Alfred Rosmer

The Paris Militant

(Autumn 1959)

Source: Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 7, Autumn 1959, pp. 15–18.
Transcription & Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

Trotsky stayed in France at various periods, but it was only during the two years he spent in Paris during the First World War that he could operate as a militant free to move about as well as to speak and write. That freedom was only relative, because it was that of the state of siege and censorship, but in that he was in the same boat as the French themselves, and what may here seem paradoxical is easily explained by reference to what the situation then was. In Vienna, where he had been living at that period, Russia’s entry into war had made him an enemy alien, whereas in France the “alliance” protected him,

while at the same time Paris would be for him the best combat post in the hard struggle for the defense of socialism. Experience showed that this reasoning was correct: for nearly two years he was able to battle just as much among the French workers as in the émigré circles. If it all ended badly – by expulsion – there also Trotsky shared the fate of his French comrades at a time when the growth of opposition to war worried the government and led it to take open measures of repression. In his case, Petrograd was giving orders to Paris, for the expulsion, several times requested already, was finally demanded – in which Stalin was later to repeat Czarist policy, and on two occasions.

On his way toward France, Trotsky’s first stopover was Zurich. He lingered there, staying three months, so warm and encouraging was the welcome he received from the section of the Socialist Party. In those first days of August, the Swiss socialists were, like those of all countries, overwhelmed by the collapse of the International; but, not being involved in mobilization, they were all there, especially the youth, discussing, trying to understand the meaning of the war amid the confusion created and maintained by rival propaganda. Trotsky brought them the stimulant they needed to keep clear heads. Like them he had gone through the German school of socialism: its Social-Democracy was not a party of the International but the party par excellence – one more reason for fighting mercilessly against the betrayal of its chiefs. Their collapse was a tragedy and, at first glance, the outlook was very sombre; that might lead to erroneous conclusions. But what was this war? A clash of imperialisms, of two great formations of antagonists. Of course, but there was a deeper and general meaning: the war marked the revolt of the forces of production against the outdated political form of the nation and the state; and, as the Socialist Parties were in fact national parties, they collapsed with it. Conclusion: all efforts to save the Second International would be useless; it was not socialism, however, that had collapsed, but its temporary external historic form.

An eyewitness, a member of the section and a participant in these discussions, Fritz Brupbacher, wrote later that, with Trotsky’s arrival at Zurich, life was renewed in the workers’ movement, and that his influence had such a power of attraction that they wanted to give him the mandate to represent the section at the next congress of the party. Though Switzerland would have afforded him a less exposed place of refuge, it was in the heart of a France at war that Trotsky wanted to settle; he wrote in haste a pamphlet in which, under the title Der Krieg und die Internationale, he assembled and developed the ideas that he had just been setting forth to the Zurich socialists, a pamphlet that was so substantial and still so timely that in 1918 an enterprising American publisher made a whole book out of its translation into English.

In Paris there was another paradox: it was through the Vie Ouvrière, a revolutionary syndicalist organ, that Trotsky’s liaison, neither ephemeral nor accidental, with the workers’ movement, functioned. Yet there was a Socialist Party there that persisted in calling itself the “French Section of the Workers’ International”; but when Trotsky, for a specific purpose, went

to the offices of the party’s daily newspaper, he there found its leaders, Cachin among others, going along with the current as usual, therefore ultra-chauvinist; after a few useless attempts at discussion, they made it clear to him that he was an undesirable: they expelled him from l’Humanité before rejoicing to see him later expelled from France by Briand.

As soon as he had found a possible boarding-house – in the Pare Montsouris neighborhood, one of the émigré quarters of Paris – he sent for his family, Natalia and the two sons Leon and Sergei, to join him; from then on he could organize his activity in such a way as to be able to carry out successfully what was going to be his triple task. The articles that he was sending to the Kievskaia Mysl obliged him to follow closely both French politics and military operations: he was a skilled newspaper-reader, and quickly understood what each represented and what must be expected of it. As for parliamentary life, it was then so limited, so non-existent, that the government had to be sought out rather at Chantilly (General Headquarters) than at Paris. But his articles also gave him the opportunity of making research field trips throughout France, of meeting socialist and trade-union militants, of sounding out the state of mind of the average Frenchman: conversations with a Liege anarchist had enabled him to learn about and give an exact description of the resistance movement that had set a notable part of the population – and even the anarchists – against the German troops.

The main work of the day was, naturally, Naché Slovo, the newspaper, and the group that gravitated round it. The editors met every morning at the printshop in the rue des Feuillantines to discuss that day’s issue and prepare tomorrow’s, on the basis of information that came in, and of discussions about the conceptions defended by the various tendencies of Russian socialism, of polemics with the “defensists” and also with Lenin, who, from Geneva, was defending his own position with vigor and even brutality. Martov, right from the beginning, had been, before Trotsky’s arrival, a sort of editor-in-chief; his anti-war attitude had helped to bring him close to the other sectors of the opposition. It did not correspond, however, to that of the majority of the Mensheviks whose representative to the International Socialist Bureau he was; he was embarrassed thereby, to the extent of being unable to accept having certain questions even raised and discussed – such as that of a new International. The clashes with Trotsky grew gradually more frequent and sharp, and as it was evident that Trotsky better expressed the conceptions of the paper’s editorship, Martov resigned and left for Switzerland.

It was through him that the first contact had been made between the Russian socialists in Paris and the centre of opposition, then numerically tiny, represented by the Vie Ouvrière; a letter he had written to Gustave Hervé, which the latter had published, had been the occasion for their meeting. And it was he also who announced to us the forthcoming arrival of Trotsky and who brought him around as soon as he did arrive. We used to meet in the evening, once a week, and when our little group was reenforced by these new allies, our horizon, until then sombre, lightened up. With Trotsky and Martov there came Dridzo-Losovsky, long settled in Paris, and a Polish socialist, Lapinsky. When, one evening, the Swiss socialist, Grimm, accompanied them, there could be conceived a rebirth of proletarian internationalism, and we already began arrangements which ensured us serious international liaisons, since, through the Swiss, it would be possible for us to remain in contact with the German opposition.

Of these meetings Raymond Lefebvre has painted a faithful picture in the preface to L’Eponge de vinaigre. They were kept up all winter, but were abruptly ended when the government profited by a revision of draft exemptions to call up all known oppositionals who had escaped conscription and send them to the armies. At that moment the idea of an international conference had already taken sufficiently specific form so that practical preparations for holding it were being thought out. It was known that inside the French Socialist Party discontent was growing against the nationalist and pro-government policy which the leadership was integrally imposing on the party; a manifestation of this discontent and its importance was the position taken by one of the best provincial federations, that of the Haute-Vienne, and rendered public by a report signed by all the federations’ elected office-holders. The socialists of Naché Slovo hastened to make contact with some of them who happened to be in Paris. Meetings were held at Dridzo’s place; they were not very encouraging, for the Limousins, though very firm in their criticism of the betrayal of socialism, shied away when we talked about the action that must be taken, obsessed by fear of a split, which they absolutely refused to face. The arrival in Paris of the Italian socialist Morgari, in search of participants in the future international conference, brought about the last meeting. Trotsky has amusingly described in My Life how, when Morgari suddenly spoke of underground activity, the worthy Limousins hastened to disappear. It was impossible to think of adding to the French delegation: Merrheim and Bourderon remained alone to represent the opposition, though, for that period, they represented it very well, even if they refused, despite Trotsky’s friendly insistence, to go further than their resolution at the confederal conference, which had, however, become insufficient, for it no longer corresponded to a situation that events were changing every day.

At Zimmerwald, the already known tendencies became specific. Lenin wanted acts: refusal of war credits by the Socialist parliamentarians; preparation of the new International; appeals to the workers for anti-war demonstrations. As against this clearly defined programme, the Italians set up a waiting policy: they refused to consider that the Second International was dead already; they wished for a rapprochement with the German centre (Kautsky-Bernstein); that was also the position of the Mensheviks. Trotsky was in agreement with Lenin (except on the question of defeatism), but he was in a position to understand better than Lenin what it was possible to ask of the conference at that stage: his Paris activity had permitted him to measure the strength of the opposition; in the same way, through his contacts with Grimm and Morgari, he knew exactly the current conceptions of the Swiss and Italian leaderships, of whom it could not be said that they did not represent the feelings of the rank and file. His speeches seemed so convincing that, at the end of the discussions, he was entrusted with the task of drafting the manifesto, which all the delegates approved. Lenin was not entirely satisfied, but that did not prevent him from considering that it was “a step forward,” and that one could be satisfied with that much for the moment.

This fortunate outcome of the conference was going to permit Trotsky to find in France a base for his activity. The manifesto restored confidence, and the opposition, till then skeletonic and dispersed, penetrated into the workers’ movement. A committee had been created for the revival of international relations; its plenary meetings brought together a growing number of militants; one of its most active members was Trotsky, who soon dominated it. Its secretary was Merrheim; with the Metal-Workers’ Federation behind him, he had, right from the beginning, courageously carried on the fight against the confederation’s leadership; now he became too prudent, already disturbed at seeing the committee drive further than he had decided to go. And so he opposed all proposals made by Trotsky to carry the activity of the committee out into public, taking up again at every session his suggestion for creating a Bulletin, indispensable for the committee’s own life, for circulating information verbally communicated during the meetings which it was important to take down and make known to all those who, in the trade unions and in the Socialist sections, were beginning to break away from the lies and illusions by which they had been lulled in order to drag them into the war. Merrheim resisted, grew impatient when he saw the ascendancy that Trotsky was winning over the assembly, but he could do nothing against his clear comments on events, fed by an exceptional experience, against a well-reasoned revolutionary optimism that carried conviction. At the end of the meetings, militants of all tendencies, socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, approached Trotsky, questioning him about points which were not yet clear to them; dates were arranged to permit continuing such fruitful conversations. One of them, F. Loriot, a member of the Socialist Party, definitively won over to the opposition, whose leadership he was to take within the party, wrote a pamphlet whose contents he had studied out with Trotsky, Les socialistes de Zimmerwald et la guerre, which took its place among the clandestine publications of the committee.


The Czarist government could not understand how an ally could allow a newspaper like Naché Slovo to be published on its territory. On several occasions it had asked that the paper be suppressed and its editors imprisoned. The operation was difficult, being contrary to the policy of the French government at that period, when the Socialist ministers were explaining that persecution of the opposition could only aid it by making it better known – much better to stifle it by censorship. A grave incident that took place among the Russian detachments brought to France at the request of the French government was to be the occasion of an intervention that was this time decisive. The soldiers of this detachment were subjected, in France, to a regime that the surroundings rendered unbearable; the officers treated them like brute beasts. A soldier, slapped in the face by a colonel, retorted with such ardor that death ensued. Naché Slovo, declared responsible, was immediately prohibited, and an order of expulsion announced to Trotsky. Different interventions enabled him to gain a little time and to try to choose the place to which he was to be deported. All was in vain. The family was then living in the Gobelins quarter, quite close to the hall of the Reine-Blanche, where there had taken place the deeply moving August 1914 meeting at which the various Russian parties tore one another apart, the “defensists” signing enlistment papers in the French army. It was here that two policemen came to take him and conduct him to the Spanish border. But even from Cadiz, where he was stopping temporarily, Trotsky found the means of participating once more in the committee for the revival of international relations, and precisely on the occasion of the pamphlet that he had prepared with Loriot. The growing influence of Zimmerwald had led the minorityites in the Socialist Party to organize themselves on an extremely moderate basis, their position not being essentially differenciable from that of the chauvinists of the leadership, of which they denounced only the “excesses.” This semi-opposition represented a danger; there was a risk that it would get some Zimmerwaldists to make a bloc with it against the leadership – which the pamphlet had foreseen. And so complaints arose from the minorityite members, accusing the Zimmerwaldists of “dividing” the opposition. One of these criticisms was communicated to Trotsky, who replied immediately: “Political forces are not ‘divided’ by clarity any more than they are added together by confusion. Three viewpoints, three motions: clarity is political honesty.” And so ended, in an exceptional prolongation, his career as a Paris militant.

Last updated on: 30 January 2016