VII: After Trotsky

Rosmer wrote copiously for the rest of his life. We have given a very small selection to indicate some of the themes and preoccupations of his later work. His brief note on Natalia Sedova’s break with the Fourth International makes clear Rosmer’s dissociation from organised Trotskyism, although he never ceased to admire the life and thought of Trotsky himself.

The years of the Cold War were a difficult period for anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, who had to strive hard to maintain their independence from both Washington and Moscow. Rosmer’s polemic against the articles of Daniel Guérin on the American working class (known to English readers in the form of his book A Hundred Years of Labor in the USA [Ink Links, London, 1979]) gives an interesting insight into the problems of the period, showing a disagreement between two authentic revolutionaries, both respected for their implacable opposition to Stalinism and to Western imperialism. In 1954, Rosmer corresponded with Stan Newens, at that time a leading member of the Socialist Review Group, who has kindly supplied us with two hitherto unknown letters in which Rosmer explains his break with La Révolution prolétarienne.

In the postwar period, Rosmer, together with Maurice Nadeau, took on the job of finding new publishers for Trotsky’s writings in France. Rosmer wrote several prefaces for Trotsky’s works; his introduction to Terrorism and Communism, published the year before he died, shows that he had never abandoned his admiration for what had been best in Bolshevism.

Writings by Rosmer in English from this period include A Rosmer, ‘Problems of Yesterday and today’, translated from Confrontation, September 1949, in New International, Volume 16, no 3, May/June 1950, pp180-3, and A Rosmer, ‘Natalia Trotsky’s Letter’, New International, Volume 17, no 5, September/October 1951, p250.

Maurice Nadeau, Grâces leur soient rendues (Paris, 1990) contains a chapter (pp260-76) on Rosmer, with extracts from his letters, and describes the efforts to get Trotsky’s work back in print in France. Tony’s Cliff’s autobiography, A World to Win (London, 2000), contains an account of a meeting with Rosmer in the 1950s (p57). See also Victor Lepage, ‘Visite aux camarades Marguerite et Albert [sic] Rosmer’, La Vérité, no 520, Winter 1960-61, pp21-2.

There is an interesting discussion of Rosmer’s relations with the novelist Albert Camus in O Todd, Camus, Paris, 1996, pp459-61. See also I Birchall, ‘The Labourism of Sisyphus’, Journal of European Studies, XX (1990), pp135-65.

Alfred Rosmer

Daniel Guérin and America[1]


NDER the title ‘Where is the American people going?’, Daniel Guérin has just published in the journal Les Temps modernes[2] three articles exclusively devoted to the labour movement. In a note appended to the last of these articles, he explains that these are only fragments of a book; he ‘regrets that they end on a pessimistic note’, and asks the reader to wait for subsequent articles because ‘the picture which has just been sketched out is a sombre one’. Is he therefore proposing to add some touches of red or blue to make it more cheerful? We shall see. But the part that has been published contains such clear assertions, such definitive judgements, that we already have the right to examine it critically at the present time. For example, there is this judgement on the CIO:[3]

The young organisation had scarcely reached adolescence when it was absorbed, from 1941 onwards, into the totalitarian machine of American imperialism, incorporated, tamed and afflicted with sclerosis before it had grown old… The American government had needed to have at its disposal… a docile labour force. The leadership of the CIO was mobilised for this task. It carried it out to the satisfaction of its masters, that is to say, by betraying the interests of the workers.

There is only one union leader who escapes the gloomy picture: it is John L Lewis.[4] Here the portrait is already a glowing one. Lewis is Guérin’s hero; he compares him to Robespierre, which is, to say the least, unexpected.[5]

These articles, such as they are, are self-sufficient and all the more so because they have even been cited by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty to explain and justify their refusal to participate in an enquiry into the forced labour camps in Russia:[6] they refuse because there are political prisoners in Spain, deportees in Greece, and because they have American friends who ‘say without laughing: “We have no class struggle here”, thus forgetting 50 years and more of American history which Daniel Guérin will describe in this very journal’. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s American friends have indeed very little memory: perhaps they simply have a dry sense of humour; there are people like that over there, and they sometimes have a joke at the expense of Europeans who are in too much of a hurry.

H               H               H

After the First World War, André Philip[7] went to America to study the labour movement there. He came back with a big book, and he too painted a gloomy picture. Philip’s descriptions fitted the reality of the time. This postwar period was a period of extreme reaction in America. The measures taken by Wilson in favour of workers during the war had been rescinded, the unions were losing the exceptional number of new members they had made in wartime; and the bosses in the car industry and in basic industries everywhere were imposing ‘company unions’, false unions whose true leadership remained in their own hands.

The present postwar period appears in less gloomy colours. The ‘sclerotic’ organisation has not collapsed; it is still there, solid and with a large number of members, and it has defended the interests of workers quite well during the period of reconversion to peace-time production. It has sometimes even been bold enough to pose new questions, such as that of workers’ control.

The danger, for the CIO, was not in sclerosis. It lay in rapid dispersion, a fate often reserved for organisations which arise in response to the pressures of a specific moment, and which disappear along with it. What could threaten it was a continual erosion leading to disappearance, something comparable to what happened in the CGTU, although the circumstances were different. The CIO has overcome this danger triumphally, and we can now be assured that it will stand firm.

It has done more: it has eliminated the possible causes of its destruction. First of all it has got rid of John L Lewis. He staked his presidency not on an essential trade union question, but on the re-election of Roosevelt in 1940. In the past, he had been against Roosevelt, and then for him; then he opposed him again, supporting Wendell Willkie,[8] who in domestic politics was the man of Big Business and on foreign policy was in agreement with Roosevelt, whom he found too timorous in preparing for the entry of the USA into the war.

The largest and the most powerful of the CIO unions, the United Auto Workers, removed its Stalinist leadership through action carried out openly in accordance with the rules of trade union democracy. It was by regular congress decisions that Walter Reuther[9] was elected President.

The leadership of the CIO, which had greatly contributed to the creation of the so-called World Federation of Trade Unions,[10] was the first to denounce the mystification from which its lack of experience in international matters had not protected it; older organisations, like the British trade unions, had let themselves be caught.

After having broken with the Stalinists of the WFTU, the CIO is at present proceeding to expel unions which still are led by Stalinists. The way in which it is doing this is apparently the most convenient and the most rapid; it is certainly not the best. It is all the less so since the reconstruction of the new unions shows that the vast majority of trade unionists could very well have got rid of their Stalinist leaders for themselves, as the auto workers had done. Recent votes in what was one of the organisations in which the Stalinists had the tightest grip, that of the electrical industries, have given results of the following type: 10 860 to 1416; 5098 to 782; 3237 to 215, etc. These results are surprising only by the size of the majorities in favour of the CIO, and are ample proof that the Stalinists only kept their positions by their usual deceptions and manoeuvres. It would have taken a bit longer to achieve the aim, that’s all. It is important to resist the temptation, which is sometimes great, of fighting the Stalinists by employing their own methods. To give them some of their own medicine, as they say over there, is attractive, but it means lowering yourself to their level.

The medical report on the ‘sclerotic and tamed’ CIO, is therefore not too bad, and even without retouching, the picture is not so black as Guérin paints it.

H               H               H

But it is the attitude of the CIO during the war which arouses the sharpest criticisms and the indignation of our author: its leadership made strikes illegal and thereby showed itself, he claims, more hypocritical than Mussolini and Hitler.

Today, the CIO is scarcely more than 10 years old. In 1939, when war broke out, it was still very much in the process of formation; there were between six and seven million trade unionists, almost all new, with scarcely any cadre to organise and educate them; their congresses had never discussed the question of the war; they were not bound by congress decisions as the working classes were on the eve of the First World War. Who, then, could have guided them in a situation which was even more difficult than that of 1914, when so many Socialist and syndicalist militants and their two Internationals had come to grief? Where did proletarian internationalism appear in 1939? Where did syndicalist oppositions to the war emerge?

The Second World War had no ‘Zimmerwald conference’ to enlighten and unite workers, and revive their international spirit. On the contrary, several important factors helped to lead them astray and deceive them as to the meaning of the war: the Stalinists, first of all, who, after having mobilised the democracies against Hitler, did a deal with him and helped him; and their own President, John L Lewis, who was as isolationist and against the war as were the Hearst[11] newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and at that time the Stalinists. These various isolationist currents came together in a common organisation which directed propaganda through the printed word and public meetings. It strove to thwart the action of various left groupings who were asking for assistance to the Allies by all means short of war. It can be imagined that it was not easy for American workers to see clearly in this situation. A new act opened when Hitler attacked Russia and after the surprise attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour. America found itself committed to the hilt to the war, whereas hitherto you would scarcely have found any Americans who asked more than that their country should be the ‘arsenal of democracy’. It had gradually slipped into this situation through a series of measures which all tended in the same direction, favouring and assisting the Allies, measures requested and approved by the anti-fascist elements.

In time of war, the President of the United States becomes the supreme military commander. Roosevelt, invested with these new powers, appointed to assist him a director of General Motors, Knudsen, and a trade union militant, Sidney Hillman,[12] the President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and Vice-President of the CIO, to direct production and to avert conflicts between bosses and workers. The 40-hour week remained the rule, with all overtime being paid at a rate increased by 50 or 100 per cent; the wages of new workers were generally twice their usual income; the ‘five day week’, which so frightened the French bourgeoisie, was still the working week for many white-collar employees and male and female workers; above all the Wagner Act remained, by virtue of which employers were required to consult and negotiate with unions nominated by the free choice of the workers. There were numerous conflicts which were generally settled by arbitration. But nonetheless there were strikes, and not only by miners, and after June 1941 the worst strike-breakers were the Stalinists.

Finally, the price controls which prevented or curbed inflation were not at all illusory, and nor were rent controls; and allowances for the families of those mobilised were substantial. America was certainly not a paradise, but for unintelligent criticism, systematic denigration and dangerous chauvinistic incitement, the Stalinists will suffice.

H               H               H

The only compensation which Daniel Guérin finds for having to be pessimistic is in the glorification of his hero: John L Lewis-Robespierre. He writes of him lyrically: ‘Having regained his freedom of action (when he had failed to draw the workers behind Wendell Wilkie) Lewis was able really to show what he was capable of. He behaved exactly as though America were not at war… For a moment he made the imperialist giant stumble.’

Throughout his long career as a trade union militant, all that can be said to Lewis’ credit is that in 1935-37 he understood that conditions were favourable for the creation of unions in basic industries, where hitherto they had not been able to establish themselves. He did not hesitate to break with the majority of his friends, leaders of the AFL,[13] who were frightened by the influx of millions of new trade unionists. He was in a better position to understand because of the structure of his organisation. He was not the only one; the two powerful garment workers’ unions supported him. But he was the most conspicuous, and the noisiest. And he made them pay dearly for his support. In 1936, at the auto workers’ congress, the delegates refused to support Roosevelt’s candidacy. Lewis intimated clearly that if they didn’t reverse their vote, he would withdraw his offer to give $50 000 to their union to help it organise. The delegates submitted. At the following presidential election, in 1940, as we have seen, Lewis no longer wanted Roosevelt. After having contributed to creating the CIO, he did what he could to destroy it, withdrew from it, returned to the AFL and then left it again. He is an empiricist of the most vulgar sort. He made the miners’ union, which has a proud place in the history of labour struggles — it was the federation of Bill Haywood[14] — into a docile sheep-like mass which had to follow him without complaint. For it is always he who has to decide, it is always: ‘I, John L Lewis…’ In today’s America, he is an anachronism, a survivor from the age of ‘robber barons’, of the great buccaneers, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies and the Goulds, who, for a time, concentrated in their own hands a whole section of the national wealth; he is their counterpart in the world of labour. They have disappeared. The sooner he leaves the scene the better it will be for the American labour movement, and for the miners.

H               H               H

Incidentally, Daniel Guérin gives a special account of Charles A Beard’s book on Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Beard, who died last year, was certainly the most remarkable and original American historian. He was also a man of conviction and courage. At the time of the First World War he was teaching at Columbia University. When two students were expelled because they were opposed to the war, although he did not share their opinions, Beard protested, appealing to academic freedom. When his protest was overruled, he resigned his chair and abandoned his university career. One of his first works was An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,[15] which shows with what freedom of spirit he undertook his studies as a historian, which he pursued for many years in collaboration with his wife. Towards the end of his life, his documentation was less reliable; thus in one of his last works he referred to the mythical: ‘The Republic does not need scholars.’ When he was told of the explanation and definitive refutation of the myth given by James Guillaume, he took cognisance of it very honestly. His book on Roosevelt is the most passionate indictment he wrote. During the Second World War, Beard had become an isolationist, though naturally not like a McCormick,[16] and for quite different reasons. It was disgust at the spectacle of a Europe which persisted in tearing itself to pieces that made him fall back on America. His arguments are not all excellent, or even all valid, and the whole is marred by the erroneous thesis which led him to assemble them. If we want to personify the immediate responsibility for the Second World War, it is not on the American side that we should look; and as for Roosevelt’s responsibility, it can be found at Teheran and at Yalta, as is now proven.

H               H               H

Abundant footnotes are not always a guarantee of correct information. For example, on the evolution of William Foster, a French reader who refers to the file of the Vie ouvrière for 1912-14 will know more, without travelling to America, than he will learn from Guérin. It was in Paris, in contact with the revolutionary syndicalists, the leaders of the CGT, that Foster took the decision to direct his efforts henceforth into the unions of the AFL, the struggle from within being liable to produce better results than the one he had until then pursued from outside, in the IWW.

H               H               H

In a study which claims to be serious, it is a surprise to find clichés of the sort which abound in Stalinist newspapers: ‘the totalitarian machine of American imperialism’; ‘the small number of monopolies which dishonour… [the American people] in the eyes of the world and which are a mortal danger to the world and to itself.’ After this it remains only for Guérin to denounce the espionage racket hidden behind Coca Cola bottles.

Alfred Rosmer

Comment on Natalia Sedova’s Letter Breaking With the Fourth International[17]


HE break which has been made public by this letter is an important fact: it will be seen as an outstanding date in the history of the Left Opposition which was formed in the Russian Communist Party in 1923 when Lenin was finally excluded from political life by illness, and thereby in the development of the Communist movement born of the October Revolution. A voice well qualified to speak has stated that the people who see themselves as the faithful followers of Trotsky, and who are at present in the leadership of the Fourth International, have lost any right to speak in his name. On more than one occasion, every time that she saw them taking another step along the fateful path to which they had committed themselves, Natalia Trotsky strove to bring them back to the sound ideas of the Opposition. In vain. So, when their ‘Trotskyism’ had definitively taken on the form of a distortion of Communism, in certain respects unacceptable, then a repudiation became unavoidable. Long ago, Marx already found himself in a similar situation; when he no longer recognised himself in Hyndman’s ‘Marxism’, he declared: ‘If that is Marxism, I am not a Marxist.’[18]

The American Trotskyists had some right to see themselves as the heirs and legitimate representatives of Trotsky. When he took refuge in Mexico, he was in close contact with them, and in the discussions which led to the split in their party during the winter of 1939-40, Trotsky was on their side. This gave them exceptional influence within the groupings of the Fourth International. Their sincerity and dedication could not be questioned. Their fundamental mistake derives from the fact that they believed that the best way to remain faithful to Trotsky’s teachings was to hold on blindly to his position in 1940, namely that Russia was a proletarian state. The defence of the USSR remains in the programme of the Opposition. The upheavals which shook the world left them unmoved, because they believed Stalin’s armies were carrying the revolution with them. On all basic questions their positions were — and are — still Stalinist positions; sometimes they even appear to be more royalist than the king, more Stalinist than Stalin. Because they remain frozen on the theses of 1940, they cannot understand that Russia is now nothing but a great power, military and militaristic, which does nothing different from the traditional policies of the great powers, and is distinctive only by the brutality of a totalitarian regime, and the fact that it has the blessing of the metropolitans[19] of the Orthodox Church.

Alfred Rosmer

Letters to Stan Newens[20] 

Letter I


near Mandres


2 November 1954

Dear Comrade

Just a line to tell you that I have found your kindly letter when coming back here after a long journey — Mexico via New York & Frisco — that I have already sent to you a copy of my book[22] in which I have enclosed a set of illustrations — refused by the French publisher but accepted by the Italian — that I am pleased to offer them to you; I still dispose of a few copies out of the 25 I received from my publisher, as it is customary.

The RP[23] is still published but I have personally ceased to work for it. There was a serious crisis among the men who constitute the redaction committee, some of them asserting the opinion that the proletarian internationalism must be put aside for a time, the only issue[24] being to enter one of the two big blocs, of course the American. The same history as in 1914. I shall write you about that and about Mendès-France,[25] the revolutionary left, etc, later. I have just enough of time to look at the mail accumulated here during my absence for next Monday or Tuesday we shall leave again for six months but this time to stay in France.

Fraternal greetings

Alfred Rosmer

Yes, I received regularly The Socialist Review and read it with interest.

Letter II

3 Chemin des Terres Chaudes

Menton (Alpes-Maritimes)

27 December 1954

Dear Comrade Newens

I hope you received in good time the copy of my book which I sent you from Périgny as soon as I found your letter on my return from a long journey. But you have not received the letter I promised you because I haven’t written it: occupied by a heavy work-load and by being obliged to come here, I have had no time, and it is only today that I can reply to the questions you asked me.

You are quite right when you say that at present France is the weakest centre of capitalism among the most developed countries of the West. But this is precisely what the French fail to understand, or else, when they admit it, they refuse to draw the consequences, although they are inescapable. They want France still to be the great continental power that it was for several centuries, and they try to convince themselves that, after the shameful collapse in 1940, France liberated itself, and that by its Resistance movement, made a great contribution to the final victory. Since the liberation, all French policy has been based on this belief; since it is based on lies, it is not surprising that the evolution of the Fourth Republic appears full of contradictions and confusion.

In fact, the new regime has not yet succeeded in finding its political form. Starting from the ‘resistance’, it first of all gave itself a government where the three big parties coming out of the Resistance shared power. When the Stalinists had made themselves impossible by their manoeuvres and their disloyalty, the two other parties, the Socialists and the Popular Republicans,[26] came a little closer; then as the bankruptcy of their policy became more marked, the Radicals and the former right-wing parties who had compromised themselves under Vichy returned to Parliament with ever stronger forces… To give a faithful picture of the situation in France and to characterise accurately the various political groupings, of which there are more every day, in my view you would have to start an account quite a long way back, before 1939, but above all from the time of the outbreak of the Second World War. An Indian journal has in fact asked me to write an article about this. I can’t write it just now, but I hope to be able to do it soon, and then I shall send you a copy.[27]

I have asked them to put you on the list for complimentary copies of La Révolution prolétarienne, and I hope it reaches you regularly. For my part, I have been receiving The Socialist Review since it was launched, and I always find it interesting and valuable to read.

You must already have received my book some months ago, and so you will have had time to read it. I should like to know what you think of it, and above all, if you want to ask for more information on any points, or if you have criticisms to express, don’t hesitate to do so.

Fraternal greetings

Alfred Rosmer

Alfred Rosmer

Introduction to Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism[28]


S passing time lends perspective, the Summer of 1914 acquires historical significance; looking at it today, we cannot miss its precise and deep meaning. Now it appears not simply as the start of a long war which involved the whole of Europe and then the world, but as the end of an epoch: a Europe was to disappear which would never be seen again. Thrones crumbled, and ancient empires collapsed under the blows of nationalists impatient to regain or to win their independence. The leaders of the great powers had not imagined anything of the sort; even less had they foreseen such an upheaval when they called their peoples to arms, mobilising them by the million. With all the countries engaged in the war it was the same slogans, namely the defence of democracy, freedom and culture; each of them manufactured myths designed to draw into battle those who had everything to lose there; all were convinced of a rapid outcome, victory within three months. Journalists and writers, the servants — not always unpaid — of governments, competed in showing their zeal in the service of propaganda. Few and far between were those who, from the very beginning, refused to capitulate; pacifists or Socialists, they saw the present war simply as the one which had hovered threateningly over Europe since the beginning of the century, to the dangers of which they had consistently pointed. More perceptive than their rulers, they could glimpse the end of a long slaughter exactly as it was to present itself: huge and empty sacrifices, for militarism and imperialism, far from being destroyed, emerged strengthened, but in new forms.

Raymond Lefebvre,[29] one of those few men in August 1914, has provided an excellent testimony in their name in the preface to the L’Éponge de vinaigre (The Sponge Full of Vinegar) which was published in 1921 by Éditions Clarté.[30] Recalling the meetings of the cluster of rebels grouped around La Vie ouvrière, meetings which he attended, he wrote:

We confined ourselves to stirring up sadly the cold ashes of the International, and drawing up, with a bitter memory, the huge list of those who had failed us; and predicting with a futile insight the length of a war of attrition in which civilisation would be the only loser… Here, in the heart of Paris, we knew that we were simultaneously among the last Europeans of the fine intelligent Europe which the world had just lost for ever, and the first men of a future International of which we were certain. We formed the link between two centuries…

Certainly, that fine Europe was not short of failings; it had its distress, its financial scandals, its illegal trading, and its squalid rivalries, but seen from a distance and as a whole, the nineteenth century will remain characterised by its generous aspirations, and its struggles for the freedom of men and of nations: democrats broke the Holy Alliance[31] which claimed to subject free peoples to despotism; those who were to be known as the ‘Utopians’, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Robert Owen,[32] aiming to finish the work begun by the great French Revolution in the economic sphere, elaborated systems which were supposed to ensure the total liberation of individuals, and there were born, in the old and new worlds, colonies where these various systems were put into practice. These various systems were all pacifist by nature, and putting them into practice presupposed peace; alongside them were founded and developed international leagues for peace and freedom; the idea of the ‘United States of Europe’ was frequently formulated and put forward as an article of a programme to be achieved. Then Marx and Marxism were followed by the First Workers’ International; by anarchism with Bakunin,[33] by the Commune and its savage repression; the amnesty of 1880 allowed the return of those exiled and deported, and hence the formation of new Socialist parties; the Socialist International was reborn in Paris, in 1889, and German Social Democracy immediately took a leading place in it.

On the ‘immense list of those who had failed in their duty’, Karl Kautsky was one of the foremost. As is well known, the abdication of Social Democracy on 4 August had so painfully surprised Lenin that he could not believe it; when it was learned that Kautsky was among the renegades, there was a real outburst of anger among Socialists from all countries who had remained faithful to internationalism, justified precisely because of the eminent position which he held in Social Democracy and in the Second International. For in both he reigned as a master, the supreme defender of Marxist orthodoxy against heresy, as Bernstein had been able to observe when he had openly formulated the conception, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of reformist Socialists, namely that the ultimate aim is nothing and that the movement is everything.[34] This had indeed just been revealed by their votes for the war credits, although the decisions of recent international congresses had foreseen very precisely the unleashing of the present war, and had laid down very clearly what the attitude of Socialists should be. But Bernstein had seen aright; for them, the social revolution was no more than a slogan which belonged at the end of an article, or of an ostentatious speech at a public meeting. But Kautsky’s present attitude showed that this position could also be adopted, even in the most serious circumstances, by Socialists considered to be authentic revolutionaries. It was the same in all countries. What made Kautsky a special case was the exceptional position he held in the Socialist movement.

When we read the severe judgements made at that time, it is easy to wonder why Socialists who were as well informed as Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and so many others could be mistaken to such an extent and why for so long they considered Kautsky to be their master in Marxism. The explanation is simple, as soon as we imagine exactly what a Russian revolutionary was, and how such a revolutionary differed from those coming from the great democratic nations. The Russian revolutionary, whom the propaganda of capitalist agents delighted in presenting, for a time, as a bloodthirsty brute with a knife between the teeth, had on the contrary a sense of values, and knew how to appreciate them, even when they were antagonistic. Nothing proved this better than the remark made by Lenin about the famous British institution often quoted since Trotsky reported it in his autobiographical essay My Life. Having escaped from Siberia, Trotsky, summoned by Lenin, came directly to find him in London. The two men met for the first time, the elder anxious to get to know and to size up this young militant who was as impetuous as he was brilliant. During a walk, Lenin stopped for a moment in face of an impressive monument and said: ‘That is their famous Westminster’, putting the stress on ‘their’ — our enemies’ — ‘but Westminster is a great thing. Likewise for the Times, paper of the bourgeoisie, but what a paper! How we should like to be able to make one like it!’[35]

Most Russian Socialists entered political life at the time of the great rise of German industry, and of Social Democracy in parallel. They were Marxists, but they knew they still had a lot to learn; Tsarist prisons and deportation to Siberia gave them spare time, and by introducing them to some of the works of Marx and Engels, also revealed to them the extent of their ignorance. What better master could they find than Kautsky? He was considered as the greatest expert on Marx’s works, and the best commentator on them, the editor of the party’s theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, which enjoyed great prestige among Socialists, and whose high standards ensured that it was treated with respect in non-Marxist intellectual milieus. There was no room for doubt. Probably they sometimes found his erudition sometimes pedantic and a little boring, but his orthodoxy pleased them, and reassured them.

Was it not a motion moved by Kautsky that led to the condemnation of governmental participation at the Paris Congress[36] in 1900 (the Millerand affair in France, that is, the entry of a Socialist into a bourgeois cabinet); and this was repeated at Amsterdam in 1904, this time even obliging Jaurès and the French Socialists to abandon the policy of the Left Bloc, the systematic support for a Radical government. Kautsky’s authority was thus firmly entrenched; it spilled out from the German Social Democracy and spread over the whole International. They read and studied his works which were translated as soon as they were published into most languages; among them was The Social Revolution,[37] in which he gives a detailed description of what it is and compares it with political revolution; however after having dispensed all this education, he was to run away when, some years later, it was to present itself in the form in which he had described it. He wrote in those days:

Every Socialist is working for the revolution, in the broad sense of the term, and yet there are Socialists who reject the idea of revolution and would like to achieve a social transformation solely by reforms… On the contrary, these measures (reforms) are the result of a revolution when they are applied by the classes which have been hitherto economically and politically oppressed and who have now won political power, and who must, in their own interests, more or less rapidly transform the political and juridical superstructures and create new forms of cooperation… Anyone who seeks to win power for an oppressed class is a revolutionary, and he does not lose this quality if he prepares and hastens this conquest by social reforms wrung from the ruling classes… A political revolution cannot become a social revolution unless it is made by a socially oppressed class… Today, theological phrases have lost their power to subdue, especially among the revolutionary elements of the people; as for the appeal to historical right, it has also lost much of its force to constrain.

Such was Kautsky before 1914. He held a quite exceptional position, as we have seen from the facts stated here. He had an authoritative power which in some circumstances he allowed himself to exercise in an off-hand manner. In a series which was popular but very carefully prepared, a French Socialist, Charles Andler,[38] a professor at the Sorbonne and then at the Collège de France, had prepared and published a translation of the Communist Manifesto, supplemented with copious and erudite notes. It was a very honest piece of work by an intellectual who was well informed and conscientious; but Die Neue Zeit treated it lightly, letting it be understood that the author had imprudently strayed onto reserved territory. Finding such behaviour intolerable among Socialists, Andler replied in quite a sharp tone to what he considered to be an unacceptable criticism, demanding to have his reply published in the journal. But he could not even get this normal satisfaction, for his letter was simply returned to him under the convenient pretext that it did not have the right stamps on it.

This was doubtless a minor misadventure, but not without a significance which it is unnecessary to stress: all the more so since we could cite others of the same kind, on subjects of a greater importance. At the turn of the century, economic growth in Germany became so rapid that the effects were soon felt in the international policy of the government, and in parallel there was observed a notable change in the behaviour of the Germans in various fields, particularly in the workers’ movement, where their new hegemony all too often provoked clashes which were not merely personal, and certainly did not encourage the establishment of the cordial relations which are so useful for softening differences of principle.

At the outbreak of war everything changed, above all for the working-class organisations; martial law and censorship deprived them of any possibility of acting on their own account, and even deprived them of any information and communication other than those tolerated by the authorities. For governments, all activity had to be focused on the war. ‘There are no longer any social laws’, a French minister, Millerand, was to reply to workers’ delegates who had come to submit demands to him: ‘There is only the war.’ It was a cynical warning, but whether or not they used the same form of words, it expressed precisely the policy of the ruling classes. It was a testing time for working-class and Socialist militants, whom the ruling class had deprived of all rights from the moment when they asked them to give unconditional support to their war policy, and especially for those who had played an important rôle in the parties and unions, and in the International. It was the case with Kautsky; he never thought or spoke except in terms of class and class struggle, as an intransigent defender of revolutionary Marxism; what other language could he speak? From all around the Socialist movement a statement was awaited from him which would enable the masses to find a direction amid the dark night of wartime. They waited in vain. He was not a member of the Reichstag, and consequently he was not required to speak immediately on the war credits. That allowed him to take refuge in a sort of wait‑and‑see policy; he would be neither Scheidemann, who committed himself unconditionally to the Kaiser’s war policy from the very first day, nor Liebknecht, who initially agreed to accept the discipline of the parliamentary group, but broke away by December, taking advantage of the first opportunity he got to proclaim publicly his opposition to the war and to demand a peace, ‘a peace without annexations which would humiliate nobody’.

For Kautsky, there was nothing for a Socialist to do in time of war, and he who until then had been so long-winded was to abandon almost all activity. He moved closer to Bernstein, whom he had criticised so harshly not long before when he had denounced his heresy, and the two of them took the lead in a sort of centrism which, eschewing clandestine activity, went no further than meeting ‘enemies’ in Switzerland, such as French Socialists and syndicalists, not in order to maintain proletarian internationalism at all costs — for which Zimmerwald was to give the signal — but simply to lament the misfortune of the age, like forsaken prophets.

When he spoke, it was quite a different man from the one who was heard in congresses celebrating the ‘old, tried, victorious tactics’ of German Social Democracy, as he had done at Dresden in 1903, or again saying to the same congress:

We have hitherto sought to widen the gap which separates us from the ruling classes, to stir them up against us, and to frighten them in order to arrive at clear-cut situations, at a struggle where we are sure to win. The new tactic consists of avoiding conflicts, and of circumventing them. The old tactic is based on Marx’s theory. The latter would only be justified if Marxist theory were false.

The war had come as a clear-cut situation, but it was Kautsky who was frightened.

When he wrote, it was a different man, and in a different style; there was no longer anything of the assured, trenchant, definitive style of the editor of Die Neue Zeit, or of the author of The Road to Power. Now he wrote in a smooth language sentences such as: ‘The International is not a weapon for times of war, being by its nature an instrument of peace.’ Or again, when he wrote about press freedom in a revolutionary regime: ‘There are liars and fanatics in every camp.’

H               H               H

If Kautsky was relatively silent during the war, he fully regained the power of speech after the October Revolution, not to defend it — although all his past committed him to such a course — but to fight against it tirelessly, with a determination and a malevolence that no mercenary of the capitalist class could have boasted of exceeding. He was soon to devote a whole book to it, under the title of Terrorism and Communism.[39] The preface bore the date of June 1919, but, the author made clear, he had begun to write it a year earlier, had been interrupted in his work by the German Revolution of 9 November, and had resumed it some months later and completed it when he had the spare time. It was immediately translated into French, and appeared in Paris towards the end of the year.

The tone was that of the new Kautsky. For example: ‘One should not be too strict in judgement on the faults and follies in a revolution… It would be the very cheapest form of Pharisaism for an observer… to blame too heavily the mistakes that are made by men who are in the centre of the fight.’[40] But he was still a pedant: ‘Even at the present day Marx has been little understood. He demanded far too great mental energy.’[41] And the following: ‘The conduct of war is not the proletariat’s strong point.’[42] He wrote that when he still had fresh in his memory four years of war during which, if the military leaders proved anything at all, it was that war was not their strong point, while the Russian workers and peasants, under the rule of the dictatorship of the proletariat, had already given them a few lessons, and would not cease to do so as long as they persisted in intervening and giving their support to the forces of counter-revolution.

As for the content, two references by Kautsky are so significant in showing just how far his hostility to the October Revolution could lead him, that I want to begin by pointing them out. In the chapter devoted to a comparison between the Commune and the Russian Revolution, he refers to the volume of the Socialist History[43] (published under the editorship of Jean Jaurès) a drab, banal work, totally lacking in originality, while there are so many other histories of the Commune to which he could have referred. This is because, he says, its author is ‘the good revolutionary Dubreuilh’. Now this ‘good revolutionary’ is one of those Socialists who wants the war to be fought ‘to the bitter end’, but who themselves remain far away from the trenches; he is not even a centrist like Kautsky, but has more in common with Scheidemann, Cachin, Mussolini and Co.

The other source he relies on is a Swiss anarchist, something which in itself is already rather surprising, since for orthodox Marxists the anarchist was an enemy. But this one, although he was Swiss, was quite willing, like Dubreuilh, for French, Germans, British, Austrians and Italians to go on killing each other in a war which was now without purpose and without any way out; and when the October Revolution had enabled so many workers and intellectuals who had gone astray to recover their balance, like Kautsky, he lined up in the camp of the allies of counter-revolution. It should, however, be stressed that this matter is a much more important one than the preceding one, since it is one of the most impudent lies at a time when, favoured by the propaganda of the warring parties, lies became common currency. Among the offences attributed to the Soviets, there were frequent references, in more or less vague terms, to the so-called ‘socialisation of women’. Kautsky, for his part, committed himself up to the hilt; he had at his disposal a decisive document, found in a publication by the anarchist I have mentioned; a document supposedly issued by a workers’ soviet. It was obviously a forgery which, like many others, could have been dismissed with contempt. However, the fact that Kautsky did not hesitate to pick it up and use it to support his thesis, led Trotsky to seize on it to proceed to an investigation where each of the allegations about the ‘document’ would be examined. It was a fine opportunity to unmask the forgers and the forgeries — and those who became the accomplices of this vile propaganda, starting from the principle that any means was justified if it was turned against the Soviets. This whole story is related in Trotsky’s text.[44]

There is a widespread habit of showing revolutionaries — bourgeois or Socialist — as bloodthirsty individuals given to looting and murder. On the contrary, it would be easy — and it is necessary — to write an introductory chapter, to be inserted into every history of a revolution, to stress the magnanimity and indulgence of revolutionaries. The people of an oppressed class which has just risen to power are not dominated by the idea of vengeance; full of joy at their victory and at feeling liberated from their long years of servitude, they aspire only to put into practice the ideal for which they have fought, and to build the new society which they have envisaged in the course of their struggle. This is a feeling which we find accurately expressed by L Börne[45] in a Letter from Paris on the revolutionary days of 1830. Speaking of the men who led them, he wrote: ‘They triumphed rapidly, and they forgave even more rapidly.’

In 1848, the revolution was a festival which developed amid general joy, and an optimism expressed by the planting of liberty trees in every public square. As for the Commune, it is too easy to condemn it by referring to the massacre of the hostages; that means forgetting that the taking of hostages by the Communards was for them only a means of trying to defend themselves against the unforgettable crime of Thiers who refused to recognise the Fédérés[46] as belligerents, and as a result ordered the shooting of those who were taken prisoner. During a battle at the beginning of the October Revolution, General Krasnov fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Was he immediately executed? By no means; he was set free merely on the basis of a promise of no longer fighting against Soviet Russia. He swore an oath, appealing to his ‘honour as a soldier’ — and hastened to enlist in Denikin’s army.

There is a less important fact, and one of a personal nature, but one which will show how remote the spirit of vengeance remained for revolutionaries. When Trotsky was expelled from France in 1916, the policeman in charge of the operation was called Fauxpas-Bidet.[47] He did his job with such zeal that Trotsky was arrested as soon as he arrived in Spain; the policeman had simply sent a note to his Spanish colleagues in which Trotsky was described as a ‘dangerous anarchist’. Two years later — years during which much had happened — the aforesaid Fauxpas-Bidet was brought before Trotsky in his office in Moscow. ‘Yes, it’s me’, said the policeman, rather confused, and doubtless somewhat worried as to the fate awaiting him. ‘It’s the course of events’, he added, anxious to show that he was not just a common policeman, but that he had some rudiments of political philosophy; in any case, he did not lack cheek, having agreed to come to Russia to spy on men whom he knew as a result of having persecuted them in France. Trotsky was somewhat amused by ‘the course of events’ of the philosophical policeman who was allowed to return to France, doubtless surprised at having survived his adventure at such little cost.

All this is not said, obviously, in order to deny the reality of terrorism, but to show that it is not inherent to revolution. To get to the Committee of Public Safety, to the ‘dictatorship’ of Robespierre, to the prairial law,[48] there had to be the flight of the king, the treachery of the generals, the permanent conspiracy of the émigrés, and the military intervention of foreign powers. If it is obstructed in its determination to rebuild peacefully, the Revolution must defend itself. Driven from power, the possessing class refuses to admit defeat; at the time of its overthrow, it feels powerless and unable to resist; but soon it undertakes to win back the privileges which have just been torn from it, and from then onwards it has recourse to every means possible. As it becomes more aggressive, the struggle will become harsher, the repression more severe, and the police measures more numerous; the counter-revolution will be powerless, but it will succeed in poisoning the new regime by forcing it to carry out a policy it did not intend to, and to waste some of its forces, often the best part, of which it would like to be able to make better use.

Foreign intervention obliged the Revolution to create an army which was to devour people and resources, in a country which had been more or less ruined by a long war or by an incompetent and corrupt governmental regime. When we recall that the total numbers of the Red Army reached five million men in the course of the civil war and the defence against foreign intervention (the same figure as the French army during World War One), it is possible to imagine what the counter-revolution cost Soviet Russia, the vast proportion of its vital forces of which it was deprived.

Now, in his repeated criticisms and attacks, directed at the economic regime which the Soviets were striving to establish, Kautsky made no mention of all these fundamental things which must be known for a sound appreciation of the situation. A Marxist who had become a democrat, he continued to admire the great democratic powers, England and France, which, however, did not perform miracles during the war, and which, above all during the establishment of the peace treaties, left a Europe which was so absurdly carved up that one glance at a map revealed the seeds of a new war.

Trotsky’s work bears the same title as Kautsky’s; it too remained in the process of production for many months, but for different reasons, as the author indicates in his preface:

My work was begun at the most intense period of the struggle with Denikin and Yudenich, and more than once was interrupted by events at the front… We were obliged to expose Kautsky’s economic slanders mainly by analogy with his political slanders.[49]

He went on to say:

This book is devoted to elucidating the methods of the revolutionary policies of the proletariat in our epoch. The presentation is polemical in nature, like the revolutionary policy itself. Once the masses have been won, the polemic against the ruling class turns, at a certain stage, into revolution.[50]

The political part of the work is important, being a pitiless criticism of Kautsky’s abdication — Lenin was to add to it by his book published a little later called The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,[51] where invective takes up as much space as argument. But the economic part is of exceptional interest. Among other things, in the eighth chapter, devoted to questions of labour organisation, it contains a report which Trotsky made to the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions;[52] all the questions dealing with Soviet power and industry are dealt with in total frankness; it is an honest portrait of a difficult situation but a reasoned picture of the magnificent prospects ‘now that the civil war can be considered as completed’. Of fundamental importance in itself, because of its subject matter, this report is also interesting in another fashion: it shows how a Soviet leader at that time spoke to workers.

May 1963


[1].       La Révolution prolétarienne, April 1950.

[2].      An independent left-wing political and literary monthly journal, launched in 1945 by Jean‑Paul Sartre (1905-80), an existentialist philosopher, novelist and playwright, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a philosopher and proponent of phenomenology.

[3].      The Congress of Industrial Organisations, formed after the American Federation of Labor expelled in 1936 the Committee for Industrial Organisation, an alliance of unions formed to organise unorganised basic industries.

[4].      John Llewellyn Lewis (1880-1969) was the President of the United Mine Workers Union during 1920-60, and President of the CIO during 1935-40.

[5].      Rosmer’s irony is prompted by the fact that Guérin’s La Lutte de classes sous la première république (Paris, 1946) had provoked fury on the Popular Frontist left by its critical treatment of Maximilien Robespierre (1750-1794).

[6].      The former Trotskyist David Rousset (1912-1997) had launched a campaign against the Russian camps in Le Figaro littéraire (12 November 1949); Sartre and Merleau-Ponty published an editorial in Les Temps modernes (January 1950), in which they denounced the camps and denied that Russian society was in any sense Socialist, but refused to support Rousset’s campaign because he did not denounce similar abuses in the West. Cf Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no 61, February 1998, pp122-3, and Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no 1, pp166‑8.

[7].      André Philip (1902-1970) was a writer, and a leading SFIO member from the 1920s to the 1950s. He was author of Le Problème ouvrier aux États-Unis, Paris, 1927.

[8].      Wendell Willkie (1892-1944) was an opponent of the New Deal; he left the Democrats in 1939, and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the presidency in 1940; he was a civil rights campaigner in the Second World War.

[9].      Walter Reuther (1907-70) worked in Russia in the 1930s and was friendly to the Communist Party in the USA; but from the 1940s he was a militant anti‑Communist.

[10].     The WFTU was founded in 1945; in 1949 the British TUC and the American CIO walked out, alleging Communist domination, and founded the rival International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

[11].     William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was a sensationalist newspaper publisher, and the model for Citizen Kane.

[12].     William Knudsen (1879-1948) was a manager for Ford and General Motors, and was co‑director with Sidney Hillman of the Office of Production Management in the Second World War. Sidney Hillman (1887-1946) helped found the CIO, and then helped found the WFTU in 1945.

[13].     The American Federation of Labor.

[14].     William (Big Bill) Haywood (1869-1928) was a miners’ leader who helped found the IWW in 1905; he was sentenced to jail for strikes during the First World War, and took refuge in Russia where he died.

[15].     Published in New York, 1913.

[16].     Robert McCormick (1880-1955) was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a Republican.

[17].     La Révolution prolétarienne, September 1951. The English text of Sedova’s letter appears as an appendix to The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists, London, 1971.

[18].     This comment of Marx is much quoted, but there seems to be no precise reference as to where and when he said it.

[19].     A rank higher than archbishop in the Orthodox Church. In the Second World War, the Orthodox Church blessed Stalin’s tanks.

[20].    The first letter was written in English, the second in French.

[21].     Since 1964, Périgny has been in the Val-de-Marne département.

[22].     Lenin’s Moscow.

[23].     La Révolution prolétarienne; Rosmer did not contribute to it after 1955. Cf C Gras, Alfred Rosmer, pp416-26.

[24].     Rosmer is apparently using the word issue in the French sense of ‘way out’.

[25].     Pierre Mendès-France (1907-82) was a French Radical politician and Prime Minister from June 1954 to February 1955, during which time he liquidated the war in Indochina.

[26].     The MRP (Mouvement républicain populaire), founded in 1944, was the French Christian Democrat Party.

[27].     Gras’ bibliography does not list any article in an Indian journal, but Rosmer did write on the Fourth Republic for the Italian journal Tempo Presente in July 1956.

[28].     Published by Editions 10/18, Paris, 1963.

[29].     Raymond Lefebvre (1890-1920) was a French writer. Wounded in the First World War, he became sympathetic to Bolshevism, but drowned on his way back from Russia in 1920.

[30].     Clarté was a journal, edited by Henri Barbusse, and an international grouping of left-wing intellectuals launched in 1919.

[31].     This was the Christian, conservative alliance between Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1815.

[32].     Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), François Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) and Robert Owen (1771-1858) were all early Utopian Socialist thinkers.

[33].     Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) was a Russian anarchist, expelled from the First International in 1872.

[34].     E Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, London, 1909, p202.

[35].     The reference is to Trotsky, My Life, p143, but some of the details do not appear in the English translation.

[36].     Of the Second International.

[37].     English translation, London, 1909.

[38].     Charles Andler (1866-1933) was an historian and sociologist who was active in the SFIO, but moved away from Socialism before 1914.

[39].     English translation published by the National Labour Press, London, 1920.

[40].     K Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism, London, 1920, pp158-9.

[41].     Ibid, p83.

[42].     Ibid, p107.

[43].     A collective, multi-volume work (1900-08) presenting French history since 1789 from a Socialist point of view.

[44].     This forgery, posing as a decree of the Soviet government, began as a joke in Saratov, but rapidly became a piece of propaganda for use against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Cf Alexei Velidov, ‘The Decree on the Nationalisation of Women: The Story of a Mystification’, Moscow News, no 8-9, 1990.

[45].     Ludwig Börne (1786-1837) was a German critic and writer, the ideologist of the Young Germany movement.

[46].     Soldiers in the service of the Paris Commune.

[47].     It would appear from My Life (pp264-5) that the policeman’s name was simply Bidet, and that ‘Faux Pas’ (Blunder) was a nickname attributed to him.

[48].     The law of 22 prairial Year II (10 June 1794) reorganised the Revolutionary Tribunal, and allowed no verdict but acquittal or death.

[49].     LD Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, London, 1975, p31.

[50].     LD Trotsky, ‘Preface to the 1936 French Edition’, in ibid, p13.

[51].     In fact this was written earlier, in October-November 1918, in response to Kautsky’s 1918 pamphlet The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Collected Works, Volume 28, Moscow, 1965, pp227‑325).

[52].     Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, op cit, pp132-76.