Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Victor Serge

Susan Weissman
Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope
Verso, London 2001, pp. 364, £22.00

VICTOR Serge was one of the most interesting characters in left-wing politics during the first half of the twentieth century, and it is telling that it is only now, over half a century since his death, that a full-length study of him has appeared. Serge has been frightfully overlooked at all points of the political spectrum. This is not surprising, as his heartfelt defence of the October Revolution put him beyond the pale of most social democrats and anarchists, his active participation in the Left Opposition did likewise with Stalinists, and his clashes with Trotsky and often heretical views led him to be looked on with suspicion by many if not most Trotskyists. Lastly, his marvellous fictional accounts of Soviet life have been sadly neglected in the Soviet studies arena in favour of greatly inferior works by Koestler and Solzhenitsyn, almost certainly because of Serge’s refusal to disavow Bolshevism.

The task of rescuing Serge from obscurity and putting him in his proper historical place has fallen largely to those on the left who stand in the tradition of Bolshevism and the Left Opposition but who maintain a respectable distance from ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism. Suzi Weissman has been a leading advocate of Serge for many years, and edited a valuable collection of essays on him, The Ideas of Victor Serge, Critique Books, 1999.

Weissman’s aim is to draw out the main trends of Serge’s politics and to comprehend his understanding of the degeneration of the Soviet regime into Stalinism. One of the key aspects of Serge’s political approach – at least from the late 1920s – was that democracy and socialism are inseparable, and that revolutionary socialists are obliged to have a strong moral basis for their political activity, not a morality based upon one sort or another of eternal norms, but one which can help form the basis of a communist society. Rotten means can pervert worthy end by starting off a process of moral corruption, and Serge pointed out that some of the methods used by the Bolsheviks in their desperate struggle for survival undermined their good intentions and helped to pave the way towards Stalinism. Weissman ably demonstrates this central aspect of Serge’s politics, and shows how his willingness to subject to criticism of some of the events of the earlier years of the Soviet republic – not least the suppression of Kronstadt in 1921 – led him to clash with Trotsky, and how their disagreements were exacerbated by Stalinist agents like Mark Zborowski into a full-blown breach.

However, there is a real problem in assessing Serge, in that we are, as Weissman notes, very reliant upon his memoirs in respect of what he thought and did during the crucial early years of the Soviet republic, as contemporary documentation is often limited or non-existent, or did not raise any criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ actions and theories from which he later demurred. We do not know what Serge thought at the time about ‘emerging authoritarian practices’, the Cheka, War Communism and the rise of bureaucratism and nationalism in the Soviet party-state apparatus. As a result, the reader is left wondering how much of Serge’s reminiscences coincided with his actual thoughts at the time. I agree with Weissman that Serge was an honest man, but one must take into account that in looking back he may well have unconsciously brought in nuances and adjustments to what he originally said and thought.

I do have a few criticisms of this book, many of which, mainly in respect of textual repetition, biographical details and explanatory notes, could have been put right with some judicious sub-editing. The most important problem, however, is political. Most readers will know of Serge’s letter to André Malraux in 1947 in which he assured the Gaulleist leader that he backed his movement. Weissman says that this was a ruse in order to get Malraux to help him enter France, and that Serge remained an intransigent socialist until his death. I am inclined to endorse Weissman’s opinion here, but we must also ask: what sort of socialist?

By his final exile in Mexico, Serge had come to view the Soviet Union as a totalitarian étatised society (this magazine ran one of his later pieces on this subject, Planned Economies and Democracy, Revolutionary History, Volume 5 no. 3). Serge’s views were by no means uncommon. From the early 1930s, commentators and analysts of various stripes and in many countries had been making comparisons between Stalinism and fascism, and, particularly after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 1939, the idea that Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were essentially identical social formations was expressed from the far left to the far right. Similarly, the idea that society as a whole, in its fascist, Stalinist and liberal democratic manifestations, was heading towards a collectivist future was commonplace with all manner of people, and many pages were also devoted to the topic of whether democracy of either a liberal or proletarian nature could survive in such an étatised world. Weissman shows that Serge was greatly concerned with these matters.

Serge shared with the postwar right-wing totalitarian theorists the idea that a totalitarian state was by its very nature expansionist. His left-wing variety of totalitarian theory held that the Soviet Union and Stalinism posed an especially pernicious threat to the prospects of socialism. It would not be a great move from there to see Stalinism as the main enemy in the world, and there is evidence, presented in Alan Wald’s piece in the Critique collection, that in certain respects Serge did think that. Julián Gorkín’s assertion that ‘Serge passed away just when we needed him most’ – in other words, when Cold War socialism required an intelligent and powerful apostate from revolutionary Marxism – cannot be written off as wishful thinking on his part. Serge died defending, in a critical manner to be sure, but definitely defending Marxism and the October Revolution, whilst at the same time expressing signs of Stalinophobia that could have pushed him into forsaking both that defence and the necessary political independence from both Stalinism and capitalism. He may not have slid into Cold War socialism, one hopes that he would have held fast against that, but Weissman’s rejection of the possibility of such an evolution is to me more a reflection of her wishes than of a dispassionate analysis.

I doubt if any readers of this journal would disagree with Weissman’s statement that ‘rediscovering the revolutionary but resolutely independent thought of Victor Serge contributes to the reconstitution of a usable past for a radically different future’, although some would agree with me that Serge’s political legacy is not as clear and uncomplicated as Weissman claims. Altogether, despite my criticisms, this book is valuable because, by and large, it ably presents the importance of Serge’s political approach and activity. Weissman clearly draws out the centrality of Serge’s insistence upon the essential interconnection between socialism and democracy. When one looks at the history of socialism, it is all to clear that many people claiming to be socialists have so often proved to be deficient when it came to the question of democracy. Here, we are not talking about social democrats, whose idea of democracy is no more than the limited scope of bourgeois parliamentarism, nor to the Stalinists, whose idea of democracy was of state-run plebiscites, but to the revolutionary left, Trotskyist or otherwise, whose organisational shenanigans and petty manoeuvrings would be tragic if they weren’t so funny. There is little of the genuinely human society envisaged by Marx in the nasty treatment of dissident members and the guru worship typical of so many left-wing groups. Serge realised more than most left-wingers that communism could not be realised through means and methods that degraded and demeaned people. Whatever his faults, that is something that all revolutionary socialists should take to heart.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011