Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Victor Serge, Notes d’Allemagne (1923), (edited by Pierre Broué), La Breche, Paris, 1990, pp 213, 90F

At the end of 1921 Victor Serge, pessimistic about developments in Russia, asked for an assignment in Central Europe where, he believed, the fate of the revolution would be decided. Among his duties he wrote regularly for the Comintern press on events in Germany. For many years it was not known that articles signed by R. Albert (quoted in books on the German Revolution by Broué and Harman) were in fact by Serge.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Serge’s son Vlady and Broué, his articles for Correspondance internationale, Bulletin communiste and Clarté, covering mainly the period July to December 1923, have been gathered together in book form.

The brief articles collected here are up-to-the-minute descriptions, but thanks to Serge’s perceptiveness, they are valuable raw material for anyone seeking to understand the failure of the German Revolution. With his eye for concrete detail, Serge vividly recreates the effects of inflation; the salary that evaporates in the two days before it is paid, and the rising suicide rate. And he equally notes the huge dividends received by the rich, adding that the figures “are doctored in order not to give too much of a shock to people with no bread and no shirt who still read the newspapers” (p.36).

He also observes that in such a situation the state machine will begin to crack because of the effects of the crisis on the people who make up that machine. He describes the misery of women who have been queuing for days in the cold for a bit of margarine, but also notes the “inevitable policeman ... bad-tempered and fed up at being ashamed of his job. Perhaps his wife is there with the other women ...” (p.126).

On his own testimony Serge was one of the first in the Comintern to take the threat of Fascism seriously. At the beginning of 1923 Hitler was still so obscure that Serge could mistakenly refer to him as “Colonel Hitler”. But he traces Hitler’s role during the year, financed by big capital (including Henry Ford), but ditched as soon as the revolutionary threat had subsided. By the end of the year Hitler was in prison since “heavy industry doesn’t need civil war” (p190). But he also prophesies that Hitler is not finished. And he notes the success of the KPD in holding debates with the Fascists and winning over their rank and file – a reminder that refusal to debate with Fascists is not a question of timeless historical principle.

It would be wrong to expect a book like this to answer the major questions about the failure of the German Revolution. Serge was writing in the heat of struggle, and as a committed militant he could not write anything that would undermine the struggle until it was over (in some ways a comparable situation to the last months of the miners’ strike in 1985). Some of his judgements may, in retrospect appear too optimistic. And on 26 October he categorically denies reports that the Hamburg rising was Communist-led: “Our party rejects isolated and partial actions, which are easily suppressed and weaken and debilitate revolutionary preparation” (p.131). (In a note Broué speculates as to whether Serge was lying to protect the Hamburg comrades, or whether he was genuinely misled. There is a third possibility – a veiled, ironic criticism of his own comrades.)

In one of the last articles – written for the French journal Clarté (close to, but not controlled by, the PCF) – Serge recognises that the opportunity had been missed, and calls far “constant, vigorous, intensive self-criticism” (p.191). Unfortunately, in Zinoviev’s International he was not to get it.

As Serge notes in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the crisis of leadership must be understood partly as an expression of the crisis of popular consciousness. In his reports Serge helps us to see why, in a situation where the social order was visibly rotting, the working class failed to reach revolutionary consciousness.

Firstly, he notes the effects of continuing food shortages; by the autumn workers were simply “too hungry to fight” (p.171). Marxists are sometimes too anxious to avoid lapsing into ‘vulgar materialism’ and miss such points.

Secondly, he points to the treacherous role of the Social Democrats. Certainly there was a massive upheaval in the SPD ranks – SPD full-timers in Leipzig demanded the expulsion of Ebert from the party. But, he notes, even the “left Social Democrats are only revolutionaries in spite of themselves” (p.136), and the KPD underestimated the continuing grip of Social Democracy.

In the 1920s Serge wrote prolificly for a range of publications. Often his positions at the time differed sharply from his later judgements (as over Kronstadt). Yet Serge’s peculiar blend of commitment and detachment made him an invaluable witness. Hopefully the renewed interest in Serge produced by the forthcoming centenary will lead to more of his journalism being collected in book form.

Ian Birchall

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003