Second wave Trotskyists

Alfred Rosmer, Boris Souvarine, Emile Fabrol and Antoine Clavez - Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism - Francis Boutle Publishers/Socialist Platform Ltd, 2002, 250pp, £10

This small book, with an introduction by Al Richardson (editor of Revolutionary History), uses a variety of both source material and more contemporary essays to expound a thesis on the origins of the Trotskyist movement that many modern-day Trotskyists will find quite heretical. It is divided into three parts, arguably the least controversial being the last: Alfred Rosmer's extension of Trotsky's own autobiography (My life), written at the beginning of his last exile, to cover the period up to his murder in 1940, which adds some valuable insights into Trotsky's last struggles. However, the real meat of the book is in the earlier two parts, beginning with three essays by prominent contributors to the critical Trotskyist French journal Prométhée, which itself originated as a rather unorthodox entrist current within the Communist Party of France (PCF). These essays go into some detail into the process of the so-called 'Bolshevisation' of the PCF, which was merely a part of the same malign process carried out in the Communist International as a whole in the period beginning during the illness and incapacitation of Lenin in 1923, and picking up momentum after Lenin's death. This process involved the purging of communist leaders with a real independent authority and record in their own countries, particularly in World War I. They were replaced by often shrill, inept 'lefts' who were primarily servile to the new post-Lenin international leadership - the so-called troika - that initially appeared to be centred around the president of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev. It was characterised by a drive for a monolithic leadership, servile to the sectarian schemes of the Zinovievites and a mechanical, indeed maniacal, practice of breaking up established CP branches and groups and their replacement with often tiny, workplace-based 'cells', irrespective of whether any real basis for this existed or not. Along with this organisational adventurism went the first moves in the communist parties, paralleling what was going on in Moscow, to gag and expel the supporters of the incipient Left Opposition that was forming up around the figure of Leon Trotsky. The central thesis of the book revolves around these events, and has a number of interlocking strands. It is noted, both in the essays by the Prométhée comrades and backed up in the source material by Rosmer and Souvarine, that there were two distinct waves of left oppositionists, broadly sympathetic to Trotsky's own struggle in Russia, that were driven out of the CPs. The first was in the period of so-called Bolshevisation during the apparent ascendancy of Zinoviev - it was then that a great deal of effort was put in by the troika and their apologists to create a myth of a coherent body of doctrine that they called 'Leninism', which had supposedly all along been counterposed to its nemesis, 'Trotskyism', an alleged form of Menshevism. The first wave of Trotskyism internationally arose during this period, and consisted of a politically varied group of comrades, from Ludwig Lore and Max Eastman in the USA, to AE Reade in Britain, to Rosmer, Monatte and Souvarine in France. These comrades were unfortunately depleted and dispersed by the adverse and unclear circumstances prevailing in the early period of the degeneration of the Comintern, and were thus not really able to cohere themselves as an organised international force. This was compounded by the fact that, in the early period of Trotsky's opposition within the Soviet Union, when neither the future trajectory of the troika nor the tactics necessary to combat them were particularly clear, even to Trotsky himself, he for 'tactical' reasons repudiated some of the most prominent writings and activities undertaken by prominent oppositionists abroad. So, Max Eastman's book Since Lenin died, was cold-shouldered by Trotsky, and Trotsky, again for reasons connected with his sensitive position in the top echelons of the Russian Communist Party, called for Rosmer's French opposition publication La Révolution Prolétarienne to cease publication (Rosmer's response to this request is one of the key source documents included in the collection). This wave was succeeded by another layer of recruits to the opposition cause, beginning in the later 1920s. However - and this is the historical paradox - the key figures and many of their adherents were veterans of the Zinoviev current of the early 1920s, who had implemented 'Bolshevisation' - and had unfortunately been won to a conception of what constituted communist organisation, with its exaggerated search for political rigidity and homogeneity, that owed much to the 'Bolshevisation' campaign itself. As Al Richardson notes of this 'second wave' in his introduction, "The majority of its personnel were Zinovievists rather than Trotskyists. It is all the more ironic that prominent in this second wave were [Albert] Trient, [James P] Cannon, [Ruth] Fischer and [Arkadi] Maslow, Zinovievists who were largely instrumental in excluding the first wave of Trotskyists in their own countries. Against this background today's leftist rhetoric, manipulative attitude to the mass movement, operation through 'front' organisations, exaggerated pretensions to Leninism and Bolshevism, and unpleasant internal regimes are all too easily explained" (p14). It is certainly true that many of the organisations on the left, while emphasising their fealty to Trotsky's own struggle and professing to be the firmest opponents of Stalinism and every manifestation of it, nevertheless have slipped remarkably easily into practices that in some cases make even some Stalinist organisations look tame by comparison. One point that we in the CPGB regard as key in this deformation of the anti-Stalinist left is the question of public criticism, where, despite the documented practice of the Bolsheviks, a forced unanimity on questions of general belief and political analysis is accepted by most Trotskyist groups as being the essence of 'Leninist' orthodoxy on the organisational question. You have to agree with the party programme. While the question of public criticism is not explicitly dealt with in the book, this fake 'Leninism' is accepted as good coin by the Trotskyist movement. From this basic error flow most historic failings. It is the undeniable source of both the ossification of sects, and of endless fragmentation - a minority current in an organisation has the choice of either splitting, or endlessly being restricted in its field of debate to the followers of the majority of a closed grouping, who may be extremely resistant to even the best arguments. Public criticism allows minorities to recruit new forces to the party on their positions, thereby offsetting the ossification of the organisation and allowing a true test of the merits of contending positions in full view of the working class that revolutionaries aspire to lead. In pointing to the 'Zinovievisation' of the Comintern, which was the ante-chamber to its later Stalinisation, this book therefore offers valuable insights into the historical origins of the problems that beset the left today, and which the fragile, proto-party Socialist Alliance project offers a real hope, for the first time in decades, of overcoming. Ian Donovan