Strengths and weaknesses

Ian Birchall looks at the valuable work of Alfred Rosmer - in particular his book Lenin’s Moscow. This is an edited version of the talk given at Communist University in August 2016


Lenin’s Moscow first appeared in English in 1971. The original French text was published in 1953, a few months after the death of Stalin (but before anybody knew what its implications might be).

It is important to remember that the understanding of the Communist International was very different in those days. Basically the cold war was still at its height and therefore you had two schools of history of the Comintern: an anti-communist history and a Stalinist history. Both of these agreed on one fundamental point, however: the basic continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. Both held that Lenin had opened the way for Stalin. There was very little independent history and, such as there was, it came largely from the Trotskyist tradition and tended to be very defensive.

According to these histories, while Lenin and Trotsky were running things, everything was wonderful and then suddenly everything was terrible when Stalin came to power. But obviously things were somewhat more complicated than that, although this view was widespread up until at least the 1970s. I remember in the International Socialists in 1969 we had a faction led by Sean Matgamna, and the platform of this faction was the first four congresses of the Communist International. (Tony Cliff used to take great pleasure in asking Matgamna’s followers if they knew the dates of the first four congresses, which most of them did not.)

Things have changed enormously over the last 30 years or so. We now have, for example, Pierre Broué’s Histoire de l’Internationale communiste 1919-1943 - I understand the English translation of this is almost complete and should appear within the next couple of years. We have the work of John Riddell, who has made available to us the complete minutes of the first four congresses, so that we now know what went on in considerable detail. We are beginning to get biographies of figures from the Comintern other than Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, of whom there are probably more biographies than anybody needs. There are very few biographies of people like Radek, and we are still waiting for the first proper biography of Zinoviev, who played an absolutely central role in the Communist International.

Alfred Rosmer’s book is so important because Rosmer was actually a participant, attending the second, third and fourth congresses and being a member of various leading bodies. He was on very friendly terms with Lenin and Trotsky. He produced an account which is certainly not defensive - he did not in any way abandon his original beliefs. He stood by his commitment to the basic aims and principles of the Communist International, but had no illusions that it was infallible. On the contrary, he reported all sorts of problems and difficulties from the period. Therefore he has given us a text which is an important introduction to the subject of the early Comintern.

Rosmer was born in 1877. His family had left France and gone to live in the United States during the period of repression that followed the Paris Commune. He spent the first seven years of his life there and so was fluent in English, as well as in French and one or two other languages, Lenin is reputed to have said of him that he was a man who ‘knew how to keep quiet in several languages’.

He first became politically engaged in the period of the Dreyfus case, and then became involved with a journal called La Vie Ouvrière (Workers’ Life), which was launched in 1909 by Pierre Monatte. Although it did not have a massive circulation, it was very influential internationally. It was a fortnightly journal that attempted to produce both commentary and analysis, essentially aimed at the syndicalist milieu. Indeed the tradition that Rosmer comes out of is that of syndicalism.


It is important to be clear on the meaning of the word ‘syndicalism’, because it is very often misused on the left. People can be denounced as syndicalist when they are not syndicalist at all and this is a bad habit that goes back to Lenin. I have just been reading the biography of Alexander Shliapnikov, and Lenin made great play of denouncing him as a syndicalist when it is quite clear that, whatever his deviations were, he was no such thing. The syndicalists argued that there was no need for a party at all and that the trade unions would play the role of both defending the day-to-day interests of the working class and of a political organisation. There is a book by two syndicalists, Émile Pouget and Émile Pataud, that described in some detail what a revolution would look like and the way in which trade unions would simply take over the organisation of social life.

There are great problems with the syndicalist position. One is that, if an organisation is simultaneously a trade union and a political party, it will have a much more limited membership than a trade union. In France the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in the period just before 1914 had only half a million members, whereas in Britain and Germany there were three or four million trade unionists. There were serious problems, but at the same time the syndicalists did do very serious work, notably around the question of anti-militarism.

The important thing as far as Rosmer is concerned is that in 1914 he and Pierre Monatte, along with the very few supporters of La Vie Ouvrière, were amongst the only people who opposed the war from the very first day and very rapidly began distributing anti-war literature. They very soon came into contact with a Russian exile in Paris: Leon Trotsky. It is important to remember that, whilst Lenin was sitting in Switzerland reading Hegel, Trotsky was in Paris producing a daily anti-war paper. This was the time that Rosmer and Trotsky got to know each other. In 1920, on Trotsky’s recommendation, Rosmer was invited to Moscow to participate in the second congress of the Communist International. This was before the founding of the French Communist Party (PCF).

It is important to remember the importance of the syndicalists in the founding of the PCF. There is a common myth, propagated particularly by those who advocate entryism into social democratic parties, which says mass parties of the Comintern were formed from splits in the social democratic parties. It is only true of certain countries. In France the revolutionary syndicalists, people like Rosmer and his wife, Marguerite Thevenet (a woman who has been almost completely written out of history), played an important role in the early years of the PCF. As the syndicalists departed - either being expelled like Rosmer in 1924 or doing so voluntarily - the history was rewritten, so that their role largely disappeared. It is only very recently that people started doing work showing how significant that role was at this time.

All this is relevant to the picture Rosmer gives us of the Communist International.

Lenin and revolution

I will now touch on one or two themes in the book and quote a few passages, beginning with Rosmer’s account of his first meeting with Lenin. In many ways this sets the tone of the book, and explains how Rosmer perceived Lenin and Leninism, which is very different from the stereotypes that you get from many of Lenin’s friends or enemies. When Rosmer got to Moscow he was invited to go and meet Lenin, who made a point of getting to know as many as possible of the delegates to the conference. Rosmer writes:

As we were talking about the Zimmerwaldian minority in the French Socialist Party, he said to me: “It’s time for them to leave the party now to form the French Communist Party; they’ve waited too long already.” I replied that this was not the view of the leaders of the minority. Previously they had sometimes been impatient to leave the party en bloc, but the recent Strasbourg conference had been so favourable, that they were now opposed to the idea of leaving. They had hopes of becoming the majority quite soon. “If that’s the case,” he said, “I must have written something stupid in my theses. Ask for a copy of them at the secretariat of the Communist International and send me the corrections you are proposing.”

This is not quite the picture that one gets from many accounts. This Lenin is not simply concerned with laying down the line, but was also constantly willing to learn. Rosmer said of him: “Just because he knew a lot he was able to fill out his knowledge when the opportunity arose and also - an unusual thing in a leader - to recognise when he had quite simply been wrong.” This is the picture he gives us of Lenin.

In the perspective of Lenin during these congresses of the Comintern the important thing was to spread the revolution as quickly as possible. Therefore it was possible to build mass organisations - initially in Europe, but then elsewhere in the world. To do this meant bringing people together. It is true that Lenin spent much of his political life demarcating himself from other people and denouncing them for their errors. But in this period he was concerned with something quite different: trying to pull people together and bring into being an organisation of broad unity, so that it could effectively intervene in the situation.

There are a number of aspects to this - the situation was quite complicated. The Communist International concerned itself with organising splits with reformism and with the chauvinism of the social democratic Second International. At the same time the early CI had a problem that we do not face very much at all today. The problem was not around the question of recruiting people, but of keeping people out of the organisation. It arose because for a brief period the Communist International was very popular, and all sorts of people who had been in the social democratic parties were quite willing to claim that they were communists.

The two people that Rosmer talks about in particular in the PCF were Marcel Cachin and Ludovic-Oscar Frossard. Cachin had been an ardent supporter of the war in 1914. In 1915 he had gone to Italy to try and negotiate with Mussolini’s faction of the Italian Socialist Party to get them to support Italy’s entry into the war on the French side. His record was beyond dubious, but in 1920, having seen the way things were going, Cachin supported the affiliation of the Socialist Party to the Third International. Subsequently he remained a loyal Stalinist, right up to his death in 1958. Frossard, on the other hand, walked out after a couple of years, went back to the Socialist Party and ended up as a minister in Philippe Pétain’s pro-Nazi government in 1940.

The strategy adopted by the Comintern was to set up the so-called ‘21 conditions’ as the basis for affiliation, in order to keep out opportunists and those who were not prepared to build a revolutionary organisation. Rosmer was very sceptical about this. He said:

The Russian communists had drawn up these conditions meticulously, intending thereby to anticipate criticism of the method they followed in establishing the Communist International. These draconian conditions would form such a formidable barrier that the opportunists would never be able to pass through it. They were soon to see that this was an illusion. Certainly they had a good knowledge of the labour movements in the European countries and they knew the leaders, having encountered them at the congresses of the Second International. What they didn’t and couldn’t know was the lengths to which these men would go with their skilful manoeuvres, for they had received their training in the practices of parliamentary democracy. They could pull more tricks out of the bag than the suspicious Russians could ever imagine. The secretary of the French Communist Party, Frossard, for example, was going to spend two years giving them a lesson in the art of evasion.

United front

Very closely linked to this was the question of the united front, which became more and more important in the strategy of the Comintern from 1921 onwards. This, as Rosmer analyses, produces certain problems because many members of the newly established communist parties had just gone through an often very vigorous process of splitting with their former allies. Having done this, they were now being told to propose unity to the people they had just split from. Rosmer notes, when the German Communist Party proposed the so-called ‘open letter’ at the end of 1920, that:

most of the members of the Communist Party found these tactics excellent, but some party militants, and even militants of the Communist International, were shocked: ‘What? After splitting? After calling these men traitors to the proletariat, we should propose common action to them?’ They were no less shocked by the demands formulated in the open letter. There was not a word about the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was written in a moderate, a reasonable tone, avoiding any kind of propagandist exaggeration. In the face of the employers’ offensive, the masses considered any new split as a crime. The communists had to come close to them, but how? By affirming the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat? But was it not that many workers remained in the social democratic parties just because they put their trust in the old methods? The only way to approach the non-communist masses was to start from their present sufferings and to support them in their short-term demands.

This was Rosmer’s analysis of how the united front should work. As he also describes with reference to the French party, a lot of comrades did not quite understand. He describes a meeting of the PCF in February 1922, when the question of the united front was being discussed:

There was in the party a leftwing tendency composed mainly of new recruits, which was sincerely attached and devoted to the ideas of the Russian Revolution. It was this tendency which had enforced affiliation to the Communist International; and it was always ready to approve its decisions, but this time it did so without enthusiasm. Nonetheless, one of its members came to the rostrum to defend the tactic, which one after another the federal secretaries were condemning or approving feebly, but he did it in such a way that his intervention was a catastrophe pure and simple. He was the one that on this occasion launched an expression destined to become famous, ‘plucking the chickens’. He could not understand why the united front was arousing such feelings and he went on to say that it was no more than a subtle manoeuvre, which made it possible to strip the socialist parties and reformist unions of their members, who would be taken one by one like the feathers from a chicken. As may be imagined, the chickens, thus warned, became excited, and jeered and shouted, to the great joy of the gallery and the consternation of the frank plucker.

The other thing that I think is important and that Rosmer pays particular attention to is that the united front was to extend not only to reformists, but also to people who saw themselves as being to the left of the Communist International. This would include anarchists, syndicalists and various ultra-left currents. Lenin in particular was very concerned that such currents should be drawn into the Communist International. The Comintern needed as many friends as it could get and it needed to draw them in both from its right and from its left. Rosmer records how this position was being argued increasingly within the Communist International in 1920.

To a young Spanish comrade who had wanted to prove his communist orthodoxy and proclaimed, “We are waging a pitiless struggle against the anarchists!” Bukharin replied sharply: “What do you mean by fighting against the anarchists? Since October there have been some anarchists who have come over to the dictatorship of proletariat; others have come closer to us and are working in the soviets and in the economic institutions. It is not a question of fighting them, but of discussing frankly and cordially, seeing if we can work together and only abandoning the attempt if there is a irremovable obstacle.”

Rosmer shows how this developed during the course of the second congress in particular. A number of revolutionary syndicalists had been invited to the congress, some of whom were opposed to the very idea of the revolutionary party. Rosmer describes how Lenin responded to this. He was replying to Jack Tanner, a British trade unionist and a leading member of the shop stewards’ movement. Lenin said:

Your conscious minority of the working class, this active minority that has to guide its action, that is what we call the party. The working class is not homogenous between the upper layer, which has come to full consciousness, and the lowest category, which has no political notions at all. Between these is the great mass of workers, which we must be able to bring along with us and convince if we want to win, but to do that we must organise. The minority must organise, it must create a firm organisation and impose discipline based on the principles of democratic centralism. Now there you have the party.

What Lenin was trying to do there was to play down the distinction between the syndicalists and the Bolsheviks, to claim that the idea of the active minority was not really very different from the Bolshevik idea of the revolutionary party. All this became particularly relevant in the work that Rosmer was given to do, for which he stayed in Moscow between the second and third congresses, which was the forming of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). This was meant to be a counter to the dominant organisation within trade unionism, the Amsterdam international.

Rosmer was given the job of organising a congress to set up the RILU, which was not intended (as is often claimed) to split the trade unions, but rather to provide a focus for revolutionary currents within the union movement and to try and draw in the syndicalist unions that had split from the dominant international. Rosmer was particularly well placed to do this because of his own roots in the syndicalist tradition. What became fairly clear is that not all the Bolsheviks were as sympathetic or as sensitive as Lenin to this task, and he had particular friction with Zinoviev, with whom Rosmer was supposed to work:

Zinoviev and I have been tasked with preparing, each separately, drafts of the definitive text of the appeal to the Amsterdam international. Our two drafts are so unlike each other in form and content that there was no solution but to adopt one or the other as a whole.

I have tried to set out the grievances of workers into an overall scheme with which we could impress and convince, recalling the activities of the Amsterdam leaders and stressing that this federation was in no way international. Chauvinism flourished in it to such an extent that the affiliated nations were still classified as allies or enemies, as they had been in wartime.

Zinoviev merely let fly a broadside of insults, often in pretty bad taste, against “Messrs scab leaders”, etc. Only someone quite ignorant of the labour movement and of British workers could imagine for a single moment that an appeal of this sort could win us support or even sympathy, and make easier the job of the revolutionary minorities.

Zinoviev proposed that we tried to combine the two texts, but it was impossible. The appeal reproduced his draft in every detail. I was very annoyed at having to put my signature to it.

Again one can see the problems and the friction. Zinoviev was identified quite early on as being a particular problem.


I think this book gives us some sort of basis for assessing the Red International of Labour Unions, which most historians of the period have tended to dismiss in a fairly negative way. There is a very good history of the organisation by Reiner Tosstorff, which is waiting to be translated into English and will be a matter of some interest when it appears. More generally the value of Rosmer’s book is that it helps to put the debates into context. It is very easy to quote Lenin or the documents of the Comintern as if they were timeless works of scripture. What Rosmer does is to help us understand the context.

I want to conclude with a passage about Lenin’s State and revolution. What Rosmer draws out is what this actually meant when it first arrived in France in 1919:

It was an extraordinary book, and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist and a social democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians in the Socialist Party who claimed to be Marxist. ‘It isn’t Marxist!’ they shrieked. ‘It is a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism’ ... On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew. They read and reread this interpretation of Marx, which was quite unfamiliar to them.

I have tried to illustrate a few points from this book, which I would strongly recommend. I think it is very useful in helping to understand what was going on in the Communist International in its early years - the enormous strengths of the movement, but also some of the weaknesses, problems and internal friction and conflict.