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Victor Serge: From the defeated past to the expectant future

By Suzi Weissman[1]

[This paper was presented at a conference in Nottingham, England, in 2009. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Suzi Weissman’s permission. See also "Victor Serge: `dishonest authoritarian', `anti-worker anarchist' or revolutionary Bolshevik?"]

In the wake of the collapse of the USSR, “statism” was roundly attacked east and west. This was the free market offensive that was pushed during the 1990s and the first part of the new century. Under attack were the bureaucratised former Soviet bloc economies to be sure, but anti-statist reforms were also imposed to dismantle social-democratic gains everywhere. Not content with these ideological victories, the free marketeers went after the crony capitalist regimes in the Far East, chaebol and otherwise. Privatisation, free trade and free markets became the buzzwords of the day. Anarchism on the right and left seemed to dominate the discourse.

No longer: the worldwide economic slump/epic recession/depression awakened the sense that governments could provide some form of security. This point resonates more in the US than in social-democratic Europe, however much welfare provisions were weakened during the decades of free-market euphoria. A safety net still exists in much of Europe, while it was largely shredded in the US. This new political conjuncture colours the form opposition takes, making the question posed – Is black and red dead? – all the more relevant.

So how does Victor Serge fit into this debate and why do I insist that he is a man for our time?

Victor Serge had an enormous impact on the developing consciousness of revolutionary Marxists, libertarians and anarchists all over the world. He was the best-known Trotskyist of his time, though his relationship with the Trotskyist movement was contentious. Just to mention Serge conjures up the poetic, active expression of an era. He was with the revolutionary Marxists who refused to surrender to the Stalinist counter-revolution and who struggled so that their ideas would escape Stalin=s attempt to exterminate them. It is this that makes his work so powerful. Serge has been called the poet, the bard, the journalist and the historian of the Left Opposition.[2] He was also its conscience.

Like his Left Oppositionist comrades, Serge was marginalised by history precisely because he rejected capitalism as well as Stalinism. His contribution is attractive today because he never compromised his commitment to the creation of a society that defends human freedom, enhances human dignity and improves the human condition. Serge lived in the maelstrom of the first half of the 20th century, but his ideas have contemporary relevance in the post-Soviet, post Cold War world of the early 21st century.

Our contemporary

As the 20th century drew to a close, the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the colossal battle of ideas it provoked nearly disappeared from public discourse. How could the ideas and struggles that Serge represented, now deemed passé, resonate anew?

With the demise of Stalinism, the victors of the Cold War proclaim there is no alternative to Western-style capitalist democracy, even as inequalities deepen and religious nationalists resort to terror. With all the insecurity and uncertainty of our time of grotesque inequality and reactionary response, a new generation has taken to the streets demanding a better world, and what is more, insisting that it is possible. As one sorts through the intellectual and political disputes of the disastrous Soviet experience, one is struck by the voice and testimony of Victor Serge, which stand out for their probity, rigor and deeply human concerns. His works address the paramount and still unresolved important issues of the day: human liberty, autonomy and dignity. He belonged to a revolutionary generation that sought to create a society sufficient to meet these human goals. They failed, but he spent the rest of his life describing their attempt and analysing the defeat. For that reason his work merits republication, analysis, interpretation and, above all, rescue.

While Victor Serge wrote of the time he lived through, his thinking is relevant for the struggles we face. Reacquainting ourselves with Serge can help us imagine – and hopefully create – the future.

Victor Serge died at age 57 in 1947. In that brief lifespan he participated in three revolutions, spent a decade in captivity, published more than 30 books and left behind a substantial archive of unpublished work. He was born into one political exile, died in another and was politically active in seven countries. His life was spent in permanent political opposition. Serge opposed capitalism – first as an anarchist, then as a Bolshevik. He opposed Bolshevism’s undemocratic practices and then opposed Stalin as a Left Oppositionist. He argued with Trotsky from within the anti-Stalinist left; and he opposed fascism and capitalism's Cold War as an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist. He was a revolutionary novelist and historian. Though he is still little known in the former Soviet Union, he was one of the most lucid observers of its early political developments, chronicling in his many works its brutal departure from the ideals of the revolution of 1917.

Serge's political experience led him not to renounce socialism once Stalin had triumphed, but to bring to it a declaration of human rights, enriching socialist goals. He opposed the one party system, declaring as early as 1918 and again in 1923 that a coalition government, although fraught with dangers, would have been less dangerous than what was to transpire under Stalin's dictatorship of the secretariat and the secret police. His proposals for economic reform included “workers’ democracy” and a “communism of associations” instead of rigid, top-down, anti-democratic “plans”. Serge was never guilty of an ahistorical analysis, and he realised the choices facing the Bolsheviks after the Civil War were few. Not seeing what lay ahead, they feared the revolution could be drowned in blood by reactionary forces. Too many of their decisions were influenced by party patriotism.

Reading Serge's body of work on the USSR is indispensable for anyone who wants to get a feel for the atmosphere of the 1920s and ‘30s inside the Soviet Union and the communist movement, and he spelled out the dilemmas of the 1940s with a sense of immediacy and clarity. This contributes to his current appeal – because he literally recalls another world. In fact rescuing Serge from obscurity helps recapture a vital sense of history, one that salvages what should always have been a truism – that democracy is a crucial component of socialism.

From anarchist to Bolshevik

Serge’s early influences were anarchist. His parents were Russian anarcho-populists from the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will); his uncle was executed for his participation in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Serge’s parents had to flee their native Russia when the repression following the assassination completely broke the organisation (Narodnaya Volya.) Thus, Serge was born in exile in Belgium and spent his early years there (and in London). He wrote in his Memoirs of a revolutionary  that his parents’ house in Brussels was a gathering place for other anarchist exiles, and on the walls hung portraits of executed anarchists. It is no wonder that his early political commitment was anarchist.

To understand Serge’s political journey, context is critical. Serge was born in 1890. At age 15 he first joined the Belgian Young Socialists. He moved toward anarchism in disgust and impatience: the Belgian social democrats were simply opportunistic, corrupt and stuck in electoral politics. More importantly, it was 1905, the year that saw the birth of the Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World], path-breaking discoveries and gigantic struggles. The general strike in Russia spread to Finland, there were strike waves in France, Belgium, Germany and beyond. Serge and his young comrades were animated by this surge of struggle which put the reformism of the Belgian social democrats in even starker light. They were attracted to the actions as well as the passions of the strikers in Petrograd and elsewhere. Looking at Belgium, Serge became disillusioned with the social-democratic leaders, as well as the masses who lacked the heroic militancy he saw in Russia. He and his friends moved to anarchist individualism. His early anarchism was an extension of his boyhood friendships and his commitment to liberty and action, as well as his disgust with the stodgy social-democratic misleaders of his time.

Serge’s early conviction was that of an individualist anarchist, but he “graduated” from the individualist and even illegalist views to that of anarcho-syndicalism and from there to Bolshevism. This all took place from 1909-1917.

Just to read a sampling of Serge’s work affirms that he was an active anarchist, but it is also clear that he was open minded and adventurous. He experimented with vegetarianism, lived in an anarchist commune, and his childhood friends were involved in the infamous Bonnot gang [a French anarchist bandit group that operated in France and Belgium from 1911 to 1912], as was Serge, at least intellectually. Serge did not accept, nor ever submit himself and his action to the dictates of any authority. He changed, as did a generation by the actuality of the first socialist revolution, the Russian Revolution.

In the dock in 1913 at the sensational political trial of the infamous Bonnot gang (the social bandits of pre-war France who were ruthlessly repressed), Serge kept solidarity while drawing the distinction between anarchism and “illegalism”. Though part of the Bonnot gang, Serge (still going by the name Kibalchich then) was a propagandist rather than a bandit. When the verdicts came in Serge was sentenced to five years in solitary as the intellectual ringleader. Even during this period Serge wrote (signing his articles “Le Retif”, the stubborn one) that his multiple political commitments of the time demonstrated his growing ambivalence with individualism and his attraction to the developing revolutionary ferment in Russia. He argued he was moving from individualism to social action. From 1908 on Serge wrote against the ill-advised, even mad violence and futile tactics and ideals of the Bonnot bandits. In the Memoirs of a Revolutionary Serge described their descent into violence as “a kind of madness” and “like a collective suicide”.[3]

Serge conceded that at the time “we wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels”. It was in fact the five years in prison, plus his 15 months in the concentration camp at Precigne where he was in a Bolshevik study circle that Serge reflected, studied seriously and grew politically. By his own admission he considered anarchism a dead end as early as 1913, but did not make the move to Bolshevism for another five years. In Spain in 1917 Serge left behind his anarcho-individualism, participated in the syndicalist uprising, took on the name Victor Serge and then began his journey to his never-seen homeland, the Russia of revolution.

He never looked back: he didn’t try some impossible mix of anarchism and Bolshevism, he became a Bolshevik and then a Left Oppositionist. Not only did he break with anarchism, he wrote in L’anarchisme that beginning with Bakunin the anarchist movement had its share of authoritarian and intolerant characters[4] and that anarchists fail to recognise the necessity of large industrial organisation, the importance of political power in social struggles, the complexity of social development and the impossibility of building an equitable and free society without passing through diverse phases of transition. Its doctrine, Serge noted, is idealist and completely utopianist.[5]

Beginning in 1918 Serge took it upon himself, as an anarchist turned Bolshevik to persuade his anarchist comrades to support the Bolsheviks. Serge himself writes a critique of the anarchists later, mentioned above. He was a man of action, but even more a man of letters: that is his dual character, and we know of Serge because of the literary legacy he has left us.

Serge himself was a worker, and spent his entire life in poverty. He worked in print shops and was a member of the printers’ union in Spain. He also worked as a copy editor and translator. He had no need to “glorify” the working class, nor did he hold back when he was disappointed in missed opportunities by the class. As a writer, he was committed to “expressing to men what most of them live inwardly without being able to express, as a means of communion, a testimony to the vast flow of life through us, whose essential aspects we must try to fix for the benefit of those who will come after us”.[6]

Russian Revolution

Serge’s journey from “black” to “red” followed the momentous historical cleavages of the day: war, revolution, civil war. He arrived in the Soviet Union in the frozen winter of January 1919, the country engulfed in Civil War. He chose sides, joining with the revolution and the Bolsheviks, though already alarmed that the vibrant instruments of soviet democracy were being shut down and red terror matched the ferocious terror of the whites. Totalitarianism hardly existed as a word, but it was emergent in post-Civil War Russia. Serge’s eyes were wide open, and he sensed the dangers to come, was torn by the distance between theory and reality, the growth of privilege and bureaucracy. Like Lenin and Trotsky, Serge understood the giant obstacles that stood in the way of socialist development in backward Russia, yet also understood that history provided few alternatives – and Serge decided that Bolshevism was “tremendously and visibly right. It marked a new point of departure in history.”[7] Capitalism seemed finished, if not suicidal after World War I. The inter-war period was so unstable that the survival of civilisation was in question if capitalism was not transformed. Yet in the young Soviet Union the promises of the revolution were being abandoned. Serge wrote:

Over all our achievements there hung a death-sentence; since for all of us, for our ideals, for the new justice that was proclaimed, for our new collective economy. Still in its infancy, defeat would have brought a peremptory death and after that, who knows what? I thought of the Revolution as a tremendous sacrifice that was required for the future’s sake; and nothing seemed to me more essential than to sustain, or rescue, the spirit of liberty within it.[8]

Serge belonged to a critically minded and intelligent group of old Bolsheviks[9] who resolutely resisted totalitarianism, a large group he insisted was right at the heart of Bolshevism.[10] They fought a losing battle because of Stalin’s stranglehold on all forms of political and organisational expression. Serge believed the solution lay in pushing for a revival of the soviets as an arena of free political activity. Instead the entire current of old Bolsheviks was slaughtered, and any hope of socialist revival died with them.

This experience of defeat informed all of Serge’s thinking, writing and activity. He warned all along of the inherent dangers of a “totalitarian way of thinking” – based not on looking for truth, but on conducting a political fight. This method, Serge reminded us, developed under the weight of the Stalinist machine which engaged in a distortion of thought, fraud and massacres so monstrous as to be unimaginable.

Defeat, renewal and democracy – the heart of socialism

Stalin was insecure in power and became obsessed with obliterating opposition at home and abroad. It may seem surprising that he concentrated such fury and zeal in hunting down the rather small number of Trotskyists and oppositionists who challenged his rule in far-left journals and organisations in the West in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The mighty effort to extinguish the small flames of defiance seems out of proportion to other tasks at hand, like preparing for war. But Marxist critics like Trotsky and Serge were not just a thorn in Stalin’s side, but a moral reproach to his rule. Better to silence them, to prevent their voices from finding large audiences. Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940, but Serge survived and continued to write in profusion. His final essays and thoughts were devoted completely to analysing the features of the post-war period and to his insight that socialism would have to undergo a renewal in order to remain relevant.

Yet before Trotsky was assassinated there were four years that both Trotsky and Serge were in the West and could collaborate. Think of the power of their combined voices and cogent writings! Stalin had erred in expelling them both: perhaps he hadn’t imagined that in exile they would challenge every aspect of his betrayals and murders. Trotsky led a sustained fight against Stalin since his expulsion in 1929, exposing his crimes to the world. In 1936 Serge joined Trotsky in exile, another Bolshevik with an eloquent voice and pen who had stood with Trotsky since 1923 could now fortify the fight against Stalin’s crimes. How tragic then, that these anti-Stalinist voices were divided, that their relationship became acrimonious.

Trotsky’s assassination was a terrible blow to the followers of his thought everywhere. Those who were inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution lacked the experience Trotsky’s revolutionary generation had in organising, building and making a successful revolution. As a consequence there was a theoretical and organisational dependence that naturally developed and was profoundly affected by Trotsky’s death. In some ways revolutionary thinking was frozen in the 1940 mindset.

Serge was a vital link to that generation, even though he arrived on the Soviet scene just after the first year in January 1919. Stalin’s GPU agents were active in promoting divisions among the International Left Opposition militants and Victor Serge was a victim of their dirty, divisive work.[11] But political differences and organisational practices were also responsible for straining his relations with Trotsky.[12] Serge took part in the Fourth International though he found the internal atmosphere stifling and “could not detect [in the FI] the hope of the Left Opposition in Russia for a renewal of the ideology, morals and institutions of Socialism”.[13] Serge was convinced that, “Socialism too had to renew itself in the world of today, and that this must take place through the jettisoning of the authoritarian, intolerant tradition of turn-of-the-century Russian Marxism.”

These perceptions put Serge at odds with the Trotskyist movement in the West: here was a talented, compelling Left Oppositionist, the best-known Trotskyist in many intellectual circles, yet his unorthodox approach was criticised by Trotsky and Trotskyists and caused much grief for Serge, isolating him from the very movement – the Left Opposition – that he had devoted so many years to and at such risk.

From Serge’s ‘present’ to ours

In several of the essays Serge wrote in the last years of his life, he looked forward from the defeats inflicted by Stalinism and fascism and called for a renewal of socialism. Sixty years later the call remains unanswered. As the post Cold War era struggles for definition and the world faces a bleak landscape of competing religious nationalisms, the virtual collapse of finance capital and devastating economic crisis, the renewal of socialism seems more urgent than ever.

Reviewing the issues that preoccupied Serge’s thinking in these dark years yields much to reclaim for the present day, even though the context of his time is radically different from the “present” we inhabit. Serge was writing during WWII and the immediate post-war environment, before the Cold War began.[14] How could he have imagined the end of the USSR, the decline of social democracy, the neoliberals, neo-cons and the rise of obscurantist religious terrorists? Yet the tendencies he noted and the questions he asked in their regard are relevant. On this note Serge proved prescient: if an historically conscious collectivism did not successfully challenge the totalitarian collectivism of Stalinism and fascism, it would mean the end of socialism for a whole era.

Serge held that the axioms from the Russian Revolution were no longer adequate. Writing in 1943, he observed that everything – science, production, social movements and intellectual currents – all had changed. History permitted apparent stability only to religious dogmas. An intellectual rearmament was necessary. As Serge noted, “the poverty of traditional socialism coincides … with the immense revolutionary crisis of the modern world that has unavoidably put on the order of the day… independently of the action of socialism – the problem of a social reorganisation oriented toward the rational and the just.”[15] Serge couldn’t emphasise strongly enough that the socialist movement had to break free from its fossilised thinking, and that the terrible new conditions demanded a new approach – dialectical thought combined with political action, a form of active humanism.

Serge was grappling with new uncertainties, frustrated by the inability of socialists to think creatively in their attempts to interpret the new world conjuncture. The USSR represented a new force in the world that was neither capitalist nor socialist, but altered the nature of class struggle in the world. It was now an obstacle to socialism, exerting a negative influence on all current struggles. We have yet to recover from its damage.

It was sobering to realise that collectivism was not synonymous with socialism (as Serge and his comrades had previously thought) and could in fact be anti-socialist, demonstrating new forms of exploitation. The world had changed, and the old theories didn’t explain the role of Stalinist expansion. Stalin drowned socialism in blood, creating a terrible system that became equated with Marxism. The intellectual weakness of the socialist movement (sapped of its energies by the formidable Stalinist machine) could only be remedied by an “epoch of uprising”.[16]

We are ostensibly entering that epoch of uprising, however uneven its “eruptions”. Unemployed immigrant youth rebelled in confusion, anger and frustration, bereft of the intellectual armour required in France in 2005, while super-exploited immigrant labour massively demonstrated in the United States in 2006. By 2008 the world financial system virtually collapsed, though swift intervention in the form of bailouts prevented capitalism from going under. Reeling from the blows of joblessness and insecurity the workers’ response has been tepid at best, atomised and overshadowed in the US by extreme right-wing so-called populist rage. The Greek youth rebellion of Christmas 2008, the boss-nappings in France are signs that creative social revolt is on the order of the day, though it hardly means the end of capitalism, just bright spots along the way. Yet the hope persists that the economy and society can be organised to serve humanity and the community – not the reverse.

Serge misjudged the tendencies he noted, believing the world was in transition away from capitalism under the influence of the Soviet Union. Unlike other thinkers of the time, Serge did not proclaim socialism a failure, but called for its rebirth. He insisted the aims must be for a society that guarantees human freedom – in the interests of more than just the working masses, for all of humanity. Democracy must mean democracy of work; liberty must mean personal and political freedom.

We are far from realising these goals, yet ever more people are posing the need to achieve them. The release in 2009 of Michael Moore’s film Capitalism, A Love Story calls for capitalism to be replaced by “democracy”, a democracy that includes economic democracy. The debasement of the very language of liberation by the Stalinist regimes posing as socialists requires, it seems, euphemisms for socialism.

However difficult the present may seem, it is salient to recall the situation of Left Oppositionists like Serge who survived the 1930s when they were hounded by the NKVD and the Gestapo, and who rejected both Stalinism and the Cold War liberalism of capitalism. Serge cautioned that negativism is an attitude, not a solution. All we have left is intelligence, that is, knowledge and technique, and an inner impulse for a more dignified life. In response to the many socialists who had reverted to Christian mysticism or to those who retreated to individual acts of conscience, Serge noted that scruples and the courage of conscience are absolute necessities, but have no social value unless conjoined with action that is persevering, general and draws in the greatest numbers. That was in 1945, but could have been written for today. Serge concluded that a progressive movement is needed.[17]

Not just any progressive movement, but one that had a sense of history and recognised that democracy – control from below – is essential. Again, what was true then remains so today. The Stalinist scourge nearly eradicated the notion that socialism is full democracy, and rendered it equivalent in the popular mind with anti-democracy.

Much of what Serge wrote is the product of his efforts to come to grips with a world where totalitarianism and totalitarian collectivism, as he called it, dominated both the Soviet Union and, increasingly, Western Europe. At war’s end, with fascism defeated and Stalinism surviving, Serge was left to survey the landscape, to map the contours of the world in process of becoming. Of course he couldn’t see past the period he lived in, and his vision proved wrong for the most part. In our present post-Cold War world of decline, Serge’s call for a renewal of socialist thinking is long overdue.

The world Serge believed lay ahead does not exist. We live in an era of failed neoliberalism and cannibalistic finance capital. Specious stability and security are interrupted by uncomfortable reminders of grotesque inequalities and dashed aspirations, by spontaneous riots and mass rebellions, or vile acts of individual terror that wreak havoc and invite repression in the form of restricted civil liberties. The surviving superpower – the US – stumbles in anarchic decline seemingly unable and/or unwilling to respond to catastrophes of the natural, political and economic, except to crack down and attack living standards.[18] The election of Barack Obama as US president brought a sense of relief and unleashed pent-up hope, but promised reforms hardly match the speed of the collapsing economy and increasingly volatile climactic conditions.

Stalinism and the Cold War were disastrous for socialism. The left remains marginal in the West and religious fundamentalism grips much of the Middle East where the left was systematically repressed, killed or forced into exile. What, then, of Serge’s thinking is relevant for the present we ourselves inhabit and the future we face? What can be salvaged from his writings, given so much has changed?

For Serge the struggle to renew required creative thought, but also fealty to the principles of democracy, liberty, free inquiry and, in general, the conditions to enhance human dignity. For us, it also requires a commitment to full democracy. In the post-Cold War world ailing parliamentary democracy has been degraded beyond restitution. Today the struggle for democracy is a direct struggle for new forms of democratic decision making, exercised locally from below – call it “genuine” or “authentic” democracy, but in a word it is the struggle for socialism. Democracy is not an accessory of the revolutionary process; it is at the heart of the socialist project. Socialism without democracy isn’t socialism.

Democracy and socialism

Looking back at what happened to soviet democracy – socialist democracy -- in the Soviet Union is instructive, given the influence that the Russian Revolution has had on all subsequent revolutionary struggles. The problem for the Bolsheviks was that their commitment to democracy from below was underdeveloped and then sacrificed by the dire conditions during the Civil War and the threat of reaction. Stalin obliterated the issue completely in later years.[19] As much as we scrutinise the Russian revolutionary experience, it is of limited utility for the present – the specific conditions they faced do not exist and won’t be repeated.

The soviets did not live up to their promise as institutions of democratic control, and they survived the Civil War in name only. Reviving the soviets in the situation of the 1920s was not a high priority, despite the Left Opposition’s critique of growing bureaucratisation and the stifling of democracy in the Communist Party. The issue of democracy in the society as a whole was rarely addressed. Serge raised the issue of revitalising political parties and political life, yet even while demanding democracy both in and out of the party, Serge admitted that after 1921 "everybody that aspires to socialism is inside the party; what remains outside isn't worth much for the social transformation". This explains to some degree their concentration on inner-party democracy rather than on revitalising democratic institutions for the society at large. This presented a contradiction for the Bolsheviks who recognised that the soviets were both the tool of the proletariat in the revolutionary process and the form of transition to socialism: internationalism was more important to them than ensuring the survival of democracy. Socialism is control from below and the soviets in theory are the instrument. But the Bolsheviks in power in the 1920s were less concerned with soviet democracy than with the danger of capitalist restoration. The revolution was under siege: the Social Revolutionary party (SRs) took up arms against the Bolsheviks, and the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was the last straw for the anarchists. The Bolsheviks hadn’t intended to rule alone, but they only trusted themselves to understand the nature of the struggle for socialism in the world – no other political party saw the importance of the extension of the revolution as the only way they could survive, so Lenin and Trotsky didn’t trust the others to rule with them. With the Bolsheviks representing the majority in the soviets, the locus of activity shifted to what they saw as the more important political arena of the Communist Party. So the contradictions residing in creating vibrant revolutionary institutions of democratic control from below were evident from the outset.

The question of forms, however, is still important. The promise of socialism was of a genuine democracy with soviets or councils as the organisational form. Workers would be the masters of their destiny: people would organise collectively, at every level from bottom to top to become the masters of their work, their lives and their fate. The Russian Revolution held out the promise of socialism, but it was doomed by its isolation and dashed by the rise of Stalin.

Given the huge influence the experience of the Russian Revolution had on revolutionaries everywhere thereafter, the particular circumstances that choked democracy in the USSR were overlooked while the authoritarian model was generalised. The marker of a healthy revolution – organs of democratic control from below as an integral part of a successful revolution and transition – was relegated to rhetoric, not reality.

The few successful revolutions after the Russian Revolution developed as copies of the Stalinised Soviet Union: bureaucratic, authoritarian, anti-democratic and often nationalist societies with little resemblance to socialism. Yet in the post-war (WWII) West, democratic advances were being won by socialists in the labour movement, in effect enhancing democracy. Serge recognised that “socialism has only been able to grow within bourgeois democracy (of which it was a large extent the creator)”[20] and cautioned that further advances were only possible through utmost intransigence against Stalinism and capitalist conservatism. He understood that this principled fight would be a revolutionary one.

It may seem paradoxical that the Soviet Union crushed democracy at home and betrayed the revolution’s promise – yet that promise influenced democratic reforms in the industrialised capitalist countries. Important elements of a more advanced political democracy, such as universal franchise, representative democracy, free speech and other basic rights, were won and conceded to in response to the existence of the Soviet Union and to contain radicalism at home.

The democratic gains of the second half of the 20th century, brought by the labour, civil rights and the women’s movements significantly deepened democracy leading to substantial changes in advanced industrial democracies without appreciably deepening the struggle for “economic democracy” or further specific workers’ rights.[21]

These reforms strengthened democracy, but cut into the profitability of capitalism. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the social-democratic concessions were less necessary, and increasingly difficult to deliver in the age of finance capital. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the collapse of the Soviet Union hastened the decline of social democracy. At the same time, we are seeing the hollowing out of bourgeois democracy, perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the United States itself. It is caricatured in the so-called new democracies of the former Soviet bloc and in occupied Iraq. The promise of democracy is potent and even risky. More and more people demand the genuine article, not managed electoral shams – as we have seen in the continued so-called coloured revolutions ousting leaders who cheated their way to power in fraudulent elections, or even the rage and hope galvanised by the Obama election in the US.

The 21st century began with the pessimism of TINA (there is no alternative), while the clarion call of the anti-globalisation activists is that “another world is possible”. The disintegration of the USSR left in its wake revulsion and rejection of statist solutions and has provoked a resurgence of vague pro-anarchist sentiments evident in social movements left and right. The reaction in the former Soviet Union was hardly surprising given the power of its state over every aspect of people’s lives. More surprising perhaps is that the yearning for a time of order and security has made the time of Stalin seem desirable in comparison. (This requires not rose-coloured glasses, but a denial of history!)

The intellectual rearmament Serge called for has not occurred. If anything, more confusion rather than less reigns today, in this period of generalised attack on living standards and democratic rights. Reaction to these class-based policies has given rise to nostalgia for the nation-state, as if it were a benign structure the forces of globalisation and Wall Street have undermined. As workers vainly look to the nation-state for protection against the forces of globalising capital, they are demanding that the state conserve the social-democratic benefits won through years of struggle. But social democracy in effect was capitalism=s response to the Russian Revolution, and as the USSR imploded social democracy also fell into decline.

Despite the advances that have been won, the labour and socialist movements have been weakened in the age of finance capital and this is directly tied to the decline of bourgeois democracy. In the US, government efficiency is an oxymoron, bureaucratic rigidity gets in the way of delivering relief and the actual exercise of democracy is hugely tainted by corruption and vast infusions of money.

Authentic democracy – control from below – requires a sufficient level of understanding and education, and is impossible if money has influence in the process. In many ways the struggle for this bottom up democracy is a revolutionary struggle that involves coming up with better forms than the soviets promised: getting real democracy means getting revolutionary. We can’t presume in advance what forms the working class will take when it acts for itself. The political form will be determined by the struggle itself, though without control from below in a society that is progressively eliminating the division of labour, and has a high level of education and participation, substantive democracy remains but a dream.

In 1943 Victor Serge wrote that “we are prisoners of social systems worn to the point of breakdown”, and he lamented that even the clear sighted are half blind, filled with confused hopes. What was true mid-20th century is also true today. The renewal of socialism depends on our discarding all the remnants of Stalinism, rejecting the corrupting divisions of capitalism, and recapturing the daring and imagination of the revolutionaries of the early 20th century. In this respect black and red are not dead. To be socially effective requires lucidity, courage and hope. Serge would also remind us not to lose sight of the irrepressible human impulse for freedom, dignity and autonomy.

[This paper was presented at the conference in Nottingham, England, in 2009. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Suzi Weissman’s permission.]



[1]Suzi (Susan) Weissman is the author of Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, and editor of The Ideas of Victor Serge and Victor Serge: Russia Twenty Years After. She is on the editorial boards of Against the Current and Critique.

[2]He is identified as the bard of the LO by Richard Greeman; the journalist of the LO by Ernest Mandel; the historian of the LO by Susan Weissman.

[3]Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 34. Serge wrote a novel about the pre-war anarchist movement in France Les Hommes perdus which was confiscated in the Soviet Union. It has never been recovered.

[4] While recognising that even the anarchist movement was populated with authoritarian figures, from Bakunin to Makhno, Serge saw the essence of anarchism as the absence of authority; but authoritarianism can exist among those who oppose authority. Serge, L’Anarchisme, unpublished essay [#8], written in the forties (no date provided), Serge archives.

[5]Serge archive, no date, archive essay #8.

[6]Ibid.

[7] Memoirs, p. 114.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Serge was referring to the revolution and civil war generation of Bolsheviks, those schooled in making a revolution and fighting for its survival.

[10]Victor Serge to Sidney Hook, 10 July 1943.

[11]Although the GPU (State Political Directorate) was transformed into the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in 1934, it was often still called the GPU.

[12]For a detailed discussion of their political differences, see Susan Weissman, “Kronstadt and the Fourth International”, in The Serge-Trotsky Papers, edited by David Cotterill, Pluto Press, 1994, pp. 150-191.

[13]I recalled, for use against Trotsky himself, a sentence of astounding vision which he had written in 1914 I think: ‘Bolshevism may very well be an excellent instrument for the conquest of power, but after that it will reveal its counter-revolutionary aspects’. ... I came to the conclusion that our Opposition had simultaneously contained two opposing lines of significance. For the great majority ... it meant resistance to totalitarianism in the name of the democratic ideals expressed at the beginning of the Revolution; for a number of our Old Bolshevik leaders it meant, on the contrary, the defence of doctrinal orthodoxy which, while not excluding a certain tendency towards democracy, was authoritarian through and through. These two mingled strains had, between 1923 and 1928 surrounded Trotsky's vigorous personality with a tremendous aura. If, in his exile from the USSR, he had made himself the ideologist of a renewed socialism, critical in outlook and fearing diversity less than dogmatism, perhaps he would have attained a new greatness.” Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp. 348-350.

[14]Serge’s thinking about post WWII economic and political development was shaped by the terrible experience of the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Stalinism. The condition of humanity had been worsened by these regimes: the working class movement was deeply damaged by fascism, and Stalinism threatened the fate of socialism everywhere. Neither labour militancy in the West nor the colonial revolution in the east raised his spirits so long as the Soviet Union was in a position to crush revolutionary movements to its left and channel the others into anti-imperialist national liberation struggles that would lead to an extension of Soviet totalitarianism, a far cry from socialism. See Victor Serge, Carnets (Actes Sud, 1985), p. 181.

[15] “Necesidad de una renovación del Socialismo”, Mundo, Libertad y Socialismo, México, junio de 1943.

[16] “Pour un Renouvellement du Socialisme”, Masses/Socialisme et Liberté (no. 3, juin 1946).

[17] Victor Serge to Dwight Macdonald, October 8, 1945, Macdonald Papers, Yale University Library.

[18] 9/11, Hurricane Katrina 2005, financial meltdown 2008-9.

[19] For a fuller discussion, see Susan Weissman, “Disintegrating Democracy: From the Promise of the 1905 Soviet to Corrupt Democratic Forms”, Critique 41, April 2007, pp. 103-117.

[20] Carnets, December 10, 1944, p. 182.

[21]Workers’ individual rights have improved, winning protection from discrimination at work, but at the expense of union rights and protections – which have been eroded and often exist in name only. For a nuanced discussion of the relationship of rights consciousness to the labour movement (in the US) see Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton University Press, 2002), chapter 5.

Comments

Victor Serge

I read some of Victor Serge's works back in the 70's and 80's. He always struck me as a revolutionary with integrity. His Year One Of the Revolution was a great account. I wish his manuscript for Year Two had been found. I am happy to see him getting more recognition. Looking on Amazon a lot more of his books are in print now than they were when I first discovered him.

The Politics of Serge Today

I've read his memoirs, a bio of him, two of his novels, and his history of the first year of the Russian revolution; I've a number of his other books on order. I should add that I'm in my sixties, and a lifelong activist, though now on Disability and largely solitary...so what follows is perhaps best viewed as something of an overview.

I'm posting in this category because I'm not quite sure what is desired at this site. I see things about Cuba--but is there any place to discuss whether this is "socialism" and what place freedom has in a society that locks up dissenters, confiscates private libraries, and so forth? There are places to visit and give homage to Venezuela's current government, but is there anywhere to discuss whether any politician's viewing him (or her)self as indispensable to "the Revolution" is a bad sign? Do we want and need more Maximum Leaders, Presidents for Life, Great Helmsmen, and the like?

It seems that Serge's life is a beacon and place for all of this, because he was, of all the revolutionaries I can think of, the one who constellated in his person and political being, the demand for freedom and the desire for a cooperative society. That's the key, isn't it? Both of those things must be present...not just an airy "freedom" that does not--indeed, is not intended to--produce major social changes that stick and can grow a new and better world...and on the other hand, cooperativeness that is not simply the point of a gun or a command economy with the formalities of flags, pronouncements by unelected leaders, and all the rest that we are familiar with.

How can I be expected to relate to panegyrics about Nicaragua, where the sitting government--here, presented as part of the "left"--holds power precisely and solely because the deal it made with the Catholic Church that there shall be no abortions for any reason, in that nation? An entire segment of people--at least half the population--has been sacrificed, many already having died, so that a "leftist" politician and his party can hold power. Is it beyond the pale to suggest that women are not to be sacrificed for power? Where else do I say this? Is it not "comradely" to condemn this political murder of women?

The call for more internationals is the stuff that "theoreticians" love and sects endlessly chew on, but wouldn't it be more to the point to discuss the need for what is gapingly absent--some kind of effective effort, whether party or some association--in the "advanced" countries especially? Here in the United States, there are two notable things: the rightwing upsurge in the form of the "tea parties" and their kin, and as to the rest, the abiding silence in the nation. Poll after poll shows people do not believe that the war in Afghanistan is effective, good, whatever...but there are no demonstrations. It is a tomb. Naomi Klein--someone I greatly respect--calls for a left that is militant, radical, and independent. She's surely correct that that is needed. Now, how does that translate into a nation where there are sects resolutely insulated from the real world by their demand for the exotic language and off-putting images of a world gone by that is the grist and delight of sectarians everywhere? Or in a nation where most people immediately write off "politics" of any kind at all?

There are many questions, specific and great, and it is impossible to know how they translate into all these cubes. "Marxist theory" would seem a possibility, but was Serge a Marxist? I think he would say so, but if he was, he certainly shows that the term needs considerable expansion. And was he a "theoretician"? In any case, this emphasis on whether a person agrees to this label or that, should be viewed as more a symptom of what has befallen us, than a format for search. Where do all these fragments--and the fragmented thinking that produces them--congeal? What matters, surely, is the old question of what is to be done. Frankly, in the US if you insist upon the words (the sacred words!) such as 'socialism' you may be taking on a burden of baggage that will ensure no real progress towards the substance of a cooperative, democratic society. Why do we insist upon this, rather than speaking in the everyday language that is the stuff of real political life? Again, it seems like the dream world of sects--if we could only get the working class to start saying 'proletariat'....

Real life intrudes, where it has not been effectively barred by the self-enclosed circle of the elect. Where do we begin, how do we discuss across these barriers we place in our own way?

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