Peter Sedgwick

The Crucial Year

Victor Serge on Class and Party


Editor’s introduction to Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1972.
Re-published jointly by Bookmarks (London), Pluto Press (London) and Writers & Readers (New York) in 1992.
It was also published in International Socialism (1st series), No.50, January-March 1972.
Downloaded with thanks from REDS – Die Roten. Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This article forms the editor’s introduction to the English edition of Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution, which will be published in February by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press (by whose permission the article is reproduced). The extract from the War Cabinet minutes, Public Record Office, (note 22) is reproduced by permission of the Controller, HM. Stationery Office, in whom the copyright resides. Peter Sedgwick wishes to express his thanks to Paul Avrich for valuable discussion on an earlier draft; and to Mike Caffoor and David Widgery, kindred spirits.

The present book is one of the first works produced by Victor Serge following the decision he took in 1928, when he was confined in a Leningrad hospital with a near-mortal illness, to turn his literary talents from the fields of immediate agitation and propaganda (now denied to him as a result of the victory of Stalinism) into more permanent forms of political and artistic testimony. Like the other works produced by Serge for publication abroad during his disgrace as a former Left Oppositionist in the Soviet Union, it was composed according to a peculiar format: “in detached fragments which could each be separately completed and sent abroad post-haste and ... could, if absolutely necessary, be published as they were, incomplete”. [1]

In these early years of Stalin’s hegemony, the mere act of dispatching a manuscript to a Western publisher was not regarded by Soviet officialdom, as it is today, as in itself tantamount to an act of treason. During the 1920s it had been relatively common for Soviet writers to bring out their work abroad, in order to establish copyright, before it appeared in Russia. This relative freedom was not to last very long: in 1929, for example, Boris Pilnyak was savagely attacked in the Russian press for his publication of the novel Mahogany in Berlin, and was removed from his post in the All-Russian Writers Union for this supposedly “anti-Soviet” action. Thus by 1930 when Year One of the Russian Revolution appeared from the presses of a Paris publishing house, Serge must have had grounds for fearing that an historical work which challenged, implicitly but still definitely, the Stalinist rewriting of party history might bring unpleasant consequences upon its author. Only a year later, in a novel devoted to the Civil War period, he felt it necessary to omit the names of Lenin and Trotsky in a scene which clearly described the two leaders together in close conversation [2]; and in 1936, when Victor Serge was allowed to leave the Soviet Union after three years of deportation in Central Asia, the GPU censorship took care to seize all his manuscripts, including Year Two of the Russian Revolution, the sequel to the present work. This book then, like Victor Serge himself, is a specimen of uncompromising heresy which survived the risks of Stalinist repression through a combination of skilful timing and historical good luck.

In contrast with Serge’s other works of political history, Year One of The Russian Revolution contains no autobiographical element: it is in no sense an eye-witness account, since its narrative breaks off precisely at the point in January 1919 when Serge was beginning his own personal experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, setting foot on Russian soil for the first time in his life as the returned son of exiled Narodnik parents. Serge’s initiation into the stern realities of Red Petrograd at the end of Bolshevism’s Year One dealt him (as he tells us in his memoirs [3]) a considerable shock: despite the recent promise of a Soviet democracy based on mass participation, here was a revolution at death’s door, its freedom checked and controlled by a rigorous party monopoly which maintained the “Proletarian Dictatorship” in the face of a starving, embittered and depopulated proletariat. Even with this restricted basis of legitimacy, the Soviet regime could still exert a powerful claim of fealty upon socialists and internationalists; Serge was not at this point prepared to declare (as he did, in confidence, in 1921 to an anarchist visitor to Moscow) that “the Communist Party no longer exercises a dictatorship of the proletariat but over the proletariat”. [4] The bond between the ruling party and the class it represented could still be renewed from time to time, in periodic work of construction within new institutions and a new culture. Serge is too honest not to see that the ideals of “Soviet Democracy”, which had fired the hearts of millions in Russia and throughout the world in 1917. have given way to the authoritarian monopoly ( the dictatorship of the centre’, as lie puts it) of the Bolshevik leadership. The purpose of Year One of the Russian Revolution is essentially one of reconstructing the chain of events, in the Russia of revolution and counterrevolution, which has led from the “Commune-State” of 1917 to the party dictatorship of late 1918. The terms of the narrative are fixed by Serge’s basic convictions, firstly, that the October Revolution of 1917 was a genuine expression of mass feeling by workers and peasants in their overwhelming majority, and secondly that the revolutionary wave had very quickly exhausted itself, or rather bled itself dry, through the military depredation and economic ruin which wrought havoc in an already enfeebled Russia during the early months following the Bolshevik seizure of power.

Serge’s outline of the early development of Bolshevism is therefore likely to dissatisfy at least three classes of historians and commentators upon Communism. There are those who reject the first cornerstone of Serge’s narrative, arguing that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, far from being an expression or representation of popular desires, was a mere coup d’état or conspiracy: on this argument a detailed account of the revolution’s fortunes over the year 1917-18 would possess little historical relevance in explaining the frustration of the Communist ideal, since the regime from the outset would be a minority dictatorship masquerading behind the banner of the Soviets. There are many, too, on the Left who would gladly endorse Serge’s characterization of Bolshevism’s initial victory, as the advent to power of authentically revolutionary mass institutions, and yet would reject his chronology of the movement’s speedy decline. 1918 has indeed been offered but rarely as a significant date by Left-wing interpreters of Russian Communist history; most accounts of the trajectory of Stalinism are sprinkled with references to such salient years as 1937-8 (the great purge), 1929-30 (collectivization and famine), 1927 (defeat of Left Opposition, expulsion of Trotsky), or if a critic is sufficiently bold – 1921, the year of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the banning of factions inside the Bolshevik Party. There are very few interpretations which both proclaim the 1917 October Revolution as a valid and genuine proletarian insurrection and go on (as Serge does) to date the erosion of mass involvement in the revolution within a matter of months. Quite recently, however, a third group of critics of Bolshevik history has attracted public attention: These would share Serge’s chronological focus, in concentrating on developments in Soviet Russia during the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik assumption of authority, but would offer a radically distinct explanation for the tendencies towards political repression, centralization and monopoly that are evident in the practice of Lenin’s party as early as 1918. Such writers as Noam Chomsky, the Cohn-Bendit brothers and Paul Cardan are inclined to ascribe the Bolshevik expropriation of the Soviets not to the sheer pressure of historical events (though it is conceded that these may have played their part) but to specific ideological drives towards the centralization of authority at the expense of the workers; these conceptual deformities within Bolshevism are seen as pre-dating the October Revolution and are variously traced back to Lenin’s centralizing politics in the 1902-3 split with the Mensheviks, or to a residue of orthodox social democracy still latent within Russian Bolshevism, or to elements in the philosophy of the Proletarian State as developed by Marx himself in the old controversy with anarchism. [5]

It might be thought that a work such as the present one, composed under conditions by no means propitious for mature historical research, and expressing the political outlook of a revolutionary tendency defeated by history, would has e very little chance of withstanding the criticism that might be directed upon it from any of these rival currents of explanations based as these are on several more decades both of detailed scholarship and of international revolutionary experience. However, when due exception is made of a number of biases and inadequacies which are evident in certain points of Serge’s narrative (none of them crucial to his case), the book’s general scheme of the Russian Revolution’s “Year One” makes extremely good sense when contrasted with alternative explanations of what happened. It is unlikely, perhaps, that any one interpretation of so complex and significant an event as the Bolshevik Revolution will ever be accepted as definitive, especially in a world still rent by political divisions stemming in large part from that very revolution: still, it is possible to point to particular features in the march of events during 1917-18 which raise certain theoretical or empirical difficulties for the alternative standard views of the Bolshevik triumph.

Bolshevism: Coup or Mass Rising?

Let us consider first the position, made out by successive waves of opponents of the October Revolution ever since the Bolshevik uprising itself, which sees the transition simply as the outcome of a putsch or military conspiracy, resting on no political mobilization of the Russian masses. History, unfortunately, affords the commentator no ready-made index with which one can compute unambiguously the depth and the quality of a social upheaval. Every modern revolution, from 1789 onwards if not further back, has had a question-mark placed by some of its critics over its popular character as well as upon its social content. (To take one dramatic example: not merely the depth and the range, but even the very existence of the Spanish workers’ and peasants’ revolution of 1936 went unrecognized for many years after the event by thousands of liberal observers – including even, as he has candidly admitted, so trained an analyst as the present Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. [6]) The recognition or the refusal of the majority character of an insurrection must inevitably, by comparison (say) with the registering of a majority in a parliamentary election, proceed from the exercise of a fairly complex political and historical judgement. The position is further complicated, in the case of the Russian Revolution, by at least two other factors. In the first place, there is an evident tendency among writers on Russian affairs to characterize the October rising of the Bolsheviks as the decisive founding act of one of the world’s modern industrial super-States – a judgement which concedes the world significance and even the historical necessity of October without evaluating it within the mass revolutionary politics of its own day. And secondly, there is so much in the actual conduct of the insurrection in Petrograd during the closing days of October 1917 which lends colour to a purely conspiratorial view of the events. Trotsky himself admits almost as much in the final pages of his great history:

where is the insurrection? There is no picture of the insurrection ... a series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance remain separated one from another both in space and time ... there is no action of great masses. There are no dramatic encounters with the troops, there is nothing of all that which imaginations brought tip on the facts of history associate with the idea of insurrection. [7]

Trotsky, it is true, goes on to present the absence of the masses from the rising as a positive proof of the movement’s coherence and popular support:

The workers had no need to come out into the public square in order to fuse together: they were already politically and morally one single whole without that ... These invisible masses were marching more than ever before in step with the events. [8]

The pro-Bolshevik temper of the masses in the cities during late 1917 is, however, attested by evidence of a far less “invisible” nature. “In August, September and October” – i.e., when the Bolsheviks were once again issuing the call for the replacement of the Provisional Government by Soviet power – “manifold indications”, as a recent historian puts it, “disclosed the growing popularity of Bolshevism.” [9] The congress of Soviets of the Northern region, whose delegates were drawn from Petrograd, Kronstadt, Moscow, Helsinki and Reval, unanimously passed Trotsky’s resolution for the transfer of the central government to the Soviets. A similar swing towards the Bolshevik line – often, it is true, in terms which left open the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power – was seen in the resolutions passed by many regional and local Soviet assemblies in this period, for example, at Kiev and Minsk, in Siberia and the Urals. On 19 October the All-Russian Conference of factory and shop committees, with a Bolshevik majority among its 167 voting delegates lining up with the twenty-four SR delegates against an opposition consisting of seven Mensheviks and thirteen Anarcho-Syndicalists, come out for the immediate passing of power to the Soviets: this, as Trotsky put it, was indeed “the most direct and indubitable representation of the proletariat in the whole country”. [10] For the situation following the successful Petrograd rising, the results of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly elections, often cited as an indication of the relative unpopularity of the Bolsheviks, in fact show a continuance of the Bolshevik landslide in the key industrial centres and the nearby garrisons. [11] By the time the elections were held, eighteen days after the ousting of the Provisional Government and the installation of the Bolshevik Government by the Second Congress of Soviets, none could have doubted the definitely insurrectionary character of the slogan “all power to the Soviets” as proclaimed by Lenin and Trotsky. Yet the Bolsheviks’ main rivals for the allegiance of popular masses, the Menshevik and SR opponents of the insurrection, were decisively beaten in the main cities of Russia: the wave of pro-Bolshevik extremism which had. already ousted the Mensheviks from their leading positions in the urban Soviets rolled forward still to reduce the total Menshevik vote for the empire to 1,700,000 (nearly half of this drawn from Jordania’s nationalist, non-proletarian stronghold of Georgia); while in the sole industrial centre which had been under SR control during 1917, Moscow itself, the sensational swing towards the Bolsheviks manifested in the city’s two municipal elections earlier in the year was sealed by the SR party’s crushing defeat in the ballot for the Assembly, by an electorate now polarized between a Red plurality and a Kadet counter-revolution. [12]

The sweep of popular Bolshevism in late 1917 extended far into the countryside of Russia, as the radicalized soldiers returned to the villages, drawing masses of rural toilers into their mood. The formal constitutional majority (both of votes and of actual seats) enjoyed by the SR party in the Constituent Assembly elections provides no indication of the real scope and power of the radical movement among the peasantry. Not only had the selection of candidates for the election by the SR party machine been consciously operated so as to under-represent the party’s Left faction (forty Left deputies out of the total SR delegation of 339 were elected) and even the “centre” fraction of Victor Chernov (whose delegation of fifty was grossly under-sized in proportion to the influence of the Chernov group in the Central Committee elections during November). [13] For outside the fractions and committees, in the grassroots base of Social Revoiutionism, the peasantry of Russia, the SR party was losing ground rapidly, not only to its Left breakaway but even to the Bolsheviks; Radkey’s careful analysis of a number of widely varying peasant regions during late 1917 confirms this trend in detail. [14] The self-proclaimed party of the Russian peasantry proved, as Radkey puts it, to be “the chief roadblock in the path of the agrarian revolution” [15] that rolled across the empire. The apparently overwhelming SR electoral “majority” in the Constituent Assembly returns was based on a feeble minority among the actual social forces of the Russian nation; it would be futile and sophistical to try to prove, conversely, that the Bolshevik and Left SR vote reflected a conscious majority of the total population of the toilers, except in the key industrial centres, but it was certainly the expression of a half-conscious mood of “popular Bolshevism” at work in the hearts of millions.

To say this much is to leave open very wide areas for serious argument over the strength, the sources and the conscious quality of the revolutionary mass-mobilization that was seized and shaped at the pinnacles of society by the organizational and political actions of Lenin and Trotsky. A final word in the dispute over the “minority” or “mass” character of the October Revolution may perhaps be left with the spokes-~ men for the defeated and discredited party of Mensheviks. This party, whose leadership had assailed the Bolshevik rising on its morrow as a pure “military conspiracy”, an “adventure” conducted in isolation from the masses, reversed its judgemerit at its Central Committee meeting of 17-21 October 1918, iii a resolution which declared:

The Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 has been historically necessary [and] expressed the endeavour of the toiling masses to steer the course of the revolution wholly in their interest, without which the liberation of Russia from the vice of Allied imperialism, the pursuit of a consistent peace policy, the radical implementation of the agrarian reform and the regulation by the state of the whole economic life in the interests of the masses of the people would have been inconceivable. [16]

This endorsement of the authentically revolutionary character, in terms both of popular base and of historical significance, of the Bolshevik insurrection was, of course, not undertaken without serious criticism of the post-revolutionary conduct of the Communist regime. But these criticisms do not diminish the de jure and de facto recognition of October accorded by the revolution’s old opponents.

The Decay of the Revolution

In tracing the decline in the active mass support enjoyed by the Bolshevik party, we are at once faced by the loss, over 1918, of such indispensable indicators as the distribution of the vote, between Bolshevik candidates and their rivals, in Soviet and other elections. It should not now be necessary to attribute the early Bolshevik dominance of the Soviets and trade unions exclusively to the effects of dictatorial repression: the pitiful showing made by the non-Bolshevik but “Sovietist” organizations such as the sections of anarchists and SRs loyal to the regime is probably due not simply to police action, but to the phenomenon (very common nowadays in the underdeveloped world) of the “funnelling” of prestige and enthusiasm into the party-machine which bears the credit for the foundation of the new regime. The excessive “homogeneity” noted by Serge in the All-Russian Soviet Congress of November 1918 has its parallel in the legislative assemblies of many contemporary states of recent inauguration. Nevertheless, Serge is evidently right to signal “the end of the Soviet bloc” of fraternal but contending parties, soon after mid-1918, as a crucial stage in the replacement of popular Bolshevism by élite party control. In this respect, his analysis (even though formulated during a phase when be was a convinced member of the Trotskyist Opposition) differs sharply from that made by Trotsky himself. For Trotsky, writing in late 1937 to refute the theory that Stalinism sprang from Leninism as a direct progression, the monopoly of the party in the Soviets appears to be completely unproblematic. He concedes to the Left-wing critics of Bolshevism the bare facts of their case:

the Bolsheviks ... replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party; Stalin replaced the dictatorship of the party with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks destroyed all parties but their own; Stalin strangled the Bolshevik party in the interests of a Bonapartist clique.

Trotsky adds, however, that “one can make such comparisons at will. For all their apparent effectiveness they are entirely empty.” The party monopoly, indeed, is the natural form by which the dictatorship of the proletariat is exercised: “The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard ... The Soviets are only the organized form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given to this form only by the party.” Trotsky concludes: “The fact that this party subordinates the Soviets politically to its leaders has in itself abolished the Soviet system no more than the domination of the Conservative majority has abolished the British parliamentary system.” [17] (To which it might be replied that a Conservative “domination” using the same methods of repression as the Bolsheviks employed against the other parties would certainly abolish the parliamentary system as it has been known in Britain.)

Without statistics for the elections to Soviet institutions (and doubtless some useful findings could be gleaned for the period when balloting still went on) it is impossible for us to monitor the process of working-class disillusionment with the Soviet regime. The centralization of Soviet economic institutions, through the creation of “the Supreme Council of the National Economy” with its branches in the different industries in place of the localized, uncoordinated organs of “workers control”, did not involve the Soviet Government in any collision with the mass of workers. [18] Despite the vested interest in local separatism that was characteristic of many factory Soviets, the factory-committee movement collaborated with the transition towards centralism, doubtless for the greater economic security it conferred as well as for the regime’s defence requirements. Pankratova even states that the idea of establishing the Supreme Council of the National Economy

was actually initiated and given shape within the movement of factory-committees itself. The Central Soviet of Factory Committees took a very active part in its formation, gave it its own best workers and offered its apparatus to it. The factory committees of Petrograd, who at their First Conference of May 1917 had proclaimed workers’ control, buried it unanimously at their Sixth Conference. [19]

It was not, it would seem, any confrontation between the Bolsheviks and the working class over this or, probably, any other single issue that drove a wedge between the regime and its proletariat, so much as the cumulative pressures that bore down relentlessly upon the people throughout Bolshevism’s Year One.

That there was, by the end of 1918, a yawning void filled by apathy at best, and hostile bitterness at worst, between the Soviet regime and the working class appears to be an irresistible conclusion. The portrait sketched by Serge at the end of the present book accords very closely with the summary given in his own reminiscences; “it was the metropolis of Cold, of Hunger, of Hatred, and of Endurance. From about a million inhabitants its population had now fallen, in one year, to scarcely 700,000 souls.” Here was “a revolution dying, strangled by blockade, ready to collapse from inside into the chaos of counter-revo1ution”. [20] Within weeks of Serge’s arrival, the huge factories of Petrograd, once the pride and the powerhouse of working-class Bolshevism, would explode in spectacular disturbances involving thousands of workers in action against the regime. These strikes and demonstrations were eagerly observed and, wherever possible, encouraged by the domestic and foreign forces that were working for the overthrow of the Soviet Government. Paul Dukes, the head of the British intelligence network then operating clandestinely in Fetrograd, recalls the “bloody encounters between large bands of workers and the forces of the Cheka”, and records one workers’ demonstration which paraded a banner with the ironic couplet:

Doloi Lenina s koninoi,
Daitye tsarya s svininoi!
(Down with Lenin and horseflesh,
Give us the Tsar and pork!)

In an intelligence-report smuggled back from Russia at the time, Dukes reported on the mass anti-Bolshevik agitation in a factory that a short while ago had been a stronghold of the revolution.

On 19 March a mass meeting was held at the Putilov Works. 10,000 men were present and the following resolution was passed with only twenty-one dissentients:

“We, the workers of the Putilov Works, declare before the labouring classes of Russia and the world that the BoLshevist government has betrayed the ideals of the revolution, and thus betrayed and deceived the works and peasants in Russia; that the Bolshevist government, acting in our names, is not the authority of the proletariat and peasants, but a dictatorship of the Bolshevik party, self-governing with the aid of Cheka and the police ... We demand the release of workers and their wives who have been arrested; the restoration of a free press, free speech, right of meeting and inviolability of person; transfer of food administration to co-operative societies: and transfer of power to freely elected workers’ and peasants’ soviets.” [21]

Duke’s report was promptly published by the British Government in the official Collection of Reports on Russia put out in 1919 in the attempt to convince a wavering parliament and public of the horrors of Bolshevism and the necessity for continued support to the White forces. [22]

Victor Serge is candid in his own account of this erosion of the regime’s proletarian base. Despite the Soviet Government’s unpopularity among the working class, he remained committed to its survival and continued to defend its authenticity as a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, defined as such now not sociologically (through the active adhesion of the Russian working class in its majority) but ideologically (through the Marxist perspectives and the revolutionary determination displayed in the thousands of Bolshevik cadres that constituted the new State). It was relatively easy for Serge to make this leap from a mass identification to the hero-worship of a glorious minority, from (one might almost say) the c:iteria of Marxist politics to those of an aesthetically and psychologically grounded romanticism. For his own adoption of the Marxist class vision was, in 1919, of relatively recent formation; as Jean Maitron has convinéingiy shown [23], the first political position of the young Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, before he took the name of “Victor Serge”, was one of rampant anarchist individualism, glorifying the desperate violence of his close friends in the “Bonnot gang” of bank-robbers and despising the stultified beasts of burden who were the modern proletariat. Je suis avec les bandits! Serge had proclaimed in his organ L’Anarchie in 1911, as his friends were shooting out their last battles with the French gendarmie. The bandits were at least men, bravely defying the corrupt bourgeois society they could not hope to defeat. This elitist revolutionary loyalty was available for Serge to fail back on if the masses failed him, as they did in Petrograd almost as soon as he arrived there. The Bolsheviks, that beleaguered commando of revolutionary fighters, daring to the death, could be accepted on the same grounds as his old bandit comrades. However logically or morally vulnerable this position was, it at least enabled Serge to face reality squarely and admit that the working class was not, in this situation, fulfilling the revolutionary expectations held out for it by the official creed of Marxism. Other Communist publicists, less inclined towards romantic heroics than he was would through that very fact also tend to cling to the mass criterion for supporting the regime long after the actual behaviour of the masses had made nonsense of their theory. For such as these, “Soviet power” as the exercise of the majority will of the real Russian proletariat would necessarily continue to function, until the strain on theory imposed by the reality grew to breaking-point.

It was not, of course, necessary to be either an Ibsenesque hero-worshipper or a naive pro-Bolshevik in order to rally to the support and defence of the Soviet regime in the Civil War period. The sheer peril of counter-revolution, seconded by the active intervention of the Allies, caused most Socialists and internationalists at this time to solidarize with the Soviet Government against even its Left-wing dissidents when the survival of the regime was in question. In a later work (Destiny of a Revolution, published in 1937) Serge explained why, in his view, no revolutionary could support the working- class demonstrations against the government in the Petrograd of early 1919. The very success of the Menshevik and Left SR agitators in rallying the city’s workers testified to the absence of the proletariat’s conscious and revolutionary elements from the factories: for the most dedicated and idealist workers had volunteered in thousands for the Civil War front. Those that remained, although a majority, were the proletariat’s “backward elements, the least conscious and most selfish, those least inclined to sacrifices demanded by the general interest ... discouraged rearguards who are ready unconsciously to second a counter-revolution”. To attempt “a general strike in. famished Petrograd, threatened from two sides by the Whites, in the factories which all the revolutionists have left” was simply “suicide for the revolution”. [24] It should be remembered that in the spring of 1919 General Yudenich was grouping the forces of his White army in Estonia for the offensive which in May would win substantial territory from the Baltic coast down to Pskov and which, when renewed more vigo:ously later in the year, would take his troops into the very suburbs of Petrograd. In March 1919 also, an intervention by Finland to capture the city for the counter-revolution was already being lobbied in Allied circles. This was an epoch when counter-revolutionary peril’ was far more than a bureaucratic excuse to justify the repression of dissidence: even though it might be expressed formally in the same terms used during later repressions, the logic of Communist violence in 191~ proceed from real and distinctive pressures which are not those of 1968, or 1956, or 1937 or (even, be it said) 1921.

The Ideological Alternative

The whole blame for the evolution of the Communist-state into the Party-State is therefore laid by Victor Serge to the account of the counter-revolutionary peril. It was the opening of the civil war by the Whites, regularly and lavishly funded by the Allies, that dissipated and destroyed the active forces of the Russian working class in a literal haemorrhage of the revolution’s social basis. It is to the activity of the counterrevolution, in the repeated plots, assassinations and uprisings conducted by the anti-Bolshevik parties of both Right andLeft, that we must look for the explanation of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and terror. Here Serge parts company with all those critics of Bolshevism who have predominantly emphasized the ideological factor of “Jacobinism” or “Leninism” (detected as residing within the intellectual marrow of the Bolshevik Party since 1903) as the germ of the later State autocracy under Lenin or even as a prime cause of Stalin’s totalitarian rule. [25] The ideological case may be illustrated very simply by quoting one or two predictions made by Leon Trotsky in his pre-revolutionary polemics against Lenin’s centralism. “In the internal politics of the party these [Lenin’s] methods lead the party organization to ‘substitute’ itself for the party, the Central Committee to substitute itself for the party organization, and finally a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” And: “If the anti-revolutionary characteristics of Menshevism are already in full view, the anti-revolutionary features of Bolshevism run the grave risk of only revealing themselves after a revolutionary victory.” [26] These are only the most sensational extracts from an indictment of bureaucratic “Leninism” developed by Trotsky. Rosa Luxemburg [27] and the Menshevik wing almost a decade and a half before Lenin’s politics found a manifest application in the exercise of State power. To refuse any validity to the ideological explanation of Bolshevism’s degeneracy is tantamount to saying that any similarities that arose between Communist practice and these startling early prophecies were the result of pure coincidence: an implausible judgement, one might suppose.

And yet, why should the parallelism not be one of coincidence, given that the historical context in which the October Revolution was embedded was so unpropitious to the free flowering of democratic Socialist institutions? The “objective” social circumstances of Russia’s revolution and civil war already contain the sufficient conditions for the collapse of the mass-revolutionary wave, without any recourse to causal factors stemming from the “subjective” deficiencies of Lenin’s early formulations. The impact of historical causes pressing on actors from the urgent dilemmas of 1917 must have had a far greater importance in determining what happened in 1917 (and 1918) than did the ideational influence of exile controversies in 1902. There is enough “Jacobinism” and “substitutionism” present in the basic political premises of the October insurrection, that uncertain alliance between a tiny proletariat and a vast and land-hungry peasantry; in what scale can any verbal Jacobinism. the substitutionism of paper (and faded paper at that), be made to balance against the insistent, leaden weight of historical impossibility?

In any case. the account of pre-revolutionary “Leninism” presented by the ideological critics of Lenin is seriously misleading. ideological explanation requires, in the first place, an accurate description of the ideas which are alleged to have been causaIly operative: and the description of Lenin as a “centralist” or “Jacobin” is only a half-truth at best. The Lenin of 1905-6. for example. is not the “centralizer” of 1902-4: the Leninist model of party organization developed for the unification of Russia’s warring factions (following the joint Bolshevik-Menshevik congress of 1906) was fully democratic in content, involving not only normal election procedures for leading committees but also the use of referenda among the membership on controversial issues and the strict mandating of delegates by their local branches [28] (it is this model of organization, incidentally, that was first termed “democratic centralism” – a formula acceptable to Mensheviks no less than to Len mists – in distinction from the unqualified and explicit “centralism” of Lenin’s position in 1902-4). For the first year or so after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the democratic and even semi-anarchist strains in Lenin’s organizational theory become even more pronounced: Serge is eager to emphasize these elements (visible not only in the classic State and Revolution but in many speeches and writings of the period) in his own narrative of the Year One, and the excessive significance attached to these libertarian statements by Serge (understandable in a former anarchist trying to reconcile himself to Soviet authority} should not blind us to the persisting reality of a Lenin who found both “democracy” and “centralism” to constitute key values in the construction of a Socialist order. [29]

Another very common ideological explanation of Bolshevik policy during the Year One may also be answered here: it is often asserted that, in the vital field of economic decision-making, the bureaucratic imperatives of Leninist orthodoxy ensured the replacement of localized, libertarian structures of “workers’ control” by a centralized planning machinery in the hands of a party élite. [30] The eclipse of the factory-committee movement in early 1918 is thought to be symptomatic of this bureaucratic trend, whose causes can once again be traced to the ideological presuppositions of Leninist (or even Marxist) “State Socialism”. But there is no evidence that Bolshevik industrial policy in the pre-revolutionary period had any disposition towards centralization and State planning at the expense of local initiatives. Economic gradualism, indeed, entailing a long epoch of co-existence between capitalists (politically dispossessed, it is true) and workers on the shop-floor, was the most obvious theme of Marxist industrial policy as envisaged by Marx, Engels and later by Lenin. [31] The “State capitalism” advocated by Lenin in the first year of Soviet rule referred precisely to such an extended period of joint management within a privately owned industry, and not to any system of State ownership and centralized management. And the forces within the Bolshevik party that were responsible for the shift away from “workers’ control” by factory committees were neither “Leninist” in inspiration nor “bureaucratic” in general tendency. Lenin’s gradualist line for industry came under fire, from late 1917 onwards, from two sorts of Communist, at opposite ends of the many-hued ideological spectrum of Bolshevism. [32] On the Right, the improvisations of the factory-committee structure were resisted by spokesmen for the official trade-union machine, Communists like Larin, Lozovsky and Ryazanov who were politically the most liberal of all Bolsheviks in their insistence on a broad all-party Socialist coalition and their opposition to the suppression of hostile newspapers. [33] Within this small but (on industrial matters) influential current of Bolshevism a concern for economic centralization was actually correlated with a pluralistic and constitutional perspective for the political structure of the Soviets. At the other extreme, the incipient tendency of “Left Communism” opposed the half-measures of “workers’ control” with the demand for the outright expropriation of all employers by the State and for the introduction of a system of “workers’ management” which would embody both a centralized regulation of the whole nationalized economy and the running of factories by collegiate bodies with a sizeable (ideally a majority) representation of directly elected factory workers. [34] The polarity between “centralism” and “democracy”, “Leninism” and “libertarianism”, is wholly inadequate to encompass the diverse tendencies of this crucial economic debate. The Bolsheviks are to be reproached in this field not, it would seem, for adhering to a doctrinaire imperative of State centralism but rather for having entered on the course of Socialist revolution without any worked-out programme for the control of industry. An excess of improvisation rather than of ideological rigidity was the real weakness of Russian Communism in the critical Year One.

The general case for regarding the development of Russia’s one-party Communist regime as the outcome of improvised emergency measures in response to a crisis-situation, rather than as the result of a central ideological drive towards repression, is given in ample detail within Serge’s history. In going through this regard, the reader should perhaps try to ask himself whether the coercive and élitist features of Russian Bolshevism were really any more significant than the similar political traits that were manifested in the ideas and the behaviour of their opponents in the revolution. The Bolsheviks outlawed those newspapers that were hostile (or unsympathetically neutral) towards them in the civil war; Kerensky had outlawed the monarchist press on roughly the same grounds. The Bolsheviks engaged in an armed insurrectionary conspiracy at the head of a vast mass movement of workers and peasants; the Left and Right SRs and the anarchists (not to speak of the monarchists and liberal capitalists) conducted futile putsches, or preparations for putsches, without the slightest popular backing. [35] The Bolsheviks set up a powerful and hideous secret police; the anarchist Makhno established two such forces with a horrific reputation in their territory, repressing all political parties as mercilessly as the Reds suppressed alt parties save their own. Only the Left-wing Mensheviks around Martov can be excused from the general charge of indiscriminate terror and violence; and these avoided the dangers of revolutionary excess only at the cost of avoiding any positive perspective for the revolution itself.

Balance sheet of The Year One

Victor Serge’s narrative is itself not exempt from the sectarian intolerance characteristic of a period of mortal combat between rival doctrinal currents. Despite his real effort to retain historical detachment amid the pressures of his confessed partisanship, his judgement on several important points was warped by fervour. lie is unfair and inaccurate on the pre-revolutionarv politics of the Menshevik party, and evasive in recounting the story of the Cheka’s suppression of the anarchists. (Himself an ex-anarchist of very recent conversion to Bolshevism, he must have found it impossible to be objective towards those who still adhered to the ideology he had spurned.) There is also, from time to time, an excessive readiness to offer simple, conspiratorial explanations for complex events – a tendency doubtless deriving from Serge’s long immersion in the archives of the Tsarist secret police, that fund of startling secrets on the infiltration of the revolutionary movement by spies and agents. More generally. Serge’s command of Marxist sociology is sometimes surprisingly crude in relating ideological divergencies to variations of social class. What he calls Lenin’s “proletarian realism” was not by any means a characteristic of Russian working-class militants in the issue concerned (the Brest-Litovsk Treaty); many Communists in industrial centres favoured the continuation of the war with Germany. Equally, while Serge is correct in naming the middle peasants as the sociological base of the SR party, he is unconvincing in his suggestion that the SRs’ vacillation and Utopianism expressed the mentality of a rural “petty-bourgeois” stratum: this mindless enthusiasm, alternating between patriotic euphoria and ultimatist violence, was surely typical of a floating urban intelligentsia rather than of a stolid peasantry.

Despite these shortcomings (remarkably few considering the circumstances of its composition), The Year One of the Russian Revolution seizes the thread of reason, of causality. from out of the chaos of miseries and exaltations, ideals and their disappointments, bloody precedents and bloodier consequences, that constituted the early fortunes of Russian Bolshevism. In our own era, when the forces of Marxist and libertarian radicalism are asserting and assembling a fresh identity, it may not be too much to hope that this work will fulfil the main purpose intended by its author: that of drawing the lessons of the last victorious workers’ revolution, as a necessary preparation for the successful advent of the next.

Peter Sedgwick
February 1971




1. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London 1967, pp.261, 263

2. Victor Serge, De Lénine à Staline, Paris, 1937, p.15. The English translation of this work, From Lenin to Stalin, New York, 1937, wrongly dates the composition of this passage as 1919.

3. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp.69, 71-2

4. Quoted in Daniel Guerin, L’Anarchisme, Paris, 1965, pp.113-4, 189. The anarchist confidant, Gaston Leval, promptly published this critical judgement of the regime side by side with Serge’s current eulogies of the Soviet state, terming the latter “conscious lies”.

5. See e.g. Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, in American Power and the New Mandarins, London, 1970; Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-wing Alternative, London, 1969; Paul Cardan, From Bolshevism to the Bureaucracy, 1966. A Social-Democratic and liberal case, tracing Stalinist institutions back to Lenin’s political theories, has of course been presented many times: see, for example, Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy, New York, 1965, pp.343-4, 360-61. The argument relating Leninist politics to Kautskyan Social-Democracy stems from the critique offered from the late 1920s onward by the Left communist Karl Korsch, for example, in Marxism and Philosophy, New York, 1930; it can occasionally be found in contemporary pamphlets by far-Left groups

6. H.R. Trevor-Roper, preface to Burnett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War, 1936-9, 2nd Edition, London 1968, pp.2-3

7. L.D. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1965, p.1079

8. Ibid., pp.1079-80

9. Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution, London 1970, p.269

10. Trotsky, op. cit., pp.933-5.

11. Oliver H Radkey’s analysis, in The Election to the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917, Cambridge, Mass. 1970, pp.25-7, convincingly correlates the percentages of troops voting for the Bolsheviks with their relative proximity to the metropolitan strongholds of Bolshevism. By December 1917, moreover, even the armies remote from these centres, such as those on the Rumanian, southwestern and Caucasian fronts, were swinging sharply from the SRs to the Bolsheviks: see Radkey, The Sickle under the Hammer, New York 1963, pp.343-4.

12. Radkey (The Election to the Russian Constituent Assembly, p.53) provides the following enlightening figures on the polarisation in Moscow, from the June and September municipal elections and the Constituent Assembly ballot (voting figures in thousands; figure in brackets indicates percentage of poll):






374.9 (58)

  54.4 (14)

  62.3   (8)


  75.4 (12)

198.3 (51)

366.1 (48)


108.8 (17)

101.1 (26)

263.9 (35)


  76.4 (12)

  15.9   (4)

  21.6   (3)

13. Radkey, The Sickle under the Hammer, pp.283-92.

14. Ibid., pp.258-77

15. Ibid., p.493

16. Quoted in Stalin’s 1918 attack on the Mensheviks, The Logic of Events, in J. Stalin, The October Revolution, Moscow 1934, pp.20-21..

17. L.D. Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism, Bombay 1962, pp.17-18

18. E.H. Carr concludes, of the amalgamation between factory committees and trade unions, that “in practice the fusion did not prove difficult to effect” (The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, London 1966, Vol.2, p.74).

19. A.M. Pankratova, Les Comités d’Usines en Russia à l’Epoque de la Revolution (partial translation of her 1923 pamphlet cited below by Serge in Chapter 7, note 38), Autogestion, Paris, No 4, December, 1967. The Sixth and last Conference of Petrograd Factory Committees in January 1918 was not actually “unanimous” in its support of the new party line: see Paul Avrich The Bolshevik Revolution and Workers’ Control in Russian Industry, Slavic Review, New York 1963, Vol.22, pp.47-63, for a good history of the politics of the committees. But principled opponents of government policy were few among committee spokesmen.

20. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, loc. cit.

21. Sir Paul Dukes, The Story of “ST 25”: Adventure and Romance in the Secret Intelligence Service in Red Russia, London 1937, pp.178-9; the instigators of the resolution were immediately seized, with their families, by the Cheka and shot. However, SR and Left Kadet agitation, based on several large factories and extending into units of the Red Army, was continued into March and April, ibid., pp.360-1

22. Propaganda on the rift between Bolsheviks and workers was especially esteemed by the interventionist British government which was then nervous of its own labour force: at a War Cabinet meeting on November 14, 1918, Lloyd George stated that “it was important that the public in England should know what Bolshevism meant in practice ... Here we had a great, inflammable industrial population and it was very desirable that our industrial population should know that industrial workers had suffered equally with the rest of the population at the hands of the Bolsheviks” (Minutes of War Cabinet meeting 507, in Public Record Office File, FO 371/3344)

23. Jean Maitron, De Kibaltchice à Victor Serge (a selection, with commentary, of Serge’s anarchist journalism and letters from prison, over 1909-19), in Le Mouvement Social, Paris, No.47, 1964. The Parallelism between Serge’s enthusiasms, for bandits and for Bolsheviks, was suggested to me by Richard Greeman, to whom it was originally propounded by Vlady Kibalcbich (Victor Serge’s son).

24. Victor Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, London 1937, pp.138-9

25. Serge would later slightly amend his anti-ideological bent: the “seeds of reaction” or “the germ of all Stalinism” might well be implanted within Leninist or even Socialist doctrine, but would require the soil of specific historical circumstances in which to flourish. Victorious Bolshevism was also prone to “a natural selection of authoritarian temperaments”. This new theoretical emphasis can be seen in his 1933 “political testament” addressed to friends in France shortly before his arrest (given in his 16 Fusillé a Moscou, Paris 1947, p.46). It aroused the ire of Trotsky when propounded in Serge’s 1937 article Puissauces et Limiter du Marxisme (see Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp.348-9, and also pp.133-4); and is developed again in the last book Serge published in Europe during his lifetime, Portrait de Staline, Paris 1940, pp.56-8

26. These quotations, from Trotsky’s polemics of 1904 and 1907 respectively, are reported in Jean-Jacques Marie, Le Trotskysme, Paris 1970, pp.11, 15

27. The critique offered by Rosa Luxemburg was not, strictly, an attack on “Leninism”, a term which never enters either her 1904 articles (subsequently reprinted after her death under the incorrect title Leninism or Marxism) or her analysis of the Soviet regime – closely resembling that of Serge – written in late 1918

28. Lenin’s advice on referenda “of the opinion of every member without exception, in the most important cases at any rate” is given in his Collected Works, London, 1969, Vol.11, p.441, and his insistence on a clear mandating of delegates from their locals (at a St Petersburg district conference in 1907) is ibid., p.434

29. On Lenin’s proposal, each of the large local Soviets in Russia was sent a summary of the two sides’ positions on the question of war or peace with Germany in February 1918, and asked to indicate which course it favoured. The results were published day by day in Izvestia as they came in. (See the notes to Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.27, p.559.) So little did party discipline operate that almost half the urban Soviets voted in favour of continued war, against the Central Committee and State policy. The consultation with the Soviets was in no sense a referendum (it was undertaken just after the Council of People’s Commissars had voted for peace); but it threw Soviet official policy to the mercy of popular opinion, and remains without parallel in any country as an example of democratic opinion-sounding on a crucial question of foreign policy.

30. See, or example, Chomsky, op. cit., p.116. A recent critique, Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, 1917-1921, London, 1970, attempts documentary justification for the view that the shifts in early Soviet industrial policy over 1917-18 were caused by the “monstrous aberration” of “Bolshevism”, supposedly “the last garb donned by bourgeois ideology”. The compilation omits any treatment of (a) the breakdown of Russian industry in this period, (b) the actual politics of the Bolshevik trade-union spokesmen (who are seen as “Leninists”), or (c) of the demands for centralized planning that were acceptable to the factory committees themselves.

31. A useful analysis of the economic gradualism of Marx, Engels and Lenin is contained in Y Wagner and NI Strauss, The programme of The Communist Manifesto and its Theoretical Foundations, Political Studies, Oxford, Vol.17, 1969, pp.470-84

32. Dider L. Limon, Lenine et le Controle Ouvrier, in Autogestion, Paris, No.4, December 1967, provides a clear account of the controversy on workers’ control in Russia during 1917-18 with many details of the theoretical standpoints of the contenders.

33. For the politics of the liberal tendency in the Russian Communist party at this time, see Schapiro, op. cit., pp.73, 77-8, 86, 152. Lozovsky was actually expelled from the party in early 1918 for his constitutional deviations. Both he and Ryazanov were political liberals (voting, for example, against the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly) and industrial centralizers; Ryazanov even calling for “control by the State over the workers” (Limon, op. cit., p.106)

34. The conjunction, in Left Communism thinking, of demands for nationalization and central planning with demands for shop-floor power in factory management (see their proposals at the May 1918 Congress of National Economic Councils, summarised in Schapiro, op. cit., p.140) identifies them as the only faction of Russian Socialism, within or outside the communist party, whose conception of “workers’ control” approximates the one which is current among the Socialist Left today.

35. The extent of SR complicity in terrorist and putschist manoeuvrings is a matter of controversy (though the guilt of the Left SR section, in the light of their behaviour in the July-August crisis, would appear undeniable). Schapiro (Ibid., pp.153-4, 164-5) emphasises the pacifism and restraint of the Right SRs, aside from the “freelance activity” of lone individuals like Kaplan and Savinkov. Radkey, on the other hand, while absolving the Right SR Central Committee from responsibility for terrorist acts, points out how the loose nature of the party opened its organization and membership to military plotters and pro-Allied jingoists in receipt of Western interventionist funds. (Radkey, The Sickle under the Hammer, pp.330-4, 452-5, 492-3).


Last updated on 19.10.2006