Alfred Rosmer was born in the US in 1877, but his family returned to France in 1884. As a young office worker, then a proofreader, he was attracted to anarchism before becoming a syndicalist.
The syndicalists, sickened by the corruption and careerism among parliamentary politicians, argued that the only way to get real socialism was through trade union direct action.
In 1914 most socialists backed their own governments in the First World War. But Rosmer was one of a tiny group who opposed war from day one.
Their efforts helped build a big anti-war movement by 1918. One of the young women brought into political activity by the war was Marguerite Thevenet, who became Alfred’s lifelong partner.
Through his activity Rosmer also met a Russian exile, Leon Trotsky, who took refuge in Paris before being deported.
Alfred and Marguerite welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917 with enthusiasm. In 1920 Alfred went to Moscow, where he stayed for 17 months.
The Russians were anxious to win the support of syndicalists throughout Europe, and Alfred was given the task of setting up a new revolutionary trade union organisation.
Marguerite stayed in France and helped found the French Communist Party. The veteran German socialist Clara Zetkin described her as one of the party’s best leaders.
In 1922 Marguerite took a supply train into some of the areas of Russia worst hit by famine, seeing, as she said, an aspect of the country not visible to those who only attended conferences.
In short, Alfred and Marguerite were among the most dedicated supporters of all that was best in the Russian Revolution. And they were among the sharpest critics when things started to go wrong.
Even before Stalin consolidated his power, there were those in the Russian leadership who wanted to impose an authoritarian approach on the international revolutionary movement. Things came to a head with the formation of a Labour government in Britain in 1924.
The official line was that Communists should simply denounce this government and workers would flock to the Communists.
Alfred argued that a more patient strategy was necessary—making concrete demands and working with members of the Labour left in a united front. He was promptly expelled by the French Communist Party.
In the late 1920s Alfred and Marguerite worked closely with Trotsky in trying to build an alternative to the Communists.
Alfred travelled across Europe—visiting Germany, Austria and Belgium—trying to group together small numbers of sympathisers.
Marguerite encouraged some of the young intellectuals who had joined the movement, sending them to sell papers at factory gates.
In 1931 the Rosmers disagreed with Trotsky about tactics, thinking he was too impatient, but they remained personal friends.
In 1936 Stalin launched a series of show trials in which many of the veterans of the revolution were put to death. Alfred took part in the Dewey commission, an independent body set up to investigate the trials.
In 1938, when Trotsky’s new organisation, the Fourth International, was launched, the Rosmers let the meeting be held at their home in the Paris suburbs.
The Rosmers believed that under Stalin nothing remained of the socialist impulse that had made the revolution of 1917. Alfred described Russia as “nothing but a great power, military and militaristic…distinctive only by the brutality of a totalitarian regime”.
In 1951 he supported Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, when she declared that Stalin’s Russia had become a new form of capitalism.
In 1953 Alfred published Lenin’s Moscow, his memoirs of the period 1920 to 1924. It was a marvellous account of the revolutionary spirit that had prevailed in the early years of the revolution.
Though over 70, Alfred continued to travel the world, encouraging small socialist groups that stood independently of both Washington and Moscow. In Britain he met members of the Socialist Review Group, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1960, not long before his death, Alfred signed a declaration encouraging French soldiers not to fight in the Algerian War. It was a repeat of his anti-war stand in 1914.
His encouragement passed on the torch to a new generation of young revolutionaries who would play a part in the massive revolt by workers and students in 1968.
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