Victor Serge’s Russia: Twenty Years After

Donald Filtzer

Posted February 28, 1998

Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Years After.
New edition prepared by Susan Weissman.
Original translation from the French by Max Shachtman.
Includes the essay, “Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution,”
translated by Michel Bolsey.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.
xlvi + 345 pp. Paperback, $19.95.

VICTOR SERGE WAS one of the remarkable figures of the twentieth century: a political activist, novelist, and chronicler of the Russian Revolution.  As we learn from Susan Weissman’s detailed essay at the beginning of this volume, Serge was the son of Russian political emigrés who had settled in Belgium.  He grew up in poverty, was self-educated, and in 1918 found himself back in his parents’ native land as a participant in the Russian Revolution.

He joined the Bolsheviks, but the libertarian legacies of his youthful involvement with anarchism caused him to align himself with the different Trotskyist oppositions of the 1920s.  He was eventually imprisoned by Stalin, but unlike many former oppositionists did not recant or make his peace with the regime.

He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1936, thanks to an international campaign on his behalf.  Without this he would have perished in the purges which began in that year and much of his literary and theoretical legacy would have been lost. Indeed, this outstanding book, written in 1937 and published in French as Destin d’une révolution, is a product of Serge’s “exile” from the USSR. He died in Mexico in 1947.

Western socialists—at least middle-aged non-Stalinists—will already be familiar with much of Serge’s output: his revolutionary novels, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and Year One of the Russian Revolution. Few, however, will know this current book—despite the fact that it was translated into English right after its original French publication.

Memoirs of Life Under Stalinism

To a certain extent Russia Twenty Years After is a companion volume to Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, and indeed was written while Serge was translating the latter.  Whereas Trotsky’s book is a systematic attempt to develop an analysis of the social relations and political economy of the Soviet System, Serge’s is a more impassioned account based on his eyewitness observations of everyday life and the detailed realities of Stalinist political repression.

In this sense this work bears closer resemblance to some of the major memoirs from the 1930s, in particular Ante Ciliga’s Russian Enigma (London, 1979), Andrew Smith’s I Was a Soviet Worker (London, 1937), Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (London, 1947), and John Scott’s Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (enlarged edition prepared by Stephen Kotkin, Bloomington, 1989).

Such memoirs—whose value has only been rediscovered by social historians of the USSR during the past fifteen years—offer us highly detailed accounts and insights into the workings of the Stalinist system, its social relations, and its system of production.  But their strength lies precisely in this detail: in their revelation of the larger picture through an in-depth investigation of the writers’ immediate situations.

Unlike Serge, these authors do not transcend their own experiences to develop a broader analysis of the Stalinist system as a whole.

Serge and Marxist Theory

Susan Weissman asserts that Serge was not a theorist, that there is no such thing as a “Sergist.” He develops a prescient critique of Stalinism which contains a number of often extraordinary insights, but this is not a theoretical analysis of the Soviet system.

At a certain level Weissman is correct.  The first two parts of the book, in which Serge examines respectively the position of the different social groups in the society (workers, peasants, women, youth and the intelligentsia) and the workings of the repressive apparatus, are based largely on personal observations: how many hours a worker must toil to afford a loaf of bread; the treatment meted out to individual socialists and Bolshevik oppositionists.

We now have much more thorough accounts of these phenomena from other memoirs and more modern historical studies.  Similarly, his often brilliant observations about the destructive impact of Stalinist industrialization on the system’s long-term economic viability are not as systematically developed as those of his fellow oppositionist Khristian Rakovskii, or the Mensheviks writing in the emigre journal Sotsialisticheskii vestnik (Socialist Herald).

Moreover, Serge was a Trotskyist and shared many of Trotsky’s views on the nature of the bureaucracy, as well as his over-optimistic assessment of the imminent revolutionary potential of the Soviet working class.  Here, too, one could argue that Serge’s account may have been eye-opening in its time, but might appear somewhat dated today.

Such a reaction would, however, be premature.  For the third part of the book —over fifty percent of its length—offers us something rather more. It is a concise but conceptually rich history of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution from 1917 to the purges of 1936-1937.  This, together with the essay he wrote ten years later, “Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution,” set out a coherent analysis of this historical process which differs quite fundamentally—and much to Serge’s advantage—from that advanced by Trotsky or postwar Trotskyists.

Roots of Soviet Degeneration

Serge’s critique presages many of the observations and conclusions of modern historians, many of whom are not anti-socialist or even anti-Bolshevik.  Serge shows quite clearly how the use of terror, including staged show trials and executions of political opponents (including those of the left), had very deep roots within the system and was not a sudden explosion of Stalinist vengeance from 1935 onwards.

Indeed, as he elaborates in even greater detail in “Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution,” the corrupting influence of political repression began with the suppression of the oppositional socialist parties after the Revolution and Civil War. There were already strong historical antecedents for this, not just within Russia’s longterm past, but within the revolutionary movement as a whole: The authoritarianism and hypercentralization of the Bolsheviks was not peculiar to them alone, but common to virtually every anti-tsarist revolutionary organization, save for the Left Mensheviks under Martov.

Yet this pattern established only an historical context, within which there were many possibilities for development.

For Serge there were three major events which, while they did not make the emergence of Stalinism inevitable, prepared the political soil out of which it could flourish.

The first was the formation of the Cheka, the first Bolshevik secret police, which during the Civil War resorted to summary trials and executions.  Whatever the justification in terms of state security, this was more than outweighed by its destructive effect on the political culture of the new regime.

The second was the war with Poland in 1920, which led to a reversal of the proposed relaxations of War Communism and the planned abolition of the death penalty.

The third was the Kronstadt rising of 1921 [a doomed insurrection of anarchist-led sailors, based on strong opposition to the regime’s forced requisitions of peasants’ grain and other austerity policies, which was crushed with great loss of life— ed.].  Although Serge had reluctantly supported the party’s position, his real view was that the Bolsheviks tragically mishandled the rising and that its suppression was totally unnecessary.

Taken together these events created a dangerous siege mentality within the party: an environment within which free debate and tolerance towards dissident views would become impossible, and where career, privilege and the desire for power would take precedence over socialist principles.

Nowhere was this better exemplified than by the so-called Leningrad Opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev:

“Formed by functionaries who had been the first to apply the methods of constraint and corruption in the party, it was in large measure a coterie turned out of power, fighting to regain it and thereupon brought around to raising the great questions of principle .  .  .

For many of the old Bolsheviks the bureaucratic system was not an evil in itself; the evil was that it carried on a false policy .  .  .  Their narrowly intolerant minds pictured a state confounded with the party apparatus, and the party ruled by the Old Guard, as something far superior to a commune-state and workers’ democracy.  (118-119)

If this was true of one of the party’s oppositions, it is not difficult to see how Stalinism could gain the ascendancy in such a one-party state.

For Serge, unlike Trotsky, the degeneration of the revolution therefore began early, within two years of the seizure of power.  But Serge breaks with traditional Trotskyist canons on another count.

Lenin, Trotsky and their followers within the USSR and abroad always pointed to the inevitability of the revolution’s failure if it remained internationally isolated.  Thus the failures of the German and Chinese revolutions loom large in their analysis—and correctly so.

But Serge, while adhering to this argument, goes on to claim that the Bolsheviks vastly exaggerated the revolutionary aspirations and potential of the West European working class; and as the Third International became progressively bolshevized, the regime in Moscow became more and more isolated from the real pulse of political events abroad.

Thus while Bolshevik policies—especially under Stalin and his nationalist policy of “Socialism in One Country”—acted to ensure the revolution’s continued isolation, and in this way fertilized the Stalinist soil even more, there is also an element of historical tragedy: for if the European (and by implication, also the Chinese) revolution was not to succeed, where did this leave the Bolshevik regime?

Dynamics of Stalin’s Terror

We should say something, too, about Serge’s treatment of the purges and the terror of the mid-1930s.  Much of the recent scholarship on the purges—not just that of the so-called “revisionist” school of American social historians—has emphasized the “polycratic” nature of the Stalinist system, meaning that the Stalinist system was far from monolithic.

Thus the center had far from perfect control not just over society, but over its own agents in the regions and localities.  It is certainly true that the center sought to use the purges in order to discipline recalcitrant local officials and industrial managers, who routinely flouted central commands and instructions.  Once set in motion, however, the terror developed its own dynamic, as potential victims sought to ward off denunciation and ruin by demonstrating their own exemplary vigilance, that is, by denouncing wreckers and saboteurs themselves.

Yet a polycentric system does not necessarily mean that the different loci of power had equal strength or importance.  At its worst this approach has vastly overestimated the power of the regions and has virtually exonerated Stalin from any active role in the terror—not the least because it underplays Stalin’s other aim of eliminating all real and potential oppositionists, indeed anyone with close organic roots to the original Bolshevik revolution.

But at its best “polycratic” analysis has provided many new insights, in particular by explaining the regime’s constant need to find “enemies of the people” in order to explain the system’s failures—failures which emanated in reality from the chaos generated by its own policies and methods of rule.

Serge in many ways offers an early synthesis of these different explanations.  For him the driving force of the terror is the bureaucracy’s unremitting need to do away with the entire generation of old Bolsheviks—even the Stalinist element among the revolutionary generation—in order to free itself once and for all to pursue its own class needs.

This process generated “new men” having no roots in the socialist traditions and ideals of the original Bolshevik movement or of the revolution which it led. But at the same time, Serge explains, the bureaucracy has produced chaos, so that no one knows which way to turn or which policy to follow.  Scapegoats must be found.  The bureaucracy turns against itself.  Only Stalin is left as the supreme arbiter.

Shall We Know the “Truth”?

This book, as do the memoirs of this period, raises an important methodological question about the nature of historical “truth.” Since the late 1970s social historians—primarily Western—have produced extraordinarily detailed studies of Soviet society and political processes of the 1930s, based on exhaustive perusal of the Soviet press and journals and, more recently, archives.  No teacher of Soviet history would even dream of teaching such a course without making extensive use of this research.

Yet for all their merits—and the depth of their research is often daunting—few of these studies venture to elaborate an actual theory of Stalinism or of the nature of the Soviet system.  We know everything about the society and yet know nothing at all.

When Andrew Smith described how peasant-workers ran equipment until smoke started coming out of it, all because they could not otherwise meet their targets and earn their allotted pittance of a wage; when Victor Kravchenko detailed the rigged nature of Stakhanovite “records” or the hysteria of denunciations which gripped his factory during the purges; and when Victor Serge recounted in agonizing detail the process by which confessions were extorted from the old Bolsheviks at their show trials—we are entitled to ask, do not these accounts, with their immediacy of first-hand observation and stunning insight into what was going on, capture far more of the “truth” of the Stalinist system than many of the new social histories, which either abjectly apologize for Stalin or claim political agnosticism in the interests of merely describing “what was there”?

Regrettably the publishers, in order to save money, have reproduced Serge’s original 1937 edition in photo-facsimile, which left no possibility of further editing.  Yet the book badly needs editorial notes explaining events and personages for the modern reader.

The translation, too, is in places arcane and awkward, full of Russianisms and Frenchisms.  A reader who knows both of these languages will be able to guess the intended meaning; a reader who does not will be left quite perplexed.  What the publishers have saved in production costs they may well lose in reduced sales to students.

This is a pity, because Russia Twenty Years After warrants a wide audience.  It should be an essential addition to every college course on Soviet history; it will also be essential reading for socialists, especially younger people less familiar with the history of the Russian Revolution.

Donald Filtzer is Senior Lecturer in European Studies at the University of East London.  He is a long-time activist in the United States and Britain, and the author of several books on the Soviet working class, most recently Soviet Workers and the Collapse of Perestroika 1985-1991 (Cambridge University Press, 1994).