Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution


In this book I have tried to provide a truthful, reasonable and living portrayal of the first struggles of Russia’s Socialist revolution. My chief aim has been to display, for the benefit of the proletarian classes, those lessons which can be drawn from one of the greatest and decisive epochs of class struggle in modern history: with this in mind, I could express no other point of view but that held by the proletarian revolutionaries. This has an advantage for the reader who does not accept Communist doctrines: it enables him to acquire an idea of how the revolution was understood, and is still understood, by those who actually made it.

The impartiality of the historian is no more than a myth, designed to prop up certain convenient opinions. It has been destroyed (if it needed destroying) by the character of the historical works which emerged from the Great War. The historian is always ‘a man of his time’: of his social class, of his nation, of his political habitat. Today, however, the only open partiality which is compatible with complete devotion to the truth is that of the proletarian historian. The working class is the only class which has everything to gain, whatever the circumstances, by knowing the truth. It has nothing to keep hidden, at any rate not in history. Social lies have the same function as they ever had: that of deceiving the working class. This class refutes deception in order that it can conquer; its refutation of deceit is the measure of its conquest. There are, doubtless, certain cases of proletarian historians who have bent history to suit the biases of contemporary politics. In doing so, they have surrendered to traditions which are totally alien to their calling and have subordinated, to sectional and temporary interests, the prior and permanent interests of their class. It is an example from which I have shrunk. If, as is probable, my account turns out, at various points, to be a misrepresentation of the truth, it will have been unintentionally so, either through lack of information or through my own error.

As it is, the book is bound to be very defective. I have been absorbed by other tasks, leading the life of a militant in an age filled with commotion; I have always lacked the repose and leisure which are so necessary for historical research. It is for these reasons that those who make history rarely have the opportunity to write it. Besides, the material that forms the basis for the present study is not in a fit state to be worked with. The facts are too recent and too alive; the ash in the crucible is too warm, it burns you when you touch it. The literature existing in Russia on the subject of the October Revolution bears the character of abundance rather than of richness. Memoirs, reports, notes, documents, fragmentary studies have been appearing in profusion. It must, however, be remarked that it is extraordinarily difficult to know what use to make of this immense documentation, excessively subordinated as it is to agitational aims: systematic studies, aiming to cover the whole field, are almost completely absent. The history of the parties, of the civil war, of the Red Army, of the terror, and of the various workers’ organizations has not been begun, even in outline. Apart from a few writings of a very summary description, not one serious history of the revolution has yet been published in the USSR (not that anybody should be surprised at this). The writers on military topics are the only ones who have undertaken any fundamental appraisal of at least some of the problems that interest them. In these circumstances, one has no alternative but to refer to the autobiographies of participants, which have serious faults. Even in the best cases, revolutionaries make only tolerable chroniclers; what makes matters worse is that they have usually set pen to paper for certain very restricted ends – commemoration at anniversaries, homage, polemic and even the deformation of history at the whim of certain momentary interests. The more specialized works, e.g. mono-graphs on local episodes, offer few indications of scientific worth. In turning to some use the bulk of this documentation, I have been mainly concerned to search in it for the significant particular. In order that the reader can be provided with concrete data for his own evaluation, I have provided details and quotations quite extensively. My sources have been indicated only when I was dependent on previous writings of genuine value, or when I felt that I should emphasize the authority of a particular witness, or, finally, with the aim of easing the reader’s own investigations into the period.

I intend to continue this work if I have any chance of doing so. I shall be particularly grateful to any readers who may like to write to draw my attention to this book’s deficiencies, or to any questions on which they would like some further enlightenment.

I shall now try to situate ‘The Year One’ in its context within the history of the revolution.

The Year One of the proletarian revolution, or of the Soviet Republic, begins on 7 November 1917 (25 October, Old Style) and ends, of course, on 7 November 1918, at the moment when the German revolution erupts. There is an almost perfect coincidence between the dates of the calendar and that first phase of the historic drama which starts with the victorious insurrection and ends with the spreading of the revolution to central Europe. In this period, we see the appearance, for the first time, of all the problems which the dictatorship of the proletariat is called upon to resolve: organization of distribution and production, internal and external defence, policy towards the middle classes, intellectuals and peasantry, the life of the party and the Soviets.

We shall call this first period the phase of proletarian conquest: it comprises the seizure of power, the conquest of territory, the mastery of production, the creation of State and army, the acquisition of the right to survive.

The German revolution marks the opening of the next phase, that of the international struggle (or more exactly, the armed defence, sometimes an aggressive defence, of the base of the inter-national revolution). In 1919, a ‘First Coalition’ is formed against the Soviet Republic. The Allies, finding the blockade insufficient to achieve their purposes, encourage the establishment of counter-revolutionary states in Siberia, Archangel, the south and the Caucasus. In October 1919, at the end of the Year Two, the Republic seems to be at death’s door, besieged by three White armies. Kolchak is marching on the Volga; Denikin has invaded the Ukraine and marches upon Moscow; Yudenich, with support from a British naval squadron, marches on Petrograd. By a miracle of energy, the Republic gains the victory. The famine, the invasions, the terror, the heroic, implacable, ascetic régime of ‘War Communism’ continue. In the following year the European coalition drives on Poland to attack the Soviets at the very moment when the end of the terror has been decreed. While the Second Congress of the Communist International is sitting in Moscow, the Red Army arrives at the gates of Warsaw and causes the threat of a new revolutionary crisis to cross Europe. This period ends in November-December 1920 with Wrangel’s defeat in the Crimea and the conclusion of peace with Poland. The civil war appears to be at an end; however, peasant insurrections and the Kronstadt rising give a brutal revelation of the gravity of the conflict between the Socialist régime and the peasant masses.

A third phase, which could be called that of economic reconstruction, opens in 1921 with the New Economic Policy (Nep for short), and ends in 1925-6 with the recovery of production to its pre-war level (admittedly with an increased population). We must briefly recall what Nep amounted to. The proletarian dictatorship found itself compelled, after the defeats of the European working class, to make economic concessions to the rural petty-bourgeoisie: the abolition of the State grain monopoly, freedom of trade, the toleration of private capitalism within certain limits. The Socialist State maintains all its commanding positions in the economic field, and makes no concessions in politics. This serious ‘retreat’ (the word is Lenin’s), undertaken to prepare a later progress towards Socialism, restores peace to the country and facilitates recovery. From 1925-6., onwards, the history of the proletarian revolution in Russia enters its fourth phase. Economic reconstruction is completed in five years after the end of the civil war, a remarkable accomplishment for a nation so severely depleted and then thrown back on its own resources. From this point on, the task is to enlarge production and match the productive level of the great capitalist powers. All the old problems present them-selves again in a fresh light. This is the phase of industrialization: resumption of struggle between the classes, growing more and more bitter; intensification of the evils of a proletarian revolution which is confined within national boundaries and surrounded by capitalist states. But now we are in the present, in life, in struggle. Nothing can form a better grounding for an appreciation of these recent issues than the knowledge of the revolution’s heroic beginnings, in which men were steeled, ideas were developed, institutions were moulded.

Since the events studied in this book, twelve years have passed. The proletarian Republic, founded by the insurrection of 7 November 1917, is still alive. In Russia the working class has shown itself capable of exercising power, of organizing the economy, of vanquishing its enemies within and without, and of persevering in its historic mission: all this in the most unpromising of conditions. All the uncertainties and errors of men, all the dissensions and political battles must not be allowed to blur this great fact, but rather emphasize it further in our eyes. The proletarian revolution is continuing. Upon all those whose class interests do not range them against the revolution, a double duty now falls: internally – that is, within the USSR and in the international revolutionary movement of workers – to serve the revolution by fighting the evils which afflict it, by learning to defend it against its own defects, by making every effort towards the ceaseless elaboration and practice of a politics inspired by the higher interests of the world proletariat; externally, to defend the first Workers’ Republic, to be vigilant for its security; and to note its deeds and its struggles with the aim of drawing those lessons which tomorrow, for other peoples, will throw light on the future paths of the world’s transformation.

Since the greater part of this book was written in the USSR, I must apologize for having been unable to use a number of important texts which have recently been published abroad. It has been. impossible for me to obtain them.

Victor Serge
January 1930

Last updated on: 4.2.2009