P.O.U.M. Exhibit

Today I went to the Catalyunya National History Museum to see an exhibition on the 75th anniversary of formation of the P.O.U.M. (Partido Obreador Unido Marxist) and was rather underwhelmed by the small room made in their memory. Though their time on the world stage was small, the role they played was large. It is not just Ken Loach and George Orwell who use this group as a way for explaining the conflicts going on within Spain’s Republican Government and the country as a whole during the period of Civil War, but the many International Brigadeers who came to fight on the Republican side voluntarily and were so taken by their experience they made efforts equal to their time on the battlefield to make sure that it would be truthfully recorded for posterity. In fact, this conflict is the first historical occurrence of a concerted, international effort on the part of the defeated to lay out their mistakes, weaknesses and try to arrive at an after the fact assessment of what they should have done differently.

Heroic, unique and thoroughly documented in narrative though their actions may have been, history has not been kind to the P.O.U.M. The dearth of materials curators were able to display is understandable given the P.O.U.M. was a vehicle of the Trotskyist Opposition. Members were under attack from Fascist and Stalinist elements prior to General Franco taking control of Spain. After Franco’s victory physical items indicating membership or sympathy became cause for arrest or disappearance. The slanderous or true accusation by someone to the authorities also meant that you could become one of the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards killed in political purges against the socialists, anarchists, communists, pacifists, militant progressives, anti-clericalists and unionists. As such, the display cases consisted only of red cards indicating membership with the group, several books, pamphlets and newspapers published by the party. It is likely that other artifacts were destroyed out of a sense of self-preservation.

What was the most compelling aspect of this exhibit were the few dozen pictures showing group members not simply fighting on the front lines, but relaxing together on the beach and smiling for the camera in a moment of joy, or sitting at a cafe. These pictures showed a human side that appreciated pleasant distraction and social gatherings in a way that so often gets ignored in discussions of political mobilization and conflict. It showed that those fighting on the battlefields were not doing so simply because they were ideologues who craved conflict or automatons following orders but as they sincerely sought to gain for themselves a manner of living that would allow them to extract more pleasure from life through a better standard of living and working less. Though they recognized that they would need to take a militant stance as the only way they could possibly achieve their desires given the social conditions they inherited, their motivation for doing to was the very opposite of the military ideal, specifically the desire for joy and play. And it is in this humanization of forces that the CNHM did a great job in presenting the P.O.U.M. to those who made it to their 75th anniversary exhibit.