By Alfred Rosmer (translated by Ian Birchall)

Haymarket Books. 275 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-60846-615-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I doubt that many people, other than students of the early days of the Russian Revolution, or the development of Trotskyism, will know much, if anything, about Alfred Rosmer. Lenin’s Moscow, the book about his first-hand experiences in the city in the early-1920s, was first published in 1953, but never became what might be called a major text for general readers, as opposed to specialists who knew of its existence. This is not a comment on its values as an eye-witness account of events as a variety of groups and individuals debated the course that the Revolution should take. It’s simply a matter of fact that what happened to Rosmer later in life might have influenced how much importance, and by which commentators, was attached to his memories and views.

Alfred Rosmer was born in the United States in 1877. His parents were French and returned to France in 1884. Rosmer, once he grew up, was employed as an office-worker and as a proof-reader. He became interested in politics and identified himself as an anarchist-syndicalist. Both anarchism and syndicalism had strong followings in France prior to the First World War, especially among members of the trade unions. Rosmer became involved with a magazine called Workers’ Life, published between 1909 and 1914. This publication had “a nucleus of writers….mainly from the revolutionary syndicalist current of the French working-class movement. The syndicalists argued that it would be trade-union direct action, ultimately a general strike, which would overthrow capitalism and establish working-class rule.” But militants tended to be isolated when working-class solidarity collapsed in 1914 as nationalism gained support in France, Germany, Britain, and other countries.

Rosmer had met Trotsky when the latter was in Paris during the war, and when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, he immediately saw it as having the possibility for launching the wider revolution throughout Europe that would lead to the establishment of working-class control of the means of production and distribution. In 1920 he made his way to Russia, a journey that involved some subterfuge and many frustrations, before he actually got to Moscow. Governments in other countries were hostile to the new Soviet Union, and viewed with suspicion anyone attempting to get there. At one time or another, Rosmer was in Italy, Spain, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. He met up with fellow-sympathisers with the Bolshevik cause, such as Clara Zetkin, A.G. Shlyapnikov (see my review of Barbara C. Allen’s Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik on the Northern Review of Books website), the English trade-union activist, J.T. Murphy, and Louis C. Fraina, an American communist who later broke with the Party in curious circumstances and re-surfaced as an anti-communist economist under the name of Lewis Corey.

When he did eventually arrive in Petrograd he found that the city was on a war footing, and that spies were suspected of being at large. The Civil War was still being fought and no-one was quite sure who was to be trusted. Rosmer had already been warned about an English journalist from the liberal Daily News who was suspected of working for the bourgeois British government as it tried to infiltrate its agents into the Third International. Victor Serge, “one of the anarchists who had responded to the appeal of the October Revolution and the Third International,” was in Petrograd, and so was Zinoviev, a leading figure in the ranks of the Russian Communist Party. Rosmer was to encounter Zinoviev on a number of occasions in the coming months, and was critical of many of his opinions and actions.

Once he was in Moscow Rosmer was caught up in what became something of a continuous debate about the role of trade unions and their relationship to the Communist Party. Given his own background as a syndicalist it was obvious that this would happen, and his account of the various personalities and their views is a valuable one. There were widely differing opinions as to how independent unions should be, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that elements among Party members were already taking the line that communists should obtain positions of power in unions so that they could exert an influence on their policies. It was not surprising that some delegates saw such intentions as likely to lead to a situation where the unions would eventually become subject to Party rule. 

There were, of course, those who, looking to spread the Revolution to other countries, continued to think that the syndicalist dream of the general strike was still viable, but that operating within existing “reformist” unions could only lead to militants being easily identified and isolated. Rosmer comments that syndicalist ideas were impractical: “A short general strike, and the regime would collapse…….after a few days of agitation, and with minimal violence, the syndicalists would peacefully proceed to the building of the new society. But this was the realm of fairy tales. In Moscow, in 1920, we were facing reality.” He points out how different conditions in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, necessarily dictated which tactics were of most use. And working within existing institutions appeared to be the most sensible option then available.

Rosmer renewed his acquaintanceship with Trotsky, whose views he increasingly came to accept. There was probably some evidence to show that, even at this early stage, Trotsky might have been becoming separated from other leading Bolsheviks, such as Stalin, Bukharin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. He would soon be accused of “Bonapartism,” especially because of his success in shaping the Red Army into a fighting force capable of defeating reactionary generals like Kolchak, Denikin, and Wrangel, not to mention interventionist forces from America, Britain, and France. And Trotsky had successfully suppressed the Kronstadt rebellion. He also had strong ideas about how the future state should be organised.

It’s interesting to read Rosmer’s views on the reasons for the uprising and the necessity for its defeat. He certainly doesn’t agree with those historians who look on Kronstadt as a justified, but failed attempt to bring the Revolution back to its original aims. There were, he says, anti-Bolshevik agitators at work, and anarchists stirring up trouble. And the sailors of Kronstadt in 1921 were not the one who had played a leading role in the events of 1917. Most of those had gone to the front lines of the Civil War.  And, as with his views on syndicalist notions of a general strike, Rosmer had a practical outlook on the situation in the Soviet Union in 1921 as it faced opposition from most other countries and tried to cope with major economic and social difficulties.

Trotsky’s eventual fall from grace only came later, as did Rosmer’s 1924 expulsion from the French Communist Party because of his increasing criticisms of Zinoviev’s ideas, and Stalin’s beginning rise to power in the wake of Lenin’s death. It seems that what brought matters to a head was Zinoviev’s views on the MacDonald Labour government in Britain. He thought that it would be sufficient to “denounce this treacherous Labour government, and workers would quickly see its true nature and flock to the Communists.” But Rosmer had worked within unions in France and visited Britain, and he “argued that a more patient strategy would be necessary, including raising concrete demands and doing systematic united front work with the Labour left.”

A great deal of his account is obviously taken up with details relating to what some readers might find a bewildering series of meetings, committees, factional fights, and the like. Cynics could start to wonder how anything productive ever got done when so much time was spent arguing about policies, often in a largely theoretical manner. And it could be that the endless debates led to the increasing bureaucratisation (something that Stalin would exploit to his advantage) that soon started to restrict any meaningful open discussions. The advantage of having Rosmer’s narrative available is that, while he tells us what was said, he also can point to who said it, and he often provides a thumb-nail sketch of the person behind the proposals. It’s clear that, while not denying that they sometimes had good points to make, he was suspicious of Radek and Zinoviev’s overall intentions. Zinoviev was clearly ambitious to take over from Lenin as the master-architect of Soviet policy. There are more sympathetic portraits of John Reed, Tom Mann, and others.

Not all of Rosmer’s time in Russia was spent in Moscow, and he did travel to Baku for a Congress of what he describes as “the representatives of all the enslaved peoples.” He says: “The trip was full of interest and without danger. It allowed us to see at first hand the vast extent of damage done by the civil war. Most of the stations had been destroyed, and everywhere the sidings were full of the half-burnt wrecks of coaches. When the Whites had been beaten they destroyed everything they could as they retreated.” And he adds: “This helped us to realise the size of the task which the Soviet regime had before it.”

When he returned to Moscow the “Trade Union Question” was still very much being debated. The continuing economic difficulties made it important that some sort of agreement should be reached on how far the unions were to subjugate their demands to the work of a Party trying to establish a functioning system. Trotsky’s ideas amounted to what some union activists thought was a “militarisation of the unions.” But what Trotsky had in mind never got beyond the theoretical stage, and was overtaken by Lenin’s ideas about the problems faced by the country; “He had in mind another solution, more far-reaching , since it would modify the very structure of the Soviet regime in several important respects. This was the solution the Party was to adopt some months later – the New Economic Policy.”

Rosmer returned to Paris in October, 1921, and was involved with the French Communist Party until his expulsion in 1924. He has informative things to say about the continuing dissensions within the trade unions movements in Italy, Spain, and France about allying with the Red International of Labour Unions. Many trade-unionists just didn’t want their organisations being subject to what they saw as “the dictatorship of Moscow” The arguments for and against such a decision led, in France, to “two national trade-unions centres” being established.

Rosmer stayed in touch with Trotsky after the latter was expelled from Russia, though he did have a falling out with him in 1931 over a young adherent to the Trotskyist cause who Rosmer viewed with suspicion. He “had no further organisational contact with the Trotskyite movement,” though he “remained faithful for the rest of his life to his basic principles, and strove to preserve a revolutionary tradition independent of both Western imperialism and Stalinism.”  His view of Russia was that it was “nothing but a great power, military and militaristic…..distinctive only by the brutality of a totalitarian regime.”  Robert Wohl, who interviewed him just before he died in 1964, said that: “To the end he never gave up his belief in the Leninism of 1917-22, which in his view was corrupted but not called into question as a doctrine.”

Lenin’s Moscow provides a vivid picture of the Russian Revolution at a time when a great deal of open debate was still possible despite all the difficulties that faced the new state. It’s of particular interest with regard to the question of the role and status of trade unions not only within the Soviet Union, but also in countries in Western Europe generally. Syndicalism is no longer a doctrine that is much discussed, if at all, but the relationship of unions to political parties still has relevance today.

The book has an informative introduction by Ian Birchall, and useful biographical notes on many of the people that Rosmer mentions. It’s sobering to note how many of the Russians, including leading Bolsheviks of the early days, had lives that ended in the 1930s as Stalin’s terror came into play.