Legacy of a pioneer French communist

Revolutionary History Vol. 7, No4, Socialist Platform Ltd, BCM Box 7646, London WC1N 3XX, 2000, pp252, £6.95

The latest issue of Revolutionary History is devoted to the writings of the pioneer French communist, Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964), and his wife Marguerite. Rosmer was a leading revolutionary syndicalist who later became a personal friend and defender of Leon Trotsky in the early struggles of the Left Opposition.

One particularly significant aspect of this collection is the light it sheds on the debates in the Communist International in its revolutionary period in the early 1920s about the relationship between revolutionary parties and workers organised in trade unions, and regarding the broad-based nature of genuinely communist organisations.

There is plenty in Rosmer's material in the 1920s that should make today's ostensibly Leninist or Trotskyist left think again about its dominant conceptions of 'party'. Rosmer's attempts to win revolutionary-minded syndicalist militants to communist principles of organisation resulted in an elaboration of the role of political leadership and organisation that is flatly counterposed to the vision of a revolutionary party built around unquestioning public advocacy of a narrowly defined 'line' on every question. Rather, the aim of the communists was to unite the fighting element of the working class, the vanguard of class conscious elements, into a formation that had the ability to lead the masses in action.

In a major speech to a congress of the Communist International trade union arm, the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), Rosmer gave a powerful example of the broad nature of the Comintern's conception of what constituted a revolutionary leadership: "Last year, during the 2nd Congress of the Third International, the question of the mutual relations between the party and the trade unions was thoroughly discussed, especially the question of the role of the Communist Party.

"And in his intervention our comrade Tanner, the representative of the English shop stewards, who on the whole shares the standpoint of the French syndicalists about the labour movement, opposed the role defined by the Communist Party, and in justifying his opposition he stated how he conceived the organisation of the revolutionary struggle in the workers' organisations. He said: 'We want to unite the boldest and most class conscious from among the proletariat and to create from them a tightly welded minority, which alone will be capable of inspiring the masses and drawing them with it.'

"When Tanner had finished his speech, Lenin spoke in the following terms: 'The definition which you have given of your conception of the revolutionary movement coincides completely with ours. But we give this minority a different name: we call it ... the Communist Party'" (p74).

This is a fine illustration of Lenin's flexible, broad-based conception of the nature of a revolutionary party. Lenin is pointing out how syndicalism, taken to its extreme point of revolutionism, negates itself positively. In this conception, communism "coincides completely" with such a revolutionary current emerging organically from this partial, semi-utopian form of working-class ideology. The dominant conceptions of such revolutionary-syndicalist currents were an emphasis on, indeed often a fetish of, purely practical forms of unity, usually at a trade union level, and at the same time that the cohesion of this "tightly welded" minority was based on 'boldness' and 'class consciousness', not public unanimity on every controversial question.

The reason Lenin's conception "coincides completely" with the views of these revolutionary syndicalists is that their aim was, like Lenin's, the unity and discipline of such revolutionary-minded elements in action, not a false ideological unanimity which, as is clear to anyone who knows anything about Lenin's syndicalist interlocutors at the time, would not have been remotely possible anyway.

The material in Revolutionary History on the Rosmers spans a wide range of subjects, from pre-World War I syndicalist organisation in France, to the complete collapse of French social democracy and the officially syndicalist CGT leadership in the face of the war in 1914, to the regroupment of anti-war socialists and syndicalists in France around the revolutionary paper La Vie Ouvrière, published by Rosmer and Pierre Monatte. The close relationship between this grouping and Trotsky's own anti-war publication Nashe Slovo, which was also published in Paris, had a particular bearing on Rosmer's later association with Trotsky. Indeed, Rosmer's revolutionary anti-war activity in France contrasts starkly with the unprincipled activity of a prominent individual who later became a leading French Stalinist opponent of the Trotskyist movement, Marcel Cachin, one of the foremost of French social chauvinists in two world wars.

Also included are a number of pieces elaborating the relationship of the trade unions to the communist parties, a question that was posed sharply by the formation of the RILU (or the Profintern, as it was sometimes known). The affiliation of trade unions to an international centre with explicitly communist aims was a key strategic aim of the early communist parties. Yet this poses a whole range of tactical questions, many of which remained untheorised and were particularly difficult to address. There was, of course, the possibility of splits within the trade union movement - both internationally and on the national terrain - which is generally something that revolutionaries fight against, for the simple reason that it usually results in the isolation of the revolutionary minority from the mass of workers.

Such a consideration cannot militate against the existence of a revolutionary trade union centre, but it can have a considerable bearing on the tactics that should be adopted by such a body and, even more importantly, the political movement that must provide its ideological inspiration. There is then the question of the relationship between the trade unions within such a revolutionary trade union centre and the Communist International itself. Rosmer's material, with its explicit disavowal of any desire by communist parties to organisationally dominate trade union affiliates of the RILU, goes a long way towards resolving the theoretical/programmatic aspects of the latter question. But as for the tactical, or even to some extent strategic, problems posed by the first, this is not really dealt with here, and can only be properly resolved in future practical confrontation of the left with problems of this nature.

Rosmer was one of Trotsky's earliest defenders in the international communist movement when factional struggles erupted in the mid-1920s between the incipient Left Opposition and the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Rosmer paints a vivid picture of the bureaucratic degeneration and poisoning of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and the unclarity that existed on all sides about the ultimate destination to which the factional struggles would lead. In hindsight, what was happening is that the Party was being torn to pieces by the objective contradiction between the internationalist, socialist aims of the October revolution and the results of its isolation in a country whose productive and cultural level was semi-medieval.

Unable to carry out its programme for international revolution, the Communist Party was paralysed and plunged into a chaos of factionalism. In reality this reflected differences about which social class would come to dominate the USSR state. The Left Opposition, despite undeniable flaws, embodied a programme of regenerating the proletariat as a ruling class through an economic policy of measured, planned industrialisation, the promotion of internationalism and working class democracy in the former Russian empire, and the regeneration of the Communist International as an instrument of working class revolution internationally.

However, such was the historically unprecedented nature of the social and political differentiation that was taking place in the USSR, many of the adherents on both sides of this bitter battle had only a vague idea of what the outcome of the struggle would be, and in the early stages at least, misconceptions abounded about the real roles that major political figures were playing.

The demagogic accusation that Trotsky was a potential Bonaparte, engaged in a grab for power without principle, is of course belied by the whole course of his subsequent political struggle in exile. But it was a tool used by those who really were engaged in the process of liquidating the conquests of the revolution. A converse example of this is shown by Rosmer's then belief that Stalin was playing a 'revolutionary' role, as against Zinoviev and Kamenev: "... Kamenev is the typical rightwinger. As early as 1920, at the 9th Congress of the Party, nobody wanted him in the political bureau any longer; Lenin had to use all his authority to obtain his election. Not that he himself did not consider Kamenev a rightwinger. On the contrary, he agreed with the unanimous view of the congress on the question. But he said: 'It is precisely because Kamenev is on the right, as we all know, that he must be on the political bureau.'

"Zinoviev is the supreme demagogue, incapable of any constructive effort or of any organisational work. When the history of the Comintern is written, it will be seen that he bears the main responsibility for the lamentable way it has worked. Not up to his job, he is always careful to surround himself with mediocrities for fear of being eclipsed and ... replaced. It was he who aroused and maintained for so long the distrust of syndicalists and serious militants with regard to the Comintern, by the way he shouted his mouth off in speeches marked equally by the absence of ideas and the triviality of form, revealing his total failure to understand the labour movement in Europe.

"Stalin is a man of very different quality. His temperament and determination are those of a revolutionary. Little known outside of Russia, he himself has a poor knowledge of what is going on outside Russia. He is one of the rare Russian militants who speak no foreign language. That sets limits on his activity, which is mainly confined to the Russian Party. He is too much of a tactician and too much of an apparatus man for his politics to be the sort that would reassure us, but that should not prevent us from recognising that he spoke to the congress in the language of a man who was aware of the necessities of the present moment, and who is anxious to create a collective leadership bringing together all the forces of the Party" (A Rosmer, 'The Congress of the Russian Communist Party' 1926, quoted in RH p111).

In reality, the instability and bizarre antics of Zinoviev and Kamenev reflected the fact that they were forced to try to reconcile their betrayal of the programme of Bolshevism with their respective roles as political leaders of the Party in Russia's two most important proletarian centres, Leningrad and Moscow. But Stalin's relatively relaxed and stable political profile reflected simply his being firmly rooted in the burgeoning bureaucratic elite. Because Zinoviev and Kamenev were still subject to pressure from what remained of the class-conscious proletariat they were later forced to break with Stalin and, half-heartedly and fleetingly, unite with Trotsky in the United Opposition of 1925-26. It was a doomed and incoherent attempt to salvage the rapidly disintegrating remnants of the political rule of the proletariat within the 'soviet' state.

In that sense, it could be said that Zinoviev and Kamenev behaved in a manner analogous to labour bureaucrats. Hostile because of their social position to genuinely revolutionary forces, they could nevertheless be pushed into a bloc, at least episodically, with the same revolutionary forces when their working class base was faced with annihilation by forces with an anti-proletarian programme. The temperament and determination Rosmer detected in Stalin was in reality the calm deliberation of a man who had a coherent reactionary political agenda to guide him.

Of course, this bears a superficial resemblance to Trotsky's own later, mistaken, analogy between the consolidated Stalinist elite, which had pulverised and atomised the proletariat and robbed it of all trace of political or economic power, and a labour bureaucracy. Indeed the USSR in the mid-1920s closely fitted the category of 'degenerated workers state': that is, a state in which proletarian organisations, albeit of a type whose real organic base in the proletariat had atrophied and withered, maintained a tenuous hold on political power in the face of a growing bureaucratic elite. This elite was destined to finally wipe out all elements of workers' power, in the consolidation of the bureaucratic counterrevolution with the forced collectivisation and totalitarian mass terror beginning in 1928-9.

There were some superficial similarities between the earlier forms of degeneration and consolidated Stalinism, but that should not blind us to the differences. For instance, Zinoviev, as chair of the Comintern in the early 1920s, was the real originator of the kind of bizarre, pseudo-revolutionary ultra-left garbage that became the stock-in-trade of Stalinism during the 'third period' of 1929-33, in its sinister crusade to mislead the international working class movement.

However, Trotsky stretched analogies to their breaking point in comparing the Stalinist elite with such a workers' bureaucracy - the massive totalitarian terror that the Stalinist counterrevolution unleashed against the slightest manifestation of class independence of the proletariat in Russia, with its millions of dead and tens of millions in labour camps, in reality had more in common with the symmetrically counterrevolutionary regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany than with any labour bureaucracy anywhere in the world.

Of course, no one can reproach Rosmer, or indeed Trotsky himself, for any of the misconceptions that abounded about the real class bases and roles of individuals or even factions in that period of the slow death of working class rule in Russia. Indeed, even today, no fully coherent and hegemonic Marxist analysis exists of the nature of the Stalinist states. Because they were unprecedented, attempts to explain these events as they were happening were bound to be imperfect, and mistakes of understanding, even large ones, were inevitable. But there is no excuse for a refusal to ruthlessly criticise with the benefit of hindsight, in the name of some kind of sentimental respect for the 'reputation' of this or that historical figure. That would be contrary to the whole spirit of critical thought that characterised both Rosmer and Trotsky.

After energetically building the Left Opposition in Europe for a number of years, Rosmer broke politically from the Trotskyist movement in 1931, after a dispute in the French group (and with Trotsky) over the role of the somewhat discreditable and erratic French Trotskyist leader, Raymond Molinier. While no longer a political supporter of the Trotskyist movement, Rosmer continued to defend Trotsky and the Trotskyists against the murderous terror of the Stalinist counterrevolution and in particular the vile frame-ups of the Moscow purge trials. From reading the material on Rosmer's subsequent activity after his political break with Trotsky, it is clear that here was yet another example of the narrowness and counterproductive sectarianism which also led to the departure of figures like Victor Serge and Max Shachtman from Trotsky's movement.

The Bolshevik tradition of broad revolutionary organisation that could unite all class conscious elements, that thrashed out questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics through open public controversy, had been among the first casualties in the bureaucratic reaction, and then counterrevolution, against the proletariat in the 1920s. Unfortunately, Trotsky's movement did not see the rebirth of this type of organisation. Rather, in an inadequate break from the tenets of partially degenerated 'Bolshevism', and despite the undoubtedly heroic struggle against Stalinist terror waged by Trotsky himself and many Trotskyist militants, both inside and outside the USSR, the Fourth International took on the character of an increasingly narrow sect. Its defining shibboleth was Trotsky's own highly contentious theory that Stalin's USSR, with its completely atomised proletariat and its political regime that, in Trotsky's own words, differed from Hitler's only "in more unbridled savagery", nevertheless was still a 'degenerated workers' state'.

The Trotskyist movement consolidated around the 'transitional programme', with its catastrophist perspective of imminent capitalist economic collapse pushing the masses on the road to revolution, irrespective of the lack of a mass-based international political organisation among the class-conscious workers. The Trotskyists' substitutionist and telescoped perspective that they would be propelled into the leadership of millions by the imminent terminal crisis of capitalism, together with the heresy-hunt of those within their ranks who questioned the facile equation of state property in Stalin's USSR with some sort of surviving proletarian dictatorship, made for a heady brew.

What was needed was not a narrow international sect, but an international centre that could promote the rebirth and advance of revolutionary praxis through all-sided, critical revolutionary activity, interacting with the world through a struggle to change it. This would necessarily involve widespread political debate and the open clash of contending schools of thought, not a new, sterile and lifeless 'orthodoxy'. That was the ultimate fate of the Trotskyist movement, which led to its shattering into the gaggle of competing sects which are only too familiar today.

The gulf between the Trotskyist movement and the official 'communist' movement led by the Stalinist elite in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s was the gulf between a deformed expression of surviving revolutionary communism/Bolshevism, on the one hand, and the totalitarian-bureaucratic counterrevolution against the whole legacy of Bolshevism, on the other. It was obligatory for principled revolutionaries to side, critically to be sure, with the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinism.

In this regard, Phil Watson's recent statement in his review of Tailism and the Dialectic that Georg Lukács's "unwillingness to align himself with Leon Trotsky" in the struggles of the 1920s was "completely correct" and comrade Watson's critical defence of Lukács's 'guerrilla strategy' in the struggle against Stalinism are totally wrong (Weekly Worker January 18). Indeed, it is obvious that by his policy of repeated hypocritical capitulations to Stalin and Stalinism on a literary level, only to reinstate his more orthodox Marxist views in some Aesopian fashion when the opportunity presented itself, Lukács behaved in a manner that was exactly the opposite of how a principled communist opponent of Stalinism should have behaved.

By abstaining from active opposition to the degeneration of October in favour of his own more obscure literary pursuits, Lukács deprived the communist opposition of his own authority and theoretical/intellectual abilities, which could have been crucial in broadening out the opposition and arming it with the kind of theoretical flexibility and subtlety needed to produce a coherent, truly dialectical analysis of the complex processes at work with the rise of Stalinism. Instead, Lukács chose to carve himself a niche within the apparatus, and basically save his own skin at the price of what in reality was a merely platonic, obscure occasional grumble, even renouncing his finest theoretical works in the process. How is a defence of this mistaken and pernicious stratagem compatible with Lenin's and the CPGB's policy of open political struggle?

The career of Rosmer, who was no uncritical supporter of 'Trotskyism', is a pointer to what should have been done. Rosmer's critical engagement of the Trotskyist movement led him to solidarise with Natalia Trotsky's break with the Cannon-Pablo-dominated 'Fourth International' after the war. She denounced the dogma that the extension of the totalitarian Stalinist monstrosity into eastern Europe was some kind of victory for the working class and workers' power.

While still engaged in his own publishing projects, in the last years of his life he engaged in correspondence with a supporter of Tony Cliff's Socialist Review Group, though no formal political agreement appears to have been reached. In 1960, at the age of 83, four years before his death, Rosmer was one of those who signed the manifesto of the 121, supporting those who refused to fight in French imperialism's dirty colonial war against the Algerian people.

A movement that had no room for the Rosmers and Victor Serges, not to mention the Shachtmans, was a movement that had some pretty serious and fundamental flaws. The Left Opposition, if anything, delayed too long in breaking with the Third International after the advent of totalitarian-counterrevolutionary mass terror against the workers and peasants of the USSR with the forced collectivisation from 1928. What was certainly needed was a new, fourth, revolutionary international. Yet the actual 'Fourth International' that emerged was a sect organised around a particular, narrow and highly contentious interpretation of what it meant to be a revolutionary opponent of Stalinism, not a broad based organisation of the vanguard fighters against Stalinism and capitalism.

In fact, just as the organisation of a unified revolutionary Communist Party is a necessary aim and possible outcome of today's struggles around the Socialist Alliance in Britain, so a similar organisation must be fought for on an international scale. Not a sectarian carbon-copy of Trotsky's stillborn, narrow 'Fourth International', but a genuine Fourth Communist International, a broad international organisation of the class-conscious fighters against capitalism on a world scale.

Ian Donovan