Ideological Discussions by Victor Serge 1944
Source: Carnets (1936-1947), Agone, Marseilles 2012;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
Translator’s note: While in Mexico Serge’s vision of Marxism and the working class movement evolved greatly. He had abandoned anarchism feeling it had failed to evolve, and by the mid-40’s felt that Marxism required serious revision and couldn’t continue repeating the same formulas in the same language. His battle was a lonely one, and left him with few friends or allies. His Notebooks continue several important entries outlining his views. This is one of the clearest of them.
September 13, 1944 – Second meeting of the Commission of Independent Socialist Groups for the study of the proposed political document elaborated by Marceau Pivert, Gironella, and Wilebaldo Solano. It’s a kind of extremely basic Communist Manifesto, recycling all the old phrases of the genre. I harshly criticize it, thinking that texts of this kind can do nothing but discredit the handful of men who take responsibility for it. I'm listened to with interest and suppressed rage. I say that we no longer improvise with these documents, that every term, every idea must be revised in the face of new realties and launched in the middle of a hurricane. A confused and rather painful discussion. In passing I say that the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier-Paysan completely melted away at the beginning of the war. Marceau Pivert, visibly upset, affirms that “it exists and is a force,” saying he’s better informed than I, he who left France before the war... I point out that it’s false to write that in a bourgeois democracy the working class has only its chains to lose, and that it enjoys – in Europe enjoyed – real well-being and real freedoms. M.P. speaks of the malnutrition of the masses in France before the war! I say that the nature of the state is changing and that it is no longer “the armed band of one class for the domination of another,” according to Engels, except under the totalitarian regimes. The modern state is also the organization of communication, schools, public hygiene, etc. Indignation on the part of M.P., Gironella, and Jean Malaquais. For a moment I feel they're going to accuse me of treason!
I point out unintelligent naivetés like “the total organization of the world;” of comical incoherencies like the affirmation of the “complete sovereignty” of all the peoples of the colonies, the rejection of “every notion of tutelage over them,” and the proposal of providing them “economic, moral, and armed assistance"(!!!). No one says anything much in response, but I see that I offend sentiments that can only find expression in this impoverished phraseology. (My thesis: that the emancipation of the peoples of the colonies can only be the result of close collaboration with the socially reorganized industrial countries – the metropoles- on march towards greater justice and humanism... Coldly received without debate.) Narcís Molins i Fabregàs* says that “we want to act” and not only “engage in academic discussions, even interesting ones.” What action if not that of typewriters and ideas: aren’t correct viewpoints also acts in a certain sense? Finally, J.M. reproaches me for not talking about the “proletariat and the dictatorship of the proletariat!” (Has he ever spoken of them himself? That’s another story.) At a moment in the discussion I felt exactly as if I was in a cell of the Russian CP in 1927 when we refuted the already bloody stupidities of the clamor for “socialism in one country” and denounced the ongoing Thermidor. This is how matters were discussed: I said: “I say this is a white saucer; I didn’t say it’s a blue saucer, I didn’t say it’s a black carafe, I said it’s a white saucer!” During that period Bukharin recommended writing everything down and not entrusting the paper to your opponent! The psychological phenomenon of the politburo repeats itself to infinity. (At bottom: idealists hemmed in by the sclerosis of doctrines and circumstances, and dominated by their convictions and emotional sentiments; in short, by fanaticism. Under such conditions the person who disturbs the inner security of the others is a hateful heretic.) Molins i Fabregàs, Gorkin, and Pivert reproach me for putting in doubt convictions that they for their part don’t put in doubt, from which their feeling of superiority.
The heart of the debate, independent of the poor quality of the text proposed:
Their extremely optimistic and schematic conviction that the Russian Revolution will soon be repeated in Europe. “The workers will occupy the factories (Pivert), they'll take power (Gironella), etc.” Then the European revolution will form a socialist federation.... New cadres will be formed everywhere, the underground resistance movements are already demonstrating the power of the masses... The Spaniards think they'll be in Spain in six months at the head of a great movement. M.P.: “The PSOP fights on!” and takes out a press clipping attesting that in an underground leaflet our friends in Lyon advocated “the formation of a Red Army” in France, which is the height of absurdity: in their powerlessness, and at the risk of their lives, they play into the hands of the reactionaries and the Stalinists.
My theses: that this war is profoundly different from that of 1914-1918, which it is the continuation of, and that it entails elements of international civil war. (Strong protests by M.P.) – That the economic structure of the world has changed, traditional capitalism making way for a planned and directed economy, thus collectivist in tendency, which could be that of monopolies and totalitarian parties – or democracies of a new type, if the latter succeed in being born. (Strong protest by M.P.) – That the defeats of European socialism can’t solely be imputed to the failures of leaders, though this counts, but is rather explained by the decadence of the working class and socialism as a result of modern technology (chronic unemployment, déclassement of the unemployed, immense increase in the productive capacity of machinery with less need for workers; increased influence of technicians). (M.P. rejects these views as a whole without attempting to refute them, and to speak of a weakening of the working classes as a class seems to all of them to be a sacrilege. What can I do about this if it’s the truth? A good Old Bolshevik, one of those who expelled and arrested us before himself being executed, would answer me: There is no truth that can prevail over the interests of the party.) – That we are well and truly carried along by the current of an immense revolution, but that there will not be a repeat of the Russian Revolution unless as secondary episodes. That socialism must renounce the ideas of worker dictatorship and hegemony and become the representative of the large numbers of people in whom a socialist-leaning consciousness is germinating, one obscure and without a doctrinal terminology. – That what’s essential in the immediate period would be the obtaining of traditional democratic freedoms, which is the precondition for the rebirth of the workers’ and the socialist movements. That we must try to leave behind the void we currently inhabit, seek the support and sympathy of the democratic masses wherever they are, make ourselves understood by them, and bring our ideas up to date. – That Stalinism, which molded and nourished the armed Resistance movements in France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and elsewhere, constitutes the worst danger, a mortal danger which we would be mad to aspire to fight on our own. – That the years to come will be years of confused struggles in which the socialist movement cannot but be reborn. – That it must seek influence on the terrain of democracy, in the Constituents and everywhere, and accept many compromises with intransigence of spirit. – That if the socialist left muddles along in extremism without influence, with a language hardly intelligible to people, and an out of date ideology dating from 1920, the Stalinists will manufacture a false socialism, flexible and unscrupulous, that could well bear it away.
Whatever I might say, agreement is impossible and discussion difficult and sterile. Those possessed of inner flexibility will change beneath the cudgel blows of events; the rest will vegetate in groupuscules on the margin of life (which offers many satisfactions), or will be crushed.