stalinist Third International adopted the policy of the Popular Front. Of course the new Stalinist policy fitted together very well in Spain with the coalitionist traditions of the Republicans and the Socialists. When the right-wing government resigned in January 1936 it was relatively easy for the Stalinists, Socialists and Radicals to come to a coalition agreement to fight the election together. There was of course a preparatory period, but the Spanish "Frente Popular" was generally understood to begin on 15 January 1936 with the signing of the Popular Front Pact.

There was a groundswell of proletarian hope in the Popular Front. It would have been hard to stand against the stream. Even the anarchists, who in the past had called for boycotting elections, called for a vote to the new bloc. The POUM, on the other hand, tried to be clever. From the very first talk about the Popular Front they were heavy with denunciation. There’s one thing you can say for the POUM. They never gave any support to popular frontism. They always said it was a bad thing and should be abandoned.

POUM Signs Popular Front Manifesto

But as much as they opposed the idea of popular frontism they supported the practice of popular fronts. They said, we have no confidence in Azaña, the bourgeois-Republican leader, but we must defeat the right and get the political prisoners released. So they gave what they called critical support to the Popular Front, and they signed its election manifesto.

The election was held on 16 February 1936, and the Popular Front won decisively. The new government was, of course, tied to the institution of private property. But the working class and the peasantry nevertheless saw this as a victory, and to the anger of the government they celebrated in a variety of land seizures and strikes.

It was the job of the bourgeoisie in the Popular Front to hold back the class struggle as much as possible, to limit the land seizures, to bring the strikes to an end. Things were so explosive that the Socialists would not on their own have been able to hold back the struggle. The workers felt that they had won, and wanted to collect the fruits of victory.

The Socialists, even their right wing, had based themselves on the pretence that they represented the workers and the poor peasants. There is a thus contradiction in a bourgeois-workers’ party like the Socialist Party. Their programmes and the will and intention of their leadership is entirely bourgeois–but their base is proletarian. This contradiction, in a revolutionary situation, is explosive. No leadership of a bourgeois-workers’ party can control its base in a revolutionary situation. A special technique is necessary, and the special technique is coalition. The Socialists in Spain, if they had been independent of the Radicals, would not have been in a position to tell the people to give back the land or to go back to work.

The thing which made it possible for the Socialists to limit and control the struggle was their alliance with the Radicals, the openly nonproletarian party. The Socialist misleaders were able to say: Look, we have a great victory. We have a share in the government. But you’ve got to be careful. Don’t ask for too much–don’t fight too hard. Our power in the government depends on the goodwill of the Radicals. They are good people, but they are, as you know, a bourgeois party, and they cannot put up with these violations of their bourgeois property rights. They cannot put up with too much militancy.

In this way the alliance with the bourgeois Radical party substantially suppressed the contradiction in the Socialist Party, and also in different ways the contradiction in the Stalinist party and among the anarchists. Although there were some audacious and important incidents of class struggle, fundamentally the Popular Front, the alliance between the bourgeois-workers’ parties and the liberal-bourgeois party, simply gave the army and the fascists time to prepare to smash the class struggle.

Franco Rebels

In July, five months after the Popular Front took office, the army rebelled, in an action which started in Morocco and spread quickly throughout peninsular Spain. The government of course delayed allowing the working class to have access to weaponry to resist this fascist rebellion and thus lost valuable time. The POUM and the anarchists played an honourable role in organising the workers and peasants independently of the Popular Front, using sticks and farming implements, petrol and dynamite. Eventually arms were forced out of the government.

Slowly the different political currents of the working class established militias. Many enterprises were taken over. There was, in fact a long period of dual power within the anti-fascist camp. Against the bourgeois Popular Front government there were a host of dispersed elements of workers’ power: action committees, revolutionary committees, communes and collectives. What was needed was the coordination of workers’ power in something equivalent to a soviet.

But it never happened. The bourgeois government was allowed to organise the coordination of workers’ power. There was never the development of an authoritative workers’ alternative to the Popular Front government. And there couldn’t be, because all the most left-wing elements of the workers’ movement were thoroughly and increasingly ensnared in that bourgeois government.

There is a common-sense liberal view of the Spanish Civil War, a view shared of course by the Stalinists and by all leading elements of the Popular Front, that winning the war against the fascists required "moderation" among the anti-fascists. Moderation is often a fine and useful policy, but moderation in a revolutionary situation is a fatal path to take. Trotsky–who knew something about revolution and about how to conduct a civil war–said in reference to the Spanish situation:

Audacious social reforms represent the strongest weapon in the civil war and the fundamental condition for the victory over fascism.4

"Moderation" Sabotages Potential Spanish Revolution

While the anti-fascists pursued a moderate policy, while they hung back on radical land reform, and while they refused to nationalise key industries, the working people and the oppressed did not have all that much to fight for. If the oppressed people are to be mobilised, they’ve got to be given a life worth defending. But, of course, such revolutionary measures would have alienated the bourgeois Radicals.

Now the bourgeois Radicals were the smallest fragment of their class–Trotsky called them "the shadow of the bourgeoisie". They added no strength to the anti-fascist cause, and alienating them would have done only good. But it would have opened the contradiction within the bourgeois-workers’ parties, the Stalinists and the Socialists, and it would have led to socialist revolution. That was not on the agenda of the Stalinist or Socialist leaders.

If we look at the cabinet, the ministry of the Popular Front government, at first its composition was quite respectable, consisting entirely of Radicals, although it depended on the parliamentary support of the left-Socialists and the Communist Party. However, in order to increase its authority in the working class, in order to give a better illusion of workers and peasants having a share of the power, the composition was changed periodically to include relatively left-wing elements.

In early September 1936, the left-talking Socialist, Caballero, became Prime Minister and the CP joined the ministry. And gradually the POUM–still opposed to popular frontism, of course–had been more and more thoroughly sucked in. The POUM acted as left advisors to the ministry, calling on it to organise soviets and workers’ control of its army.

And, of course, it had not so far to go before accepting the Popular Front. The POUM was still opposed to popular frontism–but there was a war going on. And in late September 1936 the POUM joined the ministry of the province of Catalonia, with Andrés Nin as minister of justice.

And having entered the government, the job was to start to bring the popular revolutionary committees, the dispersed elements of workers’ power, under control of the government. One of Nin’s first assignments in the government was to go on a tour with the president of Catalonia, a tour of areas in which the POUM was strong, to talk his supporters into reorganising their committees in accord with the municipal structure required by the government, and with heavy bourgeois-Radical involvement. Nin, a man of great revolutionary integrity and experience, was preparing the defeat of his class.

The crunch point came in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia where the anarchists held the Telephonica, the telephone exchange. They had won it at some cost in lives from the fascists in July 1936. In May 1937, under Stalinist inspiration, the Republican Popular Front government attempted to seize it. There was a major conflict between the government and the working class in Barcelona around this event. The question of revolution was posed with perfect sharpness.

POUM Assists in Preparing Definitive Defeat

But the POUM, along with the anarchists, were afraid of conflict within the camp of those in conflict with fascism. They accepted a truce with the government, and on the basis of a promise that there wouldn’t be any reprisals, they told the workers to go home. This was the definitive moment of defeat of the Spanish revolution, although it took another 20 months or so for the final fascist victory.

The army of the Republic moved in very quickly and smashed the left. Within one month the POUM was outlawed by the central government and its leaders were arrested. Nin was killed by the Stalinists. Trotskyists saluted his honesty of intention and condemned his murder, but could not excuse his politics and their consequences.

What had been necessary to avoid that fascist victory had been outlined to the Communist Left by Trotsky in advance, in January 1931:

... three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party!5

In late 1937, after the essential defeat, Trotsky summed up:

Contrary to its own intentions, the POUM proved to be, in the final analysis, the chief obstacle to the creation of a revolutionary party.6

  1. L Harry Gould, Marxist Glossary, Proletarian Publishers, San Francisco, undated; republication of a Sydney 1946 pamphlet.
  2. Leon Trotsky, "Problems of the Spanish Left Opposition" (December 1932), The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), ed Naomi Allen & George Breitman, Pathfinder, New York, 1973, p 192.
  3. See: Felix Morrow, The Civil War in Spain, Pioneer, New York, 1936; and Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain, Pioneer, New York, 1938. The English translation of Pierre Broue and Emile Temime's The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Faber & Faber, London, 1971) also uses "Co-mmunist Left".
  4. Trotsky, "Interview with Havas" (19 February 1937), The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 243.
  5. Trotsky, "The Revolution in Spain" (24 January 1931), The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 88.
  6. Trotsky, "The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning" (17 December 1937), The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 318; emphasis in original.

Posted: 24 June 2005