[The following exchanges were first published in the US socialist magazine Against the Current. They have been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. 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 a member of the editorial boards of Against the Current and Critique. The first essay is adapted from a section of a paper she delivered at a July 2008 conference on Trotsky’s legacy and first appeared in Against the Current, issue 136, September-October 2008. Following that is a response from Ernie Haberkern and reply by Susan Weissman. Some of Victor Serge's writings are available at the Marxists Internet Archive and at Resistance Books.]
By Susan Weissman
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.
When I tell people I write about Serge, invariably they tell me which of his books touched or influenced them most. In the English-speaking world it is typically his dialectical novel of the purges, The Case of Comrade Tulayev or his Memoirs of a Revolutionary. In France, it is S’il est minuit dans le siècle. Trotskyists usually mention Serge’s revolutionary history Year One of the Russian Revolution or From Lenin to Stalin, which he wrote in one 15-day stretch in 1936. In Latin America his most widely read work is his small pamphlet What Every Revolutionary Should Know About Repression.
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.(1) 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 are germane to current debates in the post-Soviet, post Cold War world.
Some may wonder, at the dawn of the 21st century, how the work of this forgotten revolutionary could have contemporary relevance. 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? Indeed how could Serge be a man for our time?
With the demise of Stalinism, the victors of the Cold War proclaim that “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: liberty, autonomy and dignity.
He belonged to a revolutionary generation that sought to create a society sufficient to meet these 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 1930s 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.
Defeat, renewal and democracy
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 thorns 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 postwar 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 when both Trotsky and Serge were in the West and thus 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.(2) But political differences and organisational practices were also responsible for straining his relations with Trotsky.(3)
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”.(4) 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 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 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.(5) 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”.(6)
Serge couldn’t emphasise strongly enough that the socialist movement had to break free from its fossilised thinking and that 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”.(7)
We are possibly 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. 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 many other thinkers of the time, however, 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 not just the working masses, but all of humanity. Democracy must mean democracy of work; liberty must mean personal and political freedom. We are very far from realising these goals.
For the down at heart, it is salient to recall the situation of Left Oppositionists like Serge who survived the ‘30s when they were hounded by Stalin's NKVD and Hitler's 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 — not just any progressive movement, but one that had a sense of history and recognised that democracy, control from below, is essential — is needed.(8) 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 totalitarian rule 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 United States — stumbles in its decline seemingly unable and/or unwilling to respond to catastrophes of the natural, political and economic, except to crack down and attack living standards.(9)
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,of Serge’s thinking is relevant for the present and the future? What can be salvaged from his writings, given so much has changed?
The heart of socialism
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 profoundly degraded. Today the struggle for democracy is a direct struggle for new forms of democratic decision making, exercised from below. Democracy is not an accessory of the revolutionary process; it is at the heart of the socialist project. Socialism without democracy isn’t socialism.
Looking back at what happened to soviet democracy — the foundation of 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.(10)
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 question of forms, however, remains important. The promise of socialism was of a genuine democracy with soviets or councils as the most basic 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.
The few successful revolutions after the Russian Revolution developed on the model of the Stalinised Soviet Union: bureaucratic, authoritarian, anti-democratic and often nationalist societies with little resemblance to socialism. Yet in the post-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)”(11) 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.(12)
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, as more and more people demand the genuine article, not managed electoral shams.(13) 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 intellectual rearmament Serge called for has not yet occurred. Even alongside the libertarian, sometimes pro-anarchist impulses of the anti-globalisation left, reaction to the class-based attacks on democratic rights and living standards has also entailed a strange nostalgia for the nation state, as if it were a benign structure that the forces of globalisation are undermining.
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 those gains in considerable measure were 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, a phenomenon directly tied to the decline of bourgeois democracy.
Authentic democracy — control from below — requires a sufficient level of understanding and education and is impossible if money controls the political 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.
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.
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.
1. He is identified as the Bard of the Left Opposition by Richard Greeman; the journalist of the Left Opposition by Ernest Mandel; the Historian of the Left Opposition by Susan Weissman.
2. 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.
3. 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, 150-191.
4. “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, 348-350.
5. 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), 181.
6. “Necesidad de una renovación del Socialismo”, Mundo, Libertad y Socialismo, Mexico, junio de 1943.
7. “Pour un Renouvellement du Socialisme”, Masses/Socialisme et Liberté (no. 3, juin 1946).
8. Victor Serge to Dwight Macdonald, 8 October 1945, Macdonald Papers, Yale University Library.
9. 9/11, Hurricane Katrina 2005, sub-prime meltdown 2008.
10. The situation by the 1920s had deteriorated to the extent that discussions about democracy were about inner-party democracy, not multi-party democracy, nor about reviving the soviets. The Left Opposition’s program was a principled critique of bureaucratisation and the stifling of democracy in the party, but 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 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 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 party. So the contradictions residing in creating vibrant revolutionary institutions of democratic control from below were evident from the outset. For a fuller discussion, see Susan Weissman, “Disintegrating Democracy: From the Promise of the 1905 Soviet to Corrupt Democratic Forms”, Critique 41, April 2007, 103-117.
11. Carnets, 10 December 1944, 182.
12. 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 US labour movement see Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton University Press, 2002), chapter 5.
13. As we have seen in the continued so-called colour revolutions ousting leaders who cheated their way to power in fraudulent elections, or even the rage and hope galvanised by the Obama primary campaign in the US.
Le Retif: The politics of Victor Serge
By Ernie Haberkern
[From Against the Current, 142, September-October 2009.]
Victor Serge by all accounts was a courageous, personally sympathetic figure whose writings, in the best humanist tradition, exposed the corruption and hypocrisy of the Stalinist dictatorship that grew out of the revolution and destroyed it. He wrote at a time when large segments of the labour and progressive movements still saw the Soviet Union and the communist movement as “on our side” and shunned their critics as, perhaps unintentionally, providing aid and comfort to the enemy.
All of this has led most people to ignore Serge’s actual politics, which were very reactionary and undemocratic. In particular, there has been almost no discussion of the large body of writing Serge produced before the revolution. This does a disservice to those who are trying to think through what happened to the Russian Revolution and the promise that revolutionary, democratic socialism seemed to offer in the early decades of the last century.
Susan Weissman, for example, references the French collection of these writings titled Le Rétif, but does not actually refer to it in the body of her book Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope or in her recent article in Against the Current (136, September-October 2008).
In the early 1960s when I joined the socialist movement I was attracted to the “Third Camp” anti-Stalinist tendency in the US movement. One of the first books I read was Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which had recently been translated into English by Peter Sedgewick. Serge was widely respected as a victim of Stalin’s purges, one of the few who survived to tell the tale. He also had a reputation as a “libertarian” among those on the US left who saw in the US Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the French syndicalists the representatives of the “anti-authoritarian” tendency in the movement.
In describing the political situation in the early twenties in Russia, Serge in Memoirs of a Revolutionary makes the following remarkable statement.
“(A)s long as the economic system remained intolerable for nine-tenths or so of the population, there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, whether in the Soviets or elsewhere .... we knew that the Party had been invaded by careerist, adventurist and mercenary elements who came over in swarms to the side that had the power. Within the Party the sole remedy to this evil had to be and in fact was, the discreet dictatorship of the old, honest and incorruptible members, in other words the Old Guard”. (188-119)
Here was a “libertarian” defending one-party rule using the standard Stalinist rhetoric! And when this work was first published in French, 15 years had passed since Trotsky repudiated this argument in The Revolution Betrayed (Trotsky, 96). It was almost 30 years since Lenin had proposed an open break with one-party rule (Lewin). It didn’t make any sense.
A few years later, Serge scholar Richard Greeman reviewed this book and a number of others by and about Serge for the socialist journal New Politics. I wrote a letter asking Greeman how he explained this and other quotes from Serge’s work. Greeman’s reply was, to paraphrase, “if you think that’s bad you ought to look at the collection called Le Rétif”.
I picked up a copy of the book and the mystery was solved.
The real politics of Victor Serge are muted in his best known works — the only ones which have been translated into English — because they were written for an audience that considered itself Marxist, actively supported the socialist and communist parties and was heavily involved in the trade union movement at all levels. Serge was an anarchist. He was philosophically an anti-Marxist, contemptuous of political parties and considered trade unions, even trade unions run by his anarchist comrades, at best, a waste of time. To state these positions openly in the late 1930s and 1940s — the period of his greatest political influence — would have cost him his audience.
But from 1909 until 1914, Serge wrote extensively for the anarchist press. In fact, during this time he was one of the main editors as well as a principal contributor to the weekly l’anarchie. In these pages and those of other “libertarian” journals of the day, his political point of view, his “libertarian” communism, appears in all its glory.
These writings were long buried in the archives, but in 1991 an anthology of Serge’s writings from this period consisting of some 30 articles from l’anarchie, along with a handful of others which appeared in Le Communiste, Le Révolté and Les Réfractaires was published.
The title of the book is Le Rétif. This was Serge’s pen name and it means a horse or mule that refuses to be broken.
These articles have never appeared in English. It is hard to see why anyone would want to translate them since the result would be to tarnish the reputation of the author. One of the articles, entitled “l’ouvriérisme”, which can be translated “workerism” but more accurately in today’s jargon “class-reductionism”, sums up “libertarianism” as well as anything.
“The anarchists are not workerists. To them it is puerile to place on a pedestal the workers whose despicable apathy is probably more responsible for the universally miserable state of things than the rapacity of the privileged....
“We are not sympathizers of the workers anymore than we are of their masters. They are just as ignorant and apathetic, their physical and moral decay more pitiful. It is the slaves who create the masters, the people the governments, the workers the employers — it is the weak, the stupid, the degenerates who create this swamp of a society and force us to swim in it!
“They don’t know how to behave any other way. They don’t know any other way to live. Only the elite minority made up of those healthy individuals with minds cleared of rubbish and with burning energy can lead humanity towards happiness by their superior lives....
“And what has to be done is to support this minority of anarchists against brutalisation by the bourgeoisie, the workers and the workerists.
“So, let us go among the plebeians, sowing at random the seed of revolt. And the minority in which there still remains some strength, they will come to us, swelling the ranks of the lovers of life and the fighters for life .... As for the others — the majority — they will spend their life in routine, servility and stupidity — but what do we care?” (Le Rétif, 105-106)
In another article, “Our Antisyndicalism”, Serge uses the same argument of the inferiority of the masses, especially the working class, to demonstrate that unions are as much a dead end as electoral politics. The pressure of the ignorant mass will inevitably turn the unions into conservative defenders of a privileged caste. (107)
What does the enlightened anarchist elite do if electoral politics and trade unionism are rejected. How does it demonstrate its superiority? There is journalism, of course, but to what end? To inflame the masses? Impossible! The masses are sheep. To recruit other anarchists? And what do they do? There is, after all, a limited market for libertarian journals.
Several of Serge’s comrades on the editorial board of l’anarchie solved this problem in the fashion that was traditional among individualist anarchists in the waning years of the 19th century and the beginning years of the 20th. They staged a series of hold-ups. In the course of one and this too was part of the ritual, they shot and killed a cashier.
Serge, by all accounts, took no part in the action and was not aware of what his comrades were doing. Personally, he claimed to have been appalled by what had happened. Nevertheless, he jumped to the defense of his comrades. They were men. They had rebelled against this soul-destroying society.
“The bandit is a man. We have seen some workers’ demonstrations dispersed by the cops with a kick! And for some workers the bosses’ loud voice suffices!...
“But then there are the bandits! A few separate themselves from the crowd, determined not to waste the precious hours of their lives in servitude. They choose to fight. And, without mincing words, they go and take the money that confers power. They dare. They attack. Often they pay for it. In any event, they are alive”. (164)
Unlike the pitiful, ignorant, apathetic prolo who got shot.
Serge was convicted as an accomplice after the fact and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. But he continued to write:
“You have to understand! You finally have to realise that we are the barbarian vanguard in present day society; that we have no respect for virtue, morality, honesty; that we are outside law and rules. You oppress us, you persecute us, you hunt us down. Always the rebels find themselves faced with the sad choice: submit, that is give up their freedom and enter the wretched troop of the exploited or take up the fight with the entire social organism”. (184)
Celebrating the man of action
Throughout his life Serge continued this pattern. His model rebel was not the political or trade union leader, the working-class organiser, but the man of action. And he considers the bandit, the criminal, whether motivated by anarchist ideals or not, the archetype of the man of action who refuses to be broken.
But the bandit was not the only example of the man of action who was above the law and flaunted his contempt for the rules of society. (Serge constantly and deliberately refers to his enemy as “society”, not the capitalist class, not the bourgeoisie, not even “the state”.)
The Third French Republic throughout its life faced the constant threat of a military dictator, a new Bonaparte. All classes of “society” contemplated the possibility with anxiety — tinged with hope. Serge took up this threat in an article titled “Waiting for the Dictator”.
A dictator is necessary. They all need an adventurer without scruples and without principle who will dominate them completely with his arrogant cynicism. These bourgeois deserve a man who will come and violate their laws, their rights, their principles; these workers deserve a renegade who will suddenly appear to crush them under iron decrees; these rhetoricians of the Revolution deserve an audacious despot who will do away with their freedom of speech.
They deserve him because they need him. One needs a Bandit by Law daring enough to proclaim from above his contempt for the law! Whether he comes or not makes no difference to us. We are above it all... (184)
I defy anyone familiar with the history of the early fascist movement to read Le Rétif without feeling a shudder up the back of the neck.
Serge and Bolshevik `authoritarianism'
But wasn’t Serge a sympathetic critic of the Bolsheviks, like Rosa Luxemburg? Wasn’t he sensitive because of his “libertarian” background to the Bolsheviks’ “authoritarian” and anti-democratic tendencies? It would take far too much space to do it here but it has been demonstrated elsewhere that anarchism is a thoroughly anti-democratic ideology and proudly so (Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution).
In any case, even the few quotes given above should give pause to anyone who thinks that Serge’s “libertarianism” would lead him to criticise the Bolsheviks from a democratic perspective. But more fundamentally, to judge the validity of Serge’s criticism of the Bolsheviks we have to ask: what did Serge know about the Bolsheviks?
The answer is — absolutely nothing. The crucial years in the formation of the party that led the revolution were the very years — 1909 to 1914 — that Serge was writing for the anarchist press. In these years the political factions within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party hardened and their internal quarrels culminated in a final split.
You will find no mention of the Bolsheviks in Serge’s articles of the time and it is unlikely that he had ever heard of them. If he had he would have not been interested. It was in these years that Lenin successfully won the overwhelming support of the organised working class in the legal trade union movement inside Russia.
The final act in this drama was Lenin’s splitting of the social-democratic delegation in the Duma, the Russian parliament, into left and right factions. Why would someone with Serge’s politics care about such “bourgeois” shenanigans?
When 1917 came Lenin had a working-class base. The only other prominent emigré on the left who played any role in the Russian Revolution at all was Trotsky. He had nothing but a faction of independents floating in mid-air and had no choice but to merge with the Bolsheviks. Not even the most rabid academic anti-Leninist denies that Lenin won a majority in the Soviets in 1917 by an open, democratic, political appeal to those Victor Serge had called “prolos”.*
Serge, now out of prison, was living in Spain when the Russian Revolution overthrew not only tzarism but capitalism. As it did the rest of the international left, the news affected him like a rejuvenating electric charge. Like practically everybody else on the left he knew next to nothing about Lenin or the Bolsheviks or what they stood for. Like everybody else on the left he saw in this upheaval the revolution he wanted. The Bolsheviks were men! Men of action. Not politicians or trade union bureaucrats. They had dared and fought and won while everybody else talked.
But didn’t Serge discover what “Bolshevism” was really all about when he arrived in Russia? No. By the time he arrived in revolutionary Russia in 1919 the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party, like all the prewar parties and factions, had dissolved. All parties and tendencies during the civil war were split between those who supported the revolution and those who chose counterrevolution.
The Communist Party was composed of all those who chose the revolution. And all who joined it brought their own politics with them when they joined. There were no loyalty oaths. No one was forced to renounce their past or their old programs. But the old programmatic differences were pretty much irrelevant anyway by 1919. Everything was subordinated to winning the war. Not to mention keeping the population of the country from starving to death. And by 1919 the overwhelming majority of Communist Party members were people who had never been part of the prewar movement. They knew as much about the “Bolshevism” of 1909-1914 as Serge did.
More important was that the civil war destroyed the organised working class that had been the base of Bolshevism. Trotsky later pointed out that the old, prewar trade union and party militants were inevitably absorbed into the military and civilian administration of the country. But more than that, the economic devastation caused by civil war and the international blockade of the country effectively destroyed the working class as a class.
Paul Avrich points out that in Petrograd the industrial proletariat had fallen from 300,000 to 100,000 by 1920. And most of those left could only live by selling what they stole from the factories they worked in. (See Avrich, 24, 26. But the entire chapter on “The Crisis of War Communism” has to be read to appreciate the situation the regime faced.)
In short, the Communist Party had really become, by the time Serge arrived on the scene in 1919, a bizarre simulacrum of his prewar fantasies. The party had become that energetic, enlightened moral elite fighting the good fight while the majority of the population was reduced to the most elemental and brutal struggle simply to find enough to eat.
Imperialist war, civil war and imperialist intervention had produced the kind of nightmare in reality that Serge had dreamed about in his anarchist writings. It never occurred to him that this “Bolshevism” he found was a product of the defeat of the revolution on a European-wide scale. He never realised that this “Bolshevism” was what was left after Lenin’s old party had disappeared and the working class that produced it had been destroyed.
For a Marxist, the decay of the revolution was inevitable in such a situation. But for Serge, who had never been a Marxist, the decay of the Communist Party was nothing more than the moral decay of the moral elite. In one of his earliest discussions of “Bolshevism” he puts it very clearly.
The formation of a Jacobin Party and the exclusivity of the dictatorship do not therefore appear to be inevitable; and everything henceforth depends on the ideas which inspire it [the party], on the men who carry out these ideas and on the reality of control by the masses .... (Serge, The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution, 107)
What is being described here could be called “Stalinism with a human face”. How can one talk about “the reality of control by the masses” in a one-party state? One can argue that the presence of factions within the one party and the relatively free debate and contest for power within the one party provides a substitute for contending parties. And these contending factions in the middle 1920s really did provide such an ersatz democracy.
But the charade ends on the day when one faction decides to appeal to the masses over the head of the one party. That is what Trotsky’s opposition in 1923 threatened. And then all the old revolutionaries, “Marxist” or “Libertarian”, had to choose which side they were on. It was in reference to this crisis that Serge wrote the passage in Memoirs of a Revolutionary quoted above. He was only repeating his old arguments about the political incompetence of the prolos.
Of course, Serge was not the only one making such arguments in 1921. Former Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were making similar ones. But, as Marxists, they were abandoning their former principles. Le Rétif was not. When Serge made what he called the slow transition from anarchism to Marxism he did not abandon the notion that the incorruptible elite was the sole guardian of political virtue.
What he abandoned was the anarchist rejection, at least in theory, of state power as a possible tool of the virtuous elite. Of course, the elite faced the possibility of corruption by state power. But for Serge this exercise of state power came to be seen as an almost saintly decision by the elite to risk their own souls for the good of suffering humanity. Everything depended on the moral strength of the “Old Guard”, which became another incarnation of the anarchist band.
Serge’s transition from anarchism to pseudo-Marxism was made easier because, under the pressure of civil war and famine, the Communist Party itself had shelved the Marxist view of the state and its relation to democracy and working-class power.
Like Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Gregory Zinoviev (and unlike Lenin), Serge insisted that a new ideological invention called the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, which he defines explicitly as the dictatorship of the conscious minority — over not only the majority of the population at large but of the working-class itself — is not simply a result of the peculiar situation in Russia. It is nothing less than a law governing all revolutions. Serge points to Cromwell’s army and the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety as examples of this “law”. (The Anarchists, ibid. For Marx, “dictatorship of the proletariat” had been simply a term for “workers’ government”, having nothing to do with any “law”of suppression of democratic rights. See Draper, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”)
Serge and the oppositions
Serge’s description of the Communist Party in the period of War Communism is brilliantly done. In his account of the siege of Petrograd, his account of The Year One of the Revolution and his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he not only describes the process of decay but, as a necessary part of that, what the Communist Party had really been like at the height of the civil war. This portrait not only condemns by contrast the Stalinism that followed but also shames the bourgeois detractors of the revolution.
But Serge’s account, in the first place, it is an account from the inside. He went to work in 1920 for the Communist International as a translator and propagandist. His closest associates were Maxim Litvinov and Zinoviev. This was the foreign office of the revolution. These were the ambassadors of the revolution. And like all diplomats and ambassadors they were apologists for the regime. At one point Serge describes the Zinoviev opposition to which he belonged.
Formed by functionaries who had been the first to apply the methods of constraint and corruption in the party, it was in large measure a coterie turned out of power, fighting to regain it and thereupon brought around to raising the great questions of principle. (Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, 118-119)
Serge was himself one of these functionaries. He was not associated with either of the opposition groups that surfaced in 1920 — The Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. Of course, he had just arrived on the scene and it is quite understandable that he would not want to get involved immediately in a factional dispute he only half understood. But he didn’t rally to Trotsky’s side in 1923 either.
He claims, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary to have sympathised with the opposition but remained a loyal functionary. He read and agreed with Trotsky’s Lessons of October and The New Course but then “went on endlessly printing our news-sheets, with the same insipid, nauseating condemnations of what we knew to be true”. (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 190,191)
It was only when his boss Zinoviev went into (or rather, was shoved into) opposition that Serge made an open break. And Serge’s description of Zinoviev’s role in the early 1920s, both internationally as boss of the Commintern and internally as boss of Leningrad is, if anything, understated. Zinoviev was, after all, one of the main figures in the campaign of defamation against Trotsky in 1923.
This is not to accuse Serge of direct complicity in these campaigns — there is no evidence of that — nor to take anything away from the enormous courage and integrity he displayed in his subsequent career as an oppositionist. But it does raise a question of what Serge could have understood by “Bolshevism”. The “Bolshevism” he knew as Zinoviev’s collaborator in 1919-22, let alone the “Bolshevism” of 1923-1926, bore little resemblance to Lenin’s working-class party of 1909-1917.
The point of this commentary is not to disparage a brave man whose works deserve to be read. But to blank out the troubling aspects of his political views is hagiography, not history. Even more important is the relation of these politics to our current situation. The politics of the “militant minority” that have dominated the left in the developed countries since the late 1960s have left us as isolated from the mass movements of the working classes as we have ever been. It is a tradition that needs to be critically re-examined, not glossed over.
* This history is too complicated to detail here. There are two very good academic books on the subject, one by Victoria E. Bonnell, the other by Geoffrey Swain. Both authors are card-carrying Lenin bashers but the story they tell gives the lie to the standard myths about “Bolshevism”.
Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 1974.
Bonnel, Victoria E. Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organisations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983.
Draper, Hal. The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1987.
Draper, Hal. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4, chapters 5 and 6. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1991.
Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s Last Struggle. Random House Inc., 1968.
New Politics (second series). Volume IV, Number 3, New Politics Association: Brooklyn, NY.
Serge, Victor. Le Rétif: Articles parus dans “l'anarchie” 1901-1912. Librairie Monnier: Paris, 1991. ed. & intro. by Yves Pagès.
Serge, Victor. Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Edited and translated by Peter Sedgewick, Oxford University Press: London, Oxford, New York, 1975.
Serge, Victor. “The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution”, in Revolution in Danger. Translated by Ian Birchall. Redwords: London, 1997.
Serge, Victor. Russia Twenty Years After, Humanities Press:Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1996.
Swain, Geoffrey. Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labor Movement, 1906-1914. The Macmillan Press Ltd.: London and Basingstoke, 1983.
A rejoinder: The real Victor Serge
By Susan Weissman
[From Against the Current, issue 142, September-October 2009.]
What then to make of Victor Serge? A dishonest authoritarian, an anti-worker anarchist as Ernie Haberkern asserts in “Le Retif: The Politics of Victor Serge”? Haberkern directs his critique against Serge as an anarchist and also against Serge scholarship that is either hagiographical, or selective in his view, because it pays scant attention to the early Victor Serge from the ages of 18-22.
Based on a reading of Serge’s early activity and writing, Ernie Haberkern chooses to believe, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that Serge never abandoned his anarchism. Haberkern notes the sometimes authoritarian and anti-democratic character of anarchism and insists that Serge exemplified both, that his pre-1914 politics remained with him his entire life.
It seems unfortunately that Haberkern hasn’t read Serge’s later work that criticises Russian anarchist leaders for their authoritarian streak. Nor does he seem to have read Serge’s published work in 1936 that criticises the Russian anarchists for failing to support the Bolsheviks and for missing the significance of Lenin’s State and Revolution. In other words, Serge himself fully participated in the debate about the character of anarchism that Haberkern identifies.
Victor Serge is often thought of as a “libertarian” Bolshevik, one who brought an anarchist’s humanist sensibility to Leninist politics. Haberkern disputes that Serge was libertarian, while I argue against the notion that Bolshevism (revolutionary Marxism) was anti-humanist, or that socialism needs an anarchist sensibility to be more democratic.(1) Serge did bring his European and anarchist experiences to Bolshevism, but he did so as a convinced revolutionary Marxist.
Serge belonged to a critically minded and intelligent group of old Bolsheviks(2) who resolutely resisted totalitarianism, a large group he insisted was right at the heart of Bolshevism.(3) 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” — meaning a 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.
The stifling of democracy
While recognising the key role of the soviets in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Bolsheviks in power in the 1920s were less concerned with soviet democracy than with the danger of capitalist restoration. Even Preobrazhensky and Trotsky of the Left Opposition, whose program was a principled critique of bureaucratisation and the stifling of democracy in the party, rarely addressed the issue of democracy in the society as a whole. Socialism is control from below and soviets in theory are the instrument.
The question of democracy revealed an early contradiction that was not resolved. The soviets died in the Civil War and were never revived. Lenin and Trotsky were attacked for advocating democratic control from below but actually controlling from above. Context is everything: truisms about democracy have to be considered in light of the actual circumstances.
Serge was rooted in the reality of the immediate Civil War conjuncture of 1920-1921. The young socialist republic was fighting for its life. It was defeated because it could never exist alone. Had it been an exemplary soviet democracy it perhaps could have served as a pole of attraction to inspire revolutions in the West. But in the post-Civil War environment neither elections nor fully functioning free soviets could have helped it survive, so long as they remained isolated.
In reality, had there been genuine internal Soviet elections the Bolsheviks would probably have lost power as the peasantry was in the majority. Even without the peasantry they might have lost (to the Mensheviks) and their successors would have not have had the single-minded purpose to prevent the restoration of capitalism.
The situation by the 1920s had deteriorated to the extent that discussions about democracy were about inner-party democracy, not multiparty democracy, nor about reviving the soviets. Victor Serge would raise the issue of revitalising political parties and political life, stating that “socialism and workers democracy cannot be born out of pronunciamentos”(4), 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”.(5)
This explains the concentration on inner-party democracy rather than on revitalising democratic institutions for the society at large. Serge wrote that the chief omission in Bolshevik discussion in this period was the problem of liberty, which with democracy and political pluralism was drowned in the avalanche of the Civil War. And, Serge recognised that “the socialist revolution which unfolded in Russia could never be considered apart from the international labor movement”.(6)
Herein lay another contradiction for the Bolsheviks who recognised that the soviets were the both the tool of the proletariat and the form of transition to socialism: internationalism was more important to them than ensuring the survival of democracy. The revolution was under siege: the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) took up arms against the Bolsheviks and the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt (1921) was the last straw for the anarchists, whose support had waned during the Civil War.
The Bolsheviks hadn’t intended to rule alone, but they trusted only 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. So the contradictions residing in creating vibrant revolutionary institutions of democratic control from below were evident from the outset.
Becoming Victor Serge
The thrust of my Against the Current 136 article on Serge was to sort through some of these issues and to address the paramount failures of the Soviet experience with regard to liberty, autonomy, democracy and dignity. I called Serge “a man for our time”, one of the figures from the revolutionary struggles of the first half of the 20th century who merits rescue and has much to say of contemporary relevance.
Haberkern is right that I chose in The Course is Set on Hope not to concentrate on Serge’s earlier anarchist period(7): the core of the book is a biographical study that attempts to articulate, through Serge’s eyes and works the heart and soul of revolutionary optimism unleashed in 1917, then muzzled by the tyranny of Stalinist counter-revolution. It traces the methodical way that Stalin suffocated Soviet society, while reconstructing the valiant, ultimately doomed efforts of those who saw its defeat coming, tried to fight against it, analysing its meaning and significance for future generations.
How did Serge become Serge? 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.
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 Serge 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 IWW, path-breaking scientific 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.
Here Haberkern is right that Serge and his comrades 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.
Serge’s 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. Thus Serge’s early conviction was that of an individualist anarchist, but there is no doubt that 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, as was Serge, at least intellectually.
Perhaps Serge’s problem is his huge paper trail. Haberkern apparently missed his early 1917 work on Nietzsche that appeared in Tierra y Libertad in Spain.(8) Serge did not accept, ever, nor submit himself and his action to the dictates of any authority. He was repelled by Nietzsche but also fascinated by him. But he tried in 1917 to approach Nietzsche as a revolutionary Marxist.
Is it fair to Serge to assert that his politics never changed? Serge changed, as did a generation by the actuality of the first socialist revolution, the Russian Revolution. Incredibly, Haberkern discounts the momentous events Serge lived through and imagines that Serge held onto his teenage convictions despite everything.
It is quite presumptuous that Haberkern does not take Serge at his word (actually his voluminous words) and knows better than Serge himself his political orientation. Haberkern privileges Serge’s writings and activities from age 18-22, when he was an individualist anarchist, over everything that came later.
Who hasn’t changed? Shall we take only the Trotsky during the Civil War — the open advocate for revolutionary state “terrorism” (and Trotsky wasn’t a teenager then either)? Trotsky, the fighter for soviet democracy never called for multiparty democracy until 1936. Serge did so in 1923.
Haberkern takes Serge’s refusal to denounce his anarchist comrades as a sign of his political affinity with them. Serge could no more break solidarity with his friends from childhood than Trotsky could, for example, break with his syndicalist friend Alfred Rosmer. Throughout Serge’s life he mingled in diverse political circles and milieux, befriending anarchists, theosophists, maximalists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs, social democrats and more.
Serge as Le Retif
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”, at the same time protecting Rirette, his first wife/companion who had confessed to getting the two (stolen) guns found at their residence that came from a break-in at an armory.(9)
Although Kibalchich/Serge and Rirette Maîtrejean were part of the Bonnot gang, they were propagandists rather than bandits. When the verdicts came in, Rirette was acquitted, others were sent to the guillotine and Serge was sentenced to five years in solitary as the intellectual ringleader.
Even during this period, Serge wrote (signing his articles “Le Retif” or 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 Memoirs of a Revolutionary Serge described their descent into violence as “a kind of madness” and “like a collective suicide”.(10) In 1908 Serge wrote about the illegalists:
Every revolt is in essence anarchist. And we should stand alongside the economic rebel (when he is conscious, of course) the same we stand beside the political, antimilitarist or propagandist rebel.
All rebels, through their acts, are one of us. Anarchism is a principle of struggle: it needs fighters and not servants the away statist socialism does, a machine with complicated gears that has only to let itself vegetate in order to live in a bourgeois fashion.
But it seems proper to me to trace a limit. I said above ``economic rebel'', for if the Duvals and the Pinis, who steal because they can’t submit to the oppression of the bosses, are our people, it isn’t the same for many so-called anarchists who have paraded through the various criminal courts over the past few years. Theft is often nothing but an act of cowardice and weakness, for he who commits it has no other goal than that of escaping work, while at the same time escaping the difficulties of social struggle.
Before the jury, instead of being a common criminal the burglar or the counterfeiter declares himself an ``anarchist'' in the hope of being interesting or appearing the martyr to a cause he knows nothing about. He finds nothing better to respond to the judge who condemns him but the traditional and a bit banal ``Vive l’anarchie!'' But if this cry in other mouths has taken on a powerful resonance, it has here a flimsy title to our solidarity.
Although Haberkern insists that Serge was always an anarchist rebel, Serge himself had this to say of this period: “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 (before he went to Russia) that Serge reflected, studied seriously and grew politically.Serge read Marx seriously there for the first time and studied everything he could about the Bolsheviks.(Despite Haberkern’s assertion that he knew “nothing” of Bolshevism, the French authorities arrested him as a Bolshevik sympathiser.)
Serge the Bolshevik
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.
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 (essay #8)(11) 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 [in archive, no date, archive essay #8].
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 what makes him so attractive. We know of Serge because of the literary legacy he has left us.
His role in the party, the opposition and exile is one of prominence due to his literary reputation, not as a leader. I’ve argued he became the historian of the Left Opposition but also its conscience. Serge at the end of his life called for a renewal of socialist thought and an active humanism; most importantly, Serge stands out as an early proponent of socialist democracy, an unrelenting critic of one-party rule and party patriotism.
Haberkern argues against Serge before he was Serge, when he was Kibalchich, the restless one in pursuit of revolution. Haberkern also states that Serge had an anti-worker bias. The Marxist Serge understood that only the working class could advance the world to socialism, to an economy that serves the community rather than the reverse, one that is rational and just.
Serge’s writings are filled with descriptions of how ordinary people fare, be it in Stalinist Russia or capitalist Belgium. Haberkern refers to Russia, Twenty Years After (which I edited and introduced): it is impossible to read this without seeing that Serge was imbued with concern first and foremost about what happened to ordinary people under the system Stalin built.
Serge himself was a worker and spent his entire life in poverty. He worked in printshops 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”.(12)
1. In the first chapter of The Course is Set on Hope.
2. Serge was referring to the Russian Revolution and Cvil War generation of Bolsheviks, those schooled in making a revolution and fighting for its survival.
3. Victor Serge to Sidney Hook, 10 July 1943.
4. Victor Serge, letter to Jacques Mesnil, quoted in Russia Twenty Years After (Pioneer Publishers, 1937 ), 151-152n.
5. Serge, “Reply to Ciliga”, New International, February 1939, 54.
6. Serge, Russia Twenty Years After (Humanities Press, 1996), [Hillman –Curl 1937], 147-148.
7. Not because I was trying to cover up an embarrassing period in Serge’s life, but, as I outlined in the introduction, the book examined Serge’s life and mainly through the prism of his Soviet experience and his wrestling with the vexing questions raised by Soviet development. How was the revolutionary promise destroyed? Was the rise of the social group headed by Stalin inevitable? How did the new system crush and erase the original revolutionary vision and politics? What impact did it have on socialist politics and practice around the globe? How did the Soviet experience shape Serge’s mature reflections on the USSR, Stalinism, socialism and the possibilities for the future? (Susan Weissman, The Course is Set on Hope, Verso, 7.)
8. “Esbozo Critico Sobre Nietzche” (Critical Sketch on Nietzche), Tierra y Libertad in 1917.
9. Luc Nemeth, in Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: Life as a Work of Art (Critique/Merlin press, 1997), 125. The office at rue Fessart was also Serge and Rirette’s home.
10. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 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.
11. 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 written in the forties (no date provided), Serge archives.