Victor Serge: towards freedom
On the Bolshevik who defended democracy and individual liberty.
‘Who was Victor Serge?’, asks Susan Weissman at the beginning of her compelling exploration of his life and thought, Victor Serge: A Course Set on Hope (re-issued in 2013 as Victor Serge: A Political Biography). Her answer is suitably breathless:
‘A worker, a militant, an intellectual, an internationalist by experience and conviction, an inveterate optimist, and always poor, Victor Serge [a pen name for Victor Lvovich Kibalchich] lived from 1890 to 1947. He took part in three revolutions, spent a decade in captivity, published more than 30 books and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence and articles. He was born into one political exile, died in another, and was politically active in seven countries. His life was spent in permanent political opposition. Serge opposed capitalism – first as an anarchist, then as a Bolshevik. He opposed Bolshevism’s undemocratic practices and then opposed Stalin as a Left Oppositionist. He argued with Trotsky from within the anti-Stalinist left; and he opposed fascism and capitalism’s Cold War as an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist.’
And he was something else, too: he was a radical democrat, a convinced humanist, indeed a thinker and activist who preserved and cultivated elements of Marxism long submerged beneath the dead weight of Stalinism.
For Weissman, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College of California, Serge’s life and work has been an inspiration ever since, as a graduate at the University of Glasgow in the mid-1970s, she spent a long train journey immersed in Serge’s seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary: 1901-1941. Her intellectual and political passions piqued, she began researching Serge’s work, delving into the reams of unpublished and untranslated material, and even getting to know his children, Vlady and Jeannine Kibalchich, and some of Serge’s surviving friends and associates. All this has provided Weissman with an unparalleled insight into Serge’s work and perhaps even his world.
The spiked review spoke to Weissman about Serge and his relationship to the event that was to define his life – the Russian Revolution. Here’s what she had to say.
Leaving anarchism behind
Serge came from a family of anti-tsarist émigrés then residing in Brussels, so, unsurprisingly, his early life was spent in a milieu dominated by socialists and anarchists. He left Brussels in 1909, moved to Paris, but continued to mix in anarchist circles. It’s in 1913 that his allegiances start to shift, after he was arrested and named as the ringleader (which he wasn’t) of the Bonnot Gang, a group of French anarchists who used cars and repeating rifles to carry out several high-profile bank robberies in and around Paris. He was not only given a five-year prison sentence, but placed in solitary confinement for several months. And he came to the conclusion that while he sympathised with the Bonnot Gang’s goals, he didn’t approve of their means, and he especially criticised their use of violence. Nevertheless he paid the price of his association with a trumped-up conviction. Of the Bonnot Gang, Serge memorably quipped that they wanted to be revolutionaries, but they were only rebels.
He was expelled from France upon his release from prison in 1917, and headed to Spain, where he moved from an anarcho-individualist sensibility to an anarcho-syndicalist one. But he was still not convinced by anarchism. In the summer of 1917, he was involved in an uprising in Spain that could well have been a revolution but he found the anarchists, as he put it, ‘manifestly unprepared’ for assuming power. Serge said that the costs for not being prepared were very high, and it was a cost measured in blood. At the same time as he saw the weaknesses of the anarcho-syndicalists, of their inability to seize control, he was also in a position to see the strengths of the Russian revolutionaries who were organising successfully and democratically, from the bottom up. So while the Spanish anarchists were unprepared, the Bolsheviks most definitely were prepared.
First impressions of the revolution
Most people think that Serge was there for the revolution, but that wasn’t the case. He had tried to get to Russia through France in 1917, but, having violated the conditions of his expulsion order by returning to France, he was flung in prison once again, only to be released in late 1918. This is what makes his wonderful book Year One so unique in Serge’s oeuvre – it is his only book that he wrote not as a witness, but more as a reporter, historian, scholar.
He finally arrived in Russia in February 1919, which was, effectively, year two of the revolution, 15 months or so after the Bolshevik revolution. The reality he encountered was not what he expected. He was struck by just how cold it was – everything was freezing. He expected to be met in revolutionary Russia by this ferment of ideas, of discussion, but instead, as he put it, he found a ‘world frozen to death, a metropolis of cold, of hunger, of hatred, of endurance’. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been as shocked as he was, having arrived during the civil war, but, still, his disappointment was marked. He had expected to find something much livelier, vivacious, but he arrived when the revolution was being attacked.
Yet Serge was the kind of person who lives concretely. He never tried to idealise objective conditions. He understood them, and worked with them, and moved forward from there. There was to be no giving up on the revolution just because he had arrived to find so many hungry and cold. He used to say that even though the conditions were dire, the people he met still asked him, ‘You’ve just come from France – what are the French workers waiting for? When are they going to seize power?’ So their energy and conviction was enough to keep him going.
Serge’s son Vlady was often asked what his family thought of Lenin, and he would say, depending on the crowd, ‘I peed on him’, or ‘I shat on him’.
Serge’s wife, Liuba, you see, was Lenin’s stenographer. Lenin would come to the Serges’ house, and she would take down Lenin’s dictation, while little Vlady, who was about a year or so old, was crawling and walking around the apartment with no diaper on (the Serges probably couldn’t afford them). And one time Lenin picked him up, despite Serge urging him not to, shouting ‘no, no, no’. But it was too late — Vlady proceeded to pee all over Lenin.
So both Victor and Liuba knew Lenin well. Serge was immensely impressed with him – especially his humility and honesty, his man-of-the-people character. He didn’t use flowery words; he spoke clearly and concretely, and always to the conditions. Serge even wrote a biography of Lenin, which is yet to be translated into English. It was written during the period when Serge was most wedded to the party, so it’s full of the slightly excessive praise of the party you’d expect. But the most important aspect of Lenin that Serge draws out, and that he saw in the Bolsheviks in general, was their unity of word and deed.
Up until that point, revolutionaries would always talk of what they were going to do in the future: the social democrats passed resolutions; and the anarchists talked about power. But none of them actually tried to implement, or was able to implement, what was promised as the future, to carry out and to create a programme, and then act on it. So the fact that the Bolsheviks united, dialectically, thought and action, word and deed, was tremendously important to Serge.
It was also the first time Serge had seen a revolutionary party, one that was committed, in the first instance, to democracy from below, even though it was organised centrally, given the conditions prevalent at the time. And it was a party that had a theory – of revolutionary Marxism – which greatly impressed Serge in its rigour and insight.
On the relationship between Bolshevism and Stalinism
Serge saw Stalinism as a complete overturning of Marxism. It was a betrayal of everything that Marxism stood for. But he also knew that Stalinism couldn’t be blithely dismissed away in this manner, as simply un-Marxist; rather, there were connections to be explored. As he famously put it: ‘The authoritarian centralisation of the party contained the seeds of Stalinism as a whole, but revolution and Bolshevism also contained other seeds, notably that of a new democracy which Lenin and others endeavoured to establish with good will and passion in 1917/18.’
I think that’s really important. Serge’s analysis and critique of Stalinism is the core of his life, and it’s the reason why I wrote Victor Serge: A Course Set on Hope. I wanted to understand how it was that this wonderful experiment could go so badly wrong, and someone like Stalin could end up on top, and literally exterminate the revolutionary generation. And that’s what Serge was trying to find out, too.
Serge did not embark on an ahistorical critique. He rooted everything in the concrete conditions that, step by step, the Bolsheviks encountered. And he showed, at the same time, what could have been done instead. Take the establishment of the Cheka (the secret police force that was to become the KGB) in December 1917, which Serge called ‘one of the gravest and most impermissable errors’ made by the Bolshevik leaders. He said that the ‘revolution died a self-inflicted death’ with the creation of the Cheka, calling it an ‘inquisition’. But then he also tried to explain why it happened, too. The very word ‘Cheka’ – which designated an ‘extraordinary commission’ – shows it was meant to be a temporary commission, established in the extraordinary conditions of the civil war to combat the White Terror, and that it was never intended to last beyond the civil war. But that didn’t happen. Moreover, the first thing the Cheka started to do wrong was to arrest and execute people in secret, when, as Serge argued, public trials were the only possible guarantee against arbitrary and corrupt actions.
If the Cheka was the first big black mark against the revolution, the second was the evisceration of the soviets during the civil war. (Remember that ‘soviet’ is simply the Russian word for council, and the soviets in this case were full-blown councils of communism. For Serge, the sign of a healthy revolution was whether or not you had these authentic organs of democratic control from below.)
Serge saw the Russian Revolution, the emergence of the soviets, and with them the development of democracy, as the high point of human development. You get a sense of the hope Serge invested in the revolution, the moral joy it inspired, in the opening section of Memoirs of a Revolutionary:
‘Leaving the void and entering the kingdom of will … where life is beginning anew, where conscious will, intelligence, and an inexorable love of mankind are in action. Behind us, all Europe is ablaze, having choked almost to death in the fog of its own massacres. Barcelona’s flame smoulders on. Germany is in the thick of revolution, Austro-Hungary is splitting into free nations. Italy is spread with red flags … This is only the beginning.’
In the film Reds about American Communist John Reed, director (and star) Warren Beatty has this one guy say back in New York, ‘Oh, the Bolshevik Revolution! Down with the Tsar. I danced through the streets of New York all night long.’ And I think Serge is saying something like that, that the revolution acted like a magnet for those with radical hopes. It inspired those who had invested so much in the idea of socialism, and it had happened in the most unlikely of places – Russia.
What impressed Serge, who had been in prison and then a concentration camp when the Bolshevik revolution happened, was that it was organised so democratically. He found, on further investigation, that far from the Bolshevik Party being the sort of centralised, authoritarian body that it became, it involved this constant give and take with the workers. Indeed, it was the workers in the soviets calling the shots, fashioning the party to be the party they needed to move forward.
And Serge recognised this; Trotsky recognised this; and Lenin did more or less. It’s really interesting, if you look at some of the writings during this intensely democratic phase, that Serge and Trotsky both saw the soviets as the embryo of the new society – of the organisation of socialism. And so the soviets were much more than just councils for Serge and Trotsky.
Lenin said the soviets were the tools of the revolution, so he was committed to them, but not in the same fundamental way in which Serge and Trotsky were. They saw democracy at the heart of the project, and that’s what you saw in the Russian Revolution, in February, and then in Lenin’s April Theses and then again in the taking of power in October.
On individual liberty
Towards the end of his life, Serge wrote: ‘The only problem which revolutionary Russia, in all the years from 1917 to 1923, utterly failed to consider was the problem of liberty.’ Serge always recognised and emphasised what Rosa Luxemburg had said; namely, that democracy, indeed, freedom, is only meaningful when it is reserved for not just yourselves, but your enemies, too. Dissent was, and is, the critical component in any democracy. Without dissent, you can’t really have democracy. And at this point, when he was reflecting on the problem of liberty in the Russian Revolution, when democracy had been choked, he thought he was about to disappear into the gulag, and he wanted this idea to be preserved in the annals of revolutionary thought: that you have to fight for the preservation of independent inquiry, independent thought, and independent criticism, and that this at the very core of the idea of liberty. It is important to stress how important liberty was to radical, left-wing thought, because, today in the US, it has tended to be appropriated by the right to mean little more than free enterprise.
This sense that the revolution and socialism was to be the opening up of thought, the flowering of freedom, transfixed Serge. And of course he blamed the party, and he blamed Stalin, for its extinguishing, but he also blamed Lenin, too. A door had been opened to repression, and the crushing of liberty and democracy, because of the organisation that in some ways had been imposed upon the Bolsheviks in the civil war.
It ought to be said again that Serge was very careful to avoid a kind of with-hindsight critique that failed to take into consideration the conditions in which the Bolsheviks operated during the civil war. He did see the need not to be so lenient with the Whites, given the Whites had started shooting the Reds. He even saw the need to curtail democracy temporarily. But what was terrible was what happened afterwards. The habits that had been built up, because of the conditions of conflict they had acceded to during the civil war, were turned into virtues and became the norm. So this was a critical problem, and Serge saw the choking of democracy as the worst outcome from this period of the revolution.
Later, he saw another problem: people succumbing to party patriotism. There was this idea that the party was always right, that it was the only game in town. So if you criticised the party, in some way you were being unfaithful to the entire revolutionary process. And he saw that as one of the key problems, and one of the key reasons that they couldn’t properly organise against Stalinism.
The optimism of the will
Some of Serge’s writing is very dark, especially his last novel, Unforgiving Years. But Serge had this irrepressible hope, indeed, this certainty that humans will always struggle for something better, and that this is part of what it means to be human. And eventually this fight to force the economy to be at the service of the community and not the community to be at the service of the economy would be won. He said that even the deaths of him and his old comrades would be the seeds that generate the new harvests of revolution. So Serge managed to hold on to this perspective, this vision: that humans were going to struggle for their autonomy, for their freedom and for their collective future.
And it was this vision that sustained him through incredible hardship. It wasn’t just the Stalinist turn of the revolution that made life so dark. Serge was hungry. He was poor. In Mexico, his wife was very probably unfaithful, so he must have felt incredibly alone. But he still wrote these books that showed an incredible optimism for the future.
On Serge the man
Having spent quite a bit of time with Serge’s son and daughter when writing Victor Serge, I do have an idea now of Serge the man. They always talked of his dignity. Even when Serge and his family had been deported to Orenburg in the 1930s, a period when they barely had anything, he would always make sure he was shaven and wearing a clean white shirt – he never allowed his personal appearance to reflect the dire conditions in which he and his family were living.
His children idolised him. As a father, he educated his children himself, making sure that they spent a part of their day reading literature and poetry, and another part learning to draw, and to appreciate music. No doubt, this was the education he had received from his parents, because he himself never actually went to school, or not for very long.
Serge once lost his temper with his daughter, and slapped her, I think. And what his daughter remembers was his utter remorse afterwards, and his promise that he would never lose his temper or patience with her again. And, as she herself would have admitted, she could be very difficult, but he kept that promise.
From those who knew him, you get a strong sense of Serge’s generosity, his comradeliness. Unsurprisingly, and this is telling, his friends were absolutely devoted to him.
Susan Weissman is a professor of politics at St Mary’s College of California. She is the author of Victor Serge: A Political Biography, published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)