Trotsky and the POUM

Issue: 147

Andy Durgan

A review of Alan Sennett, Revolutionary Marxism in Spain, 1930-1937 (Brill, 2014/Haymarket, 2015), £98/£18


Historical debate about the outcome of the Spanish Revolution (1936-37) has often centred on the dissident communist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). For the Trotskyist movement the POUM was responsible for the revolution’s defeat.1 So given there is little in English on the POUM, the publication of Alan Sennett’s book, a revised version of his 1992 doctoral thesis, is to be welcomed.2

Sennett sets out to evaluate the influence of Trotsky’s theory of ­permanent revolution on the politics of the POUM, and its forerunners the Trotskyist Communist Left (Izquierda Comunista de España, ICE) and the Workers and Peasants’ Bloc (BOC), and their respective leaders Andreu Nin and Joaquín Maurín. He completes this task admirably and shows how the future POUM leaders’ analysis was clearly influenced by Leon Trotsky’s thought. But Sennett’s account runs into serious difficulties when dealing with the broader questions relating to the history of the Spanish dissident communists—something which takes up about half of the book.

Despite the claims of both the author and his editors that the book “draws heavily upon Spanish sources”, most of the texts cited were republished nearly 40 years ago. Although these texts include much relevant material, Sennett’s limited engagement with the bibliography, in relation to both the POUM and the Civil War in general, let alone primary sources, limits his understanding of the subject and has also resulted in the text containing numerous factual errors.3 He also leans too heavily on the opinions of former POUM members Víctor Alba and Ignacio Iglesias, both of who rejected Leninism in later years and concluded that Bolshevism led to Stalinism.4 Work by these authors needs at least to have been contrasted with the writings of POUM members who remained revolutionaries.

The book is further weakened by the author’s changing analysis of the Spanish Revolution. Without having abandoned his defence of Trotsky’s criticism of the POUM, in the revised text Sennett accepts the position taken by historians favourable to the Popular Front.5 But Trotsky’s critique only makes sense if one shares his basic premise that a revolutionary victory was a real possibility. The end result is a narrative which is ­equivocal, if not contradictory.

Trotsky’s writings on Spain cover such vital questions as the relation between war and revolution, the united and popular fronts and the role of the revolutionary party. However, between 1933 and early 1937 Trotsky wrote relatively little on Spain, both due to his attentions being elsewhere and to the constraints imposed on him in exile. This is not a secondary question. The gaps in Trotsky’s analysis of events in Spain, let alone the limited nature of the information he was receiving, necessitate a more nuanced reading of his writings.6


In the early 1930s the social democratic party, the PSOE, still argued that the bourgeois revolution had not taken place in Spain and, as a consequence, the immediate task of the working class (or more precisely its representatives) was to support such a revolution and not take power. This erroneous theory was resuscitated by the Communist Party during the Civil War. In contrast, both Nin and Maurín coincided with Trotsky’s view that the bourgeois revolution had already taken place in Spain. As in Russia prior to 1917, the “democratic revolution”, which would include the emancipation of women, giving land to the peasants, self-determination for the national minorities and the destruction of the power of the church, remained to be carried through. Only the working class could lead such a process and open the road to socialism given the bourgeoisie’s subordination to a deeply conservative oligarchy represented by the major landowners, the church and the army.

Nin, not surprisingly as a leading member of the International Left Opposition, applied Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution unequivocally to the situation in Spain. Trotsky and his followers would characterise Maurín and the BOC as “Bukharinists” and, many years later, Maurín, having turned his back on revolutionary politics, appears to accept this description.7 However, at the time, at least by 1933, the BOC’s position in relation to the international communist movement differed little from Trotsky’s.8

Confusion arises about Maurín’s politics due to his characterisation of the coming revolution, after the events of October 1934, as “democratic socialist”.9 Trotsky dismissed this as separating the democratic and socialist stages. While this can be deduced from Maurín’s 1931 formulation of the “democratic revolution”, writing in May 1936, comparing his position with Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, he explained that: “the seizure of power by the working class [in Spain] will entail the realisation of the democratic revolution that the bourgeoisie will not make…and at the same time it will initiate the socialist revolution, nationalising the land, transport, mines, heavy industry and the banks”. The coming revolution in Spain would: “not be bourgeois-democratic but socialist-democratic, or to be precise, socialist”.10

The convergence of Nin’s and Maurín’s analysis of the Spanish Revolution opened the way to organisational unity. In particular, the refusal by the ICE’s rank and file to enter the Socialist Party, as both its leadership and Trotsky recommended, cleared the way for its unification with the far larger BOC in September 1935. For Trotsky this “treachery” left the mass of militant youth in the Socialist ranks in the hands of the Stalinists. This was a line that orthodox Trotskyists have sustained ever since.11 Sennett clearly agrees with Trotsky on this question; although he now provides a caveat when stating: “it might be objected that such a view resides within the realms of ‘if only’ school of history that often marks historical and political writing”.12

There were two basic problems with the entryist option in Spain in 1934: the weakness of the Socialist Party in Catalonia, where the great majority of the future POUM’s membership were based, and the need to attract the rank and file of the mass anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT. The ICE’s members were also sceptical about the possibilities of carrying out factional work in the Socialist Party; the failure of the tactic in France would confirm their doubts. In turn, by 1935 the BOC agreed with them on all major questions with the exception of the immediate founding of a new International.13

Where there seemed to be a divergence was over the national question. Sennett claims that the question of Catalan nationalism was central to the BOC’s political programme and that the BOC found themselves closer to the petty bourgeois ERC (Catalan Republican Left) than the socialists or the CNT on this issue.14 This overlooks the centrality of the national (not “nationalist”) question in Catalonia at the time and the reactionary position sustained by social democrats and anarchists alike in not defending self-determination. Moreover, as Sennett himself recognises, there was “considerable support” for Catalan “nationalism” (that is Catalan national rights) among the rank and file of the CNT.

While the ICE initially berated the BOC for its supposed capitulation to “petty bourgeois nationalism”, the evolution of both organisations led them to a similar position. The BOC moved away from its defence of “separatism” as early as 1932 while the ICE had, by 1934, taken up support for self-determination for the Basques; a demand it had previously rejected as bourgeois. Nin shared the BOC’s contempt for both the Spanish centralism of the main workers’ organisations and for the treacherous role of the ERC leadership. In fact, Trotsky himself went a lot further than the ICE when, in 1934, he defended the demand for a Catalan republic.15

Another common error is to portray Maurín as somehow not really a communist. Sennett appears to agree with this view when he claims Maurín “never completely abandoned his somewhat eclectic approach to politics in favour of an orthodox Leninist position” and that he “believed the revolution would adopt a national character and that there could be no question of trying to construct either a Bolshevik-style party or dual power organisations in the image of the soviets”.16 In fact the new party’s programme, written by Maurín, speaks of the POUM as the “Bolshevik party that the [Spanish] Revolution needs” and of the necessity of the working class taking power and establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” based on organs of power that guarantee “the broadest and most complete workers’ democracy”.17

Whether the POUM could fulfil its aim to be the leadership of the working class would soon be put to the test. For Trotsky, the POUM’s decision to sign the Popular Front pact in early 1936 was the definitive proof of the party’s political bankruptcy. According to Sennett, the POUM supported “an electoral strategy that was designed to secure another bourgeois republican government [something which] directly contradicted their conception of democratic socialist revolution” and “underestimated the extent to which the revolutionary process had progressed since 1933”.18 Yet Sennett admits the POUM never defended the Popular Front programme and used the elections as a platform to argue for revolution warning “against supporting any government that might result from the pact”. Contradicting himself further, Sennett concludes that “Maurín’s and Nin’s analysis of the political situation in the spring and early summer of 1936 seems a pretty accurate one”.19 What is really at stake is whether the POUM undermined its relationship with the most radicalised sectors of the working class by actually signing the pact. While it can be argued that this was not the case, its participation, however critical, could not have helped clarify the options open to the working class on the eve of revolution.20

War and revolution

With the outbreak of war and revolution, Trotsky’s criticism of the POUM centred on its participation in the Catalan government and the question of power. Trotsky was writing in extremely difficult conditions and with a limited amount of direct information. His observations and analysis have to be viewed in this context to be of any use to those wanting to understand the revolution and the options available for the contending forces. Unfortunately, Trotsky has been ill-served by many of his would-be followers who have converted his work into a shibboleth. Sennett’s account of the POUM in the war, apart from adding little to what is already available in English, vacillates between repeating Trotsky’s withering critique of the party and dismissing the revolution as a viable alternative.

The POUM entered the Catalan government in late September 1936 once the CNT had agreed on the dissolution of the Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias (CCMA). Publicly the party justified its participation because the workers’ organisations formed a majority in the new government and it had a socialist economic programme, written by Nin. However, the underlying reason was fear of political isolation, particularly from the CNT. Some POUM leaders would later accept that their participation had served no purpose other than to provide a cover for the dissolution of the local anti-fascist committees.21

Rather than simply “bourgeois”, as Trotsky repeatedly refers to it, the united government was a coalition between sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the workers’ organisations. The bourgeoisie, as Trotsky would eventually recognise, was represented by its “shadow”.

The POUM never saw the united government as any sort of solution for the problems facing the revolution. Instead the working class needed to take power through a Constituent Assembly of representatives of workers’, peasants’ and fighters’ committees to form a workers’ government. When the POUM spoke of “workers’, peasants’ and fighters’ committees” they did not think in terms of top-down united fronts, but committees elected by the masses and equivalent to “soviets”. In the absence of such committees the party defended the immediate creation of a government based on the workers’ organisations.

Sennett fails to mention the only time that Nin, shortly before his murder by Stalinists in June 1937, publicly refuted Trotsky’s attacks on his party; particularly in relation to the question of dual power.22 According to Nin: “nothing is more anti-Marxist than to apply to all events and all revolutionary situations, a schema prepared beforehand and valid for all cases and for all latitudes”, as was the case during the Third Period and was now also the case of the Trotskyists. Trotsky and his followers were mechanically applying the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Spain. Unlike in Russia, the workers’ movement in Spain already had mass organisations, the unions, which had a great prestige. This explains why, Nin claimed, the workers had not created new organs of power. Nor was it the role of the revolutionary party to create such organs, as Trotsky called on the POUM to do. This had not been the case in Russia.

The Anti-fascist Committees created in the first weeks of the revolution were not strictly proletarian bodies, but Popular Front ones, and therefore could not play the roles of soviets. Even the CCMA, based on anti-fascist unity, was, Nin pointed out, “a type of broadened version” of the Catalan regional government and not an organ of proletarian power. So dual power had not existed in Catalonia in the summer of 1936 but two analogous bodies, both with a similar make-up, had held power.

Nin argued that it was perfectly possible to have proletarian power without the previous existence of organs of power: “after a victorious insurrection” a government might be constituted “made up of representatives of the revolutionary organisations that had led the insurrection”. “Wouldn’t this government be a revolutionary workers’ government?” he asked. If such a “perfectly feasible hypothesis became fact the question of creating adequate organs of power would be posed as a problem after the conquest [of power] by the proletariat”. He concluded:

We realise…that [our position] will not satisfy [those] who solve all problems with the help of a wisely elaborated recipe, which is good for all cases. But Marxism, which is not a dogma but a method for action, rejects formulas to act in relation to a living and mutating reality. What is fundamental is revolutionary strategy; as for tactics—they must be adapted to reality.23

Nin’s observations need to be taken into account. However, in answering Trotsky and defending his party he goes too far, denying what in reality was a de facto situation of dual power in the summer of 1936.24

The central problem facing the POUM in the revolution and one that Trotsky only turned to at the end of 1937 was the party’s relations with the CNT. Sennett, once more following Trotsky, claims the POUM “was unable and perhaps unwilling to challenge the hold of…anarcho-syndicalism over the masses” and describes as “fruitless” the POUM’s “strategy of lobbying the CNT on behalf of a revolutionary Marxist conception of the need to take political power”.25 In fact, Sennett, in the revised version of his text, describes Trotsky’s belief that a revolutionary party would attract anarcho-syndicalists as “wishful thinking”, referring to Ignacio Iglesias who claims that the CNT “connected better” to Spanish reality.26

The fact that the POUM moderated its criticism of the CNT once the revolution began was a reflection of how the role of the anarcho-syndicalists had changed. The CNT was now an indispensable ally in any successful outcome to the revolution and war. It is thus understandable in these circumstances that the POUM’s arguments and propaganda would change; whether this change became a capitulation is another question.

Events in early 1937 suggest that the POUM was making headway in its relationship with the anarcho-syndicalists. In February 1937 the POUM and Libertarian Youth established the Revolutionary Youth Front (FJR). Sennett seems oblivious to this crucial development. The FJR mobilised thousands of young workers in defence of the revolution in Catalonia, set up a network of local committees and began to form joint militia columns. Although the CNT leadership ordered its youth organisation to withdraw in late May, this was not the end of direct collaboration with the anarcho-syndicalist base.


Sennett recognises that Stalin coincided with the Popular Front government by favouring “ending non-intervention, re-establishing central control and ‘order’ and building the Republican army” in Spain.27 However, recent historiography stresses the inefficient and contradictory nature of the USSR’s intervention in the Civil War, the conclusion being that Stalin had far less influence over events in Spain than has been claimed, both at the time and since, by revolutionary Marxists and anarchists.28 Instead the struggle inside the Republican zone was more a consequence of local politics than of Soviet interference. Sennett, in the revised version of his text, echoes this line of argument. Thus Trotsky’s writings are not useful to understand Stalin’s motivations, as he “often overestimated” the Soviet dictator’s ability to influence events. Sennett even now accepts the argument that the Spanish Communists “were not mere ciphers for the transmission of the Moscow line”; despite adding later that it is “impossible to ignore the resonance of Soviet political advice, especially after May 1937”.29

This is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While previous divisions inside the workers’ movement, particularly in Catalonia, fed into the wartime divisions in the Republican zone, they are not the only cause. The triumph of Stalinism in the USSR underscored the ­counter-revolution in Spain. Soviet intervention converged with and radicalised existing divisions, particularly the virulent campaign against “Trotsky fascism” which provided the backdrop for the assault on the revolution in general and the POUM in particular. While the mass of new information from Soviet archives suggests this intervention was neither coherent nor efficient, rather than indicate a lack of intent it reflects the difficulty an authoritarian regime had in getting its operatives to provide any consistent advice or information.30 Even historian Daniel Kowalsky, who Sennett also cites as backing up his line of argument, concludes that Soviet diplomats, advisers and NKVD agents had a “decisive role in the design of the Republic’s politics”.31

Sennett also accepts recent accounts of the street fighting between revolutionaries and Stalinist backed forces in Barcelona in May 1937 as essentially a question of law and order, with the police taking the side of the Communists.32 The POUM, understanding this as a struggle to defend the gains of the revolution, called for the creation of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in the neighbourhoods and workplaces and the creation of a Revolutionary Workers’ Front with the anarchist organisations. At the same time it reiterated its call for a government of workers’ organisations in order to both save the revolution and push it forward. The refusal of the CNT leadership to contemplate any initiative that might break “anti-fascist unity”, let alone build an alternative state power, meant the POUM was on its own. More than ever the May events highlighted that the central problem for the party was its inability to break the hold of anarchism over the most militant sections of the working class.

Trotsky, in turn, believed that power could have been taken in May. The actual balance of forces at the time suggests that Trotsky was wrong on this question and that the working class, as the POUM argued, was placed on the defensive.33 Sennett, however, once more follows Trotsky’s line of argument claiming that “when the moment that might have provided an opportunity to take power in Barcelona presented itself, the erstwhile students of the Bolshevik action in Petrograd did not attempt to reprise Lenin and Trotsky’s leading role”. The latter appears particularly gratuitous, as Sennett states elsewhere there was no “realistic prospect” of seizing power in the city and claims that any attempt to have done so could only have harmed the Republican war effort.34

The most immediate outcome of the May events was a new government headed by the moderate Socialist Juan Negrín, whose aims coincided even more closely with Stalin’s and which in June proceeded to illegalise the POUM. Recent studies suggest the POUM’s own actions provoked its demise.35 Sennett appears to accept this line of argument, despite commenting that “while the POUM and the CNT…can be criticised for adopting positions that at times detracted from the war effort, it often seemed that the Communists were waging their own internal war in the Republican zone.36

Before the May events Andreu Nin argued that it was still possible for the working class to take power peacefully, given the strength of its organisations and the fact that it remained armed. Trotsky, probably correctly, dismissed such a possibility. Sennett, believing that Nin is making such claims after the May fighting, is particularly scathing.37 But Nin speaking in early April warned that “if the working class let pass the opportunity to take power peacefully, in the future we will have to turn to a violent struggle to finish with the bourgeoisie and reformism”.38 More specifically, the document Sennett cites to back up his argument that Nin still believed in the possibility of a peaceful seizure of power after the May events was actually written in late March.39 Neither Nin nor the POUM leadership spoke of such a possibility after the May fighting.

Trotsky’s direct collaboration with the POUM was a real possibility at the beginning of the revolution. Not only was the party influenced by Trotsky’s conception of revolution and opposition to Stalinism, but in the first weeks of the war there were contacts between Nin and other former ICE leaders and the Trotskyist representative in Barcelona, Jean Rous. A letter by Trotsky on 16 August 1936 urging reconciliation with the POUM was intercepted by Benito Mussolini’s secret police. Such contact ended when the French Trotskyists published an internal document by Trotsky warning against any reconciliation with “the vainglorious centrists” of the POUM. The sectarian behaviour of his followers in Spain did the rest.40

The nature of Trotsky’s late writings and political method need to be taken into account when evaluating his analysis of events in Spain and the role of the POUM.41 As Sennett points out:

Trotsky’s criticism of Nin and the POUM can only be understood from an appreciation of his absolute belief in the capacity to influence events…the conviction that, however minuscule the initial nucleus of revolutionaries may be, with the correct theory, leadership and programme, this tiny grouping could be transformed into a revolutionary party with mass support at a time of revolutionary crisis.42

But for Trotsky, writing in December 1937, “contrary to its own intentions the POUM proved to be in the final analysis the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party”.43 In the new edition of his text Sennett steps back from what was possibly the “harshest and least justified” of Trotsky’s condemnations of the POUM. According to Sennett, Trotsky:

Failed to appreciate, on the one hand, the hegemony of the Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists over the Spanish labour movement, and, on the other, the rapid expansion in membership and power of the [communists] after July 1936. There was little room for a new political force. It is remarkable that the POUM, which was largely confined to Catalonia, achieved as many adherents and wielded as much influence as it did.44

Having thus pointed to an underlying problem with Trotsky’s writings on the POUM, Sennett then later criticises the POUM for not—in May—being “a vanguard party” that was able to shape events. But he offers no alternative strategy. We are left with the conclusion that neither a revolutionary nor a Popular Front victory was possible.45 However, such fatalism does not lead to a better understanding of what was at stake and what options were available for the revolutionary left in Spain in 1936. Instead we are left with a confusing and incomplete narrative of events and their consequences.


1: Most importantly: Trotsky, 1973, and Morrow, 1974.

2: The only general history of the POUM available in English is Alba and Schwartz, 1988, first published in Spanish in 1973.

3: Although important works such as Pagès, 2011, and Tosstorff, 2009, are included in the bibliography, these have no visible bearing on the text. Other relevant studies, for example Durgan, 2006, Guillamón, 1996, Pagès, 2007, Riottot, 2004, and Solano, 1999, or the expanded edition of Nin’s writings (Nin, 2008) are not even mentioned.

4: Alba, 1973; Iglesias, 1977.

5: Especially Graham, 2002.

6: Durgan, 2006.

7: Maurín, 1966, p3.

8: Durgan, 1996, pp97-102; Durgan, 2006, pp32-33.

9: In October 1934 there was a revolutionary general strike in opposition to the hard-right CEDA entering the government.

10: La Nueva Era, May 1936.

11: Sennett, 2014, pp119, 188, 219, 220, 268, 285.

12: Sennett, 2014, p188.

13: Pagès, 1977, p285.

14: Sennett, 2014, p189.

15: Trotsky, 1984.

16: Sennett, 2014, pp123-124 and 274. In contrast, elsewhere he states the POUM’s “final actions [in 1937] demonstrate that it was a revolutionary Marxist party” and “despite its intentions [my emphasis], the POUM was ultimately a Leninist party rather than a qualitatively new form of revolutionary organisation”—Sennett, 2014, pp268, 284.

17: Durgan, 2011a, pp135-136. In late 1935 the POUM leadership declared it was the “true Communist Party of Catalonia and of Spain”—Durgan, 1996, p526.

18: Sennett, 2014, pp271, 283. Elsewhere, once more contradicting himself, he states that “the failure of the October rising delivered a severe blow to those who advocated proletarian revolution”–Sennett, 2014, p209.

19: Sennett, 2014, pp97, 219, 221, 223, 283. Sennett is right to comment that suggestions by some historians that: “The POUM supported the Popular Front alliance after the February elections” were incorrect—Sennett, 2014, p223; moreover, the military uprising of 17 July: “Appeared to confirm the POUM’s predictions of the imminent collapse of the republic amidst revolutionary crisis”.

20: For a discussion of this see Durgan, 2006, pp35-38.

21: Durgan, 2006, p44.

22: See Nin “Le problème des organes du pouvoir dans la Révolution espagnole”, Julliet number 1, Paris-Barcelona, June 1937. It was first published in Spanish in Balance number 2, June 1995, and is also reproduced in Nin, 2008.

23: Also from “Le problème des organes du pouvoir dans la Révolution espagnole”—Nin, 2008.

24: For a discussion of the nature of revolutionary power in the Spanish Revolution see Durgan, 2011b.

25: Sennett, 2014, pp282, 273.

26: Sennett, 2014, p87.

27: Sennett, 2014, p286.

28: In particular Graham, 2002; Kowalsky, 2004; Viñas, 2007; Hernández Sanchez, 2010.

29: Sennett, 2014, pp120, 230, 265, 266, 286.

30: After giving an inordinate amount of space to the very mixed collection of documents in Radosh, Habeck and Sevostianov, 2001, Sennett admits it is poorly edited and subject to a highly contentious contextualisation and concludes it is “not clear that [the book] yields any new information”—Sennett, 2014, p249.

31: Kowalsky, 2004, p6.

32: Sennett, 2014, p254-256, 266; following Graham, 2002, pp254-315.

33: See Durgan, 2007.

34: Sennett, 2014, pp257, 260, 268.

35: Especially Graham, 2002; Viñas, 2007; and Hernández Sanchez, 2010.

36: Sennett, 2014, pp240-241, 262, 264-265. Sennett, once more following Helen Graham, justifies the POUM’s exclusion from the Madrid Defence Junta because as a small party this was “a simple and uncontroversial matter”—Sennett, 2014 p238; but he fails to mention that on the eve of the fascists’ assault on the capital in October 1936 the POUM youth headquarters was assaulted by the Communist Youth, the party press suppressed and its radio station closed down.

37: Sennett, 2014, pp260, 284.

38: Nin cited in Tosstorff, 2009, p100.

39: Boletín Interior. Órgano de información y discusión del Comité Ejecutivo del Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, 5 April 1937.

40: Durgan, 2006, pp54-61; strangely, given the task he sets himself, Sennett hardly mentions the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninist group.

41: On the “almost millenarian and messianic element” in Trotsky’s politics at the time see Molyneux, 1981, p185, and Hallas, 1979, pp103-104.

42: Sennett, 2014, p62; also see Durgan, 2006, pp61-65, which covers the same argument.

43: Trotsky, 1973, p318.

44: Sennett, 2014, p108.

45: Sennett, 2014, pp268, 273. He concludes: “in believing that by presenting a moderate, democratic and distinctly non-revolutionary Spanish Republic they were likely to persuade the governments of Britain and France to abandon their ‘malevolent neutrality’, both Negrín and Stalin proved equally deluded”—Sennett, 2014, p286.


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