Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism

Alfred Rosmer, Boris Souvarine, Emile Fabrol, Antoine Clavez
Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism
Francis Boutle, London, 2002, pp250, £10.00

THIS book is divided into three sections, the first of which consists of two essays by Emile Fabrol and one by Antoine Clavez, translated from the French magazine Prométhée, as are all but one of those in the second section, which are the documents written at the time by Rosmer, Souvarine and their comrades. The third section is Rosmer’s continuation of Trotsky’s My Life from 1929 until his murder. To do this, Rosmer used excerpts from Trotsky’s own writings. One can only agree with Al Richardson’s comment in his introduction: ‘Our admiration for Rosmer’s conscientiousness and fidelity to his subject can only increase when we realise that at the time he was selecting them [the excerpts] he no longer shared Trotsky’s views.’ (p. 12) It was taken from the CERMTRI website. Reading Rosmer’s texts, one senses his devotion to the cause of communism, his loyalty to his friend Trotsky, and his thoroughgoing integrity faced with assorted rogues then coming to the fore. Each section is annotated, and an index is provided.

In the introduction, Al draws some critical conclusions about what became Trotskyism, either from his own experience and study, or from the content of the first two sections of this book. They include the mythology of a continuity of Trotskyism from 1923, when in fact the first wave of Trotskyists outside Russia largely vanished. Neither was it Trotskyist as such, which also applies to the Russian 1923 opposition, nor was Trotsky a part of the latter, and he specifically repudiated the former. ‘The modern international Trotskyist movement … goes back to a second wave originating in the Joint Opposition in the USSR. The majority of its personnel were Zinovievists …’ (p. 13) These were the people who had expelled the first wave, promoted ‘Bolshevisation’, helped construct ‘Leninism’ and ‘Trotskyism’, proclaimed the latter, along with ‘Luxemburgism’ and ‘Brandlerism’, a deviation akin to ‘Menshevism’, and all in the service of denigrating Trotsky and removing him as a potential successor to Lenin. ‘Bolshevisation’ destroyed the democratic structures of the Communist parties, imposing a top-down command system, as well as instituting unquestionable rule over them by Moscow. It did the groundwork for Stalinisation. Al refers to the unpleasant features common to the Trotskyist organisations, describing them as bearing ‘more than a passing resemblance to Stalinism’ (p. 13). This can be attributed to the origins of the second wave in the Zinovievist political school.

The first essay by Fabrol, The Prelude to Stalinism, explains what ‘Bolshevisation’ was in the French Communist Party (PCF), and its consequences. A key figure in this process was Alfred Lepetit, the Comintern representative, who must have been sent to France following his stint as Zinoviev’s mouthpiece in the German Communist Party (KPD) Central Committee, where he was known as August Kleine or Guralsky. Once his boss decided to scapegoat Brandler and Thalheimer for the absence of an uprising in October 1923, to link Trotsky with them via Radek, in order to shift any blame from the ECCI and to discredit Trotsky, Guralsky was mobilised to help. He wrote this gem in the KPD’s theoretical organ in March 1924: ‘The alliance between Brandler–Thalheimer and Radek–Trotsky in the German question is no coincidence. It concerns the fundamental questions: de-Bolshevisation of the RCP [Russian Communist Party] and the European parties or retaining the Bolshevik tutelage in the RCP [sic!] and Bolshevising the European parties.’ Guralsky’s rôle in Germany is not mentioned in the book.

The piece by Clavez, entitled The Bureaucratisation and Destruction of the Party, shows how Zinoviev got Albert Treint to head the PCF, and how the Zinovievists began ‘ridding the party of all the elements who had accumulated any experience’, in order to replace them with ‘recent members… incapable of questioning the correctness of the general line’ (p. 38). He quotes Trotsky on Treint from 1929, stating that ‘Zinovievism was a mixture of extreme leftism and centrism’, and accusing him of wanting ‘to apply Zinovievist methods within the framework of the opposition’ (pp. 41–2). Trotsky’s definition is false. The leftism of the Zinovievists (advancing revolution as the only solution, no serious work in the mass organisations, then gross opportunism when forced to take a stand – that is, the rejection of transitional politics) is merely one variety of centrism, and one can observe it in the practice of the Trotskyists most of the time. In fact Clavez sees James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party as ‘the Trotskyist group where Zinovievist influence is most striking’ (p. 43), and illustrates it by quoting from the appalling book The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. Of course, Cannon trained a whole strand of the British Trotskyist movement, and to them his book was a sort of bible.

Fabrol’s second essay, The French Communist Party and Trotsky, focuses on how ‘Bolshevisation’ changed the PCF, both in composition and its leadership, and how an apparatus was also created. He recounts the struggle over Trotsky in the RCP and its echo inside the PCF, where he was very popular. It mentions the discovery by the Bolshevisers of an ‘international Right’, which conveniently included, not genuine right-wingers, plentiful in the PCF leadership, but all those whom Zinoviev needed to remove from the leadership of the parties who had come out in support of Trotsky, protested against the denigration of him within the RCP, were suspected of support for him while also blaming the ECCI for the failure of the October 1923 uprising in Germany, and had opposed the scapegoating of Brandler and Thalheimer. Fabrol blames the ECCI for the failure, pointing out how Zinoviev first justified the retreat of the KPD, only to condemn it later, and sees ‘Bolshevisation’ as being one of its main consequences. He quotes from an article, probably authored by Guralsky, in the PCF’s theoretical organ, on the new ideology of ‘Leninism’: ‘… only the theory, tactics and practice provided by Lenin and applied by his pupils are truly correct … any other methods and theories developed even by the best revolutionaries (like Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg) are false, and are only survivals of the old methods and theories of the social democratic left’ (p. 54). The removal of all opposition and creation of ideological conformity undertaken by Treint was also going on elsewhere, he writes, naming Ruth Fischer in Germany. Actually the first task was in the hands of Anton Grylewicz, assisted by Werner Scholem, in the KPD’s Orgbüro. The former led the minority of the Leninbund which fused with the rump Wedding Opposition in March 1930 to create the German Trotskyist grouping, while the latter had a relationship with the Trotskyists during the 1930s. Scores of workers’ leaders, old Spartacists, were expelled by them.

Boris Souvarine’s How I Came to be Regarded as a Trotskyist begins the second section. It was written many years later when he was an anti-Communist, but it is very useful anyway, and it also criticises some of Trotsky’s inconsistencies. One can usually get some mental stimulation from Souvarine’s writing.

Next comes the Second Letter to the Members of the Communist Party: The Reply of the Three Expelled, by Delagarde, Monatte and Rosmer. It informs party members of what has gone on and why. Looking at the Zinovievist concept of the party, it makes the crucial point that its policy ‘in no way lies in developing the class consciousness of the proletariat, but in creating the greatest possible number of conformists, bootlickers and sluggards’ (p. 88). It looks at the wrecking of the trade union work and how ‘the great task of preparing a current of opinion favourable to international trade union unity was sabotaged even more’ (p90). We see a description of the centrism with a leftist face referred to above. It also insists that ‘we are not acquainted with “Leninism” or “Trotskyism”’.

Rosmer’s About the “Final Warning” Given to Trotsky: The Myth of Trotskyism follows. In it Rosmer explains the debate in the RCP in 1923, its causes and consequences. In the conclusion, he insists ‘we are not Trotskyists, since there is no such thing as “Trotskyism”’ (p. 113). In A Ridiculous Gesture, Rosmer explains why the PCF leadership attacked Max Eastman’s Since Lenin Died, a book they had not yet read, describing its contents and why the RCP leadership required that it be condemned by the sections of the Communist International.

This section ends with The Reply of the “Nucleus” to Trotsky’s Two Requests, which is the answer of Rosmer and his comrades to Trotsky’s asking of them to close down their journal La Révolution Prolétarienne and to appeal to the ECCI against their expulsions from the PCF. It is worth giving a few key extracts:

Denunciations of an ‘international Right’ and the slogan of ‘Bolshevising the Parties’ made their appearance at the beginning of 1924, at a time when two important events – the October defeat in Germany and Lenin’s death – coming at a time when his party was going through a serious internal crisis, weighed heavily upon the international workers’ movement … Now it was after these two important events that we saw men trusted by the leadership appear in the International’s sections, bearing the slogan of ‘Bolshevisation’ and denouncing an ‘international Right’ … It was necessary to condemn without delay the opposition that had appeared within the Russian Communist Party as counter-revolutionary, to place all the responsibility for the German setback upon some men who were identified as scapegoats, and to denounce the ‘international Right’, not the real one … but an imaginary ‘Right’, especially created for the occasion. (p. 122)

It mentions the ‘catastrophic situation created in Germany by the Ruth Fischer–Maslow group’, ‘the well-nigh total elimination of Communist influence in the trade unions’, and asks why the Communist International put these people at the head of the KPD, answering thus: ‘Because it needed them to combat Radek and Brandler. The finishing off of these two comrades by Ruth Fischer at the Fifth Congress … was the linchpin of the essential work of the congress – a nauseating display of scalps.’ (p. 124)

The wreckage was greatest in Germany, but it could also be seen elsewhere, including France, where Trotsky would find ‘the most “leftist” leftism and the shallowest opportunism’. The RCP had ‘heaped up difficulties for itself the day it asked the sections of the Communist International to pronounce upon the crisis it was going through without their understanding it, whilst dictating to them the response they should make’ (p. 127). And ‘if Ruth Fischer has shown that she understands nothing of the trade union movement, then Treint and his ilk understand it no better’ in relation to trade union unity: ‘They sabotaged a movement that stood out in their favour and have messed up the exceptionally favourable situation created by the formation of a left within the Amsterdam International.’ (p. 127) The third Profintern congress in July 1924 had decided to campaign for a fusion with the IFTU, and this had generated enormous enthusiasm in Germany and Scandinavia. It was this movement to which Rosmer et al. referred, not the Anglo-Russian Committee, as the note states (p. 137). The ARC emerged out of this campaign which saw a left favouring fusion and a right opposing it within the IFTU. The campaign had ebbed when the ARC was established, and it revived the unity movement. Factional interests in the RCP summit resulted in the Profintern languishing for another decade before being wound up.

Rosmer and the others saw ‘Bolshevisation’ as ‘the departure point for a break with the previous policy of the Communist International, and it amounts to a return to social democracy. It has substituted a sickly and extravagant boastfulness for revolutionary realism.’ (p. 128) They saw no point in appealing to it, and saw a need to maintain La Révolution Prolétarienne.

These texts should contribute to some rethinking and demystification regarding Communist history, particularly concerning the so-called Trotskyist current. Perhaps a subtitle should have indicated that the contents intended to clarify and demystify rather than perpetuate the post-1929 version. One could go on from here to examine what came from Zinovievism apart from the unpleasant regimes and methods of the Trotskyist groups. The Platform of the Joint Opposition of 1927, for example, heavily influenced by Zinoviev’s group, expresses support for the Urbahns–Fischer–Maslow group, by then expelled from the KPD, which it saw as embracing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of old worker Bolsheviks. Yet the platform of the Left Opposition of the KPD was leftist, as was the Letter of the 700 before it. For example, it saw the KPD leadership as being in the hands of the right wing, as did the Platform of the Joint Opposition. Was Thälmann’s leadership right-wing? By the late 1920s, Trotsky had no support outside the Soviet Union, apart from tiny groups and individuals, and with the capitulation of the Zinoviev group he ended up inheriting those of the latter’s supporters abroad, as well as elements even more sectarian. His position on the German October shifted from blaming the ECCI – that is, Zinoviev – to adopting his scapegoating of Brandler. Needless to say, neither he nor his German adherents ever made an analysis. He also adopted the label ‘Left’ for his current and took over the Bolshevisers’ hostility to the ‘Right’, when he had never been nor was ever regarded as a leftist, and the label which had previously described sectarians had now become a virtue. Rosmer et al. saw ‘the most “leftist” leftism’ of the Zinovievists as an abandonment of ‘revolutionary realism’, that is, transitional politics, and ‘a return to social democracy’, whereas I see it as a variety of centrism. Nobody would deny the fact that Trotsky was a revolutionary realist, but his movement ended up heavily influenced by Zinovievist ‘leftism’. More research needs doing following up these texts.

From original and contemporary French sources, these texts only touch on events beyond France, but August Thalheimer, one of the those identified as scapegoats for the German retreat in 1923, wrote a substantial text both analysing the Fifth Comintern Congress and subjecting it along with ‘Bolshevisation’ to a thorough critique. It was sent to the organs of the KPD and Comintern organs, but was suppressed, only being published in 1993 in Germany. It looks at the debate over Trotsky, the German events, and the removal of the Communist party leaderships, not just in France and Germany, but in the Polish and Czechoslovak parties. It examines the ideas of ‘Bolshevisation’, the installing of ‘blank pages’ untainted by a past in the social democracy, who would receive instructions by the ‘tried and tested’ Bolsheviks in Moscow, the universalisation of Russian experience, etc. Then it deals with the ‘United Front from Below’, the Workers’ Government as a pseudonym for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, among other things. An English translation is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming edition of Revolutionary History.

Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011