From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp.177–98.
Translated by Michel Bolsey.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
One of the least known and less understood aspects of Serge’s political thought has been its evolution during the final period of his life, following his break with Trotsky and the end of the Second World War. Some of his friends accused him of espousing ideas such as those developed in James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which interestingly enough influenced another great literary figure, George Orwell, at the same time. He may have been changing his views, for when applying for a visa for entry to France, six days before his death he wrote to André Malraux approving of the collaboration of the Socialists with the Gaullist Rassemblement du Peuple Français (cf. the appendix to Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp. 383–86).
A key text for understanding this, as Peter Sedgwick pointed out (Memoirs, p. xix), is the unpublished manuscript of uncertain date found in his archives entitled Economie Dirigée et Démocratie. Since the page numbers were added by hand, it appears to have been written at different times between September 1944 and May 1945, and left by Serge unrevised, so it should only be regarded as an indication of the general lines along which his thought was moving. The last event mentioned in it to which a date can be attached is of the Swedish elections of 17 September 1944, whilst the remark that ‘the devastation of Europe may turn out to be even greater’ suggests that the battle for Germany was still going on. This version, its first public appearance in any language, was translated from the French by Michel Bolsey in 1987 and passed on to us with a photostat of the original by Susan Weissman, to whom, along with Serge’s son Vladimir, we tender our thanks. The text has been heavily edited by Edward Crawford and Ian Birchall, who also collated the text against the French original.
GREAT wars (like great revolutions, with which they are often linked) are accompanied by great social transformations. The Napoleonic wars in Europe opened up the age of the bourgeoisie. The wars of Bismarck prepared the way for the rise of investment capital – that is to say, classic imperialism. The First World War began the disintegration of European capitalism through the Russian Revolution and the economic crises of the continent, and was, in fact, the true source of the present gigantic conflagration. It brought results profoundly different from those more or less consciously sought by the belligerents in the struggle; the stabilisation of the revolution in Russia and, later, its internal failure, the formation of totalitarian regimes, the awakening of Asia, the transformation of the Muslim world (Turkey, Kemalism), the decline of victorious France, the insoluble crisis of capitalism in central Europe, the shift of industrial and financial power to the United States, and the growth of industrialisation and imperialism in Japan … The Second World War, the most vast, most destructive and therefore most dangerous known to history, brought societies to transformations that certainly exceeded all predictions.
As soon as we try to understand, predict and exercise our willpower, we are forced to delimit the problems, even though, in fact, we are facing one single problem of global dimensions. In these pages I will limit myself to examining one essential aspect of the European problem. ‘We are witnessing the end of Europe’, wrote Dwight Macdonald , echoing a widespread sentiment. History provides us with clear proofs that civilisations can perish. But European civilisation – which is essentially capitalist – has been transformed: it is now Eurasian, Euro-American and Euro-African, and embraces half the globe. Despite its attempts at mass suicide in the form of world wars, it would seem that its resources are simply incalculable, so that the end of the political or economic regimes that characterise it would not be its end, but could and must produce rebirths. Europe is a most ancient seat of civilisation with a population of between 530 and 550 million people (since it would be ridiculous to exclude Russia, in the strict sense) with the most highly developed and powerful productive capacity, served by a skilled working class with a highly developed social understanding. The problem of Europe is not simply one of devastation. The destruction of cities and industries under the present conditions calls for renewed efforts of reorganisation and recuperation. The unspeakable suffering imposed upon the region’s population demands a reaction with a kind of energy that ordinary psychology in times of bourgeois peace could never have imagined. In fact, it is precisely those peoples most touched by devastation, famines, poverty and crisis who manifest the most organised and dynamic determination to rebuild – even under the worst of regimes, that is to say, those that would be intolerable for the average man. In the 30 years between 1914 and 1944, Russia had only seven years, from 1922 to 1929, without war, civil war, privation, terror or exhaustion. During those same 30 years Germany had only the few between 1924 and 1930–31 of relative well-being under the Weimar Republic. Great perils and sufferings awake unsuspected energies from the people. It will be thus for all of Europe – it is thus already! Those who witnessed the moral degradation of the Third Republic, the beginnings of the anti-Nazi resistance, and the pro-Nazi reaction in France will know what I am talking about. But at this point two avenues open up with a myriad of possible paths. The energy of the masses may serve the reconstruction of a new Europe along the lines of confused but nevertheless powerful aspirations, or it may be channelled into new totalitarian and despotic movements. It will certainly be torn between these two extremes.
Bourgeois democracy was a state of social equilibrium that resulted both from the sustained growth of industrial production and the sciences, and from the continual improvement of the conditions of the working classes. Beginning with the First World War, the further development of these very forces of capitalist production compromised this equilibrium – when it did not destroy it outright. National state borders dating back to the pre-capitalist Middle Ages now became obstacles to production. Competition between international trusts created new, hidden boundaries. The economic crisis of 1929 was a crisis of overproduction in a world dominated by underconsumption. The technological revolution – which of itself was so important that it should be considered a second industrial revolution comparable to that which gave birth to the capitalist world – simultaneously tended towards the violent abolition of the power of the ‘tycoon’ (that is to say, ‘free enterprise’), and towards collectivism, the planning of production, and towards the decline in the influence of the social class that up to then had been the most dynamic and progressive – the working class that had given birth to modern democracy. The European working class lost homogeneity and broke down into an aristocracy, a middle layer and a growing wretched sub-proletariat. Permanent unemployment declassed an enormous and growing minority of workers who, more and more, corresponded to the Marxist definition of the ‘lumpen proletariat’. Already in 1931, Otto Rühle analysed the danger in a remarkable work in which we find statistics such as the fact that in 1914 German blast furnaces produced between 700 and 800 tons of metal with between 30 and 40 workers, and in 1931 1,700 to 1,800 tons with five workers.  That same year, Europe – not counting Russia – had some 20 million unemployed. (Russia did not escape the world economic crisis, as it too had its millions of unemployed, not to mention millions of peasants driven from their land.) Because the main bastion of its support – the working class – had sustained a serious blow to its vital energies, the Socialist movement did not keep up with technical and scientific development, and the Socialist vision was clouded at precisely the moment that social struggles reached their most decisive point. Is it necessary to evoke in this connection the rapid degeneration of Russian Marxism from the top down? The vacillating policies of the Socialist International, the International Federation of Trade Unions and the Communist International are more accurately explained by this general situation than by any inadequacy on the part of their leaders. At this point, the defeat of European Socialism – which brings in its wake the collapse of bourgeois democracy – appears inevitable. The last rearguard action takes place in an underdeveloped country under desperate conditions – in Spain.
The great totalitarian systems burst upon the scene during this period, as if called upon to respond to the triple necessity to plan the economy, the latent but undeclared international civil war, and the impending world war. It was revolutionary Russia, led by the great figures of historic Socialism that first took up the newly acquired methods of organised capitalism of the belligerents of 1914-18 and became the first society to go down this road. Bukharin’s book, The Economy of the Transition Period, which was written in 1920 – and was, it is true, severely criticised by Lenin – can be considered a perfected apology for totalitarianism from a sincerely Socialist perspective. The same spirit inspired Trotsky’s book, Terrorism and Communism, in the following year, as well as the declaration by Lenin conceding to Russian society a certain economic liberty (the New Economic Policy), but refusing it any form of political freedom. From its origins Soviet totalitarianism is the regime of a revolutionary camp under siege, with a domestic state of siege in force throughout the country. Whatever the lofty intentions of its founders, it is characterised first of all by a planned economy; secondly, by rationing; thirdly, by state control of labour and the trade unions; fourthly, by a monopoly of political power; fifthly, by thought control; and sixthly, by terror.
When conditions become ripe for the inevitable economic transformations of societies, revolutions and counter-revolutions become the instrument for achieving change, as opposing classes try, consciously or otherwise, to make the changes whilst maintaining their privileges and interests. Up to the Russian Revolution, the organisational and productive methods of modern capitalism had not been widely applied to the procedures of government (to politics, in other words). The audacity of the Russian revolutionaries threw light on the way that these methods were being newly applied by the Italian and German preventive counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions discovered that the management and administration of the masses could be organised more or less exactly along the lines used by large-scale war industries, the great trusts and large advertising agencies. Industrial planning policy, together with an elementary knowledge of the methods of practical psychology and scientific techniques of repression, are what produce the surprising power of these single-party systems. In reality, these are no longer parties, but bureaucratic-military machines which can have a variety of allegiances. In one place they profess to serve Socialism, in another, anti-Socialism. In fact, the complicated mix of sincerity and other motives that inspires the leaders of these societies is of little importance, as in either case they have the same result – the collectivisation and planning of production within a national framework. This framework is, in other words, autarchic, and one of the consequences of the war has been to force a break in the suffocating limits of this autarchy. In both cases, a new category of privileged leaders forms, embracing the administrators – foremost among them, the political ones – the police, the technicians and the military.
Nevertheless, there are important differences between totalitarian systems which spring from revolutionary circumstances and those issuing from counter-revolution. In the former case, the old privileged classes are annihilated, the complete collectivisation of the means of production takes over, parvenus from the working classes become the new governing layer, and a psychological tradition of Socialism persists. The fact that this tradition is visibly betrayed by the regime puts the regime dangerously in contradiction with itself, but at the same time allows it to play both ends against the middle in its foreign policy, and to appeal to both revolutionary and conservative aspirations. By contrast, in the case of the Nazi counter-revolution, the central role of powerful capitalist interests in creating and supporting the regime results in a situation of dual power between the trusts and the party bureaucracy. Thus, the regime is less homogenous, and the anti-scientific and irrational nature of conservatism is one of its basic flaws. Thus a racist and visionary ideology made it commit irreparable errors, so that contempt of the Slavs and unbridled anti-Marxism led to the Third Reich’s aggression against the USSR. 
It is in Europe that the industrial revolution took place, and in Europe that capitalism attained its peak and began its decline, bringing in its wake the Russian Revolution and the totalitarian reactions to it. The destiny of European capitalism prefigures in some ways that of global capitalism, which faced many of the same problems of organisation, of the absorption of technical progress, of the economic downgrading of a large part of the working class through technological developments, of profit and consumption, and of markets and the supply of raw materials. According to his own view, Marx made a synthesis of German philosophy, British political economics and the French revolutionary experience … An analogous synthesis today would embrace the developments of modern science, the crises of modern European capitalism, the experience of the European revolutions, and American technology. It is the ripeness of Europe for social transformation which results in the outbreak of wars and revolutions. The density and highly developed culture of its peoples, the enormous power of its industrial base, the force and vitality of its Socialist currents, and the force and armament of its reactionary strata have all had a role in provoking the overthrow of old social systems. The war, which is also a result of these factors, has become global as a result of the role Europe plays in the world economy. It would be naive to claim that the internal contradictions of capitalism in an era of planned economies could be significantly moderated or could find a substantially different solution anywhere else in the world. What can be claimed is that the European experience could help prevent the repetition on other continents of the historic catastrophes inherent in the present social structure. It is in this sense that the destiny of Europe over the next 20 years could be decisive for the evolution of the whole world.
The problems facing Europe already prefigure the general lines of the coming reconstruction of the continent. The necessities are visible, but how they will be confronted depends upon a myriad of unpredictable factors. Firstly the small, over-armed states, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Belgium, clearly cannot recommence their lamentable histories. Either they will become part of federations of some type, or they will be subordinated – with a more or less genuine federated status – to the global superpowers. In either case, the concept of national sovereignty will change, and the state organisation will grow larger and become internationalised. We are moving towards unifications on a more vast scale than the national states of the nineteenth century, and towards variations on the model of the United States. Secondly, all this already requires the abolition of old customs barriers, the coordination of production and exchange on a continental or global level, and consequently planning on a continental scale. Thirdly, reconstruction, re-establishing supplies and restarting production will require, just as definitely as did the war economy, the planning and organisation of industry, agriculture, consumption, housing, hygiene, transportation and information – in a word, nearly every aspect of economic life. This transformation will at first happen only on a national scale, but necessarily it will take place under the influence of the economies of the planned great industrial powers (most importantly, the USA), and with continental coordination. Fourthly, the solution to all these questions will require at the same time decisions of an economic and political nature, economics and politics having become inseparable not just in their essence (which has always been true), but in the eyes of the individual and the masses. From this development will come a new stage in the progress of social understanding, which will need to be much more active than at any time in the past. The personal well-being of the individual will clearly depend upon political decisions taken to deal with the reconstruction of cities or the national industrial base.
To what extent will the continuation of (capitalist) private property under its traditional guises be possible? To what extent will the continuation of the profits of the privileged classes – even limited, regulated and controlled – be possible? The rigging of constitutions, statistics and plans can only play a secondary role here. The bombed-out workers’ slums can hardly be replaced with new slums returned to the ownership of rich individuals – many of whom will be known to have collaborated with Fascism or Nazism. The same assumption can be made concerning the rigorous methods of control and socialisation of the great industrial trusts, as an unavoidable penalty for their role in the establishment of Fascism. The reconstruction of these industries in conformity with the requirements of peace (even of a provisional peace) will need the conscious effort of entire nations – and in such conditions, what weight can the particular interests of the owners and stockholders of firms such as Krupp, Fiat, le Creusot and Škoda have on the outcome? There is no doubt that, with the support of conservative forces the world over, they will be very influential in the political struggle, but the very nature of things, that is to say, the needs of production and the existence of entire nations, will be weighted against them. Instead of finding themselves leading the development of production, as they did throughout the nineteenth century, the great European capitalists – weakened and discredited by the war they helped engender – will find themselves in opposition to that development, and to the clear public interest. We should note as well that the power of money, or of any symbolic paper, disappears before the reality of useful production and work. There is no Parisian who does not realise today that a thousand franc bill or a gold louis coin has less real value than a dozen eggs. The fetishism of money, a projection of the fetishism of the commodity, destroys itself.
Given this overall line of economic development, the specific nature of the institutions coming into being depends on political struggle; that is to say, on class struggle. As Bukharin, and, with a different line of argument, Otto Rühle  foresaw, an organised planned, monopoly capitalism – state capitalism – would, for a period, be capable of responding to the needs of reconstruction. It would bring to fruition, on the rubble of the Nazi Third Reich, the ‘New Order’ envisaged by Nazism. It would be neo-totalitarian, neo-Fascist, perhaps somewhat enlightened, but without, of course, the heavy cost of anti-Semitism and of some of the excessive horrors and irrationalities of war. The principle would be that of the planned economy managed by the traditional ruling classes, taking a greater or lesser part of the value of labour’s production as their profits. The privileges of private property, honoured in name only, or abolished altogether, will be transformed into privileges of authority and consumption. These new privileges will be still more or less hereditary, a prerogative guarded by the regime’s monopoly over higher education. Already, the ‘soviet’ bureaucracy formed of those who have risen to the top as a result of the revolution has begun this process, although it was only able to do it through the infinitely bloody counter-revolution of 1936-38 which stabilised the totalitarian regime. This serves as a proof that revolutionary regimes which begin as Socialist can end up in a state analogous to those envisioned by conservatives who have understood that only through immense social and political changes can class privileges be maintained.
If control of the planned (or collectivised) economy must ultimately be taken by representatives of the traditional ruling classes – that is, the administrators, the technicians and stockholders of the great corporations, the military caste which serves them, the monarchies, the intellectuals and the fellow-travellers – it follows that true democracy is impossible. By democracy, I mean here more or less honest consultations with the people (in an electoral system), freedom of expression, the right to organised opposition, and the right of the individual not to fear disappearing in the night if he makes criticisms, or holds opinions contrary to the interests of the rulers. In a word, civil liberties would become impossible, and neo-Fascism would take up the tradition of ‘classical’ Fascism. Because the camouflage of the exploitation of labour by impersonal and anonymous ‘market forces’ tends to disappear, the mechanism of development-production-consumption is laid bare, and from that moment no free electoral exercise can continue to maintain the power of the privileged classes. For those classes then, all freedom of the press and all free expression constitute an immediate and revolutionary danger. Elections become mere one-way plebiscites, and access to information is controlled by the state, whilst individual resistance is physically smashed.
The little that we know of the present state of mind of the European masses tends to the conclusion that they are moving consciously, and with ever greater awareness, in the opposite direction. The Swedish and Danish elections (the latter under Nazi occupation) , the underground resistance in Poland, France, the Balkans and Spain, the strikes and demonstrations in northern Italy both before and after the fall of Mussolini; all these attest to the vitality of Socialism and the popular Socialist movements. More than 35 million Europeans, for the most part workers, have been uprooted, made refugees, forcibly deported and completely impoverished.  The middle classes of Europe have been impoverished too, and to some degree proletarianised by compulsory war work. Small capitalists have succumbed en masse, and have often been totally dispossessed. As a result of the war, the aristocracy of labour has lost the material advantages it once enjoyed: it has effectively disappeared in the occupied countries, and has been brutally treated in Germany. Farmers have been despoiled and have furnished masses of soldiers and unskilled labour, occasionally finding small profits by dealing on the black market. Thanks to acute exploitation and the effects of terror, the working class once again took on a kind of homogeneity. But it has also been shaken together and mixed up across international borders by forced population shifts from place to place, by intermingling with prisoners of war, by being decimated in Germany through call-up, and everywhere through resistance and repression. Only the rich bourgeoisie maintained its character, as well as its minority status, throughout – though not without losing many of its sons on the battlefield. Around it gravitated another minority of speculators and servants of the political order. And not far removed were the functionaries, the police and the top servicemen of the state military apparatus. Thus there developed a generalised polarisation with an enormous accentuation of the differences between the privileged minority and the unprivileged, but it would probably be an exaggeration to estimate the size of this minority as 20 per cent (in the USSR it was never more than 15 per cent). With demobilisation, whether organised or spontaneous, millions of ex-servicemen and prisoners will come, young and angry, to augment the masses of the poor.
It is certainly of the gravest importance that the cadres of the Socialist movement and the labour movement were essentially destroyed, despite the fact that, on a whole, these cadres had failed to respond to the challenge of the times. On the other hand, the brutality of the circumstances were such as to force men to think and to protect themselves by whatever means were available. Political indifference was no longer an option. Resistance movements formed and created new cadres who, if less enlightened, were much more energetic than their predecessors. A Socialistic sentiment – although doctrinally unclear – spread widely, which all observers noticed, as we did in France. What was lost in ideological clarity was made up for in capacity for action … This was not without its disadvantages, but that is how it was. In the USSR, where the purges had eliminated all the cadres created by the revolution, and where alternative sources of leadership were destroyed by the revolver, the war gave rise to a new elite hardened in labour and battle in hellish circumstances, and awakened in an entirely new way to political realities. The bureaucratic regime incorporated all the leadership and administrative segments of society through party membership and material advantages, but by no means all the active masses. The future will show to what degree stability can be assured by imposed or purchased allegiances.
The reconstruction of Europe will have to be a colossal enterprise, and work will be the general rule for years, and slacking will be considered a social evil, or even a crime. The experience of Russia after the First World War and the Civil War, which together lasted more than seven years, shows that a great nation can, without help from the outside, pull itself out of poverty, and even find work for the majority of its inhabitants. The devastation of Western Europe may turn out to be even greater, but it is also true that the resources of the region are greater, and equally that know-how and the capacity for organisation are more widespread (by ‘Western’ Europe is meant the countries to the west of the Vistula). The degree of international cooperation attainable will be the decisive factor in determining the speed of the reconstruction. In this connection we are dealing with the unknown influences of nationalist sentiment, or, more exactly, nationalist grudges, and they may be extremely virulent in some places. It could be that a coming German revolution will weaken such factors in the course of de-Nazification. It might also mean that a perception of common oppression and an explosive growth of popular movements could sweep such sentiments before it. Italy appears to have passed rather easily – from the psychological point of view – from one camp to the other. During the Russian Revolution there was no widespread anti-German sentiment amongst the masses, despite the fact that the German invasion of Ukraine was extremely brutal; on the contrary, the feelings of sympathy towards the German revolution were widespread and very profound. Whatever the tenacity of the bitterness produced by past sufferings, the needs of the present and its miseries are more immediate, and the end of the war will provoke altogether unforeseeable and contradictory psychological upheavals – more likely with a leaning towards pacifism rather than war. This was how it was after the first great world-wide conflagration, despite the fact that it did not have the elements of a cross-border civil war such as are involved in the present conflict.
The bourgeois democracies of Europe stand discredited in all the nations they led into disaster. This is so much so that in the only truly massive and representative emigration – the Spanish one – the leaders of the bourgeois parties themselves no longer consider the republican constitution they fought to defend as more than a point of departure. This discrediting of the ruined liberal regimes is one of the factors in the influence of Russian totalitarianism, whose monstrosities are even admitted by its partisans when they do not feel obliged to uphold the party line. The totalitarian regimes are in fact courting a far more profound discredit.  They are accumulating so much hatred towards themselves that it can be taken as given that in all the occupied nations and in Spain a strong counter-reaction is taking place. In Germany, it is only terror and a shared feeling of national peril that hold the society together, and if the apparatus of terror were to be broken or dislocated, it can be assumed that the same reaction would happen there. In a word, powerful currents are carrying Europe back towards democratic institutions – institutions which developments will not allow to be the same as those of yesterday.
Thus to us, neither the restoration of liberal capitalism, nor the restoration of monopoly capitalism appear possible. Powerful economic, social and technological factors are at work forcing developments in the opposite direction. The only possible restoration capable of benefiting the ruling classes of yesterday – and helping preserve their privileges – is that of authority; an authority that would be opposed everywhere by the broad masses, together with public opinion and the very logic of the events themselves. Because, in the eyes of the victims of war and Fascism, there is really no convincing reason at all why they should return the reins of power to the House of Savoy, Messieurs Schacht, von Papen, Laval, Pétain , or if they become turncoats, any others of their ilk. The economic, police and military authority of monopoly capitalism could only be reimposed in Europe at the price of civil war, and with the aid and intervention of foreign elements. It would violate the will of the great majority, and would certainly take a brutal, neo-totalitarian form, due to the general suffering and the vast challenges of reconstruction. During reconstruction – certain to last for years – the peasants, workers and technicians – in a word, the working classes – will recreate the material bases of society. To force them to rebuild in the old style of yesterday, against their own obvious interest, would require the imposition of the discipline of terror, and would imply the abolition of the Rights of Man proclaimed by the French Revolution, and of the elementary democratic liberties acquired since then. Such an attempt would be in great danger of failing utterly, and in any case its social costs and historic consequences would be disastrous.
In the same vein, we do not believe that a revolution along the lines of the Russian Revolution could happen again. The painful results of the Russian experience are too recent and too well known for the great slogans of 1917-18 to win over important segments of the population of any country. In fact, in no country is there a serious ‘Bolshevik’ party, or anything comparable. (It is relevant to add that the Russian Bolshevik Party of 1917 could call on numerous cadres of high intellectual and moral quality made up of dozens of first-rank leaders, hundreds of second-rank members and thousands of devoted militants. In addition, the party was closely and intimately tied to the European Socialism at the height of the Second International.) In no other important country is the agrarian problem – with over 100 million peasants demanding land and making up a large part of the army – present itself as it did in Russia. With the possible exception of the Balkan states, nowhere does the formation of soviets seem possible, unless in a form completely different from the Russian model. The first soviets united workers deprived of any other form of union or political structure in a country without any tradition of municipal rights. They demanded parties, unions, communes and universal suffrage. Since the majority of their members were unaffiliated, they could easily give their allegiances to any of the small parties made up of highly qualified militants, as they were influenced by no existing tradition of ideology or organisation. There were no fatal divisions to weaken the general unanimity. By contrast, in Europe long traditions of organisation and ideology anchored in a century of struggle live on, and the division between ‘totalitarian Communists’ and ‘democratic Socialists’ was nothing less than mortal; that is to say, the former were quite ready to shoot the latter. Whilst alliances between such organisations can be useful, they can never have the spontaneity and freedom of movement of the soviets. Any attempt to install a single party dictatorship recalls, justly, earlier totalitarian forms, and, in fact, is nothing but a return to totalitarianism. Even the dictatorship of the proletariat in the classical conception of Lenin and Trotsky (which is not that of Marx and Engels, who offered as their example the Paris Commune – so chaotic and so democratic with a multiplicity of free-form tendencies and a communal tradition that went back to the Middle Ages) seems inapplicable as a result of changes in the relation of forces between the classes, all now more or less déclassed. Without the help and collaboration of ‘modern’ elements in society – educated and exposed to scientific knowledge – the proletariat is powerless. In just the same way, it is doomed if it does not have the support of the peasants. The ‘modern’ elements referred to are those formed by the technical sectors, the liberal professions, the educators and the bureaucracy – of whom there were generally a greater number than of politically organised workers. From the very beginning, the Russian Revolution had a monolithic tendency; in Europe we must expect much more diverse and composite organisations, within which the working class will exert power only in proportion to its cooperation with its natural allies. It is in this confused situation that the guarantee of continued liberty resides.
‘Men make their own history’, said Marx, ‘but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it in circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’  Old Europe has many traditions – some ancient, some more recent – that in our era are virtually indestructible; those of the cities, the municipalities and the democratically run communities when it comes to local organisation, those of the large elected assemblies (parliaments) when it comes to organisation on a national scale, and those of the unions the and factory committees in the case of the labour movement. This weight of institutions, formed over centuries, can change in content, can acquire a revolutionary dynamism, and can establish new equilibria. Municipal liberties and institutions are not discredited, on the contrary, they survive. Depending on the circumstances of the moment there have been revolutionary parliaments, reactionary parliaments and impotent parliaments. All these occurrences are independent of the basic concept of representative assemblies. The recent discredit of parliamentarianism in Germany, France and Spain was in large part the doing of the ruling classes hoping to get rid of an irritating – if doubtless corrupt and nearly impotent – impediment. This was particularly necessary, as it was impossible to falsify completely the result of elections. But try in those same countries tomorrow to call a freely elected body, a ‘Convention’, and it will acquire prestige in the proportion that it deserves merit. And in its meetings neo-Fascists will be hissed – at the very least. The cumbersome union bureaucracies – cumbersome by necessity, since they represent millions of workers – certainly offer fewer guarantees of liberty of expression and political action than do the communities, municipalities or the power of universal suffrage, and it is to be hoped that the workers’ committees in the factories will bring them back to life a bit. What is required is to give to the great majority the ability to express itself and act at a time when they cannot remain outside the task of building a new society. They will certainly create planned economies within which the problem of individual freedom will pose itself in terms that are entirely new, and, it must be admitted, difficult to resolve. It is nevertheless certain that a planned economy cannot be well-planned, and therefore cannot promote prosperity, without free criticism, freedom of research and initiative and public accountability. The Soviet experience shows us this problem clearly, and anyone who has seen close at hand the implementation of the Five-Year Plans knows what horrible waste, what involuntary sabotage, and what unspeakable sufferings the totalitarian regime in the USSR imposed on its people. It is beyond doubt that a more enlightened regime, however so slightly more democratic, would have done better at less cost. It is a universally recognised first truth that freely-given labour (even in the capitalist sense of the term) is more productive than forced labour; that is why slavery has disappeared.
At the present time, the greatest danger of a restoration of totalitarianism in Central Europe – and therefore in Europe as a whole – comes from the pressure of the Russian regime. Conservative forces in other nations could try provisionally to consolidate more or less reactionary transitional regimes; as long as they are not overtly Fascist, these regimes may even have the advantage of allowing the working class and the Socialist movement to regroup and recuperate its energies, and then to re-emerge with a new political awareness. The conservative forces of the other powers are unable to exercise an absolute dominance, and are influenced by a formidable anti-Fascist feeling and by the bourgeois democratic institutions that must be abolished by Fascism if it wishes to prevail. The Stalinist system, on the other hand, installed on and indissolubly linked to the European continent (and to Asia, which only adds to its power), is affected by no public opinion and by no representative institution at all, whilst it commands the obedience of 170 million workers and soldiers under its unchallenged leadership. It obeys its own innate necessity for expansion. The unimaginable sufferings imposed by war upon the people of the USSR, whilst forming a new generation of hardened, combative citizens, easily capable of demanding satisfaction of their unfilled needs, forces the regime urgently to seek solutions to its dilemma. Amidst the great common poverty and the division of the citizenry into haves and have-nots in the course of stabilising bureaucracy, collectivism declined in importance, and has perhaps even become a potentially negative factor. The regime can only survive by adopting policies aimed at immediate relief, and by cultivating a siege mentality. To this end, it must seek to conquer additional material advantage, and must maintain enough tension in its foreign relations to allow it to exploit the idea of national peril. Since social upheaval throughout the continent is a foregone conclusion, the regime must protect itself from its effects, which would find fertile ground in the USSR. From this flows the need to establish around the USSR a sort of zone of national security in the occupied countries: Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans. In this connection, let us just mention that were the idea to be carried out of putting millions of German workers to work in Russia – that is to say, of making the German working class, which was the victim of Nazism, pay for the evils of Nazism – it would certainly mean the paralysis of the Socialist movement in Germany.
The reconstruction of a devastated USSR can only bring immediate relief to the masses if it is undertaken with the cooperation of foreign industries, whilst avoiding the tutelage of the masters of those industries who might wish to impose their own conditions. Only the domination of the industries of Central Europe – that is to say of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia – will allow the regime to maintain these populations in a state of tension and under close surveillance, all the while promising them material improvements in the near future. And that is the aim which is, and which will be, relentlessly pursued. This aim is in complete contradiction to the idea of forming true workers’ democracies in these countries. On the contrary, what is easy to imagine is a domination through quislings, and regimes camouflaged as republics appearing to be ‘democratic’, ‘popular’, and – why not? – even ‘Socialist’. In all this there are three hazards to avoid in pursuing such a policy, and already they are being faced up to: Anglo-American influence must be combated both in its conservative aspect as well as in its liberating one, traditional capitalism must be neither maintained nor re-established – nor formally abolished at the start – and the Socialist movement must be suppressed, or channelled in such a way as to make it unrecognisable. These needs demand policies which, whilst appearing contradictory, converge, and which will tend to exploit democratic aspirations even while abusing and falsifying them. They will also tend to maintain a certain amount of strictly subordinated organised capitalism, to make exorbitant promises to the masses in order to deflect any tendency to independent action, to combat mercilessly any uncontrollable Socialist movements, to oppose the federal inclinations of various national groups, and to take advantage of various nationalisms, pan-Slavism and the extreme complexity of the conflicts between powers.
During the period of the Middle Ages in which the foundations were laid for modern capitalist civilisation, the principle of communal liberties, or independence, was the object of important struggles, and it is this idea, enshrined in charters, that led to the Golden Age of city states. But in all this there was really no question of individual liberties, apart from the doctrines of certain Christian sects whose dogma upheld the primacy of the mystic consciousness, itself entirely subordinated to the question of faith. During the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, the Quakers proclaimed the principle of freedom of conscience (for Christians), and courageously deduced from it the true social consequences of such a stand. Personal freedom as a mass social issue came to the fore with the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and even here, to be precise, the issue was one of democratic liberties, a declaration clearly summarised by the words of Jefferson, ‘a government of, by and for the people’ (with the clear understanding that the slaves on the plantations of Virginia were not part of the populace). The development of bourgeois liberties – that is to say, equality before the law, the right to vote (for property holders), freedom of the press, religious liberty – guaranteed the consistent mobilisation of the greatest number of citizens against any attempt to restore the old feudal and monarchical regimes. Their appearance on the political stage, which is tied to the development of capitalism and to the birth of the economic doctrines that accompanied it, led to the creation of a veritable modern myth of liberty. The economists intoned ‘laisser faire, laisser passer’ – in other words, let capitalism have free rein at a time when the free market was prodigiously stimulating and simultaneously regulating the course of production and the relations of exchange. The availability of money stimulated free labour much more than did slavery, the honour of guild labour, or enforced discipline; and money also had the effect of depersonalising work and the worker, so that work became a form of commodity, and the worker became just labour power. What happened eventually, however, was that the proletariat, having become powerful and numerous, demanded in its turn the benefits of bourgeois liberties, and ripped by force from the hands of the bosses a set of workers’ liberties: the right to vote, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to organise in unions. These are recent conquests, dating from the end of the last century, and still contested at the beginning of this one. During the same period, the rapid increase in material well-being and advances in science and technology had enormous effects on social attitudes. Christian humanism – refreshed by the rise of anti-clericalism and the decline of the theological spirit, taken up by revolutionary movements and enlarged upon by Socialism and liberalism – elaborated a new, confused but altruistic conception of liberty. It ran in the direction of guaranteeing man (white men, of course; there was no question of applying these principles in the colonies) freedom of individual initiative (to those having the means), and a certain minimum of social security. Guarantees of these rights could only reside in the existence of elected assemblies and free press, and the strict administration of justice, all of which implies the right of self-defence and public accountability. The liberal philosophers of this period rose to the defence of the small individual against the state. Anarchist revolutionaries, in opposing both the state and the tenets of capital, attacked the very concepts of authority and organisation. In doing so, they pushed to its conclusion the logic of humanism and liberalism. Whilst Marxists foresaw the formidable organisation of industrial production and the formation of collectivist states, the libertarians fought against just such developments.
The First World War, the Russian Revolution, the death throes of liberal capitalism, and the formation of totalitarian regimes brought to an end democratic liberties in Europe. Firstly, neither a state of war nor a state of civil war (latent or open) are compatible with such liberties, and secondly, the Soviet collective, dominated by the issues of external threat and civil war, was also led by doctrinaire (intolerant) and authoritarian Socialists who had been formed in the great period of the capitalist states, the trusts, and a mechanistic view of science. 
On one essential point, the most dynamic revolutionary thought of that era was completely in error: it took up a Marxist proposition that neither Marx nor Engels had had time to develop, but which seemed correct in the abstract – the Bolshevik tenet that the state (which they were constructing), the ‘soviet state of an entirely new type’, would wither away, and ‘would be replaced by the administration of things’. But for this to happen one condition must be fulfilled: complete world revolution … It is possible to conceive that with a single world economy based on abundance, the social mechanisms of constraint and oppression would lose their ‘raison d’être’. Unfortunately, we are not yet at that point.
There is no question that the acquisition of democratic liberties in the nineteenth century was linked to free market capitalism, to the free, anonymous and impersonal function of money as a social regulator and to class struggle – in a word, to the very mechanism of capitalism. From the point of view of social organisation, these liberties – in a form and degree unknown at any earlier epoch – were amongst the most precious acquisitions of that century. They are also inseparably linked to the diffusion of the scientific spirit and the slow rise of a new humanism. These connections are extremely important. It is our analytical habits that lead us to use these terms to split up what is really a single, unitary phenomenon.
In what sense, and to what degree, are democratic liberties compatible with a planned and directed economy? This, it seems to us, is the main question of today, to which the experience of the totalitarian states seems to indicate a pessimistic answer. It is true that this experience was to a degree vitiated by civil war, economic self-sufficiency and the preparation for a world war. Nevertheless, the following arguments do merit consideration.
This scenario appears unduly sombre. But it does not depend on our wishes and desires.
What other factors contribute to encourage or maintain individual liberty, or the democracy which guarantees that liberty?
It can be seen that a planned economy substitutes a generalised, but inhuman liberty – a kind of liberty from insecurity – for a minimum of economic liberty, thus liberating men from the fear of unemployment and starvation. But let us recall that this primordial liberation is not real unless accompanied by freedom of opinion. If instead of fearing unemployment and hunger we now have to fear repression for our thoughts, then a new captivity has emerged, maybe harsher and more repressive than the old. This remark should be sufficient to illustrate that the problem of liberty has moved from one arena to another, without losing any of its significance.
In the worst of the totalitarian states, one domain subsists in which liberty is almost unassailable. In non-police-state, non-war-oriented planned economies this domain will acquire an even greater importance: the area of scientific investigation. We have seen a totalitarian Russian regime install scientific laboratories in its concentration camps, and offer the inmates freedom of scientific research – no doubt subordinated to the technical needs of the regime, but nevertheless affected by the fact that, by its nature, scientific endeavour is hard to domesticate. Having become the necessary condition for the continuing development of production, scientific research will remain, or become once again, free, and not without influence on education and thought in general also.
The elaboration and carrying out of plans by totalitarian regimes was done using the methods of war. Orders were passed down from a headquarters to technicians and workers who could only carry them out.  This method, though explicable by historical circumstances and the exigencies of war, turned out in fact to be onerous, and even disastrous in the long run. The ultimate results of absolute authority coupled with passive obedience in the organisation of production are a horror of taking responsibility, the disappearance of initiative, masked resistance on an individual level, and involuntary sabotage on the broadest scale, with incalculable costs – in short, a net reduction in labour productivity and an immense overall disorder falsified by lies (but which periodically becomes obvious as crises occur). All of this causes general impoverishment. Despite these results, planning has shown itself to be superior to the mess created when the free market is allowed to regulate the economy, which is a state of affairs, in any case, impossible from now on. But planning must not be judged by comparison with the liberalisms of the past, and even less with the chaos of a decadent and ruinous capitalism which it is replacing; planning must be judged in comparison with itself, with its own possibilities and potentials, and the aims it espouses ; it must be judged in comparison with good planning, a planning which is effective, as opposed to the inefficient, costly planning we have been discussing.  We see that in order for the elaboration and execution of plans to attain maximum efficiency, they must be accompanied by free discussion, research, suggestions and initiative all the way up the ladder. Those doing the planning must be allowed free discussion and free debate about their premises and projects. Managers of firms and their technical staffs must be able to criticise, propose and object, whilst workers in the shops must be free to give their opinion on the nature of the work being demanded of them and the machinery at their disposal. Freedom of opinion and expression is necessary for the effectiveness of any planned economy. Such is the new basis of a real democracy of labour.
But is it possible to separate freedom in production and civic liberty? The rights of the administrator, technician, worker and consumer can only be guaranteed by ensuring the rights of the citizen. In fact, by this route we come around again to the Rights of Man as affirmed by the great bourgeois revolutions. If there is no liberty outside the factory, how could there be liberty inside it?
Before considering this problem, which actually, in practical terms, dominates all others, let us take a look at the particular needs of intellectual production beyond the technical domain of scientific research. The production of ideas, works of art, the means of education and the components of leisure time is an immense domain which includes every variety of periodical, magazine, book, art, theatre, and which touches education, sports and all forms of cultural life. Insofar as its production is concerned, it is susceptible to a certain amount of organisation on more or less rational grounds. It can be directed or influenced to some extent, but it cannot be totally directed without negating or, rather, destroying the very creative faculties which spontaneously create what is of value in the content of such production. Order sculptors to sculpt nothing but the effigies of heroes, and Rodin becomes impossible. Assign themes, methods and censorship to writers and poets, and you will get an ‘official’ literature which may appear narrowly useful for a time – but all the words considered great by the opinion of history because they have influenced social understanding will have become inconceivable. Command the mandarins to construct a philosophy conforming to the intentions of the state, and all philosophy, search for truth and spiritual creation is reduced to dead compilations – unless some of the mandarins disobey the order. The exercise of thought, which is as natural and as imperiously necessary to the human as breathing, is simply not susceptible to complete external control. Thought that is directed by the church or the state is thought smothered, is thought which in the past has been fertile only through the rebellions it has inspired.  It would be necessary, in this connection, to confront the problem of the nature of intelligence, its conditions of operation and its sources. Without trespassing on the domain of the psychologists, let us note that if intelligence is concerned with using experience to deal better with the unexpected, it is incapable of finding nourishment in what is dictated, foreordained or established. The limitations under which intelligence is forced to operate in a totalitarian state do violence to the inner depths of man, and they are in fact an attack on a person’s very vitality. For these reasons thought control, though it may constitute a powerful tool for unstable regimes, is, in the end, not a viable expedient.
Planned economies influence the conditions of social liberties. They can offer a new basis for authoritarian regimes, or they can offer a foundation for democratic institutions. They can accommodate mixed regimes. The social organisation to which they give rise is more concentrated than the traditional capitalist economies, and is therefore generally more resistant and stronger than states of the bourgeois-democratic type.
Class struggle will determine the character of planned economies in Europe. Class struggle will provoke either the affirmation or the abolition of fundamental democratic liberties, that is, the guarantees of individual liberty (habeas corpus and the right to defend oneself in open court), free expression of opinion and an elected representative government. A planned economy run for the benefit of a privileged minority of capitalist bosses and high officials, or the bureaucrats and police of a one party state – or for both groups together – will, of course, be completely incompatible with these fundamental liberties. Since it can tolerate neither criticism nor public revelation of its methods, it can never allow a legal opposition. It must, therefore, do away with guarantees of justice, individual rights and freedom of opinion. It must reduce elections to sham proceedings. In other words, we are describing neo-Fascism. Let us note that freedom of religion would not seriously bother such a regime. On the contrary, religious beliefs and the observances of sects can provide an alternative and a diversion for the lack of freedom. The priest has no place calling into question the economic plan of production, and the moral support he offers to the condemned need not raise the issue of the quality of justice.
In the period following the disaster of Nazi Fascism, neo-Fascists would neither be able to put themselves forward openly nor impose themselves upon society without bitter social struggles. The conservatives will have the choice of orienting themselves with the Fascists, or seeking a compromise with the left. More or less consciously, they will have to move in the direction of an economy planned and directed by the society as a whole and for the benefit of the whole – that is to say, towards socialisation. It will be a political struggle in which the democratic institutions themselves will be at stake. If the masses are allowed to express themselves, their immediate needs and the war mentality of the moment will draw them towards Socialistic solutions. In this sense, the mere re-establishment of the democratic institutions of the past will take on the character of a renewal. Local government, universal suffrage, freedom of the press and association, freedom to organise, all of these can ensure that the development of new types of planned economies can coincide with the renewal of the traditional liberties and the Rights of Man.
These are old notions to two-thirds of Europe, which were revolutionary when their regimes were established, and which long remained progressive. Naturally enough, capitalist prosperity changed them, and the decadence of European capitalism corrupted them. But it is evident that the existence of universal suffrage, for example, along with the guarantees that usually accompany it (so as to prevent it degenerating into sham plebiscites), would represent a great step forward for Russia. What is of importance is the real substance of words and institutions. Where a reactionary bourgeoisie is in command and prepared to use any means necessary in the defence of its privileges – in other words corruption, a coup d’état cloaked in legal forms, threats of civil war, civil war itself, Fascist methods, foreign intervention – it is clear that universal suffrage can only produce spineless, impotent and doomed left-wing majorities. But with the reactionary classes tainted and dishonoured by their cooperation with Fascism, and with a situation calling for nothing less than the reconstruction of society by a population of which four-fifths at least are impoverished and workers, traditional democratic institutions take on a revolutionary capacity and a new prestige. All the more so, as, apart from established dictatorships – which, of course, will tend to perpetuate totalitarianism – it is difficult to see what could be substituted for them.
1. Dwight Macdonald, Politics, New York, March 1944. [Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party, and sided with Max Shachtman’s Workers Party in 1940, which he soon left. He founded Politics in 1944, and edited it until 1949.]
2. Carl Stürman (Otto Rühle), Weltkrise, Weltwende (World Crisis, World Turning Point), Fischer Verlag, Berlin 1931, p. 23. [Otto Rühle (1874–1943) was a left-wing member of the German Social Democratic Party. He and Karl Liebknecht were the first Reichstag deputies to vote against war credits during the First World War. He was a founding member of the German Communist Party, and sided with the ultra-left German Communist Workers Party.]
3. ‘A page is missing here’: note in Serge’s handwriting.
4. Even in the USA … ‘The USA cannot give away indefinitely useful goods for useless gold, and tender the gold honourable burial …’, writes Lewis Corey in New Europe, February 1944. This author shows also how Russia, the largest gold producing nation after England, seems to want to maintain the international gold standard. [By England Serge seems to mean the British Empire, which then still included South Africa and Australia. Lewis Corey was a pseudonym of Louis Fraina (1894–1953). A founding member of the Communist Party of the USA and an operative of the Communist International, he soon split from the movement, and became an academic.]
5. The Swedish elections took place in September 1944, the Danish in March 1943. [Editor’s note]
6. Eugene Koulischer, Displacement of Population in Europe, ILO, Montreal 1943. In 1942–43 the exact figure is 35,627,000, of whom nearly 12 million were displaced, evacuated and deported persons in the Soviet Union. The bombing of Germany has since caused further displacements.
7. The example of Russia should be considered separately. It could be that the Stalinist regime will be strengthened through the sentiments of victory. But a regime that ships millions of its workers off to concentration camps is a regime in conflict with its own people, and victory in the war, far from lessening this conflict, aggravates it further through the sacrifices and hardships that it imposes. The words of a Spanish Communist refugee who lived for a long time in Moscow during the war were repeated to me: ‘Trotskyism is everywhere.’ By ‘Trotskyism’, he obviously meant a spirit of opposition having little or nothing to do with the ideology of the exterminated left wing of Soviet Communism. The fact that during the long war for national survival, the regime did not concede a single democratic reform demonstrates both its machinery of repression and the degree of its fear of the slightest breath of freedom. Its reconciliation with the persecuted church, and its manifest desire to fan nationalist sentiments, show that it is seeking psychological diversions, and the complete absence of ideology in its press can be explained by a fear of thought and ideas.
8. The House of Savoy was the Italian royal family. The King of Italy at this juncture was Victor Emmanuel III, who had recently signed the armistice with the Allies after having supported Mussolini’s Fascist government for two decades. Hjalmar Schacht (1877–1970) was one of the main bourgeois financial experts during the Weimar Republic who also masterminded the German economy for Hitler during his first years of rule. Franz von Papen (1879–1969) was Chancellor of Germany from 1 June to 1 December 1932, and ruled by Presidential decree. Pierre Laval (1883–1945) was the Prime Minister of the French Third Republic in the mid-1930s, and the Vice-President of the puppet Vichy regime during the Second World War. He fled to Spain in 1944, and was extradited, tried and executed. Henri Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) had been a French military leader during the First World War, and became the President of Vichy France. He was convicted of treason, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. [Editor’s note]
9. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Moscow 1977, p. 10. [Editor’s note]
10. It is worthwhile remembering that the Russian Revolution began in such a ferment of democratic movements and institutions that even Bolshevism was strongly infected with liberalism. The blockade, foreign intervention and civil war killed off the young soviet democracy. Nevertheless, the Jacobin formula of proletarian dictatorship enunciated by Lenin continued to affirm: ‘Dictatorship without mercy against the enemies of the revolution, democracy on the largest possible scale for the workers.’ A thorough analysis of the libertarian and authoritarian-totalitarian tendencies in Bolshevism needs to be carried out. The authoritarianism of the great Bolsheviks stemmed from their dogmatic conviction that they, and they alone, possessed the truth, and in that sense it derived directly from the psychology of Karl Marx himself. It was dogmatic Marxism. Nevertheless, Lenin and numerous others did undertake an ideological renewal, all the more because they always accepted the need for democracy. War and famine destroyed these possibilities and led the Central Committee into great errors, clearly inspired by the traditions of Russian despotism, such as the creation of the Cheka (cf. John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, and Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution).
11. An appropriate language sprang up in Russia during the Five-Year Plans. They talked about ‘production headquarters’, ‘the iron discipline of labour’, and even ‘the firing line of industrialisation’. They even referred to the ‘chief, middle ranks and NCOs of production’. Just like the code of military justice, labour legislation carried the death penalty.
12. For example, the two Five-Year Plans in the USSR were tragic failures from one essential point of view. The first foresaw a rise in real wages in the five years of more than 70 per cent, but actually saw a net drop in real wages to the point where at the end of the second plan wages had fallen by between 15 and 30 per cent compared with 1927.
13. On the issue of efficiency, it would be instructive to compare Soviet planning with the partial planning of war production in the United States. The latter seem to have encouraged a colossal increase in production and productivity, and all without significantly lowering the living standards of the workers.
14. I am inclined to conclude that, despite the perfectly efficient machinery for the control of the masses through the methods of modern psychology, the totalitarian states have met with more or less complete failure in their efforts. The directed education of youth, the cult of the leader and the orchestration of the press have yielded sensational results in creating a useful fanaticism in times of disarray and crisis. But the parallel recourse to the use of terror illustrates clearly the ultimate impotence of the Ministries and Commissariats of Propaganda (there is nothing more striking than the failure to de-Christianise Russia). Ten years observation of a totalitarian regime taught me that nearly the whole population – with the exception of the youth between the ages of 16 and 22 to 25 years of age – adopts a critical, suspicious and prudent attitude, and that a clandestine but considerable group continues to invent or rediscover heresies and sketch out works that could not be published. Meanwhile, the official literature proves to be mutilated and impoverished.
Last updated on 21.9.2011