The Dissident Marxism of Victor Serge
Dissident Marxism was a response to the twin monoliths of Stalinism and Social Democracy. In the period after Stalin had come to power in Russia, and after the defeat of the remaining hopes of the October Revolution, there were millions of people across the world who still called themselves Marxists. Yet their loyalty to the Russian state forced them to defend the most terrible crimes. The dissidents were those who continued to think for themselves. Before such figures as Leon Trotsky, Karl Korsch or Victor Serge could explain their different interpretations of Marx, each first had to be clear in their own explanation of what was happening in Russia, and what had gone wrong. While other chapters examine one writer's contribution to a Marxist theory of philosophy or another writer's contribution towards the development of a Marxist understanding of history, the focus of this chapter is on what was a more practical and more necessary task, explaining the decay of the Russian Revolution. Victor Serge contributed to the process of forming an international Marxist current of opposition to Stalinism, which did not capitulate to imperialism or to Social Democracy. His was an original voice, shaped by a youth spent among France's strong anarchist movement. A convert to Bolshevism, Serge was only persuaded by the success of the October Revolution, and came to the Marxist debates late and from without. Serge was also an agitator, a novelist, a journalist, a poet, a pamphleteer, an artist and a political writer of the first order. His writings remain a powerful defence of a democratic and revolutionary Marxism.
When opponents of Stalin's regime including Serge and Trotsky, left Russia after the defeat of the revolution, they were subject to the most terrible abuse, their voices were misrepresented or ignored. Serge described the ways in which Communist supporters would slander their opponents, reporting them to the police, denouncing them in Communist and other newspapers, sending agents to harass them or worse, as enemies of the Soviet regime. Serge himself was stripped of Soviet citizenship, his house was spied on, and regularly searched. Meanwhile, the members of his family remaining in Russia, his sister, two brothers-in-law, mother-in-law, and two sisters-in-law all disappeared in the purges. The most powerful processes of censorship, though, were the less dramatic and more insidious habits of self-censorship. Not thousands but millions of committed socialists deliberately closed their eyes to the crimes that were being committed in the name of the working class. And in retrospect we can understand why they did so. The Soviet Union seemed at the time to be the sole obstacle to the terrible threat of German fascism. It is not surprising that many socialists in the West attempted to justify individual Soviet actions. Russia was a socialist society, they would argue, and of course it has made many mistakes, in the same way that every working class has taken its own wrong turnings along the road towards socialism. While Serge would not condemn his friends, he was ready to challenge them, as he did in his book, Russia Twenty Years After:
Serge replied to his friends' prevarications by stressing that Stalin's critics had always understated the degeneration of the revolution:
This chapter will describe how the Left Opposition came to explain the development of this bureaucratic machine, and why Serge believed their theories had not gone far enough. These themes will be developed through a discussion of Serge's life and work, and the relevance of his dissident Marxism for today.
Serge and 'the time of the first perfected machine guns'
Serge was a participant and then witness to several of the most important events of the twentieth century. Born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich in 1890, his parents were political refugees. His father was a supporter of Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), while his mother a member of the Polish aristocracy. One cousin, Nicholai Kibalich, had even taken part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. With family like this, it is not surprising that Serge became an activist an early age: his autobiographical Memoirs of a Revolutionary (first published in 1951) describe Serge as taking anarchist positions from the age of 6 onwards! At around 15, Victor Serge and his circle of friends joined the Jeunes Gardes, the Belgian young socialists, but they were contemptuous of the main currents within the Belgian Socialist Party. It seemed that the party was becoming increasingly reformist, concerned with the minutiae of detailed parliamentary legislation, and uninterested in transforming the capitalist system in any meaningful way. Serge and his friends left the Jeunes Gardes, and joined Emile Chapelier's anarchist colony instead. Serge was especially influenced by the individualist writings of Albert Libertad, which placed a strong emphasis on individual morality, uniqueness, vegetarianism and health. From Belgium, Victor Serge made his way to Paris, and took part in the anarchist movement there. An article from 1910 catches the tone of romantic libertarianism which then dominated Serge's writings, and also provides an early justification for his later career as an artist:
Although Serge was a committed, leading anarchist, his Memoirs also record a sense of futility which he claims to have experienced at the time. One by one, Serge's comrades were lost to individual doctrines and adventurism, becoming thieves and petty outlaws, defying the police, choosing mysterious notions of honour over life, 'I saw the whole of the movement founded by Libertad dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness; and nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself.'
Under the pseudonym Valentin, Serge edited the newspaper Anarchie, and the authorities held him responsible for instigating the crimes of the famous Bonnot gang. Hardly guilty of the crime, but determined not to plead his innocence, and refusing to denounce his friends, Serge was sentenced to five years imprisonment. His experience of French jail is described in his later book, Men in Prison (1930). Shortly afterwards, Serge witnessed the conversion of the socialist leaders of the world to imperialist chauvinism, at the outbreak of the first world war. Following his eventual release from jail, Serge took the Barcelona express and participated in the failed uprising which took place there in August 1917. This period of his life gave Serge the material for another novel, Birth of our Power (1931). From Spain, Serge made his way back to France, and was detained. Thrilled, as so many of his friends were, by the news of the October Revolution, he succeeded in having himself sent to Russia, as a Bolshevik, in exchange for French prisoners of war. Thus Serge arrived in his parents' country for the first time in January 1919, aged 28, and already shaped by thirteen years experience of organised revolutionary activity.
From the moment of his arrival, Serge was torn. On the one hand, he was shocked by the authoritarianism of the Bolshevik Party, but on the other hand, he could see that the Communists remained the party of the Russian working class. Indeed, it was at this moment that Serge was cured of his earlier disdain for political organisation. As Serge was to write, 'At this moment, the party fulfilled within the working class the functions of a brain and of a nervous system. It saw, it felt, it knew, it thought, it willed for and through the masses... without it, the masses would have been no more than a heap of human dust.' Thus Serge saw his duty as being to defend the revolution from its adversaries, 'I was neither against the Bolsheviks nor neutral; I was with them, albeit independently, without renouncing thought or critical sense.' In this way, Victor Serge took part in the military defence of Petrograd and worked as a Secretary for the Third International. His novel Conquered City (1932) would describe Petrograd at this heroic stage of the revolution. Serge never closed his mind to the ideas of the Bolsheviks' opponents, including the arguments of the anarchists. Many libertarians went over to the side of the Revolution, including Benjamin Aleynnikov, Herman Sandorminsky and Alexander Shapiro, Bill Shatov, Nikolai Rogdayev, Novomirsky, Grossman-Roschin and Appolon Karelin. Most of these named accepted posts within the revolutionary government. Serge was among the most brilliant of the anarchists who devoted themselves to the new regime, and this was a position which endeared him to the intransigents on neither side.
Until late 1920, it was possible to predict an agreement between Bolsheviks and anarchists. Lenin gave a friendly reception to Nestor Makhno, while Trotsky talked of recognising the anarchists as the autonomous rulers of the Ukraine. Yet this moment of possibility soon ended. Makhno's movement was suppressed, and the break became final with the 1921 Kronstadt uprising. Serge was sympathetic to the Kronstadt sailors, arguing that the real culprits were the arrogant and hostile Bolshevik negotiators, Kalinin and Kuzmin. He was shocked by the lies which the regime put out to defend itself, with the Bolsheviks blaming the uprising on a fictitious white conspiracy. Serge finally supported the government against the Kronstadt rebels, but did so without enthusiasm: 'Kronstadt was the beginning of a fresh, liberating revolution for popular democracy... However, the country was already exhausted... There were no reserves of any kind, not even reserves of stamina in the hearts of the masses.' Under such conditions, the Kronstadt rebels could only win by providing a cause for the conservative elements within Russia society. The anarchist slogan of 'Soviet democracy' was utopian, it 'lacked leadership, institutions and inspiration; at its back there were only masses of starving and desperate men.'
Although disturbed by Kronstadt, Serge remained convinced that Russia was a workers' state. He believed that the regime could still be renewed, and saw the best prospect for hope as coming from the revolutionary movement in Central Europe. In 1922, Serge chose to travel abroad, and worked for the next four years for the Communist International in Germany and Austria. In his absence, Serge heard of Dora Kaplan's attempt to kill Lenin, and the subsequent suppression of the Social Revolutionary Party, the child of the Russian populist tradition which his father had belonged to. Despite his open misgivings with the Bolsheviks, Serge still moved in the leading circles of the International, and his Memoirs contain brilliant sketches of such major figures of the European revolutionary movement as Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Toller, Clara Zetkin, Angelica Balabanova, Bela Kun, Jacques Sadoul and Boris Souvarine, as well as of Serge's many acquaintances among the Russian revolutionaries. In 1923, Serge witnessed the defeat of the German Communist Party following its failure to act at the height of the October crisis. His superb German journalism captures the hopes of the time, and also the despair. It was clear to Victor Serge that the failure in Germany would prove catastrophic for the fate of the revolution in Russia. 'If only', he wrote, 'If only...' After Germany, Serge wrote several articles for Communist journals on events in the Balkans. He was also unimpressed by the seemingly formidable might of Austrian Social Democracy inside its red capital of Vienna. As early as 1925, Serge wrote an article for the French paper, Vie Ouvrière, warning of the danger of fascism in Austria. In the same year, Serge also wrote a biographical study of Lenin as the embodiment of the unity of theory and practice, 'intelligence and will', in the service of the workers' movement. This was the most Bolshevik of all Serge's writings.
Victor Serge returned to Russia in 1926, to find that the degeneration of the revolution had reached a new stage. Since Lenin's death, there had been a remarkable transfer of power towards the state bureaucracy. The ascendancy of this class was marked by the rise of the Cheka, the secret police. Serge became an active supporter of Trotsky's Left Opposition. In 1927, Trotsky and his followers united with Kamenev and Zinoviev in a desperate alliance against Stalin, Bukharin, and the party machine. Serge's Memoirs capture the feel of the small Trotskyist group, with at first just twelve supporters in the whole of Leningrad district, organising, uniting with the other oppositionists, challenging the notion of Socialism in One Country, and fighting against the degeneration of the revolution:
In 1927, the Opposition published its Platform, 'For the last time (but we had no suspicion that this was so) the Party returned to its tradition of collective thinking, with its concern to consult the man in the workshop. Typewriters clattered throughout entire nights in apartments where the Kremlin was still unable to intrude.' That October, Trotsky delivered a final speech to the Central Committee, by the end of the month both he and also Kamenev and Zinoviev were removed from the CC. In the same month, the tenth anniversary of the original October revolution, the Fifteenth Bolshevik Party Congress expelled all members of the Opposition.
For the next five years, from 1928 to 1933 Serge was to live in Petrograd at liberty, but not in freedom. His friends were detained or expelled from Russia. It was under these conditions that Serge became a full-time author, finishing three novels, Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power and Conquered City, in quick succession. Another book, Littérature et Révolution (1932), was sympathetic to the notion of the 'proletarian writer', but sided finally against the idea, quoting from Trotsky's attack on the genre. Serge also described the heroic period of the revolution in Year One of the Revolution (1930), and gathered the materials for a planned Year Two. Each of these books was published in France and Spain. This was fortunate, as only Serge's status as a prominent foreign writer saved him from imprisonment. In 1933, and as a result of the constant harassment from the state, Victor Serge's wife Liuba was admitted to the Red Army's psychiatric clinic. Serge himself was arrested soon afterwards and accused of taking part in a conspiracy against the state. Three years of internal exile followed in Orenburg. Here Serge finished Year Two of the Russian Revolution, another novel, La Tourmente, an autobiographical description of the French anarchist movement, Les Hommes perdus, and a book of poems, Résistance (1935). As Serge later recalled, 'These were the only works I have ever had the opportunity to revise at leisure.' The books were withheld by the secret police, and only the poems remained, at least they were safe because they could be memorised. Meanwhile, outside Russia, a campaign was launched for Serge's release. Independently-minded activists and writers, including Gaetano Salvemini, Magdeleine Paz, Charles Plisnier and Henry Poulaille, as well as the novelist Romain Rolland, all called for him to be freed.
Finally, in 1936, Serge was released. He left Russia for Belgium and then France. Serge describes his young son Vlady's confusion at the opulent conditions they found in Brussels. That man owns a factory: why? Why should anyone need so much wealth? 'I have not forgotten this conversation; it taught me more than it taught my son.' In the west, Serge continued to write copiously, although he had enormous difficulty in finding a publisher. One book, Russia Twenty Years After (1937), was devoted to explaining the rise of Stalin. As a prominent former supporter of the Russian Left Opposition, Serge was publicly identified with the Trotskyists and worked with them against the slanders of the Moscow Trials. Along with André Breton, Serge helped to establish a French Committee of Inquiry. Privately, Serge could not see Trotsky's Fourth International as the organised basis for socialist renewal. Instead he described the official Trotskyists as 'a feeble and sectarian movement out of which, I judged, no fresh thinking could emerge.' Serge believed that he had identified a schematising trait in Trotsky's thinking which linked even this old revolutionary to the authoritarianism and intolerance of Stalin's Russia. Serge and Trotsky broke off correspondence, and this separation would only be reversed in 1944, when Natalia Sedova remade contact, after her husband Trotsky's death.
This new period of exile saw Serge thwarted at every turn. A supporter of the Spanish Revolution, Serge joined the anti-Stalinist United Marxist Worker's Party (POUM), but the Spanish Government would not allow him into the country. Friends died or capitulated, in Russia the Old Bolsheviks were butchered one by one. Serge's book, Hitler Contre Stalin (1941), predicted disastrous Soviet defeats at the start of the war, suggesting that peasants would welcome Hitler's invaders. The forecast were eventually proved accurate but in the short-term, the book's notoriety only had the effect of forcing its publishers to close. A further novel, The Long Dusk (1946), describes the misery of dispossessed political refugees of Serge's generation. In 1940, when the Nazis overran France, Serge was forced to flee again. After 18 months hiding from France's new rulers, Serge and his son Vlady were finally able to board a ship taking them to Martinique. Other passengers on Serge's boat included his former colleague Breton, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss befriended André Breton, but thought less of Serge, dismissing him as 'a prim and elderly spinster' with 'an almost asexual quality, which I was later to find among Buddhist monks.' These misjudgments of character reveal more of Lévi-Strauss, than they do of Serge. Victor Serge was not allowed to disembark in Martinique, nor in the Dominican Republic nor in Cuba, and was only welcomed in Mexico. He was forced to leave his wife behind at an asylum in Aix-en-Provence, where Liuba was to die a few years later. Serge continued to write, and his greatest novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948) was completed at about this time. Yet its author himself was declining, alone and in poverty. Victor Serge died of natural causes in Mexico in 1947. His suit was threadbare and his shoes were worn through.
Serge and the Cold War: 'The true, the false/ this pile of big and little lies'
The focus of the second half of this chapter is on Serge's analysis of Stalinism. As far as Serge was concerned, there had been a monstrous break in Russian history. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks led a revolution based on a workers democracy, in which ordinary Russians controlled society, through a system of workers' and soldiers' councils, or soviets. Yet by 1940, the Soviets were long dead, and all the leading Bolsheviks of 1917 or 1920 had been butchered with the single notable exception of Joseph Stalin. Something had gone wrong, but what? In order to understand how Serge explained the internal defeat of the Russian Revolution, it is perhaps helpful to begin by examining what his argument was not. For a start, Victor Serge was not one of the many Cold War warriors who were won to the Russian Revolution, and having broken with it, then blamed the defeat of the revolution on some version of original sin. Serge never suggested that all revolutions were doomed to failure. Nor did he capitulate to the standard conservative myth, that Capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. It is useful to contrast Serge's work with that of his contemporary James Burnham. Burnham, like Serge, was a Trotskyist before breaking with the Fourth International in the late 1930s. The article which marked Burnham's final departure was a piece in Partisan Review in 1941, arguing that a 'managerial revolution' had taken place across the world. In Germany and America as well as in Russia, he maintained, the future belonged to regimes dominated by an authoritarian state bureaucracy. Serge could hardly disagree with Burnham on that point, and largely welcomed Burnham's original essay, writing 'I am quite in agreement with Burnham on this matter of the "managerial class"... The general conception has been in the air some time.' Yet Burnham was increasingly to identify what he saw as the likely outcome with the necessary or even desirable future. Burnham wrote sympathetically about the new managerial state, and ended his days campaigning for Ian Smith's racist government in Rhodesia.
Other Cold War warriors besides Burnham traveled along different routes, but in a similar direction. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon ascribed the rise of Stalinism to an immoral privileging of ends over means, which is described as inherent to Marxism. Koestler's is an authoritarian account of Marxism, summed up in the novel by the hero Rubashov's interrogator, Ivanov, 'There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane... The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means.' Koestler himself became an apologist for the West in the Cold War, defending America as the moral alternative to Bolshevism, and ending his days the champion of such mystical causes as psychopharmacology, psychokinesis and extra sensory perception. By contrast, Serge did not reject the vision of the Russian revolutionaries, and neither did he present the goals of the Bolshevik party as leading necessarily to tyranny. He remained a revolutionary and proud to his end. This is how Serge criticised James Burnham in particular:
Unlike Burnham and unlike Koestler, Serge had known the Bolsheviks in the moment of their triumph as well as their defeat, and it is for that reason that his criticisms of them carry real weight.
'An anarchist bleeding from the death of his dream'?
If Serge was no Cold War warrior, then neither was he merely an anarchist. Serge started his political life in this way, and remained loyal to anarchism until 1917. In his book, Revolution in Danger, Serge went out of his way to defend the anarchists that supported the regime. Serge even made the claim that anarchism would provide a morality of the revolution, because the Marxist theory of the class struggle could not. It is hard to imagine Marx, Lenin or Trotsky accepting this point. Similarly, as has been shown, Serge was supportive of the Kronstadt rebels, and although he sided with the Bolsheviks against Kronstadt, he was later to describe the rebels' defeat as one of the first moments in the victory of the counter-revolution. Yet although Serge remained sympathetic to anarchism, his opposition to Stalin was not conceived in anarchist terms. This can be seen by comparing Serge's dissidence to the views of anarchist contemporaries, such as the American anarchist Emma Goldman, who was in Russia until 1921.
For Goldman, the decisive test was one of morality. It is a position which has been described (she might say satirised) as the 'all or nothing' approach. In so far as the Bolsheviks adhered to the principle of constant creative change, they should be supported. The moment that the Bolsheviks turned their back on revolutionary faith, they should be opposed. Thus in a pamphlet written in 1917, Goldman celebrated the role of Lenin in the February revolution, describing the Bolsheviks almost as anarchists, 'The Bolsheviki of 1917 no longer believe in the predestined function of the bourgeoisie. They have been swept forward on the waves of Bakunin; namely, that once the masses become conscious of their economic power, they make their own history and need not be bound by traditions and processes of a dead past which, like secret treaties, are made at a round table and are not dictated by life itself.' By 1923, however, and in her book My Disillusionment in Russia (1923), Goldman could see that her earlier hopes had been misplaced. The Bolsheviks had never believed in a Russian leap from poverty to absolute plenty, rather they had hoped for a worldwide revolution, from which Russian workers amongst others would benefit. Likewise, the Bolsheviks would not tolerate those anarchists who organised further uprisings against Soviet rule. Writing shortly after the defeat of Kronstadt, Goldman was pessimistic of further revolutionary change in Russia. She saw no hope from the regime, and little more from its opponents, 'the revolutionary faith of the people [is] broken, the spirit of solidarity crushed, the meaning of comradeship and mutual helpfulness distorted.'
Serge did not accept any of this. Neither would he agree that the test of revolutionary virtue should be measured in faith, nor would he argue that the Russian Revolution was already fatally compromised by the end of 1921. The important question for Serge was to ask, what was the key source of the oppression of Russian workers? In the early 1920s, the decisive obstacles to workers' power still lay primarily on the outside. Workers power was then held back primarily by the isolation of revolutionary Russia, the imperialist blockade and the need to compete with a hostile world. By the late 1920s, the decisive obstacles to Russian workers were located within Russia. It was the state bureaucracy, engaged in production, entrenched in its power and able to pass on privilege, which became the key force holding back the Russian working class. Daniel Guérin, a former Trotskyist turned anarchist, was later to criticise Victor Serge's position, describing Serge as coming in 1920-1 to be complicit in his own silence, 'Victor Serge was certainly too clear minded to have any illusions about the real nature of the central Soviet power. But this power was still haloed with the prestige of the first victorious proletarian revolution; it was loathed by world counter-revolution; and that was one of the reasons - the most honourable why Serge and many other revolutionaries put a padlock on their tongues.' Guérin's criticism seems strange given the retrospective years with which it was written. For the sake of not keeping silent, Serge suffered for three years in the torments of internal exile. If the only test is really the old aristocratic code of honour then how could Serge be faulted? Yet Guérin's analysis of Serge's position is in other ways correct. In the early and mid 1920s, it seemed to Victor Serge that the Russian working class still possessed the traditions and institutions of workers' power. Their many enemy was, as Guérin argues, world counter-revolution. Yet by the late 1920s, with the Soviets dead and the bureaucracy entrenched, there was no longer any hope that Russia could be reformed.
The difference between Serge's position and Goldman's can be seen in their understanding of the Red Terror during the Civil War. For Goldman, the lapse into terror was the fault of the Bolsheviks, 'an insignificant minority bent on creating an absolute State is necessarily driven to oppression and terrorism'. Serge would echo this judgement when it came to the purges of the 1930s, but he believed that it was not true ten years earlier. Unlike Emma Goldman, Victor Serge saw clearly that the original Red terror of the Civil War years was a response to the greater White Terror, which preceded and shaped the events of the War.
Serge continued to respect the anarchists, and as late as 1938, he still called for synthesis between Bolshevik and libertarian socialism. However, he did not share their understanding of what had gone wrong in Russia. It was when the failings of the October Revolution could no longer be blamed on foreign intervention and counter-revolutionary terror, and when the class decisively responsible for the continuing degeneration of the revolution was in fact a child of the revolution itself, only then did Serge join the opposition, and not before.
Trotsky, 'the awakened sleeper'
While Serge was originally a prominent supporter of the Left Opposition in exile, he did not side with Trotsky after 1938, or not in any automatic way. The two friends fell out personally and politically, over a series of different matters, including their different responses to the Spanish Civil War, arguments over Kronstadt, and their different practical ideas as to how the Fourth International should be built. As we have seen, Serge believed that Trotsky had been wrong over Kronstadt. While Trotsky was keen to defend the dot and comma of what the Bolsheviks had done, Serge tended to hold a more ambiguous position, arguing that the suppression of the rebels had been a needless crime. Serge also differed from Trotsky in his understanding of the Cheka, suggesting that its formation had 'one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads.' In his correspondence with Trotsky, Serge was to argue that such political decisions had contributed to the rise of Stalinism, a conclusion that Trotsky strongly resisted. Although in their heated debate, Serge made several telling criticisms, it is not clear that he always had the best of the argument. As Pete Glatter has pointed out:
Serge clearly understood the political history of post-revolutionary Russia in a different way to Leon Trotsky, but what is more interesting from the point of view of this chapter is that Serge was also prepared to consider a very different economic analysis from Trotsky's theory of the origins of Stalin's regime.
The standard Trotskyist analysis of Russia went back to the shifting political alliances of the late 1920s. Although the debates may now seems arcane, they are not. At the heart of the argument was the important question of how socialism could be achieved. Then the major players were Trotsky, Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin. Trotsky and his supporters, such as the economist E. A. Preobrazhensky, the organiser of the original 1923-4 Left Opposition, argued for a left turn. In Russia this would have meant supporting the towns against the countryside, a slow movement towards investment in industry and the gradual collectivisation of the land, which would have been linked to a policy seeking revolution abroad. The right, around Nikolai Bukharin, tended to argue in the opposite direction. Insisting that there would be no revolutionary upheavals abroad, but that Russia could create socialism in one country, Bukharin called for a peaceful return to the market. This meant increasing the size of the peasantry, through tax concession and the promotion of an urban-rural market. According to the same Trotskyist model, Stalin represented a middle route, which could be explained in terms of the conservatism of the bureaucracy, as it vacillated from left to right and back. Stalin could move from one extreme to another, but he could not act decisively against either of his opponents, and neither could the bureaucracy overthrow the two classes, the workers and the peasants, whose interest were said to stand behind the political left and the right.
From this strategic analysis of the different possibilities open to Russia, Trotsky and his supporters came to the conclusion that the chief threat to the revolution came from Bukharin and the right, who were said to support the open restoration of the market and private property. Therefore Trotsky argued for a cautious alliance with Stalin's moderate centre. In the late 1920s, this was already utopian. As we have seen, Stalin had already decisively acted against the left in 1927, and from then on the Trotskyist forces were negligible and irrelevant to power. The Trotskyist model, creaking in 1927, collapsed as an explanatory device in 1929. Now Stalin turned on Bukharin and introduced forced collectivisation, millions of small peasant homes were broken up, and the land given over to huge collective farms. From the Trotskyist explanatory model, it would follow that things had turned in the best direction. Maybe Stalin was wrong to go too fast. Perhaps it would be better if he had acted with the consent of the peasantry. Yet it seemed that the shift towards collective property was a shift towards socialism, and for that reason such former dissidents as Preobrazhensky and V. A. Antonov-Ovseenko, the architect of the original Petrograd uprising, now capitulated to Stalin's regime.
From 1929 onwards, therefore, the standard Trotskyist analysis placed Stalin at the head of a new form of society in which politics and economics were at odds. State property, nationalisation and collective ownership of the land were taken as evidence of the increasingly socialist economy in Russia, while the rule of the bureaucracy was described as a temporary and barbaric phenomenon. The bureaucracy continued to vacillate, it was not a class in its own right, and it could be overthrown by a political movement. There was no need of a second revolution to overturn the gains of October. Hence Trotsky's classic, The Revolution Betrayed (1937), argued that Russia remained a form of workers state, albeit a degenerate workers state.
In a 1936 collection titled Seize fusillés: où va la Révolution Russe? ('Sixteen Shot: Where is the Russian Revolution going?') Victor Serge ventured the opinion that Trotsky's description of the Soviet state was too optimistic. Rather than seeing Russia as some form of workers' state, Serge suggested that the dictatorship of the proletariat had been replaced by 'the dictatorship of the bureaucracy over the proletariat'. At this stage, Serge's opinion was still only of the status of an insight, but over the next ten years, it was to come closer to being a theory. Richard Greeman has drawn attention to an unpublished manuscript which Serge wrote in 1946, arguing that Russia had now become a new form of class society:
Here Serge drew on the work of another dissident Marxist, the German socialist Karl Korsch, whose work is discussed later in this book:
Korsch's analysis, which Serge alludes to, was that state ownership was not the same as socialism. Russia had become a form of state capitalism, in which the bureaucracy operated as a ruling class. In terms of similar Marxist voices, Serge also had access to the so-called Verkhne Uralsk theses, written in 1930 by a group of Left Oppositionists who, like Korsch, described Russia as state capitalist. This incident is mentioned in Serge's memoirs, and dramatised in his novel, Midnight in the Century. Indeed Richard Greeman argues that Serge distinctly tended towards a form of state capitalist analysis:
Although Greeman locates Serge as heading towards the state capitalist argument, in the direction of later writers including C. L. R. James, Trotsky's former secretary Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff, he is hesitant to place Serge too neatly within any one category. Serge's Russian writings are hardly consistent. His book, Russia Twenty Years After, which was published in 1937 as a companion to Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed, is striking for its internal changes of emphasis. The book shifts, like Trotsky's, between stressing the counter-revolutionary character of the new rulers, and their supposedly progressive role, in encouraging planning and nationalisation. Serge also deliberately refused to categorise Russia in any one specific way. Beyond 'state capitalism', Victor Serge also toyed with other phrases, including 'collectivism' and 'totalitarianism', a phrase which he claimed to have invented. In using these words, he was close to other contemporaries whose analyses were tending in rival directions, including the Social Democrat Rudolf Hilferding and Anton Ciliga, another former member of the Russian Left Opposition. Whichever term he used, however, Serge increasingly understood Stalinist Russia in a different way from Leon Trotsky. He was far more ready than Trotsky to accept that the Russian state played a clearly counter-revolutionary role. As Richard Greeman suggests, the difference between the two explanations can be seen most clearly in a literary form, in Victor Serge's poetry and in his novels, especially The Case of Comrade Tulayev.
Serge's Literature: 'bloody and vile like the men of this time'
Several writers have compared Serge's historical and political explanation of the Russian tragedy with the account in his novels. This is an appropriate starting point, for Serge was a uniquely autobiographical writer. His novels correspond closely to major incidents which he experienced in his own life, and Serge was a first-hand witness to events which he later wrote up as fiction. Yet having written about events which he had witnessed, Serge wrote himself out of the story. Rather than describing the details of his own life, Serge preferred to take these incidents and relate them to the process of global events. As Serge records in his Memoirs, 'Individual existences were of no interest to me - particularly my own except by virtue of the great ensemble of life whose particles, more or less endowed with consciousness, are all that we ever are.' What is striking about Serge's novels, therefore, is a combination, in which real, experienced, events are treated as evidence of general phenomena. As Serge records, near the beginning of his novel Men in Prison, 'everything in this book is fiction and everything is true'. This mixture is of value to the political biographer, who can read in a literary form the highest expression of Serge's thought. His novels say as much about Victor Serge and his ideas, as any other book he wrote. However, precisely because Serge's novels are so accessible, they have been well mined, and it is difficult to say anything new about the ideas contained within them. The discussion here is brief, and interested readers are encouraged to look at the several other sources which develop the points made here.
The most important of Serge's Russian novels is The Case of Comrade Tulayev. This is a brilliant literary evocation of the mood in Moscow at the time of Kirov's murder, which sparked the mass purges of the mid-1930s. It is an extraordinary piece of work, far surpassing many better-known novels which also examine Stalin's Russia, including Koestler's Darkness at Noon and George Orwell's 1984. In Tulayev, Serge explores the question of why it is that the old Bolsheviks would confess to the most unbelievable of crimes. This question is explored through a description of an assassination of a leading party member, Tulayev. Following this crime, a varied set of figures, including bureaucrats, oppositionists, and prominent former leading Bolsheviks, are implicated together, tried and executed. In Serge's novel, Russia itself is portrayed as a haunted place, run by 'the tank', a machine out of control, and with Stalin confused, frightened and alone at the top. Serge makes his reader feel sorry for Stalin - and this artistic empathy was an extraordinary achievement, when you consider what Serge had lived through. Loudspeakers blare out the news of the latest trials: 'was it the economists, or the food control board, or the old Bolsheviks, who were being tried this time?' Soviets meet but are absolutely rigged. If there is any hope it is only from without the machine. The old Bolshevik Rublev writes his testament, setting forward the failures of his generation, 'Upon one point we lacked clarity... we, ourselves, lacked our creation blindly.' The last, optimistic words are entrusted to the old Bolshevik, Filatov:
One source which has been less well examined is Serge's poetry from 1935. Here it is striking that many of the themes of Serge's novels are repeated, but in a concentrated form. Victor Serge's poem 'Old Woman' may be taken as a case in point. The poem works on several different levels. Most obviously, it is a visual description of one peasant woman seen by Serge. At the same time, the heroine of the poem is clearly an allegorical figure. She stands for the fate of the peasantry, and as this class formed the majority of the Russian people, she stands also for the Russian population as a whole. The figure of an old woman had also recently been used as a symbol of the Russian revolution, as in Gorky's famous novel Mother (1907), and was also used in the German dramatist Bertholt Brecht's 1932 play of Gorky's book. The poem portrays its heroine as a broken figure, 'walking under her yoke/ laden with unnamable things'. The Russian peasant woman is also in immediate danger, she 'casts a shadow like a caricature of a horse/ a poor nag/ whose head hangs by a thread'. There is a progression from past to present. 'The ancients', in the time of Tsarism, 'denied that such a being had a soul/ immortal or not/ Hardly equipped with one themselves, scholars/ gravely pondered the question.' Since the revolution, however, things have changed. 'Today, plaster saints and others in lyrical terms/ would call you sister'. For the peasant woman, the rhetorical support of Stalinised Communists is unknown and has no value, 'you don't even suspect their comfortable lie/ it's a thousand million leagues away/ from your heavy, numb steps in the black earth'. The woman is 70 years old, as the old as the freedom of the serfs, 'and it's too late'. She is also as old as Russia as itself, 'And maybe six hundred years of servitude/ or more/ It's too early.' At first, the juxtaposition of 'too late' and 'too early' seems optimistic. Serge suggests that although the Bolshevik revolution has dies, the cause remains. Yet, in terms of the woman's future, this optimistic effect is fatally undermined by a remarkably clear prefix: 'You can no longer be saved'. This is not an especially subtle poem, and this is precisely its value as an indication of Serge's thought. The woman cannot be saved, the revolution is dead, the author sees no possibility that Russia can be reformed.
Serge's novels and his poetry point in the same direction as his political writing. Unlike Trotsky and his supporters who believed that the bureaucracy was a vacillating class with a precarious hold on the Russian population, Serge was increasingly dubious that the counter-revolution could be removed simply by a political revolution, and without a profound change in the social order. Serge was not pessimistic about the Russian people. Indeed, he was convinced that they would rise up against their bureaucratic overlords. Where he differed from Trotsky was in his pessimism about the Russian state. Unlike Trotsky, Victor Serge believed that there was no hope there, the bureaucratic rulers had to be overthrown.
'The faces of our lives are not our own'
In this chapter, I have connected the tempestuous details of Serge's life to his theoretical understanding of the Russian defeat. Serge, like Marx, was above all else a revolutionary. A political activist for over forty years of his life, he spent ten of them in jail, and took part in the decisive events of his day, from Spain in 1917 to Germany in 1923. A passage from his Memoirs, written in 1943 but only published after his death, records Serge's own justification of his life:
Serge dedicated himself to the struggle against a system which enriches tiny numbers of people at the expense of the vast majority. The October Revolution became the decisive moment of his life. It demonstrated that collective liberation was possible. Yet as a class fighter and an egalitarian, Serge became aware that the effect of the revolution had been to create a tyranny over the working class. This judgement came hard to Serge, and he was ready to give the revolution every chance. It was only when he judged that there was no hope of reform from within that he finally joined the opposition. Even as an oppositionist, Serge did not stand still, but argued and fought for a vision of socialism not just free of bureaucracy, but free of authoritarianism of all sorts. It is in that sense that his dissidence is instructive today. Karl Marx famously wrote of the need for 'merciless criticism of all that exists' - and Victor Serge's life was a passionate vindication of Marx's phrase.