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The Strange Story of Trotskyism in the Alps

A new book in German tells the story of the Trotskyist movement in Switzerland from 1945 to 1968. It includes the strangest case of infiltration since the founding of the Fourth International.

Nathaniel Flakin

June 23, 2022
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A Swiss Trotskyist group marching in the 1950s

The Fourth International was founded in 1938 to unite internationalist communists who opposed the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution. These left oppositionists were ruthlessly persecuted by Stalinist spies — one such spy murdered Leon Trotsky in 1940. But no case of Stalinist infiltration was stranger than a press conference that took place in East Berlin on November 10, 1961. A man named Otto Freitag had fled from his home in Munich and crossed the border into East Germany. He gave a press conference explaining he had been forced to seek refuge from the West German secret services. Freitag was a Trotskyist — a member of the International Committee of the Fourth International, to be precise. What was Freitag doing in the German Democratic Republic, a country that threw people in jail for the “crime” of reading Trotsky’s works?

Freitag’s comrades in Zurich began to wonder: Could he have been kidnapped by the East German secret police, the Stasi, and forced to make such statements? Or had he in fact been an agent? In the latter case, he must have been under very deep cover. Freitag had joined West Germany’s Independent Workers Party (UAP) a decade earlier, in the early 1950s. The UAP was aligned with the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, a Stalinist who had broken with Stalin. The small Trotskyist group in West Germany had joined the UAP — and when the party fell apart, Freitag joined the Trotskyist group.

The Fourth International split in 1953, between an International Secretariat (IS) and an International Committee (IC). While the Swiss section sided with the IC, the West German section remained loyal to the IS. Heinrich Buchbinder, the leader of the Swiss section, was looking for activists in West Germany to recruit to the IC. Freitag’s handlers from the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB had an admittedly brilliant idea: if they led a split in the West German Trotskyist group, their otherwise untalented man could ascend to a leadership position of the international Trotskyist movement.

Freitag followed these orders and founded a German section of the IC in 1954. The Stalinist agent was soon a full member of the International Committee. Meetings of the IC, attended by Gerry Healy, Pierre Lambert, and Buchbinder were held in Freitag’s Munich apartment — which had been rented by the Stasi. All documents went straight to East Berlin. And Freitag was no mere observer. He participated in the assassination of the Czech Trotskyist Wolfgang Salus, who had once been Trotsky’s secretary, in Munich.

The astounding story of Freitag has been told before, at least in German.1Hermann Bubke, Der Einsatz des Stasi-und KGB-Spions Otto Freitag im München der Nachkriegszeit (Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2004). Not much more has been known about the Swiss Trotskyist group that recruited him — until now. Lucas Federer, a young historian from Zurich and a leader of the Youth of the Movement for Socialism (BfS), has just published a very thorough history.2Lucas Federer: Zwischen Internationalismus und Sachpolitik: Die trotzkistische Bewegung in der Schweiz, 1945-1968 (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2022). The book is under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded for free from the publisher’s website. The Trotskyist group led by Buchbinder was tiny, yet its history offers fascinating insights about Trotskyism in the postwar period.

Emerging from the Underground

If you’ve heard anything about Swiss Trotskyism, you’ve probably heard of the Revolutionary Marxist League (LMR in French / RML in German), which was formed after 1968, led by Charles-André Udry. At its height, that group organized more than 1,000 people, making it quite a force in a small country. Today, former Trotskyists occupy leading roles in Switzerland’s Green Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the union bureaucracies.

Federer’s new book, however, looks at an earlier and much more isolated generation of Trotskyists, with little connection to their successors. In the two decades following World War II, they never had more than a few dozen members. But their internationalist campaigns gave them an outsized influence.

When World War II began, Switzerland remained neutral. In 1940, Swiss police nonetheless arrested a dozen Trotskyists after an anti-militarist bulletin was distributed to soldiers. A number of Trotskyists spent years in prison, and the Marxist Action of Switzerland (MAS) had to go underground. The Austrian Trotskyist leader Josef Frey, in exile since 1938, played an important role as a theoretician, but his authoritarian manner increasingly alienated his younger comrades before his death in 1957.

Recounting the history requires a bit of alphabet soup: In the 1950s, the Trotskyists formed a somewhat broader, legal organization by taking over an independent leftist newspaper: Proletarian Action (PA). For a number of years, the MAS still functioned as a secret core inside PA. Over the course of the 1950s, the Trotskyists made several attempts to unite with dissident Social Democrats and Stalinists, but they were only able to recruit a few people. This took the form of a Socialist Workers Conference (SAK), which later founded a Socialist Workers League (SAB). Over the course of a decade, the MAS dissolved into PA and then PA dissolved into the SAB.

At this time, a triumvirate came together that led the Swiss Trotskyist group for two decades:

-Heinrich Buchbinder (1919–1999): a son of Jewish immigrants, studied medicine but didn’t finish his degree, and worked a publicist for the chiropractors’ association. He had been a leader of a social democratic youth organization in Zurich before splitting it away to join the Trotskyists. He became the public face and energetic leader of all the Trotskyist groups.

-Jost von Steiger (1917–2007): a chemist directing a laboratory at a big Siemens plant, took up roles in the leading bodies of the Fourth International. Because of his job and also because he had been convicted after the raid in 1940, he could not appear in public.

-Hans Stierlin (1916–98): an engineer, invented a new kind of refrigerator and founded the company Sibir to produce them. He was so successful that “Sibir” became a common term for a refrigerator in Switzerland. Stierlin tried to run his company, with hundreds of workers, based on egalitarian principles. He also donated large sums to the Swiss Trotskyist group and the Fourth International. This allowed the group to place ads in big newspapers, despite their very small size. Although Stierlin never appeared in public, he participated in the weekly meetings of the Political Bureau for decades. As one biographer put it, he “resolved the contradiction between Marx and Ford in his person.”3This is an interesting parallel to David North, the millionaire CEO of a capitalist company and who leads a bizarre cult that claims the legacy of Trotskyism.

Surveillance and Solidarity

Surveillance of the Trotskyists was not limited to the Stalinist spy Freitag. The Swiss secret services included Buchbinder on the “Dangerous and Suspected Persons List” in Category 1, and his mail and telephone were observed for decades. (This is, ironically, one of the main sources for this book.) The secret files scandal in 1989 revealed that Swiss police had been illegally compiling dossiers on citizens for decades.

France’s secret services were equally interested in this tiny group, because the Swiss Trotskyists supported the Algerian anti-colonial movement. Most European Trotskyists supported the National Liberation Front (FLN). The Swiss Trotskyists, however, followed the lead of Pierre Lambert and Gerry Healy of the IC and supported the Algerian National Movement (MNA).

While Michel Pablo and the IS gave uncritical support to the FLN, the “orthodox Trotskyist” IC were cheerleaders for the MNA. Lambert, for example, described the MNA as a “workers party” with “socialist demands for the expropriation and nationalization of large landowners and big businesses.” The claim that the MNA was somehow more left-wing or socialist than the FLN was false — as the independence war advanced and the FLN won the upper hand, the MNA increasingly collaborated with French colonialism.

Buchbinder organized a Switzerland-Algeria Committee that sought support from trade unions and publicized the anti-colonial struggle. The cause was popular among the slowly emerging New Left. The Trotskyists again had their homes raided by police in 1956, accused of providing military training to MNA militants or even planning attacks in Europe.

New Social Movements

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Swiss army wanted to acquire nuclear weapons. A large protest movement opposed this plan. This movement is often remembered as the work of left-wing Social Democrats and religious pacifists. But the small Swiss Trotskyist group had an outsized influence — they benefited from their connections to Healy’s organization, which was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the UK. The Swiss campaign copied many tactics from the British movement, including multiday protest marches.

These protests politicized a new generation of leftists, in a prelude to 1968. Buchbinder became a national leader of the movement against nuclear weapons in Switzerland, and was even a delegate to the Accra Conference in Ghana in 1958. This helped Buchbinder connect with a new generation of young people. But he began to clash with them, particularly because he supported nuclear energy. As this book shows, it was his success in this largely pacifist movement that led Buchbinder to slowly abandon his Trotskyist convictions. He ended up withdrawing from public life, after several decades at the head of a small group.

In the 1960s, the SAB slowly petered out. Von Steiger remained on the leadership bodies of the Fourth International, but as he admitted later in an autobiographical text, he was representing a section that no longer existed. While earlier generations of revolutionary militants had usually come from the workers’ movement, the New Left emerged from the universities. A new Trotskyist tradition was born in Lausanne, in (French-speaking) Romandy, where Charles-André Udry broke away a youth group from the Stalinist party, forming the LMR / RML.

As Trotskyism gained new momentum, both Buchbinder and Stierlin retired from revolutionary politics. The former even rejoined the Social Democratic Party, where he had started his political career decades earlier. Von Steiger, in contrast, joined the new RML, helping to set up the new group’s first branches in German-speaking Switzerland. He provided a lone link to the earlier experiences of Swiss Trotskyism. By 1974, the RML had 350 members. Including candidate members and sympathizers, the group organized 1,000 to 1,200 people, half of them under 25.

A Hidden History

The story of the spy Otto Freitag, which was first extensively documented almost 20 years ago in German, yet remains largely unknown in English, is fascinating in the context of one particularly strange episode of Trotskyist history. For decades, Gerry Healy, Alex Mitchell, and David North ran a campaign called “Security and the Fourth International.” They accused Joseph Hansen, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., of being an FBI and KGB agent. Hansen served as a guard for Trotsky during his exile in Mexico, and they accused him of complicity in the assassination.

The accusers never came up with anything more than the most laughably circumstantial evidence. Healy passed away in 1989, and the tabloid reporter Mitchell has since more or less admitted that the entire campaign was a cheap hack job.4Alex Mitchell, Come the Revolution (Sydney: New South, 2012). Yet David North, who today publishes the website WSWS, besides working as the CEO of a capitalist printing company, continues peddling this vile conspiracy theory.

If North were at all interested in spies in the Fourth International, Freitag would be an easy place to start. The Stasi archives are open, and the relevant documents are available in books. Yet North appears more interested in slanders than in serious historical research.

Rebuilding the Fourth International

The story of Swiss Trotskyism shows how our movement needed to hold out against persecution by Stalinists, colonial powers, and “democratic” governments. It shows how a small nucleus is sometimes needed to keep the flames of internationalism alive in adverse conditions — and this tradition can reach wide new layers when the class struggle is on the ascent again.

For international readers, the Swiss Trotskyist group is most interesting as a study in the development of the Fourth International in the years after the Second World War. Some Trotskyists believe that the IC represented an “orthodox” alternative to the “Pabloite revisionism” of the IS. In reality, however, both sides shared a common method of adaptation to social democracy, Stalinism, and bourgeois nationalism in the colonial and semicolonial world.

Fighting to rebuild the Fourth International today cannot be limited to clutching to this or that supposedly “orthodox” splinter. It requires a struggle to reestablish Trotskyism’s real legacy and connect it with the most advanced sectors of workers and youth.

Notes[+]

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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