Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) was a leading figure in the French revolutionary syndicalist union movement at the turn of the 20th century. Along with many others in that movement he joined the French Communist Party when it was created after the Russian revolution. Later he became an ally of Leon Trotsky.
Rosmer was born in America, the son of a worker who had fled France after the Paris Commune of 1871. In 1884 the family returned to France. Rosmer became attracted to anarchism while working as a proof-reader.
Rosmer became a militant in the revolutionary syndicalist Confédération générale du travail (CGT, Generation Confederation of Labour). He worked alongside Pierre Monatte, founder of the journal La Vie Ouvrière.
When the CGT caved into patriotism and backed “national unity” during World War One, Rosmer followed Monatte in opposing the war from a revolutionary internationalist perspective. Although they were in a tiny minority at first, their efforts laid the groundwork for an anti-war movement. It was through this political work that Rosmer met his lifelong partner Marguerite Thevener, and first encountered Leon Trotsky.
Disgusted by the hypocrisy of parliamentary politics and distrustful of the social democratic parties many revolutionaries in the syndicalist movement such as Victor Serge, Monatte, the Industrial Workers of the World’s “Big Bill” Haywood and Rosmer were inspired by the Russian Revolution and came over to the consistent revolutionaries of the revolution, the Bolshevik party.
Serge summed up this thinking: “The unity of thought and action gave Bolshevism its original power; without entering into doctrinal questions we can define Bolshevism as a movement to the left of socialism — which brought it closer to anarchism — inspired by the will to achieve the revolution immediately.”
In 1920 Rosmer travelled to Moscow and took part in the debates at the Second Congress of the Communist International.
The Bolsheviks’ desire to attract the best elements from revolutionary syndicalism is evident in the debates on the role of the Communist party in the revolution. Lauding their role in opposing the war when the Second International crumbled, Trotsky spoke of his “common ground” with Rosmer and argued that the revolutionary minority of syndicalists “was a portent of the future development, which, despite their prejudices and illusions, has not hindered these same syndicalist comrades from playing a revolutionary role in France, and from producing that small minority which has come to our International Congress.”
Illustrating the bridge between revolutionary syndicalism and Bolshevism, the following year Rosmer recalled the intervention of Jack Tanner from the British Shop Steward Network “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’.”
This conception of the revolutionary party as the vanguard of the most conscious elements of the working-class has been buried under decades of Stalinism, with some would-be Trotskyist propaganda groups now operating as if they are the vanguard parties of the future.
The growth of Stalinism in Russia and the Communist International led to Trotsky’s supporters in the European Communist parties being ousted from the leadership and later being expelled or quitting. In France this included Rosmer, Monatte and Boris Souvarine.
The Rosmers were amongst Trotsky’s staunchest allies. Although Rosmer later developed political differences with Trotsky, he remained close and took part in the Dewey Commission set up to counter-act the falsifications of the Moscow Trials. When the Fourth International was launched, it held its first congress in Rosmer’s suburban Paris home in 1938.
After World War Two, Rosmer agreed with Trotsky’s widow Natalia Sedova that the socialist conquests of the Russian Revolution had been extinguished, describing the Soviet Union as “nothing but a great power, military and militaristic…distinctive only by the brutality of a totalitarian regime”.
In his later years, Rosmer kept the flame of anti-Stalinist Marxism alive as a living link to the genuine Bolshevik tradition.