Victor Serge 1938-44
Source: Victor Serge, Carnets. Actes Sud, Arles, 1985;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2006.
December 1938 – We meet in the cafes on the boulevard Montparnasse. On his large head he wears a small black beret with its brim turned up like a burlesque version of a judge’s hat. His torso is thick on his short legs; he’s tilted to the side. He’s deformed like a hunchback without being a hunchback. There is much malice in his gaze, and he has an ironic and familiar tone. He liked Laurette: “Ah, there are still beautiful women among us,” he says with satisfaction. “I thought that emigrations were doomed to be without them.”
The policy of his group, the KPO, is still reticent and prudent vis-à-vis the USSR. He seems not to despair of a rectification of the regime, and despite it all to want to go easy on it, and to want, demagogically, not to upset the masses who believe in it. But I am harsh and he doesn’t join whole-heartedly in a discussion. Bukharin’s execution has upset him, perhaps killing the last of his illusions.
We prefer to speak of our memories. We would met in Moscow during periods of clandestinity at the Lux, or at Laurat’s, or Duret’s, with Engler (Thalheimer was present). Laurat’s wife was a police informer.
On Dzerzhinsky: “Once in Kharkov I dined with Dzerzhinsky and K. Radek. Dz. told the story that during the Red Terror he would sometimes use a subterfuge which consisted in publishing executions that hadn’t taken place. This produced the needed effect and lives were saved. Dz said: ‘Our Chekists had a bit of the saint and the assassin...’ Radek abruptly asked him: ‘And you? What do you think you are? Saint or bandit?’ Dz. became pale, his lips tightened, he rose from the table and he left.”
On Stalin: “ Regarding the affairs of the KP I had several cordial discussions with him. He was simple, at times jovial, familiar, full of good sense, of a practical sense and of peasant ruses. Rather nice, inspiring confidence. Good-natured, he seemed solidly balanced. I can’t understand these hecatombs. He must have lost his head.”
B thinks that in the Reiss affair, like in the crimes in Barcelona, we can recognize the hand of Semionov, this Social-Revolutionary terrorist who distinguished himself during the civil war by preparing attacks on the Bolsheviks, who confessed everything at the process of the SRs in 1922, went over to the CP and was charged with special – very special – missions. “Deep down he must be a sadist, a terrorist by vocation, half crazy.” Easy to identify: the lobe of one ear torn and a scar above it; the trace of a bullet. “He was in Spain. During interrogations comrades noticed a man with scars, but sometimes they were on the right cheek, sometimes on the left cheek. And I don’t even know which is the correct side.”
(I was told – N-ki) that on December 6 or 7, 1937 a Soviet military attaché in Paris, named Semenov or Semionov, asked for the protection of the French authorities. He acted after having learned through Barmine’s revelations of his friend Fechner’s disappearance. I don’t know if it’s the same Semionov (I don’t think so).
Late July 1936 – Muste, a delegate of the Bureau for the Fourth International set up in the US was sent by Leon Davidovich and came to see me in Brussels so that I should be co-opted into this bureau. I accepted. Muste was an ex-pastor, thin, dry, graying, with the air of a Puritan. (Later, struck by the Moscow Trials, he left the movement and I was told, returned to the church).
Around this time I entered into a correspondence with Trotsky on the subject of the Spanish anarchists who, Leon Sedov said, were “destined to stab the revolution in the back.” I thought that they could play an important role in the civil war and I advised Trotsky and the Fourth International to publish a declaration in sympathy with them, in which the Marxist revolutionaries would commit themselves to fighting for freedom. LD said I was right and promised me that this would be done, but nothing was.
In January ’37 I attended an international conference of the Fourth International in Amsterdam. The conference was held at Sneevliet’s, who lived in the Overtoom and had a large meeting room under his roof. Already the Trotskyists were directing all their fire at POUM. I spoke to justify POUM’s participation in the government of the Generalitat of Catalonia due to the necessity to control and influence the authorities from within and to facilitate the arming of the masses. Along with Verecken and Sneevliet I proposed a motion in solidarity with POUM that ended by inviting Spanish militants to maintain the unity of their party. Pierre Naville, Gerard Rosenthal and Rudolf Klement spoke up against this line. It became clear that while addressing diplomatic compliments to POUM they were organizing a split with them. Two Englishmen who had come to Amsterdam told me that the movement for the Fourth had less than a hundred members in England and, like in France, was divided into two rival organizations.
I returned from Amsterdam devastated, with the impression of a sectarian movement, guided by maneuvers from on high, suffering from all the mental depravities we had fought against in Russia: authoritarianism, fractionalism, intrigues, maneuvers, narrowness of spirit, intolerance. Sneevliet and his party had had enough, finding the atmosphere un-breathable. They were honest and ponderous Dutch proletarians, used to fraternal mores. Verecken, who adored the Old Man, said to me: “I give you six months before you’ve broken with him. He doesn’t put up with any objections.”
Our disagreements increased, but the Old Man, in his letters, was very affectionate – and I admired him immensely. When he wrote a propos of the strikes of June ’36 that “the French revolution has begun,” I answered: “Not at all. It’s just the reawakening of the French working class that’s beginning...” I advised not to intervene as he constantly did in the internal affairs of the least little group and to limit himself to major intellectual labors. Finally, I wrote to him: “We can’t found an International without parties... We can’t found any parties based on such evil political morality and with a Russian ideological language that no one understands...” He answered me: “You are an enemy who would like to be treated as a friend.”
The French “Bolshevik-Leninist” movement, which numbered a few dozen militants and at most a few hundred sympathizers, employed an unintelligible jargon in its publications. It was divided into two minuscule “parties”: the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (Rous, Naville, Rosenthal) and the Parti Communiste International (Molinier, Franck), which used most of their time and energy intriguing against each other and denigrating each other in entire books. I bitterly reproached them for wasting resources when there was no propaganda being done for our prisoners in Russia. I refused to listen to anything about their petty quarrels, saying to Rous: “If I were a member of one of your two groups this ambiance would make me immediately quit. You are sick sectarians.” (Under the Nazi occupation, in 1940-41, Rous attempted to form in Paris, along with Jacquier of the PSOP, a “Revolutionary National Party” set up to Nazi tastes. He was arrested). These sordid discords which LD mixed himself up in so poisoned the atmosphere that they rendered impossible any serious investigation into the death of Leon Sedov and the murder of Klement. At Sedov’s funeral two groupuscules came with different flags, affecting to have no contact with each other.
From 1937 I separated myself completely from this “movement” and I wrote to Sneevliet: “It isn’t a beginning, it’s an end...” But I avoided any kind of controversy and strove to render whatever services I could to the militants and to LD. Some ugly stories, like the attempt by the Trotskyists to lay their hands on the funds belonging to the POUM (a panel made up of Rosmer, Lazarevich, and Hasfeld painfully decided the affair) made me sick. The grand and great movement for which we’d given so many lives in Russia had degenerated like this overseas, in powerlessness and sectarianism. I continued to translate the Old Man’s books: “The Revolution Betrayed,” “Stalin’s Crimes,” “Their Morals and Ours,” and to defend him. In the eyes of the public I remained the best known “Trotskyist,” while the “B-Ls” discredited me as best they could. For them I had become a “petit-bourgeois intellectual,” whose “influence should be used” as well as his “doubtful sympathy.” The feeling of possessing the truth, the intolerance and aggressiveness deprived of any critical sense in “Their Morals...” made me angry, though there are some wonderful pages at the end of the book. I spoke of this to some Trotskyists, who wrote to tell the Old Man of this, which immediately earned me some lively attacks. What was saddest was that they were always insulting and based on imprecise facts. It would have been simple to say: We disagree on this or that point, but the Old Man and his partisans had become completely incapable of speaking such forthright language. The dizzying atmosphere of persecution in which they lived – as did I – inclined them to persecution mania and the exercise of persecution.
January 23, 1944 – Beautiful corrida with Luis Procuna. We were in the highest gallery, what’s called the roof, the azotea. The colossal vat of the arena contained a huge throng; behind us, at a height of eight stories, a view of airy, sunny horizons, the sweep of the city, a luminous haze over the outlines of the mountains. At our feet the arena, which a cloud veiling the sun at times turned a sad gray. At these moments the play of man and beast became sad and its banally tragic absurdity appeared suddenly, as if written on a faded page. The sun reappearing everything changed, and the bloody game once again found its meaning. Observed the tiny movements between the torero’s hand and the toro, which he talks to, which he strives to psychically guide and dominate. The knowledge of the toro, the scrupulous and intuitive observation of its character, the secret contact that is established between killer and beast must have a capital role in the mastery of a good matador. The excitement, the whistles, the “Vivas” and “Olés” of the crowd establish a stormy magnetism between him and the crowd of spectators. (It is from the point of view of psychological influence and communication that the combat should be studied.) Luis Procuna (costume of yellow and gold) was magnificent. The toro touched him, lifted him, threw him over his neck, seriously wounded on the inside of his thigh. Agility of the man in falling correctly, in not losing for a single second his self-domination. The crowd shivered, the matador got up, tranquil, and continued the bout. He must have been so tense that he didn’t feel the pain; he knew the beast, he toyed with it. After killing it, the “olés” called for the granting of the toro’s ear and he twice circled the arena, sweating, brandishing his trophy, saluting. He hopped, moving his wounded leg as little as possible. I knew it was the last fight of his contract. If he would have renounced finishing it – he says – they would have felt for him, but would have considered him as defeated and would have had little chance of obtaining a new contract for this season. He fought so as to impose himself on the enterprise.
Jeannine was next to me, attentive but not at all nervous, taking things in a concrete way. At times my nerves got the better of me and I had to turn away. The feeling of the value of a human life, the instinctive horror of seeing blood uselessly spilled and of cruelty; none of these notions having yet been stabilized in the child, she accustomed herself to these games like to any other reality. Reflection of a friend (Dominique): “It’s not the ear that should be the trophy, but the testicles, organ of virility.” The ear is obviously a substitute. Unbidden, the idea of the castration of the defeated passed over the spirit of this young woman, a believer, who hadn’t read Freud, and of an upright soul.
January 25, 1944 – Discussion with Marceau and Julian on the intrigues we’re the object of since the Soviet Embassy has been installed here. Mexican functionaries have given Julian some warnings that seem quite serious, and have even proposed taking measures to protect him. Fire seems for the moment to be concentrated on JG, probably because he is the most bothersome on the Spanish level and because the identity of the author of an attack on me would be obvious. The two “journalists” from the TASS Agency, Potemkin and Lashevich or Darshevich (?) have sent long, costly telegrams to Moscow principally mentioning JG as tied to the synarchists, disposing of funds, directing a vast clandestine activity. What is more, expelled from various countries, condemned in Spain as an agent of Hitler for high treason, etc. His dispatches touched the censor, who investigated and realized that this a campaign similar to those carried out against Trotsky before he was assassinated. Probable object: if these dispatches are published in the USSR to prepare public opinion for a drama that will also be a scandal. If they aren’t published the same preparations among the leadership. Perhaps this is a manner useful only for riling up the secret services, various censors, and counter-espionage services before setting loose some forgeries. In any case, all this is done under Moscow’s orders, with a precise end in mind.
To be tied to this is the campaign laid out in El Universal, which recently published that we are founding a new International with Natalya Trotsky and that we’re the organizer of the railroad workers strike. (The Communists themselves play a very important role in these strikes). Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes has published our denial.
Jesus Hernandez, former Communist Minister of Public Instruction in Spain – and who is nothing but a gangster – has arrived from Moscow with Anton, the Anton who during the Spanish Civil War directed the campaign against POUM. They stayed at the Hotel Hippodromo, from which Jesus Hernandez disappeared without even regularizing his papers. He’s at the Soviet Embassy. One can only wonder if he’s going to direct secret work or leave under a new identity for Algeria or Spain (via Portugal, the usual route). It is thought that he is in a state of disgrace and that the dangerous missions that are confided him constitute a way of being rid of him.
(Added) Thursday February 3 the TASS Agency sent a telegram to Moscow about us containing these words, dictated by M.: “Moscow is surprised that the governments in London and Washington have not yet obtained for the government of Mexico decisive measures against these enemies of the United Nations, etc...”) It’s a question of filling the dossiers of all the censors of the world.
February 18, 1944 – These reflections on subjects that ceaselessly preoccupy me have become clearer regarding the conflict that so painfully separates me from certain comrades, militants of value but who are more dominated by profound sentiments – of which they are sometimes unaware, that they sometimes have no idea of – than by objective convictions. Our socialist emigration lives on a basic socialism, summarily Marxist which hasn’t been updated in twenty years and which is ignorant both of the transformations in the economy and in psychology. Most only see the too-facile alternative socialism/capitalism and think only in terms of an impoverished historical materialism. Even more: distrust of and hostility to any new assertion, inferiority complex concerning intellectuals, resentment-disappointment regarding all that comes from Russia, petty ambitions of vanquished leaders, all the more bitter because they are men who are devoted. Finally, the bad mental habits of political maneuverings, inculcated by the life of destroyed parties. G-o exclaimed at a meeting: “Our era no longer needs a Marx!” (“I answered: “God willing, we’ll find several.”) A nasty little woman, at another meeting where I’d spoken of the possible role of émigrés cried out derisively: “But where are the Lenins?” G-lla writes to me: “Individuals are never indispensable.” I observe that the fact that I have a long past as a militant and intellectual is a handicap for me. They tend to reproach me for my past, the work I’ve done; my present work offends, is a burden. All of this is part of the psychology of defeat among men who don’t have the means to know and observe each other – who don’t even know that they should attempt to know and observe each other.
February 19, 1944 – The métier of the vanquished is one of the most difficult: strong or weak, people feel defeat – their own or that of others – as a blemish. Their own makes them bitter and, by embittering them, diminishes them. That of others – even when it is also theirs – stirs up low instincts, and one feels like giving those irritating vanquished a solid kick. S., speaking to me of certain of Trotsky’s ideas, observed: “Yes, but he was still defeated, and that discredits him.” An unavowed discredit, the worst: that which we wouldn’t dare admit without blushing and for which we seek reasons that aren’t true. Rare are those who simply say: “I’m on the side of the stronger.” We prefer not to say this even to ourselves, and justify our disaffection with the vanquished with circumstantial arguments. A test of strength or of success speaks in favor neither of justice nor moral values (nor is it completely separated: strength and intelligence can be, and at certain moments of history are connected to real values, but the latter are more the values of peace than of war, more creative than destructive). The extreme inconsistency of the “morality of strength and immediate success,” this Nietzscheism of the lowest mediocrity, is that it is strictly opportunistic. The fight goes on; strength and success change places, reverses and victories alternate in the same cause.
In contrast with this banality, the attitude of grand characters who fight counting on a change in destiny: the defeated in the realm of external reality don’t feel vanquished in their souls. When I was fourteen, reading Houssaye, I was swept away by Blucher who, defeated at Ligny on June 15, trampled by horses on the battlefield, raises himself up, set out in pursuit of the victor, meets him at Waterloo on June 18 and finishes him off. At the time Blucher was seventy and had always been defeated by Napoleon. Other examples: Hugo waiting out his exile for twenty years; the Russian revolutionaries between 1870-1917. These good examples don’t apply to the situation of the European revolutionaries of today, whose defeat is more profound in circumstances much more obscure. Behind him Blucher had the organized German nation, ardent youth, the kingdom of Prussia. Hugo was supported by the liberal spirit of the times, which assured him immense popularity and an excellent material situation. For fifty years the Russians benefited form the sympathy of the western world; they felt themselves carried along by history’s current. Their ideology was intact and progressive, their élan grew despite persecutions. For socialists in our time, despite the fact that historical development confirms their ideas as a whole, the difficulties are infinitely greater: 1. Totalitarianism inflicts total defeats, annihilation, and through guided thought it aims at preventing a renaissance in ideas and the formation of individuals (and totalitarianism is latent even in anti-totalitarian states) 2. Socialist thought is no longer current, it has virtually lost its scientific mythology. And its grand actualization will only be possible with the liberation of vast movements of opinion. 3. Reformism and Stalinism have carried out a long reverse selection of intelligence and characters, backed up by reactionary repressions. 4. Since the Russian Revolution the defensive movement of the bourgeoisie has dragged along the European intelligentsia, which can only live off the bourgeoisie. 5. Problems no longer have their lovely simplicity of the past: it was easy to live with antinomies like Socialism or capitalism We are now in the midst of the transformation of the world, in a moving chaos, surrounded by falsifications, complex facts, groping ideas, transitory interests, violence. How to find your way? Nothing more obscures consciousness than the interests of the moment when they participate in mortal struggles.
April 18, 1944 – Vladi, back from Zacapu, tell me that he was drawing an old Indio beggar. He’s more than eighty years old and speaks willingly, with great dignity, humility and lucidity. Bent over, in rags, flea-ridden, a calavera with lively sad eyes beneath his large hat... As a child he remembers having seen French troops pass: “Handsome bearded men in red trousers. The general asked me the way. I answered: ‘Forgive me, Your Lordship but Don Benito (Juarez) has forbidden us from helping the French; don’t be upset with me...’ And the general said to me: ‘Go, my boy.’” In the year 15 or 16 of this century the Villistas came to the village in Michoacan. They were bandits. “They captured me and hung me. I wasn’t yet dead – they’d hung me poorly – when an old woman started yelling at them: ‘He’s a father, an honest man, and a Christian.’ So a cavalryman said: ‘If I cut the rope with my bullet he’ll remain among the living.’ I lost consciousness. (Me desmaye).” He has good memories of the Carranzistas. Don Venustiano Carranza’s troops occupied the countryside. They knew the peasant had 200 pesos (about $40). Soldiers demanded the money from him. He refused to turn it over, showing them his children. They hit him and brought him to headquarters. He demanded to be brought before the general. The general told him that the citizens should support the army, but he refused to turn over the 200 pesos, demonstrating his poverty to them. “Who hit you in the face?” The general asked. “Your soldiers, Your Lordship.” “My soldiers aren’t bandits” “Whether they are or not, they’re the ones who hit me, Your Lordship.” The general had his soldiers line up and asked the peasant to pick out the one who had brutalized him. He recognized three of them and the general himself shot them all in the head right in front of the entire troop. “They fell at my feet and I felt pity. Three men dead for 200 pesos they hadn’t even managed to get from me.”
Vladi paid him one peso a day per sitting. After three days the old man said to him: “ I’m not going to come back and pose. With the three pesos I earned from you, sir, I’m going to take the bus and go back to my village to die like a Christian.” “Is your village far?” “Eight kilometers.” Vladi offered him a fourth peso that the old man gently refused. “I can’t take it from you since I didn’t earn it.” Vladi put it in his pocket.
“What dignity and wisdom in such old Indios.”
I answered: “Like among our old muzhiks.”
April 25, 1944 – Read Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” which he wrote in Bohemia in 1920 at the time of Central Europe’s democratic euphoria. The book unfolds as a kind of waking dream, of a true waking dream with a sharp and intelligent visionary intelligence. It’s not like the productions of the Surrealists that seem to be saying to you: Watch out, we’re going to unleash a dream right in your face, and then fabricate a dream the same way the Symbolists fabricated alexandrine verse. The drama reaches the highest tragedy through a nearly grandiose banality of a vision that unfailingly sustains itself up till the last page. A vision which is that of the most ordinary of men blindly fighting a formidable social machine whose objective existence we aren’t sure of, nor to what extent it’s the product of interior complicity. The trial is absurd, the mechanism of justice rolls blindly along, reasoned out at every moment, conscious and aberrant like an immense paranoia embracing the social world. At the end two gentlemen in bourgeois attire take away the lucid and resigned bank employee K., take him outside the city, gesture politely to each other with their knives – after you, Sir; No, after you – and kill him in the name of impenetrable justice. This can be seen as a visionary satire of a coming era. Kafka seems to have sensed the totalitarian machine, its perfect crushing of man, its massacres; and it is in this sense that his novel is that of a visionary prophet.
The Cheka already existed when he wrote, but it was far from having this meaning. It was even different in essence by virtue of the revolutionary negation of the old forms of justice, while Kafka’s drama unfurls on the field of the most banal bourgeois life.
November 12, 1944 – Read “The Black Book of Polish Jewry” – frightening. A hundred times repeated, with variants of technically organized sadism and bestiality, the same tale of violence, insults and finally rationalized extermination in appropriated factories. Added to the Jews of Russia there must be 3,000,000 murdered – at least – an entire people. This is beyond imagining, it overwhelms one’s lucidity; it’s difficult to think clearly.
The extermination camps, suffocation wagons, suffocation chambers are all surrounded by a total mystery. It’s probable that the entire selected personnel that carries out the horrible task is then itself destroyed, either because the executioners become dangerously half-mad or because the system has built into it the disappearance of such witnesses. Printed and illustrated propaganda have nevertheless revealed the humiliation of the victims. Newspaper photos: old, hunched over rabbis digging holes guarded by young brutes with guns...This is the psychological preparation necessary for the crime. It is certain that the Nazis have found thousands of zealous executioners, a large amount of complicity. Does it taint Germans with responsibility? It’s impossible instinctively not to think this, or to want to think this. This reaction is legitimate because natural. But what is the reality?
In reality the system appealed to destructive instincts, to sadism, to the castration complex in order to select a few thousand brutes-of-all-work: it isn’t difficult to find 100,000 in a population of 65,000,000, and these 100,000 are enough to carry out all tasks. What is more, the totalitarian machine (inconceivable for whoever has not experienced it) offers no choice to average – neither good nor bad, more or less sociable, more or less molded by 2,000 years of civilization – men. Sent to Poland in uniform, posted near an extermination factory, the average man can only resist through suicide, revolt-suicide, the preserve of the conscience (which is translated by a neurotic , sometimes explosive, passivity). H.L. observes that escape can also be sought in an exalted acceptance, in a fanatical consent, implying the sacrifice of the best of oneself and a willed blindness. (Imagine Lord Vansittard in a totalitarian uniform and designated by his chiefs to participate in a Judenvernichtung brigade.)
The attitude of the Jews themselves, whose social consciousness is particularly acute. In the ghettos and camps the auxiliary service was, is, carried out by the Jews themselves, chosen among the most healthy, and who are then exterminated after a short period of labor. They know this but they gain a few days or weeks of infernal delay. There are those who, having accepted the “labor,” afterwards ask to be executed – and an SS shoots them down. In the meanwhile they are allowed to eat the goods brought by the herd that are asphyxiated, electrocuted, or shot down. The last meal counts for the starving and condemned human beast. Here no censure is permitted on the part of the well-fed non-condemned.
November 25, 1944 – Many socialists continue to pose the problems of socialism in strictly traditional, if not routine terms. The schemas they have in mind are those of 1917-18 and even 1871! As if events were going to repeat themselves. (They can repeat themselves fragmentarily, but all contexts being different the overall vision will be profoundly different.) The extraordinary power of tradition, reaching a kind of blindness. The taking into account of the painful difficulty of mastering a new situation, full of ambushes and disappointments: the spirit of objective investigation retreats and renounces rather than advancing towards discoveries it’s not certain of being able to dominate and which could put in question – they feel – the former bases of their faith.
But the error that is thus committed risks being catastrophic. The publications of the English ILP present the situation from the angle of yesteryear: reaction and revolution are confronting each other in Europe... Two adversaries are facing each other – and this is entirely false: there are three. Conservatism, socialism, and Stalinist totalitarianism, engaged in a mortal struggle. Conservatism, weakened on the continent by the fascisms it gave birth to and which are dying, has great real and potential support among the democratic powers, and if it can it will go so far as forms of neo-totalitarianism. Stalinist totalitarianism is taking the offensive everywhere, probably because it feels itself so threatened by its internal weaknesses and by an international situation so critical that all that is really left to it is to exploit as much as possible the lack of decisiveness and understanding of its rivals. At one and the same time it plays the revolutionary and the conservative card. Conservatives: I am order, hierarchical society, social peace and I know how to shoot down troublemakers. Workers, peasants, intellectuals: I am the Red Star, the legend of Lenin, the nationalization of industries, agrarian reform, security against unemployment. Businessmen: I am profitable affairs. Writers: I am large print runs. It speaks this double language with a certain cynical sincerity because reality justifies it. The Russian totalitarian system is revolutionary in relation to traditional capitalism, and reactionary in relation to liberal humanism and socialist aspirations. But what can aspirations do – even the best founded, the most necessary – against a formidably organized state machinery? Between these two tendencies that of socialism (and the mass democracy of America and Europe) though deeply rooted and (weakly) mobilizing the greatest numbers, is almost disarmed due to a lack of institutions that are proper to it and a lack of clear consciousness. The tiny minority that represents its clearest ideas had neither material means nor considerable support. In truth it can only fully manifest itself in the United States, and even there it is very weak. A situation of an immense European civil war is being created with three unequal parties engaged against each other in such a way that each of the three parties must aim at neutralizing one of the other two, or seeking an alliance. If socialism doesn’t vigorously maintain its democratic and libertarian (in the etymological and not anarchist sense of the word) physiognomy it will be torn apart and crushed. Its worst, its most destructive enemy at the current time is the totalitarianism of post-revolutionary Russia, Bolshevism transformed into an absolute totalitarianism of a type analogous to the reactionary totalitarianisms. Its only natural allies are among the democratic masses in those countries where the democratic bourgeoisie survives with traditions dating from prior to large-scale capitalism: England and the United States. The movements of the period of the end of the First World War cannot be reproduced in these conditions, except by bringing about results that would be immediately worse than those of the revolutionary victory of Russia and the defeat of European socialism. In any event, there do not exist either parties or cadres or an ideology capable of reproducing them. This causes a situation both confused and dangerous. I tend to think that the fate of Europe can only be decided when Stalinist totalitarianism will have been limited or destroyed by the new conflicts that it necessarily opens. (That it capitulates; it is transformed or abolished by internal tremors that are both desirable and probable; that it brings about a state of sharpened conflict with its allies/rivals of today). – (Or it victoriously imposes its hegemony over the largest part of Europe and Asia, which would announce a third world war).
In the meanwhile the socialist left is satisfied with illusions and unintentional demagogy; it is blindfolded by great principles. The comrades I see here dream of a small Comintern that belongs only to them; dream of being carried along tomorrow by a mass wave; remains isolated, and the most clear-sighted of them see no alternative to the darkest of pessimisms, all the while affecting a “Marxist” optimism.
Me: If the socialist left which, with all its weaknesses, is the most dynamic and idealistic element of socialism isolates itself in a tiny sect it will end up exterminated by the totalitarian communists. Its sole salvation and its only chance to be useful lies in rallying with the old (moderate) socialist movements and the democratic masses. It will there be a beneficent leavening and will find natural defenses.
N.M.: You think so? As soon as we’d open our mouths in a Socialist party the old opportunists and the Stalinized would gag us or throw us out. And the Socialist parties, of which we’d be members, would peacefully allow us to be assassinated by the Stalinists...
I don’t deny that it would be possible in the near future, but I think it’s not certain and that much healthier reactions are also possible, if not probable, among those democratic masses instructed by so many experiences. In any case, I don’t see anything else we can attempt.
N.M. : We’d be better off having ourselves killed rather than betraying ourselves; the questions must be clearly posed.
I didn’t answer him that the issue was that it is precisely the case that the questions are neither well nor clearly posed. A tactic of suicide is only good in completely desperate situations, and deep down I am the less pessimistic of the two of us.
This discussion reminded me of what Bukharin said in 1928 regarding Stalin: “If we follow him he will drag the country into the abyss and we will perish, and the revolution along with him. If we denounce him he will accuse of us treason and we will perish.” B. and K. chose to follow while denouncing, to denounce while following, to acclaim (obligatorily) while grumbling, and after ten years of psychological torture they perished, as predicted. We were right in taking, in opposition to them, the intransigent attitude they called political suicide, but which was also that of a mad rush forward, the most courageous and, perhaps, the most rational on the battlefield. (This is presently Stalin’s attitude in international politics).
In “Politics” Dw. Macdonald, interpreting an accurate observation (that in France – and elsewhere – social consciousness has perhaps made immense progress) that the communist movement can overwhelm the totalitarian leaders and fulfill a healthy function. I answered him that he is seriously wrong and that the “Communist apparatus governs pitilessly and perfectly all the movements under its influence...This apparatus, with its functional mechanism – police and psychological – is an important new fact in history whose mortal importance we have not yet measured. You live in too free a country to imagine this.” I am afraid we will soon see burst on the scene in various countries communist-totalitarian condottieri like Mao Tse-tung or Tito, cynical and convinced, who will be “revolutionaries” or counter-revolutionaries – or both at the same time – according to the orders they receive, and capable of a complete about face from one day to the next.”