A Rejoinder: The Real Victor Serge
— Susan Weissman
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 criticizes Russian anarchist leaders for their authoritarian streak. Nor does he seem to have read Serge’s published work in 1936 that criticizes 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 organizational 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 recognizing 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 bureaucratization 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 multi-party democracy, nor about reviving the soviets. Victor Serge would raise the issue of revitalizing 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 revitalizing 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 Revolitionaries (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 ATC 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 dignity1 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, analyzing 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 organization.
Thus Serge was born in exile in Belgium and spent his early years there (and in London). He wrote in his Memoirs 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 Wobblies, 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 Ernie 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) brownings 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 the Memoirs 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 Ernie’s assertion that he knew “nothing” of Bolshevism, the French authorities arrested him as a Bolshevik sympathizer.)
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 recognize the necessity of large industrial organization, 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 LO 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)
- In the first chapter of The Course is Set on Hope.
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- Serge was referring to the revolution and civil war generation of Bolsheviks, those schooled in making a revolution and fighting for its survival.
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- Victor Serge to Sidney Hook, 10 July 1943.
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- Victor Serge, letter to Jacques Mesnil, quoted in Russia Twenty Years After (Pioneer Publishers, 1937 ), 151-152n.
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- Serge, “Reply to Ciliga,” New International, February 1939, 54.
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- Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, (Humanities Press, 1996), [Hillman –Curl 1937], 147-148.
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- 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.)
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- “Esbozo Critico Sobre Nietzche” (Critical Sketch on Nietzche), Tierra y Libertad in 1917.
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- 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.
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- Memoirs, 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.
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- While recognizing 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.
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ATC 142, September-October 2009