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Ian Birchall

The Serge-Trotsky Papers

(Autumn 1994)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 260–2.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

David Cotterill (ed.)
The Serge-Trotsky Papers
Pluto Press, London 1994, pp. 275, £14.95

IN the 1930s Leon Trotsky fought unceasingly to found a new International clearly based on firm revolutionary principles. The Fourth International when founded excluded Victor Serge, Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer – but included James Burnham.

The publication of The Serge-Trotsky Papers provides some new insights into the tangled and paradoxical politics of those years. The book was originally conceived by the late Peter Sedgwick, who did so much to promote the knowledge of Serge’s work in Britain. With commentaries by David Cotterill, Philip Spencer and Susan Weissman, the book contains the correspondence between Trotsky and Serge as well as related documents on Kronstadt, Spain and the Fourth International. Whilst Trotsky’s criticisms – sometimes stinging – of Serge were already known in the movement, this is the first time that Serge has been able to defend himself in his own words to an English audience.

The strength of all Serge’s writing is its grasp of the concrete, and his letters are a grim testimony to an age of defeat. Just escaped from Russia, Serge is haunted by the privations of those he has left behind in the so-called ‘workers’ state’. He writes to Trotsky of the fate of Lado Dumbadze, paralysed in both arms and unable to dress himself, but transferred from one place of deportation to another without medical care. He recalls how a copy of Trotsky’s My Life found its way to Moscow, and was passed from hand to hand; Serge had a single night in which to read it.

But the bleakness of the context did not blunt the polemic between Serge and Trotsky; on the contrary it made them both more determined to fight for the ideas they believed could offer a way out. David Cotterill tries to identify the roots of the differences between the two men as lying in their political origins, arguing that whilst Trotsky’s views were formed ‘within the Russian movement’, Serge’s were ‘imbued with the experience of Western movements’ (pp. 36–7).

But the evidence of the text is otherwise. Certainly Serge is correct in many of his detailed criticisms of the Trotskyist movement. Trotsky and his closest associates were not free from sectarianism, and many of his best writings are marred by a tone that is decidedly unhelpful. (The history of the movement since his death is littered with examples of those who had the tone but not the analysis.) And it is very arguable that it was a mistake to proclaim the Fourth International in 1938.

But the subsidiary errors must be seen in the context of Trotsky’s overriding concern with organisation. And despite the bankruptcy of his Fourth International as such, history has given the verdict to Trotsky. In those countries (France, Britain) where Trotskyism established a toehold in the 1930s, the post-1968 left has survived, battered but not destroyed; in those where Trotskyism was unable to implant itself (Germany, Italy), the post-1968 left evolved through Maoism to self-destruction, leaving the field open to the far right.

Against this, Serge’s organisational recipes are far from convincing; in 1939 he wrote to Trotsky:

The solution, I believe, lies in an alliance with all the left-wing currents of the workers’ movement … in free, comradely discussion of every issue, without abuse and mutual recriminations; in the creation of an International Bureau of committees and similar bodies … one must abandon the idea of Bolshevist-Leninist hegemony in the left-wing workers’ movement, and create an international alliance … (p. 109)

The sentiments are pleasingly libertarian, but the historical record of such ‘alliances’ is not good. (By coincidence, as I write this, a copy of Red Pepper has fluttered through my front door.)

In practice, Serge confined himself to recommending Trotsky to work with some of the revolutionary Syndicalists of the older generation. Serge, of course, remembered that in the founding of the French Communist Party the revolutionary Syndicalists had been the best elements – better by far than most of those coming from the alleged mass workers’ party of the SFIO. But whilst many of those mentioned were fine militants, it was clear that, in the absence of a new upsurge, they had little to offer.

The other key area of difference was the question of the Popular Front, and in particular, the Spanish Revolution. Serge aligned himself closely with the POUM, whilst Trotsky continued to see it as the ‘chief obstacle’ (p. 148) to the building of a revolutionary party. Behind this lay Serge’s lack of clarity on the question of Popular Frontism. He argued that if the working class ‘exerts enough pressure on the Popular Front, the latter can be a useful transitional form which will allow the workers to enter the later phases of the struggle with greater possibilities’ (p. 84). Serge’s instinct is clearly to ensure that Trotskyists do not stand aside when the class is in action, but the political logic is very dubious (rather like that of those who argue that the only way to relate to the Labour Party is to enter it). As for Serge’s slogan ‘transform the Popular Front from an instrument of class collaboration into an instrument of class struggle’, it is like demanding the transformation of a rat into a horse: the Popular Front is class collaboration.

The Serge-Trotsky Papers is a profoundly sad book. In reading the correspondence, from its initial warmth to its final acrimony, it is impossible not to wish for a Hollywood-style conclusion where Leon and Victor embrace and walk together into the sunset. In a more favourable conjuncture two such acute and dedicated revolutionaries could have complemented each other in the ranks of a mass movement. They are both part of our tradition.

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