Victor Serge: For Our Time

— Susan Weissman

Suzi (Susan) Weissman is the author of Victor Serge: The Course is set on Hope, and editor of The Ideas of Victor Serge and Victor Serge: Russia Twenty Years After. She is a member of the editorial boards of Against the Current and Critique. This essay is adapted from a section of a paper she delivered at a July, 2008 conference on Trotsky’s legacy.

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 marginalized 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 analyzing 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 realized the choices facing the Bolsheviks after the Civil War were few. Not seeing what lay ahead, they feared the revolution could be drowned in blood by reactionary forces. Too many of their decisions were influenced by party patriotism.

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

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 organizations in the West in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The mighty effort to extinguish the small flames of defiance seems out of proportion to other tasks at hand, like preparing for war.

But Marxist critics like Trotsky and Serge were not just a thorn in Stalin’s side, but a moral reproach to his rule. Better to silence them, to prevent their voices from finding large audiences. Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940, but Serge survived and continued to write in profusion. His final essays and thoughts were devoted completely to analyzing 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 organizing, building and making a successful revolution. As a consequence there was a theoretical and organizational 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 organizational 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 criticized 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 reorganization oriented toward the rational and the just.”(6)

Serge couldn’t emphasize strongly enough that the socialist movement had to break free from its fossilized 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 realize 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 armor required in France in 2005, while super-exploited immigrant labor massively demonstrated in the United States in 2006. The hope persists that the economy and society can be organized 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 realizing 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 the NKVD and the Gestapo, and who rejected both Stalinism and the Cold War liberalism of capitalism. Serge cautioned that negativism is an attitude, not a solution. All we have left is intelligence, that is, knowledge and technique, and an inner impulse for a more dignified life.

In response to the many socialists who had reverted to Christian mysticism or to those who retreated to individual acts of conscience, Serge noted that scruples and the courage of conscience are absolute necessities, but have no social value unless conjoined with action that is persevering, general and draws in the greatest numbers. That was in 1945, but could have been written for today.

Serge concluded that a progressive movement — not just any progressive movement, but one that had a sense of history and recognized 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 super-power — 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, then, of Serge’s thinking is relevant for the present we ourselves inhabit and the future we face? What can be salvaged from his writings, given so much has changed?

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 scrutinize 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 organizational form. Workers would be the masters of their destiny: people would organize 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 generalized. 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 Stalinized Soviet Union: bureaucratic, authoritarian, anti-democratic and often nationalist societies with little resemblance to socialism. Yet in the post-war (WWII) West, democratic advances were being won by socialists in the labor movement, in effect enhancing democracy. Serge recognized 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 industrialized 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 labor, 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-globalization 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-globalization 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 globalization are undermining.

As workers vainly look to the nation state for protection against the forces of globalizing capital, they are demanding that the state conserve the social democratic benefits won through years of struggle. But those gains in coinsiderable 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 labor 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.

    Notes

  1. He is identified as the Bard of the LO by Richard Greeman; the journalist of the LO by Ernest Mandel; the Historian of the LO by Susan Weissman.
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  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.
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  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.
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  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.
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  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 labor 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.
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  6. “Necesidad de una renovación del Socialismo,”Mundo, Libertad y Socialismo, Mexico junio de 1943.
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  7. “Pour un Renouvellement du Socialisme,” Masses/Socialisme et Liberté (no. 3, juin 1946).
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  8. Victor Serge to Dwight Macdonald, 8 October 1945, Macdonald Papers, Yale University Library.
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  9. 9/11, Hurricane Katrina 2005, sub-prime meltdown 2008.
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  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 bureaucratization 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 revitalizing 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 revitalizing democratic institutions for the society at large. This presented a contradiction for the Bolsheviks who recognized 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.
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  11. Carnets, 10 Dec. 1944, 182.
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  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 U.S. labor movement see Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, (Princeton University Press, 2002), chapter 5.
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  13. As we have seen in the continued so-called colored revolutions ousting leaders who cheated their way to power in fraudulent elections, or even the rage and hope galvanized by the Obama primary campaign in the US.
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ATC 136, September-October 2008

Serge wrote around 1928 also

Serge wrote around 1928 also some really interesting essays critizising the increasing intervention of the state in the affairs of writers and artists in the Soviet Union ... he also was probably among the first "western" revolutionaries who realised after reading Mao's Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927, the best text Mao ever wrote), that the young mao and his followers would probably become a mayor force in the chinese party

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