A philistine attack on Alfred Rosmer’s book

by

A letter to Socialist Review and John Molyneux

Bob Gould

My excitement and interest were raised by a brief “review” by John Molyneux in Socialist Review of the new book, Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism by Alfred Rosmer and other early Left Oppositionists and Trotskyists.

As an old Trotskyist, and also as a bookselling agitator, the idea that a new book of original material from Alfred Rosmer and others on the origins of the Trotskyist movement excited me greatly. What did not excite me, was the intellectually mean-spirited, bizarre character of the Molyneux “review”.

Molyneux is a professional academic and he echoes the deliberate philistinism of many academics, and the marketplace driven philistinism of many publishers, in a rather revealing remark:

    So the question inevitably arises, what is added by this latest volume? The answer, sadly, is very little.

What a dopey thing for someone, who himself writes extensively on the history of Trotskyism to say about a book of original material from Alfred Rosmer and others. We are constantly told by bourgeois publishers, that many serious books about history, politics, economics etc, are “unpublishable” because the marketplace is already “too crowded”, and it is pretty stupid for a Marxist to echo those market-driven sentiments of the ruling class, who in fact have a vested interest in dumbing us all down, and confining our reading to a few texts chosen primarily by them.

As an aside, I have made my career, such as it is, as a bookseller, mainly secondhand and remainder, specialising, as one of my main sidelines, in the not particularly profitable area of Marxist, socialist, labour history, and Trotskyist literature of all sorts, trying to maintain a substantial range in my shop so that the younger generation can get stimulus and understanding, from the Marxist theory, labour history, and political argument and conflict in all this revolutionary literature.

In my view, political clarity, and the elaboration of an immediate perspective for the socialist movement can only come from, in the first instance, a detailed, thorough and businesslike examination of current objective circumstances and the relationship of class forces, but this must be informed by the kind of dialectical clash of ideas generated by a serious overview of the literature about Marxist theory and the history of the labour and Marxist movements.

I am reminded that, in an earlier, less sectarian, more Luxemburgist phase of its development, the IS Tendency published another useful Rosmer book, Lenin’s Moscow in a Pluto Press edition. A reprint of that book is well overdue.Molyneux asserts, in an unnecessarily unctuous way:

    There is now a vast amount of literature on the subject of this book. First and foremost there are Trotsky’s own brilliant and voluminous writings, then Isaac Deutscher’s mighty Prophet trilogy, Tony Cliff’s four-volume political study, works by Victor Serge and Natalia Trotsky, Pierre Broue, Ernest Mandel, Duncan Hallas and many lesser figures.

Well, the above is both true and not true. It is true in the sense that many of those books have been published (mostly in the past), although I am not aware yet of any English translation, for instance, of Pierre Broue’s biography of Trotsky. It is untrue, in the sense that many of them are now out of print inaccessable, because of the ruthless, immediate turnover-driven nature of the publishing and bookselling game, which is the book part of the capitalist cultural marketplace.

This dumbing down function (particularly in relation to Marxism and the workers’ movement) of the limits set by the current capitalist cultural market is counteracted a bit by the secondhand book business, and by the publishing activities of most socialist groups, which keep their favourite texts in print.

The weakness of the publishing and bookselling practices of most socialist groups is that they tend to encourage their members only to read their own favoured books, and positively discourage them from reading other things, particularly the texts of rival groupings, or books that undermine or challenge some of the shibboleths of their own organisation. (Molyneux’s “review” is predictable in this respect.)

The heartening fact is, that in the English speaking world, if you add together the publishing activities of all the formations in the Trotskyist tradition, large and small, a considerable range of the historical literature of the movement is actually in print. However, the vagaries of international currency transactions, etc, make many books, accessible in one country, too expensive in another, and so on.

This problem is compounded by the sectarian bookselling behaviour of the various groups, which tend only to promote favoured books and the Marxist classics, and ignore others. Taking all these factors into account, Molyneux’s philistinism is offensive in terms of the vital, but seriously overdue, question of developing widespread discussion throughout the socialist movement, not just occasional bilateral discussions between the “leaderships” of socialist groups.

It is obvious that Molyneux’s objection to the Rosmer book is mainly political, and is expressed in these lines:

    It may be that the editor, Al Richardson, and publishers have an implicit political agenda here – emphasising the role and culpability of Zinoviev and his regime in the Comintern in paving the way for Stalin, and noting the link between Zinoviev and James P. Cannon, the US Trotskyist leader. If this is the case it seems to me this is a fairly obscure argument to be having at the moment.

John Molyneux’s objection to having at the moment a serious historical discussion on the role played by the Zinoviev regime in the Comintern in the lead up to Stalinisation, is anything but obscure to anyone with even half a brain, who observes developments in the world Trotskyist movement.

As we speak. Molyneux’s own organisation, the IS Tendency, has recently expelled its second largest organisation, the US ISO, with minimal political discussion, and over the past few years has conducted a series of purges in its organisations in a number of countries.

The Militant Tendency internationally has also expelled a number of organisations and groups, with minimal discussion. In both these instances, these expulsions have been justified by the “necessity” of laying down an “international perspective”, good for all countries, coming from the “leadership” in the “centre”.

The Australian Democratic Socialist Party, with the leadership of which the leadership of the IS International Tendency is having serious discussions, have a James P. Cannon, Zinoviev, ultra-“Leninist” kind of internal party regime, in their own extremely centralised organisation. And so it goes.

In this context, publication of a book of Alfred Rosmer’s reminiscences of the early Trotskyist movement, along with the Souvarine et al material about the early Comintern, seems to me to be a bold publishing initiative of the most important sort, and I am currently making arrangements to get copies of the book.

My thanks to Molyneux and Socialist Review for drawing my attention to its existence. (I attach, for your interest, our 500 title labour movement and labour history booklist, to which I intend to add the Rosmer book.)

March 18, 2002


Permanent debate Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism, Alfred Rosmer

A review, Socialist Review, February 2002
Publisher:
Francis Boutle

John Molyneaux

There is now a vast amount of literature on the subject of this book. First and foremost there are Trotsky’s own brilliant and voluminous writings, then Isaac Deutscher’s mighty Prophet trilogy, Tony Cliff’s four-volume political study, works by Victor Serge and Natalia Trotsky, Pierre Broue, Ernest Mandel, Duncan Hallas and many lesser figures.

So the question inevitably arises, what is added by this latest volume? The answer, sadly, is very little. In itself the book has certain things to recommend it, most obviously that much of it – the best part – is written by Alfred Rosmer, a significant and noble figure in the history of Trotskyism.

Rosmer writes on the basis of extensive first-hand knowledge of the events and deep engagement in the problems of the workers’ movement, with refreshing candour and clarity. In the third part of the book Rosmer provides a brief and lucid account of Trotsky’s last years, using Trotsky’s own words where he can. But it still doesn’t mean that it has anything new to say, either factually or by way of analysis.

Also, as an introductory text this book as a serious defect. Its opening chapters consist of documents dealing with the early years of the French Communist Party by Emile Fabrol, Antoine Chavez and Boris Souvarine, who are much lesser figures than Rosmer and do not write half as well. Moreover, these chapters give the book a lopsided character and prevent it being any kind of balanced overview of the origins of Trotskyism.

It may be that the editor, Al Richardson, and publishers have an implicit political agenda here – emphasising the role and culpability of Zinoviev and his regime in the Comintern for paving the way for Stalin, and noting the link between Zinoviev and James P. Cannon, the US Trotskyist leader.

If this is the case it seems to me that this is a fairly obscure argument to be having at the moment. Although there may be some truth in this, it can easily be exaggerated to the point where organisational and personal factors are stressed at the expense of the fundamental objective factors conditioning the rise of Stalinism such as the defeat of the international revolution, the isolation of the Soviet Union and the weakness and destruction of the Russian proletariat.

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