Orwell, POUM and the 1937 Barcelona May Days

Post date: 14/07/2014


This is the exchange of letters that has appeared in issues 36 and 37 of the IBMT Newsletter. Online comments are now closed. If you would like to add a comment, please send it to



Behaviour of the POUM bordered on treachery


Jim Jump’s report of the Len Crome Memorial Lecture proceedings (IBMT Newsletter 

2-2013) is accurate and perceptive in identifying the main points at issue when assessing George Orwell’s role and work. As Paul Preston pointed out in his paper, Orwell’s analysis was partial in both senses of the word. It was also riddled with inaccuracies as well as being heavily tainted by political prejudices.

Contrary to Orwell, many objective and progressive historians have concluded that the communist movement, both within Spain and internationally, was the mainstay in building a united movement against fascism (see Helen Graham’s work). The communists, along with other sections of the broad labour movement, saw the need to develop an alliance of class and social forces capable of defeating Franco both militarily and politically. 

But there remain differences of interpretation, particularly around the ultra-left’s anti-Republican government uprising in May 1937 and the nature and role of the Soviet Union.

On the Barcelona 1937 events, the recent work of leading Spanish historians (for example Professor Ángel Viñas) strongly suggests that this was a planned uprising against the Popular Front government, designed to thwart necessary efforts to build a centralised and effective national army and to reorganise industry and agriculture to better support the war effort. The dissident anarchists and supporters of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) in Barcelona put the need to protect their own power bases in the local militias and collectivised enterprises above the urgent requirements of the national struggle to defeat Franco and his German and Italian fascist allies.

The uprising received little or no support outside of Barcelona and was quickly put down by forces loyal to the Republican government.

The Soviet Union’s role is more heavily centred. The Soviets provided Republican Spain with massive humanitarian, military, technical and diplomatic aid. It saw that standing up to Hitler and Mussolini and defeating fascism in Spain was the best way to persuade France and Britain to drop appeasement and confront the fascist threat.

How to develop the Popular Front in Spain was the task of the Spanish working class and its allies. At all times Stalin stressed the importance of bringing the anarchists into the Popular Front government. The actions, often brutal, taken against the Trotskyist-influenced POUM, were encouraged by the Soviets, but they were initiated and strongly supported by all the organisations making up the Popular Front government under Juan Negrín’s leadership.

The POUM’s strategy and actions were adventurist and objectively counter-revolutionary – bordering on treachery. The POUM had to be defeated and its activists suppressed in order that the Popular Front’s anti-Franco alliance could be cemented both politically and militarily. It was this imperative which was shared by all sections of the Popular Front at national level.

Tom Sibley

By email



Saddened that Stalinist nonsense against others on the left is still being spouted 


I was saddened to read the letter from Tom Sibley in the last issue of the IBMT Newsletter (1-14).

I've told this story to no-one, but the reason I resigned as Treasurer of the IBMT a few years ago was because of an incident during a trip to Spain organised by the IBMT. As I was reading a panel in a museum about George Orwell and other foreign volunteers, a member of the IBMT came up to me and said: “You do know that it's a known fact that Orwell was a fascist. It’s been proven that he was a card-carrying member of the British Union of Fascists.” It was a sincerely held view from this individual, but absolutely astonishing. 

In a similar vein was Sibley’s comment that “the POUM's strategy and actions were adventurist and objectively counter-revolutionary – bordering on treachery”. Other than a hardline Stalinist, no historian or sane student of the Spanish Civil War would objectively say that the POUM was “counter-revolutionary”. Clearly they were anti-Stalinist, but that does not mean they were against the Spanish revolution! POUM volunteers were undoubtedly anti-fascist and, although their numbers were tiny, they volunteered to fight against the massed forces of reaction in Spain – though tragically some of them met their end being executed by Stalinist secret police. 

Being an anti-fascist is never good enough for people like Sibley and the person I encountered on the trip, who religiously(!) believe that if someone is anti-Stalinist then, ergo, they are fascist too. That’s pure claptrap, which is why I was so disappointed to see this type of remark printed in the letters pages. 

The problem is that some people only see things in their myopic black and white terms. For example, without Russia’s massive aid the Republic would undoubtedly have collapsed sooner, but it is also be true that a huge amount of ordinary Spanish peasants and workers that fought the rebels in countless towns and villages across Spain held anarchist sympathies and wanted a complete social revolution. The contributions of communists, anarchists and POUM-istas – not to mention a huge range of other political groups on the left and centre – were all vital to the Republic’s resistance.   

Sibley talks about “dissident anarchists and supporters of the POUM” who were behind the uprising in Barcelona. Again, utter Stalinist tosh. Anybody with an ounce of sense knows what happened in Barcelona in those terrible May Days, and who initiated the violence. In his book “The Spanish Civil War” Paul Preston says that: “The immediate catlayst of the May Days was the raid on the CNT-controlled telephone exchange ordered by the PSUC”. He goes on to say that popular resistance led by the CNT and POUM confronted the forces of the Generalitat and the PSUC for several days.         

I wish this was an academic debate about the past, but unfortunately Sibley’s one-eyed view is symptomatic of some on the left today, who instead of uniting against common enemies spend more time attacking others on the left that that do not agree with their specific views – which are the only ones deemed valid. 

I resigned from my position on the commitee of the IBMT (not not the IBMT, of course) due to one-eyed idealogues like Sibley, and it’s sad that such nonsense is still spouted today.

So no criticism of the IBMT is intended, only of the views held by some members.

Nick Moreno

By email



Worn-out anti-Orwell mantra


Tom Sibley's letter (“Behaviour of the POUM bordered on treachery”) contains little to justify its selction as the lead letter in the last issue of IBMT Newsletter as he merely repeats a worn out anti-Orwell, pro-communist mantra regarding the events in Barcelona of May 1937.

His letter should be seen in the context of long-standing attempts by communists to discredit Orwell for being the first person to expose the true nature of the Soviet Union and Marxist-Leninism from a “left” perspective.

Orwell’s account of what happened in Barcelona will, I believe, stand the test of time as, unlike the “many objective and progressive” historians that Tom cites, Orwell was an eye-witness.

Another person who provided relevant evidence was Fred Copeman, a British Batallion commander. In his autobiography "Reason In Revolt" Copeman relates how Walter Tapsell was sent on behalf of the battalion to investigate and report on the POUM “uprising”.

Copeman wrote: “He [Tapsell] was of the opinion that the Spanish Communist Party were not unconnected with the uprising, and that the POUM was being used as a blind. The real manoeuvre was to embarrass the Government… All this, of course, was dynamite and Tappy's report was not published.”

Tom’s fulsome praise for the role played by communists and the Soviet Union in developing the Popular Front is open to question.

In the early 1930s it was communist policy to regard social democracy as “social fascism”. In Germany, KPD Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann coined the phrase “After Hitler, our turn!”, believing that a united front with the social democrats against the Nazis wasn’t needed.

In contrast to the orthodox communist line, Trotsky argued in March 1932 for a workers’ united front against fascism, rejecting the theory of social fascism.

Although Hitler came to power in January 1933, immediately banning the KPD and arresting Thalmann, it wasn’t until 1935 that the Popular Front became communist policy. Had such a policy been adopted by communists at an earlier stage there is the possibility that European history might have taken a different turn.

In case anyone is wondering, I'm not an advocate of any variation of Marxism-Leninism, regarding Trotsky as a “wannabe” dictator who lost the internal power struggle with Stalin.

Mike Anderson

By email



Evidence bears out my analysis 


As I stated in my original letter there remain differences of interpretation of the anti-Republican government uprising led by POUM and dissident anarchists. This is reflected in the letters by Mike Anderson and Nick Moreno, the latter marred by personalised hostility.  

Mike states that there is little new in my “anti-Orwell mantra”. But recently it has become even clearer that Orwell's account is inaccurate and misleading. The article “Time to stop paying homage to Orwell’s version of events” (IBMT Newsletter no. 21) shows that Spanish historian Ángel Viñas, using newly available archives, concludes that, contra to Orwell, the uprising was pre-planned and well armed.   

Most accounts report that the anarchists opened fire on the police at the Telephone Exchange. Paul Preston wrote that the order to take the Exchange into the Republic’s control came from the Police Commissioner, not the PSUC as Nick alleges. From Viñas we now know that this order came from a government minister, a Republican Left Party member, in order primarily to better co-ordinate the war effort. And it was Generalitat and Republican goverrnment security forces, not communist militias, who defended the Republic against the ultra-leftist insurgents in Barcelona. 

By early 1937 in Republican areas the basis for monopoly capitalism in agriculture,  industry and finance had been seriously undermined and the Church was no longer a dominant force. Workers’ and women's rights were being extended, although the exigencies of war later halted this process. It was this social democratic revolution, which involved developing a modernised liberal state, that the POUMists were violently opposed to. In that they took up arms against a progressive government facing a fascist enemy, their actions are rightly described as treacherous.

To use Copeman's 1948 writings to make uncorroborated accusations about communist strategy in 1937 is crass. By then Copeman was in thrall to the Catholic Church and the CIA-backed Moral Rearmament Movement. He had become a devout anti-communist. What cannot be gainsaid is that the communists were the backbone of the anti-fascist unity campaign.

Orwell was no historian. He spent only six months in Spain, generally on an inactive front. As Raymond Carr has put it: "Orwell's vision of Spain was blurred by a romanticism that could lapse into political naivety.”

Tom Sibley

By email






Submitted by Victor Grossman on Fri, 18/07/2014 - 08:01

Dear friends of Spain,
Though tucked away in Berlin, I cannot refrain from joining the debate, for Spain’s cause has been close to my heart since childhood. My book telling the story of the Spanish War, using quotations of the participants, is unfortunately only in German.
In it I included interesting quotations from George Orwell. First I would hasten to say that labeling him falsely, as described by Nick Moreno, is stupid nonsense. Perhaps it was motivated by the revelation that a year before his death Orwell sent a long list of allegedly pro-Communist personalities to the Information Research Department, a secret branch of the British Foreign Office aimed at organizing anti-Soviet propaganda, and included names ranging from Paul Robeson and Charles Chaplin to J.B. Priestley and Stephen Spender. But this hardly makes him a “fascist”.
More relevant are some quotations from the very book, ““Homage to Catalonia” which is often misused to denigrate the democratically-elected government in Spain and the entire tragic, vain but heroic struggle to stop the advance of fascism - and possibly prevent World War Two. Although Orwell became a vigorous anti-Communist, he was objective enough to write the following:
“It is easy to see why, at this time, I preferred the Communist viewpoint to that of the P.O.U.M. The Communists had a definite practical policy, an obviously better policy from the point of view of the common sense which looks only a few months ahead. And certainly the day-to-day policy of the P.O.U.M., their propaganda and so forth, was unspeakably bad; it must have been so, or they would have been able to attract a bigger mass-following. What clinched everything was that the Communists--so it seemed to me--were getting on with the war while we and the Anarchists were standing still. This was the general feeling at the time. The Communists had gained power and a vast increase of membership partly by appealing to the middle classes against the revolutionaries, but partly also because they were the only people who looked capable of winning the war. The Russian arms and the magnificent defence of Madrid by troops mainly under Communist control had made the Communists the heroes of Spain. As someone put it, every Russian aeroplane that flew over our heads was Communist propaganda. The revolutionary purism of the P.O.U.M., though I saw its logic, seemed to me rather futile. After all, the one thing that mattered was to win the war.”
Much later he added:
“This was how I saw things at the time. I may say that I now think much more highly of the Negrin Government than I did when it came into office. It has kept up the difficult fight with splendid courage, and it has shown more political tolerance than anyone expected.”
And summing up the bitter Barcelona episode, I found these words by Pietro Nenni, national secretary of the Socialist Party of Italy and a leading figure in the Spanish War. In describing the necessity to work with the Republican parties in the Popular Front, he wrote: “The alternatives were as follows: either to strengthen the proletarian character of the struggle and thus run the risk of driving the bourgeois Republicans and the peasants into the arms of the counterrevolution - or to develop the struggle against fascism into a national struggle for independence and democracy… That was the historical foundation upon which arose the crisis of May 1937”.
True, many bitter mistakes were made, and the role of Stalin and his agents, though probably outdone by pro-Franco British and French agents, could be tragic, just as the treatment of many of the bravest men and women in the Spanish struggle form part of the great tragedy of the Twentieth Century. But Stalin was not the Soviet Union - or its people, so often motivated by internationalist solidarity. And it was the USSR which, with Mexico, was alone in supporting Spain, while Chamberlain - and sadly, Leon Blum and Franklin Roosevelt - found it better or more expedient to support Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, and thus allied not only against communism but against the will of the common people. It was the realization of this alliance, sadly, which led from the Non-Intervention Committee to Munich and thus to the Hitler-Stalin-Pact.
And while the “social fascism” slogan of Ernst Thaelmann was more than unfortunate (though directed not against Social Democrats but against their leaders, who compromised themselves again and again in the nastiest way during the Weimar Republic), yet it was Thaelmann’s party which, before and after 1933, fought hardest against the Nazis, suffered the worst losses - and sent the most volunteers to Spain!
The events in Barcelona in May 1937 may never be fully clarified, but I think it important to oppose their misuse to denigrate the long struggle of the Spanish people, the volunteers who fought alongside them, and those in all countries who supported them. Too often, even today, those events are misinterpreted so as to oppose, in current conflicts, the same humanitarian cause they fought for then.

Sincerely, and Salud!
Victor Grossman 



Submitted by Graham Thompson on Sat, 26/07/2014 - 00:02


The letters from Nick Moreno and Mike Anderson, in issue 37 were, in my view and particularly the former writer, too personalised an attack on Tom Sibley. Many differences of interpretation of events at the time took place and the same must apply to our current analysis of those most important of days in Spain. Historical analysis and interpretation aside, we belong to an organisation that celebrates those who made, in many cases the ultimate sacrifice, to defend, amongst other things, the right to free speech. Perhaps before making similar personalised statements writers will bear this in mind please?

A word or two on the role and legacy of George Orwell.
In response to Mikes assertion that Orwell's account will "stand the test of time", it may well do. Whatever Orwell was, said, wrote and did, he was by his own admission "anti communist".  Homage To Catalonia,  albeit first hand, was and remains anti communist.
Those who refused to support the Spanish Republic at the time and who established the "general " history, were as Bill Alexander told me in person,  "more anti communist than anti fascist ". Orwell's account in his Homage to Catalonia has been standard reading for students and those who wish or have to study the Spanish conflict, but being widely read and accepted, does not make what is read accurate.

I was privileged, to have grown up in the North East of England amongst a number of International Brigade Veterans. Most of them knew and many were friends and Comrades of my Grandfather, who also went to Spain, in 1937.
My Father, likewise was also a lifelong supporter of the International Brigade's, giving me the name Graham, in honour of Frank Graham. So its probably fair to say, my view of the Spanish War, is at least in part first hand.
Bill Alexander, assisted my Father in erecting the Memorial to Percy Williams, in Swindon, giving me the opportunity to discuss aspects of the representation of the Spanish War, including Orwell's work, which I had recently studied at school.
Bill was even then, concerned about how the misinformation, pedalled by the British government, at the time of the war, which as we know had seriously undermined international support for a legitimate government and people in need, would continue.
He did not see Orwell's work as either accurate or something that gave the reader any balance or understanding. Bills thoughts were that the book was part of an attempt to misrepresent events and felt that its promotion and acceptance, was part of the historical revisionism of the Cold War.

Finally perhaps it might be fitting to leave the last word to one of the then surviving member's of the British Battalion? Perhaps other members, will recall his words, they should! Speaking whilst wheelchair bound at a Len Crome lecture, but still as committed an Internationalist, as when a young man he said with just a touch of irony and humour, "George Orwell's HTC, is as accurate an account of the Spanish Civil war, as Spike Milligan's Hitler My Part In His Downfall, is of the second World War".

Trust you can find room to put my letter in. 

Best Regards, Graham Thompson       



Submitted by Reinhardt Silbermann on Mon, 28/07/2014 - 20:19


Dear Friends,I would like to respond to the statement from Mike Anderson regarding Ernst Thälmann, German Social Democracy and the term "social fascism".
First, the question must be asked where and in what context Ernst Thälmann said, "After Hitler, our turn!" (Please specify source)? The implication would be, that a united front against fascism was not considered necessary by the KPD. This conclusion is simply wrong. The reputable sources about Thälmann prove just the opposite. In the archives of the Ernst Thälmann Memorial in Hamburg there is more than enough historical material. Any interested individual can have a look at these historical sources there.
The murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the bloody crackdown on workers' revolts in Germany by the right-wing leaders of the SPD, hand in hand with the fascist volunteer corps (Freicorps) are facts, and demonstrate who drove ahead the separation of the German working class. The blood trail of the right-wing Social Democratic leaders is immense. A cruel climax was the massacre on 1 May 1929 in Berlin by the police, arranged by the SPD police chief Zörgiebel. Over 30 workers were murdered. Countless workers were shot on hunger marches and protest marches by the police, beaten to death, thrown into prison and/or made invalids. Despite this inhuman social democratic policy, Ernst Thälmann could very well distinguish between the reactionary SPD leadership and the ordinary SPD comrades.
Again and again he tried to establish a united front of the working class against war and fascism. Two of these attempts were the founding of the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters (RFB) 1924 (with a large proportion of non-communists) and the Anti-Fascist Action (unity congress 07/10/32) to form a united front against the rise of fascism.
The term "social fascism" has to be understood in the context of the bloody background of the years of the so called “Weimar Republic”. However, this term was not developed in Germany, but by Sinowjew in 1924. The terms “social fascists” for the right SPD leadership, and “national fascists” for the Nazis (NSDAP) was confirmed again in early 1930 at a KPD praesidium meeting. A participant in this meeting was, by the way, Palmiro Togliatti. They looked at the SPD and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) as a mass base of the dominant bourgeoisie, but they did it without a thorough analysis of fascism as a movement.
It was an undifferentiated and wrong assessment that was not overcome, despite several efforts by Thälmann, until 1933. There were different trends in the young KPD, even against Ernst Thälmann. And, the communists were, for the SPD leadership, "red fascists". So neither side held back with these verbal attacks.
Nevertheless, the efforts to build a united front of the working class against fascism were one sided, on the side of the KPD. The SPD leadership forbade its members to cooperate with the KPD. In the working class base, however, the cooperation between the SPD and KPD comrades worked more and more. But it was too late. Thälmann fought till the end for the united front and against sectarians in the KPD.
An illegal leaflet from the Hamburg SPD from the end of 1933 confirmed Thälmann's work and struggle for unity: "... Thälmann was not a coup leader, not a follower of individual terror, but a socialist... We have always and ardently wished with all our hearts that the words he proclaimed for the creation of concerted socialist actions had become life and reality. "

Barcelona, May 1937:
The German example shows, that only a united anti-fascist front can prevent a fascist dictatorship. He, who forgets this experience and hinders by revolutionary phrases an anti-fascist united front amongst different sections of the people, is always on the wrong side of the barricade. That should be the standard for us all for judging the terrible May Days.


Reinhardt Silbermann, Hamburg



Submitted by John Byrne on Fri, 01/08/2014 - 11:54


The Soviets provided Republican Spain with massive humanitarian, military, technical and diplomatic aid. It saw that standing up to Hitler and Mussolini and defeating fascism in Spain was the best way to persuade France and Britain to drop appeasement and confront the fascist threat.

Really, Tom? I would contend that if Soviet aid was so 'massive' then the Nationalists would not ultimately have prevailed.

The fact of the matter was that the Soviet Union had no intention of supporting any kind proletarian uprising  or the establishment of any kind of 'left-wing' government, no matter the hue. Its aim was to provide just enough aid to keep the Republican government afloat long enough to hope that the blinkers would be removed in both Britain and France regarding the nature of Franco and his intended regime.

Not with a view of saving the Spanish people from a particularly nasty dictatorship but in the hope of saving its own economically and morally bankrupt regime in the event of a war through the establishment of a pan-european united front against Fascist expansion.

To this end, the Soviet Union considered Spain to be expendable. 



Submitted by Reinhardt Silbermann on Sun, 10/08/2014 - 18:51


No massive aid ?

There were only two ways, over the sea and over the territory of France, to provide the Spanish Republic with goods.

The sea route was blocked by the German and Italian Navy. Many Soviet transport ships were sunk or captured by the fascists. Similiar has happened to the British blockade runners.

 France closed its border to Spain from August 1936 to March 1938. By June 1938, the border was open again and was then locked again. Hundreds of tanks, thousands of machine guns, etc. that had been discharged in French ports from Soviet ships and could not be transported to Spain.

 These two serious facts should always be included in every assessment.

 Despite the enormous difficulties, large amounts of military material could be delivered. About here there are different numbers, each for itself, however, impressive:

 Victor Grossman in his book „MADRID DU WUNDERBARE“:

648 aircraft, 347 tanks, 1186 guns, 20486 machine guns and 497813 rifles.

 Pierre Vilar in his book: „DER SPANISCHE KRIEG“:

approximately 800 (1100) aircraft, 1000 tanks, 30000 machine guns.

 Sciences Academy of the USSR:

806 combat aircraft, 362 tanks, 120 armored cars, 1555 guns and other weapons. About 2000 Soviet volunteers were in Spain, including 722 aircraftmen, 351 tanksoldiers and -officers, 222 infantry military advisers and instructors, 77 naval officers and sailors, 100 gunners.

 From the outbreak of war until 4 May 37, 86 times Soviet ships were attacked. Some of them sunk or were captured.

Call me a country on earth, that under such conditions would provide assistance !

„...the Soviet Union had no intention.....“ ??

 In early August 1938 a Spain Aid Fund was founded in the Soviet Union.

Beginning of August 1936 over 12 million Rouble were paid into a solidarity account, food and clothing were purchased and sent to Spain. In December 1936, 14 million Rouble were paid again on that account by trade unions andorganisations.


In November 1938, 2848 evacuated children were living in boarding schools in the USSR. They were taught in their mother tongue.

 Let me qoute an interesting statement by Pierre Vilar (roughly translated): „The result of his (Stalin) conversations with Hidalgo de Cisneros in December 1938 was to deliver arms. Tend to show, he (Stalin) trust at this time on a Spanish resistance, which was present at the outbreak of a general war. His (Stalin) turning in March 1939 coincides exactly with the defeat of the Republicans.“

 In 1939 Dolores Ibarruri, known to us all as „La Pasionaria“, spoke about Soviet aid; here is an extract:

 “We are not alone! There is a great nation, one that the most disguisting toads are smearing with their sticky spittle. That scum tries to disparage the generous assistance of this nation, tries to pretend that it does not help us, or that such assistance comes at too high price, that generous help that we received from he Soviet people during the tragic day of November 1936 in Madrid....

Let us show ourselves worthy of the efforts of the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union, who in a noble and generous way defy all the dangers of the seas and the traps set by the pirate ships, and never flinch from the task of steering their supply ships into our harbours, laden with butter and sugar and all the most essential things we need for our victory.“


Reinhardt Silbermann, Hamburg



Submitted by Reinhardt Silbermann on Mon, 11/08/2014 - 14:36


Correction: The Spain Aid Fund was established in August 1936 (not 1938)




John Bryne’s cynical and ill-informed attack on the Soviet Union’s motives and actions is  strong on assertion and bereft of evidence. He accuses the Soviets of naked self-interest in support of Republican Spain rather than promoting international solidarity with the Spanish people battling against the fascist monsters. All this is predicated on an analysis which asserts that Spain was ripe for a social revolution and that this revolutionary potential was crushed by the Soviets.


Given the balance of class forces both in Spain and internationally the Soviets estimated, as did the majority of the Spanish left, that there was no possibility of a bid for working class power succeeding. All the evidence suggests that any such attempt would have split asunder the Republican movement and pushed large sections of the peasantry and middle classes into Franco’s camp.


Insurrectionary action by sections of the left to bring down the elected a progressive Popular Front government would also have increased international support, particularly from the British and French governments, for the fascist rebellion.


Bryne describes the Soviet Union as a "economically and morally bankrupt” regime. He should remember that it was this regime’s Red Army which in Churchill’s words "tore the guts out of Hitler’s war machine" thereby ensuring the defeat of global fascism and saving the world from Nazi tyranny.


Submitted by Tom Sibley on Sat, 23/08/14 - 13.05

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram