The Politics of Victor Serge
— Ernie Haberkern
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 labor 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 (ATC 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 American 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 American left who saw in the American 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 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 ‘40s — 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 brutalization 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 from 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 holdups. 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 realize 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 organizer, 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 & 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 criticize 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 organized 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 Czarism 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 organized 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 realized 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 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, Bukharin and 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 Gregory 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.
ormed 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 sympathized 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, 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 Organizations 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 Labour Movement, 1906-1914. The Macmillan Press Ltd.: London and Basingstoke, 1983.
ATC 142, September-October 2009