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Victor Serge: The Worst of the Anarchists.

Victor Serge: The Worst of the Anarchists

Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: A Political Biography

London: Verso, 2013; 368pp; ISBN 978-1844678877

Victor Serge (1890-1947) is experiencing something of a revival. This is understandable, given the power of Serge's prose and the events and people he wrote about. A complete translation of his Memoirs of a Revolutionary was published in 2012, while collections of his earliest pro-Bolshevik writings (Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921) and discussions with Trotsky (The Serge-Trotsky Papers) appeared in 1997 and 1994 respectively. Now the paperback version of Susan Weissman's much praised biography of Serge has appeared.

Although a very well researched book, Weissman's biography does come across as an extended commentary on Serge's own Memoirs. This is its fundamental problem--Serge is self-serving and unreliable. Thus his later conclusion that the revolution dealt itself 'a self-inflicted death in 1918 with the establishment of the Cheka' (quoted, Serge p 7) is at odds with his comment that the 'success of a revolution requires the implacable severity of a Dzerhinsky', its ruthless head (Danger p 69). Similarly, claims that for Serge, Kronstadt was important because 'the Party had lied; a barrier had been broken' (Serge p 46) do not address his comments about 'the strenuous calumnies put out by the Communist Party' against Makhno (Memoirs p 143) nor that he distorted its programme to defend the regime (Papers p 18).

Ironically, Weissman refutes her own claims that 'Serge always saw democracy as an integral component of socialist development' and that it was the 'Stalinist scourge [which] nearly eradicated the notion that socialism is full democracy' by showing not only that 'full democracy' was eliminated under Lenin but also that the Opposition did not aim to re-introduce it (Serge pp 19, xvii).

She proclaims Serge 'a Left Opposition with an anarchist past' and fails to mention the differences between his politics and, say, Kropotkin's. This reflects a general ignorance of anarchism. She proclaims that Marxists have the advantage over anarchists because of their 'understanding of class, of individuals consciously acting in collectivities in the process of history'. As if this were not the revolutionary anarchist position since Bakunin! So if Serge came to 'see anarchism as a dead end as early as 1913' because of the individualistic antics of the Bonnot gang (Serge pp 4, 21, 19) then most anarchists had come to the same conclusion ... in the 1880s by repeating the ideas of Bakunin. (1) At least Serge admitted that most anarchists had 'advocated for many years class warfare' (Danger p 96)--although he did not mention his own rejection of this position.

Marxists, apparently, think 'freedom is indistinguishable from institutions of popular democracy, usually in the form of councils' while anarchists 'are wary of democratic institutions--even workers' councils--and tend to describe freedom in less concrete terms' (Serge p 13). That Proudhon and Bakunin, not Marx, had advocated workers' councils of elected, mandated and recallable delegates seems unknown to Weissman. Surely Proudhon's 'agricultural-industrial federation' and the revolutionary unions of Bakunin and Kropotkin are all institutions?

Serge was right that no anarchist 'can make any serious objection to the principle of soviet power' (Danger p 96) given that Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin had all envisioned precisely such organisations, but 'soviet power' in the Bolshevik lexicon means the power of a 'proletarian party, the organisation of the most hardened, most conscious revolutionary minority, which will in fact exercise the dictatorship before long'. (Papers p 21)

Serge asked who 'represented the higher interests of the toilers' (quoted, Serge p 45)--the party or the masses? He sided with the party. If, as Serge proclaimed to the anarchists, 'there can be no proletarian dictatorship without the effective and permanent supervision of the masses over institutions and people' then how can this exist under 'the dictatorship of a party? This exposes the nonsense of Serge's talk of 'the terrorism of the masses in times of civil war' (Danger pp 96, 103, 97)--the terrorism was that of the Cheka and Red Army against the masses:

Multitudes are sometimes under the sway of irrational instincts ... when these masses are weary or exhausted after long years of struggle ... leaders may appear to be standing firm against the masses' wish, and to be committing violence against them. But it is in these moments that the leaders embody the genuine higher interests of the masses ... (Papers pp 17-18)

If Serge was right and the Bolshevik revolution shows the weakness of the anarchist position then, to be consistent, Marxists must rip up Lenin's State and Revolution --but for some reason they do not. Instead we hear about Marxism being 'full democracy', 'the synonymity of Marxian socialism and democracy' and democracy being 'integral' to the revolutionary process. If so, then why was the Bolshevik regime socialist? If Serge did think 'democracy was a defining component of socialism' and 'at the heart of the socialist project' rather than an 'accessory of the revolutionary process' why did he argue the opposite? (Serge pp xvii, 50, xiii)

However, Weissman is right to note that the Bolsheviks' 'immediate goal' was not 'to establish a monopoly on state power' but it was for the party to seize state power and so it was not the civil war which 'led to their developing party power rather than soviet power'. She states that soviet democracy 'did not survive' the civil war yet it was eliminated before it started in May 1918 with the packing and disbanding of soviets by the Bolsheviks when they lost popular support. (2) Given this, her comment that the Bolshevik leadership had an 'underdeveloped commitment' to the soviets seems an understatement (Serge pp 29, xiv, xiii). In 1920 Serge argued that a democratic regime was impossible because the party 'cannot rely on the consciousness, the goodwill or the determination of those they have to deal with; for the masses... will be warped by the old regime, relatively uncultivated' and so 'revolutionaries will have to take on the dictatorship without delay'. The Russian Revolution 'reveals an energetic and innovative minority which is compelled to make up for the deficiencies in the education of the backward masses by the use of compulsion'. (Danger pp 92, 115)

Serge's account of the Second Congress of the Comintern (Memoirs p 125) does not mention Zinoviev's pronouncement on the necessity of party dictatorship. (3) This was not an aberration but rather a lesson for the world revolutionary movement and the ideological context of the Kronstadt rebellion, itself a product of strike waves across Russia. So it was not the case that 'civil war had almost wiped out the working class' (Serge p 84), for while the number of workers decreased they repeatedly took extensive collective action in the face of significant Bolshevik repression. (4)

Serge sided with the party dictatorship against Kronstadt, arguing that the country was too exhausted to allow soviet democracy and it would, inevitably, produce a counter-revolutionary dictatorship (Memoirs pp 150-51). For Weissman this showed he was 'rooted in concrete conditions' (Serge p 47). Not so: it points to a blissful unawareness of the reality of the Bolshevik regime. Yes, circumstances were bad, but bad policies inspired by bad politics had made the situation worse --from the moment the Bolsheviks seized power. (5) So while introducing soviet democracy may have produced an anti-socialist dictatorship, Serge could not admit he was supporting the anti-socialist dictatorship of the Bolsheviks and the continuation of a bureaucratic regime which would inevitably degenerate further.

So the notion that 'Serge became a Marxist because the Bolsheviks knew what to do next' (Serge p 19) is problematic, given what it actually wanted--party power over the councils is not a good thing, nor is a centralised 'state capitalist' economic regime.

It is ironic, though, to see Weissman complain that 'Stalinism has distorted Marxism to such a degree that when democratic, workers' control is put forward, it is immediately attributed to a syndicalist or anarchist throwback.' (Serge p 50) She fails to note that all the Stalinists had to do was quote Lenin on it while in Marx there is 'no discussion of such obviously important developments as workers' control' (p67). While anarchists have advocated industrial democracy since Proudhon's What is Property?, Marxists inherited the call by Marx and Engels 'to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State' and 'industrial armies, especially for agriculture'. Trotsky's militarisation of labour can hardly be blamed on Stalinism.

So it is hardly enough to be, like Serge, 'privately critical' of the degeneration of the revolution. How could it be 'bitter farce' if 'subsequent revolutions imitated the Bolshevik experience' (Serge pp 20, 38) when Serge argued that revolutionaries had no choice but to follow it right down to the necessity of party dictatorship?

Should we be surprised by how the Bolshevik revolution turned out? In a revealing passage, Serge recounts how he met a Bolshevik in a French prison who 'advocated a merciless dictatorship, suppression of press freedom, authoritarian revolution, and education on Marxist lines' (Memoirs p 74). Can we not conclude that Bolshevik ideology and the centralised structures it favoured played its role in how quickly the revolution degenerated in the face of the inevitable? Weissman avoids this, damning the libertarian critique by association by noting both sides in the Cold War argued 'early Bolshevism' was 'no different from mature Stalinism'. (Serge p xii)

No one would dispute his bravery in resisting Stalinist repression but it is simply not true that Serge's 'preoccupation with the masses, with democracy, with the question of freedom, was shared by other Left Oppositionists, particularly Trotsky'. Contrasting Serge to Trotsky in the 1920s, Weissman notes Serge 'consistently defended broad democratic rights both inside and outside the Party', yet earlier she admitted he 'had not advocated such broad democratic ideas in 1927'. Worse, after admitting that the Opposition just wanted 'inner-Party democracy' she then, on the very same page, asserts its programme 'featured working-class democracy'! (8) (Serge pp 20, 119, 98, 119) In reality, it proclaimed 'the Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party'. (9)

The Opposition did not really understand what went wrong, seeking party dictatorship while hoping, somehow, to avoid its inevitable outcome of bureaucracy. Yes, Trotsky did call for 'a multi-Party system' in 1936 but a year later he was back to the 'revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party' being 'an objective necessity'. (10) Two years later the dictatorship of the proletariat meant that the vanguard of the proletariat is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself (p11). Everyone is 'backward' compared to the vanguard and Serge was not shy in pointing this out in the 1920s. The 'bureaucracy' had not 'usurped power from the working class' under Stalinism--the Bolsheviks had done that long before. (Serge p 8).

The Opposition was no alternative, simply seeking to remain true to the Bolshevik tradition of (enlightened) party dictatorship. It is to another visitor to revolutionary Russia that we need to turn to, Emma Goldman. Unlike Serge, she was a communist-anarchist and so had the theoretical basis to learn its real lessons --that the masses, through their class organs of soviets, unions and co-operatives, had to manage their own revolution rather than supervise a party ruling in their name.

The tragedy of Serge is that his elitist background meant he failed to side with the working class, instead joining a new elite before, decades too late, recognising his errors and coming close to the communist-anarchist ideas he had never embraced. The lessons are clear--if anarchists are not well organised and do not take an active part in the class struggle then they will be overtaken by events. This is hardly new--Kropotkin argued this in French in the 1880s and in Russian in the 1900s--but it is important to reiterate. Let Serge be a warning and let us seek to learn from rather than, like the Trotskyists, rationalise, justify and so inevitably repeat the mistakes of the past.

(1.) Caroline Cahm Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872-1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

(2.) See section H.6.1 of An Anarchist FAQ (/Oakland: AK Press, 2012) vol. 2.

(3.) Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920 (New York: Pathfinder, 1991) vol. 1, p 152.

(4.) See section H.6.3 of An Anarchist FAQ vol. 2.

(5.) See section H.6.2 of An Anarchist FAQ vol. 2.

(6.) Maurice Brinton, 'The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control: The State and Counter-Revolution' (David Goodway (Ed.), For Workers' Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton (Edinburgh/Oakland: AK Press, 2004)

(7.) Bertell Ollman, 'Marx's Vision of Communism', Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich (Montreal, Black Rose: 1978), pp 65-66.

(8.) Serge also claimed that the Left Opposition supported workers' democracy (Memoirs, pp 293, 300) while elsewhere admitting it only demanded 'the restoration of inner-Party democracy' and 'never dared dispute the theory of single-party government'. (Papers, p 181)

(9.) The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-7) (New York: Pathfinder, 1980), p 395. Weissman, following Serge (Memoirs, p 144), also suggests the Workers' Opposition argued for union and soviet democracy (Serge, p 42) when it did no such thing. (Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State: The First Phase, 1917-1922 [New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965], p 294).

(10.) Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936-37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), pp 513-14.

(11.) 'The Moralists and Sycophants against Marxism', Their Morals and Ours (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), p 59.
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Title Annotation:Victor Serge: A Political Biography
Author:MacKay, Iain
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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