In the first of a series exploring the lives of some of history’s understated revolutionaries, Ian Birchall introduces French syndicalist and communist Alfred Rosmer
The name Alfred Rosmer is little known today. Yet his life story sums up both the greatness and the tragic failure of the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Communist International, founded in 1919, initially attracted many of the finest activists of the day, from a range of political backgrounds. When the Revolution began to degenerate some moved to the right, other became apologists for Stalin. A minority turned to the Left Opposition, which tried to keep alive all that was best in the revolutionary tradition. But the Opposition, too, was fragmented by its own internal disputes, and often neglected the memory of those they had split with. There are no “Rosmerists” to keep Alfred’s memory alive.
Born in 1877, Rosmer became active in the syndicalist movement in pre‑1914 France. The term “syndicalist” is often misunderstood as referring to those who neglect politics in favour of trade-union militancy. In fact the French syndicalists aimed to avoid what they saw as the false division between politics and trade unionism that existed in, for example, the British labour movement. Rosmer later summed up the relation between the Labour Party and the unions in Britain as: “You deal with political matters and we’ll deal with economic questions: don’t stick your nose into our affairs and we’ll keep out of yours.”
Rosmer became a journalist at the fortnightly magazine La Vie ouvrière, launched by Pierre Monatte in 1909. La Vie ouvrière aimed to provide both practical information and a political culture for working-class militants. Rosmer played a major role in its international coverage, visiting Britain to report on trade unions and suffragettes, and writing about events from South Africa to the Balkans. He had a deep loathing for nationalism, and mocked the racial and national myths used to explain the Balkan conflict, pointing out that they made no sense in the context of the mixture of races in the population: “How many of these ferocious Christians, pursuing the infidel, have Muslim blood in their veins?”
In some respects Rosmer was ahead of most in the syndicalist milieu. This became clear when he took up the case of Madame Couriau, who had taken a job in the printing industry. Many in the union objected to the employment of women and not only refused her union membership but expelled her husband for failing to persuade her to quit her job. Rosmer took up the case, writing “Is it so difficult to admit that a woman can act on her own account, and that she has a say in the matter when it comes to controlling her life and her destiny?” Nothing extraordinary today, but ahead of his time in 1912.
The French syndicalists had a good record of antimilitarist activity, but in 1914 most syndicalists backed the war alongside the Socialist Party. Rosmer later described the terrifying isolation in which the few opponents of the war found themselves. But he worked tirelessly to try to draw together those who opposed the war. In particular he made contact with a small group of Russian exiles who were producing a daily paper (Nashe Slovo) in Paris. Among their number was Leon Trotsky, with whom Rosmer established a deep friendship which would survive political disagreements.
In 1915 Rosmer was involved with producing a special May Day issue of the metal workers’ union paper. This contained news of strikes in Scotland. Something which had not been reported by the French press. The paper was taken to the government censor, who removed all subversive items. Comrades then ran off a few censored versions, and a large number of the full version. Then they were carefully packed with the censored version on top of each large bundle of uncensored papers and 17,000 copies were distributed throughout France. On the back of such activity Rosmer helped to organise the French delegation to the Zimmerwald anti-war conference in September 1915.
In 1920 Rosmer was invited to Moscow to attend the Second Congress of the Communist International. Lenin and Trotsky – though not some of their comrades like Zinoviev – were anxious to draw revolutionary syndicalists into the new International; the new situation made many of the old arguments irrelevant.
Rosmer described his first meeting with Lenin. Lenin had written a document arguing that the left in the French Socialist Party should split immediately to form a Communist Party. Rosmer told him that this was a mistaken perspective – by staying a few months longer the left could win a majority (as in fact happened in December 1920). Lenin immediately admitted that he had written “something stupid”. Rosmer’s Lenin is very different from the arrogant infallible leader, incapable of changing his mind, who often seems to be prized by self-appointed “Leninists”.
Rosmer remained in Moscow for seventeen months. He attended the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, where he told assembled delegates that France and Britain were hypocrites, for they had fought the First World War in the name of liberty, yet refused to give liberty to their own territories in Ireland, India and North Africa. He played a key role in organising the first Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions, which aimed to draw syndicalist organisations into the orbit of the Communist International.
Thirty years later Rosmer published his recollections of the early years of the Communist International, Lenin’s Moscow. It is a remarkable book, which presents the far-reaching and often heated debates of the second, third and fourth congresses. The policies and resolutions produced are not seen as possessing some sort of abstract authority, but as the product of real human beings in a real and very difficult situation. Rosmer stands by the basic revolutionary project of the Communist International, but his account is in no way defensive or romanticised.
During the war Rosmer had met Marguerite Thévenet, who was to become his lifelong partner. While Rosmer was in Moscow, Thévenet stayed in France and took part in the founding congress of the French Communist Party. She undoubtedly had something to do with the dramatic appearance of Clara Zetkin, the German Communist, at the congress, who had been smuggled across the frontier to attend. This was a remarkable internationalist gesture so soon after the end of the war. In a letter to Lenin Zetkin described Thévenet as “one of the most lucid, loyal, energetic and politically intelligent ‘men’ in the French movement”. In 1922 she took a trainload of supplies to areas of Russia afflicted by famine, seeing, as she pointed out, an aspect of Russia not observed by those who only attended Congresses.
On his return to France Rosmer threw himself into building the French party. But conflicts soon emerged. There was a dispute over the British Labour government formed in January 1924. Rosmer argued that the situation required a patient application of the united front tactic; but the party majority, encouraged by Zinoviev in Moscow, were satisfied with crude denunciation. At the end of 1924 Rosmer was expelled from the Party and the International he had done so much to build.
For a while in the late twenties and early thirties Rosmer became a follower of Trotsky. After a few years in a mass movement he was back to the politics of small groups. He and Thévenet tried to develop a new cadre of revolutionaries. But they fell victim to Trotsky’s impatience. Trotsky backed Raymond Molinier, a bright young man offering a get-rich-quick strategy. Rosmer and Thévenet had no sympathy with Molinier, whom they considered as lacking in political understanding, and they found themselves outside the Trotskyist movement.
They did not, as often happens after such splits, become overtly hostile to those they had worked with so closely. They made their home in the Paris suburbs available for the founding conference of the Fourth International, and visited Trotsky in Mexico shortly before his assassination.
After 1945 Rosmer was entrusted by Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, with the task of getting Trotsky’s writings republished in France. When Sedova broke with the Fourth International, arguing that Russia had reverted to capitalism, Rosmer supported her wholeheartedly. He continued to travel and to encourage revolutionary anti‑Stalinist currents where they existed. In the early fifties he visited London and met Tony Cliff. And in 1960, at the age of 83, he signed the Manifesto of 121 supporting those who refused to fight in Algeria and who gave practical support to the Algerian national liberation struggle. He died in 1964, still true to the the ideas that had guided his life.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine