An eyewitness to 
the Russian Revolution

Lenin's Moscow

Translated by Ian Birchall

Alfred Rosmer’s memoir, Lenin’s Moscow, is one of the most important accounts that we have of the Russian Revolution as its heroic defense began to give way to degeneration in the 1920s. When the first French edition was published in 1953, Albert Camus wrote, “The difficult thing is to observe the way a revolution goes astray without losing one’s faith in the necessity for that revolution.” More than half a century on, this beautifully produced third edition still demands attention for the way in which Rosmer deals with this problem.

Rosmer was born into a worker’s family in 1877 and worked for a short time as a minor civil servant. Having first been attracted to anarchism, he had, by his thirties, become a leading figure in revolutionary syndicalism in France. He opposed World War I and supported the Russian Revolution. Between 1920 and 1924 he travelled to Russia on several occasions, becominga significant figure in the early Communist International and the Red International of Trade Unions.

He saw early on the seriousness of the problems

of the degeneration of the revolution and was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1924 for his opposition to the first attempts to impose a general line from Moscow. Thereafter he stood with the Left Opposition, and after breaking with Trotsky in a messy dispute over Trotsky’s personal and political judgements, he remained a close friend. Following World War II he lived on for another two decades, attacking French imperialism and largely holding to a revolutionary line during the worst of the Cold War, when so many lined up for either Washington or Moscow.

His life story as that of a militant over seven decades is fascinating. But he was also a valuable writer through whose writings many of the debates of the day can be traced. Much of this work is not available in English, but an important collection of his writings including translations of chapters from The Workers Movement During the War can be found ina special issue of Revolutionary History, making an important complement to Lenin’s Moscow.1

But Lenin’s Moscow stands in its own right. Rosmer tells how, although writing three decades on, he was inspired by a desire to emulate the immediacy of Arthur Ransome’s Six Weeks in Russia (1919). “I was there, this is how it happened,” Rosmer says. The result is a book that, if it lacks all the depth of Victor Serge’s memoir, should still have a place on every socialist’s bookshelf for the Russian Revolution.2 This is not only for what it tells us about the struggle to keep the revolution alive, but also because of the way it explains the political debates and perspectives occurring at the time. One way of measuring the value of Rosmer’s account is to divide its contribution into its discussion of period, places, people, and above all, the politics of the left.

The period

Rosmer’s book describes a world in turmoil—perhaps more turmoil than it had seen before or since. Those running capitalism were faced with a challenge they had never anticipated when they went to war. In the defeated states the war created chaos. Political structures fell apart; new states were created; economies disintegrated, society polarized. Disillusion was widespread. It swept up many in the seemingly stronger victor states too, causing business leaders and politicians to fear for the future.

The socialist movement split, with the majority supporting their respective governments, but it also split the syndicalist and anarchist movements. Across the front it seemed that socialists were prepared to fire on socialists, syndicalists on syndicalists, and anarchists on anarchists. Rosmer tells elsewhere how isolated the antiwar Left was in France, and it was weakened further by conscription. Rosmer himself was conscripted in May 1915 and so could not attend the Zimmerwald conference held in Switzerland in September 1915, when a first puny attempt was made to bring together the remnants of the antiwar Left.

But the situation soon changed as revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917 and then took a more radical turn in October, overthrowing both the tsarist regime and the provisional government in the name of a still embryonic but hopefully growing international working-class movement. As the war came to an end, the years 1918 to 1921 saw the biggest sustained international upsurge in working-class history. Huge numbers were pulled to the left. Membership of left parties and trade unions soared. The strike indicators in country after country shot up, only finally subsiding in 1921–1922. Even then the immediate postwar revolutionary crisis would have one last gasp in Germany. In the autumn of 1923 it seemed to tip again to the edge of revolution, having been close on four previous occasions: in November 1918–January 1919, in March–April 1919, in June 1919, and again in March 1921.

To ride this storm, the rulers of Europe did two things. One was to isolate the revolution in Russia and attempt to defeat it militarily through direct intervention and support for the counterrevolution. Second, in their own countries, they were to hold the line against the threat from below. This meant trying to contain popular anger by some positive measures, and also buying time in the hope that the fire would burn itself out, and/or that the leaders of any left challenge would fumble their chance.

On the left the socialist and trade union leaders were torn—pushed to the left by their dreams and pressures from below, but pulled back to the center by the hooks that had been sunk into them by capitalism and that they had sunk into. In their own eyes they were realists, but to the revolutionary Left they were vacillators, compromisers, and sell-outs. “We have the strength. . . . The only problem for us is how to use that strength,” Rosmer records the Italian socialist leader Serrati saying. But the revolutionary Left was itself chaotic and inexperienced. Should it try to seize the moment or was it risking all by going too far, too fast? The anarchist Ernesto Malatesta warned, “If we let the favorable movement by, then afterwards we shall have to pay with tears of blood for the fear we are causing the bourgeoisie.”3

It would take a few years for Malatesta’s insight to prove true. In 1921–1922 it seemed more complex. Returning to France on October 1921, Rosmer found that “the revolutionary spirit” evident there when he had left in early 1920 had now “been greatly dampened down. On all sides there were reservations and passivity.” This included the new French Communist Party, where many at the top seemed to prefer to “plot in corners.”

But even as Europe’s rulers realized that they could breathe more easily, they had also to recognize they had not succeeded in defeating revolutionary Russia militarily. They had now the task of looking for a longer-term basis on which they could reconstruct Europe and the parts of the world they controlled. But they had to do this through a mist of mutual distrust, vying with one another to achieve quite contradictory objectives.

Difficult border crossings

Rosmer’s account also gives us some sense of conditions in Europe between 1920 and 1924, when getting in and out of Russia was no easy task. It was blockaded early on, there was physical destruction wrought by the civil war and a continued threat of mines in the Baltic. Most revolutionaries had to travel more or less clandestinely, struggling to find funds, accommodation, documents, and keeping half an eye out for the police and spies. On a boat in the Baltic, Rosmer met the American socialist Louis Fraina and the British trade union militant J. T. Murphy, who were both sleeping in the ship’s coalbunker.

Rosmer’s first journey to Russia in 1920 took six weeks. He went from southern France to Catalonia, then to Paris and back down to Italy, then north again through Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and on to Tallinn to get a ship to St. Petersburg and then a train to Moscow. This enabled him to see the problems in the defeated states, as well as conditions in the victor states and some newly independent ones. As the old Europe broke up, the new states were “barricading themselves behind their frontiers.” There were new passports, entry and exit visas, customs inspections, and problems in exchanging new and old currencies. Some of this was part of the blockade against Russia. Some was a product of each state’s desire to control the cross-border trade of carpetbaggers seeking to take advantage of black and grey markets. But some was simply an assertion of nationalism. “The intensity of the chauvinism,” wrote Rosmer, “seemed to develop in inverse proportion to the size of the country.”

The Russia he arrived in was a land in the midst of the struggle against the foreign-supported counterrevolution. In the cities, the mass of people lived on “foul black bread.” For them a “bowl of millet (porridge) would be a feast.” In Petrograd “the suffering . . . had been terrible.” Even the wooden pavements had been partly ripped up for fuel. Moscow, where Rosmer would live from June 1920 to October 1921, was also in a bad way. To have a little was to have more, but he stresses the absence of a hierarchy in the distribution of scarce resources at this time. He first meets Trotsky trying to recover some energy in the house of a former rich merchant. The ground floor had become a museum and the top floor was only accessible by a ladder; the plumbing had failed in the whole building, as it did in most of Russia in these years, because of the lack of fuel and the extreme cold. Working in the building of the All Russian Congress of Trade Unions, where Rosmer was playing a key role in trying to develop the Red International of Trade Unions, he remembers that they had “just the very minimum requirement for work. Little heating . . . and above all a terrible smell of fish soup which filled the whole building.” But he found the political atmosphere “intoxicating” along with the arguments. “We spoke freely and without embarrassment,” he says.

Journeying to the far south for the Conference of the Peoples of the East in Baku, Rosmer was able to see the scale of the physical destruction of the Civil War. “Stations had been destroyed . . . sidings were full of half burnt wrecks.” The oil wells were in “a deplorable state . . . (and) a pitiful sight.” There was also a continuing threat of banditry. Food was more plentiful and varied, but disease was ever present, and it was on this trip in the same delegation that John Reed caught the typhus that would kill him and millions of others in the epidemics that came with World War I and the civil war.

When Rosmer returned to Russia in 1922, 1923, and 1924, he began to see signs of recovery under the New Economic Policy (NEP). But he was aware from the very start how difficult this would be given the huge price that had “to be paid to liberate the land of the revolution” and win the civil war. There was a dire shortage of equipment, a dire shortage of good “men,” and a vast gap to be closed with the population whose needs had taken second place to winning the war. Old prejudices were surfacing. In a Moscow bar he was told that if he is with the Communists, then he must be a Jew.

Leading participants

Rosmer had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the labor movement in Europe and America. This was reinforced by his personal acquaintance in these years with the leading militants, some of whom he had met in the antiwar movement and others he saw at close hand in Moscow.

In Lenin’s Moscow, we encounter key left-wing figures from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. Most would later split three ways—some towards Stalinism, some to the center, others even to fascism. But at this time, they had been thrown into prominence as militants by the revolutionary wave. Rosmer is aware of their failings but he tries to avoid too much reading of the future into this past in order to show the complexity of the situation. Vivid portraits of some of the anarchists he knew as well as figures like Clara Zetkin sit alongside more casual discussions of a range of socialist and trade union leaders, including John Reed, Earl Browder, and William Foster from the United States. Perhaps because of his own experience as a worker militant, he always tries to bring out what he sees as the posturing in the name of the working class to which people easily fell prey.

But it is his discussions of the Russians he met that are perhaps the more interesting to English language readers today. Rosmer knew some of the leaders of the Russian Revolution from their exile in Europe before and during the war—especially those linked to the small Nashe Slovo group in Paris (Trotsky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Lozovsky). This protected him from believing the more lurid claims of anti-Bolshevik propaganda. He understood intuitively the scale of the confusion amongst western commentators who often could not put faces to names and happily spread confusion and deliberate deception.

Lenin and Trotsky were the political giants for Rosmer. Both commanded enormous respect and affection, both were distinguished by their capacity for hard work. Their stature derived not just from the role that they had played in 1917 but the role they were playing in the civil war. Of the two it was Trotsky that Rosmer saw more closely, even travelling on his famous armored train as the civil war came to a halt. But he is more interested in their international role. Rosmer suggests that Lenin and Trotsky, unlike many others in the leadership, shared a good understanding of the nature of the socialist and trade union movement beyond Russia; they were prepared to listen, and they had a keen ability to distinguish the direction of political movement and the need to avoid empty rhetoric and gestures.

Rosmer also saw Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin, and many others at close hand. In the mid-1920s, Rosmer briefly would consider Zinoviev a more dangerous figure than Stalin. While not denying Zinoviev’s positive qualities, Rosmer writes about his poor political judgements and the weak organizational abilities that he shared with a number of others. Indeed, it is fascinating to read Rosmer as a militant demanding high levels of organizational ability—perhaps a reflection of his own role in trying to help keep the syndicalist magazine La vie ouvrière going in France in the most difficult of circumstances. Rosmer also knew Shlyapnikov and Kollontai. Significantly, as a former syndicalist, he does not appear to have been impressed by their Workers’ Opposition, not least because he thought by this point that the trade unions were in a “state of semi-lethargy.” He also writes critically of attempts to apply a crude “workerist interpretation” of the Kronstadt rebellion.

But if Rosmer is not blind to faults, he tries still to give us a sense of the difference between honest mistakes made in trying to deal with completely original situations, and decisions taken for opportunistic reasons of personal and regime gain.

One person is crucially all but missing from Rosmer’s account—Stalin. Rosmer notes that Stalin hardy figured in his impressions of the time. This is in part because Stalin was not seen as part of the leadership in Moscow that had its finger on the international pulse. But it was also because, as Birchall writes in his introduction, “nobody had yet thought of the idea of socialism in one country.”7 Big though the challenges faced by the Communist regime in Lenin’s Moscow and wider Russia, they still were seen as part of a bigger project of spreading the revolution internationally. Only after 1924 would the relationship be turned on its head, and “international revolution” take second place to the idea of building up power in Russia.

Politics above all

But Rosmer’s accounts of the period, places, and people all take second place to his attempt to recover the key political debates and controversies of the day. Rosmer was a keen observer of the debates in Russia about the development of the revolution. Today these are much better understood by historians, though many, perhaps the majority, refuse to see that war communism was a product of a situation where everything had to be for the war effort. It had inevitably led to the centralization and militarization of power. “War communism,” he writes, “was communism in name only . . . it had been a necessity of war imposed . . . by the Whites and the Entente.” 8 The regime was then forced to draw back from it in 1921–1922. First arriving in early 1920 and leaving in late 1921, Rosmer saw both these issues debated, and what he calls the “groping, searching and failure to make decisions” which then led to the New Economic Policy. The problem then became the extent to which this policy was a temporary breathing space or the basis of a longer-term strategy.

But more important than what he observed about the debates in Russia is his role as participant in the major debates on the international left about what could be learned from 1917 and how to build a new international communist movement. Then the problem of an alternative was seen in terms of the failure of old socialist parties in the face of the challenge of war. Today we also see it in terms of what came later—the so-called process of “Bolshevization” where, from 1924 onwards, a line was uncritically imposed from Moscow on Communist parties in other countries. But Rosmer is clear that this process, to which he early fell victim, was a product of the degeneration of the revolution, not its essence. He records Lenin himself warning about the extent to which people were too uncritically leaning on a “Russian” model that they did not really understand.

But when these debates occurred the problem was new and there is still freshness in Rosmer’s account. He is proud of the fact, for example, that various syndicalists and anarchists were some of the first to rally to the revolution in Western Europe. Their previous opposition to political parties had been wrongly understood as an opposition to politics. The real problem had been that the socialist parties were top-down organizations, too focused on parliament and increasingly detached from workplace struggles and the trade unions. In Russia they saw the success of the revolution as arising out of just such bottom-up struggles, which it was the task of a new form of party to link together. It was this idea, too, that the early Communist International tried to stress.

But these ideas encountered difficulties from those who could not see much beyond the old parties, as well as those on the left who saw nothing but workplace and trade union struggles. The problem was made more complex by the positive way in which parts of the existing socialist Left were now pulled towards revolution. Rosmer talks of key figures swimming with the stream; the downside to this, however, was that it was not always clear how much of the old they had jettisoned. The newly formed Communist parties in 1918–1922 were uneasy amalgams of people who had crossed over, and young militants and ultraleft groups whose positions were often overambitious. Developing a clear conception of the role of party, class, and opposition became a vital debate of the day. Political and policy differences were especially rancorous in the French Communist Party, and Rosmer was expelled in late 1924 for rejecting the new line that was emerging form a Communist International now, if temporarily, under Zinoviev’s control.

The debates also included the relationship of revolutionaries to trade unions and the role of trade unions in the class struggle. The betrayal of the Second International meant that it seemed natural to develop a new Third International as an alternative. More controversial, now and then, was the argument for a new trade union international. Rosmer was at the center of this initiative through his role in the Red International of Trade Unions. The same issues also arose in relation to the wider international peasant movement and the colonial peoples, though Rosmer has less to say on this.

Then, as the revolutionary tide began to moderate, the issue of a change in tactics emerged. Rosmer explains how this led to the idea of the united front. But he also brings out the confusion that this created, as well as how it differed from attempts to develop what would be called “popular fronts.”

Today these debates can all be read in English, but Rosmer remains a fine and sensitive guide—perhaps the best place to start to understand them. This is not simply because he is a trustworthy guide. It is because he shows us how difficult it was to make the right arguments and draw the right conclusions in the fog of the day. Later accounts would fix positions and make the choices seem less difficult than they were. This was reflected in the degeneration of the Communist parties as they descended towards uncritical support for Stalinism. The positions debated by the first four congresses of the Communist International were reduced to rote learning about what was done and what should have been done.


Lenin’s Moscow rejects any idea of an inevitable degeneration of the Russian Revolution and least of all one driven by ideology—a view more popular than ever today. Rosmer returns at a number of points to the unexpected isolation of the revolution and the responsibility of those in the West who left it isolated. He also insists on the scale of the economic and social distortion created by the civil war. Russia was left “an accumulation of ruins,” with recovery made more difficult by the famine that then followed in 1921–1922. His account of the political debates in Moscow is in part also an attempt to show us how different the situation was from what would come later. But the specter of degeneration hangs heavily over the last part of Rosmer’s account.

He makes no big claims here as to what the revolution degenerated into or when the degeneration was complete. But he sees the year 1923 as the decisive year when the balance toward the progressive elements in the revolution began to tip toward something else.

Internationally, capitalism seemed to be stabilizing more firmly. Those on the center left who had been pulled toward the revolution now began to swing away and tack toward the middle ground. In Italy in late 1922, Mussolini had shocked the Left by forcing his way to power with the fascist March on Rome.

But it got worse in 1923, a year marked by what Rosmer calls “hesitations, inconsistencies, and disasters.” In Bulgaria in June, a coup détat overthrowing a peasant government was met with what he calls “brainless passivity” by the Bulgarian Communist Party, only for it then to be encouraged to launch “a disastrous putsch” in September, which became the pretext for another “white terror.” But the biggest defeat came in Germany. There crisis grew from January, partly provoked by the French occupation of the Ruhr and hyperinflation. But it was allowed to pass amongst hesitations and conflicting signals from and to Moscow, especially in October 1923, when the Weimar system again looked paralyzed.

Whether a better and clearer line from the Communist International could have encouraged a different outcome remains one of the great unknowns. But Rosmer stresses how the international weaknesses now combined with internal Russian ones. Lenin was incapacitated and Trotsky was becoming marginalized. Power, unrestrained from below, was swinging in a more bureaucratic direction toward an erratic leader like Zinoviev.

As yet the shadow of Stalin was only a shadow. In 1923–1924, says Rosmer, “at bottom, no one—except the man himself—believed that Stalin could aspire to first place.” Unlike in 1920–1921, when Rosmer had spent a prolonged time in Russia, now his shorter trips did not allow him to sense the scale of what was happening at the time. But with hindsight a tipping point had been reached.

The problems were already great by the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924. Things then moved even more quickly. By the time of the fifth Congress of the Communist International in June 1924, he writes, “It was Moscow without Lenin.” If it was not yet Moscow under Stalin, it soon would be. But Lenin’s Moscow remains a fantastic guide to how different things were before Stalin’s rise, the debates of the day, and the opportunities that were lost.

  1. “From Syndicalism to Trotskyism. Writings of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer,” Revolutionary History, vol. 7 no.4, 2000. There is also an excellent article on Rosmer during World War I by Ian Birchall, “Rereading Rosmer,” International Socialist Review 97, Summer 2015.
  2. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2012).
  3. Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). All quotes from this point in the review are from Rosmer’s book.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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