Review: Victor Serge – The Course is Set on Hope by Susan Weissman

A socialist activist in several countries, revolutionary journalist par excellence, novelist, and poet – Victor Serge was a man of huge talents. During his extraordinary life (1890-1947), Serge graduated from youthful anarchism to Bolshevism. He took part in revolutions and spent a decade in captivity. He worked as a valuable propagandist for the Comintern (Communist International) in Moscow. Later, he collaborated closely with Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in a life and death struggle against the rise of the murderous Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. For this principled opposition, Serge was imprisoned and exiled by Stalin, eventually settling in Mexico where he died in poverty.

Serge is best known for his writings. He left behind an enormous archive of published and unpublished books, articles, correspondence, polemics and essays concerning the momentous political events during his lifetime. His first hand accounts of the Russian Revolution and the failed 1923 German revolution are brilliant examples of the creative fusion of journalist and socialist activist.

He also displayed remarkable fiction writing abilities. His series of novels acutely captured the effects of revolution and counter-revolution on the lives of a multitude of characters, and for this are unique in world literature.

Like all other genuine revolutionaries Serge of course made mistakes. As his period in exile and isolation in the 1930s and 1940s illustrated, these errors were sometimes of a serious political character. Trotsky was forced to take up his pen against the often contradictory and confused ideas of his old friend.

However, it would be wrong to allow these mistakes to completely determine Serge’s legacy. On the contrary, his life’s work and activities are distinguished by great integrity and honesty. He always displayed genuine commitment to the cause of the working class. He was an incorruptible and highly cultured working class socialist fighter and artist. He stands as an inspiration to the new generation of socialist fighters.

The recent publication of Susan Weissman’s book, Victor Serge – The course is set on hope (Verso, 2001), is therefore a very welcome event. It should be read by all socialists and radical anti-capitalist youth, and by anybody who wants to comes to grips with one of the seminal events of twentieth century history – the October 1917 Russian Revolution and the Stalinist counter revolution.

Over the last ten years, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in Serge’s life, works and ideas. This has arisen for a number of reasons, including the centenary of his birth, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A ‘Victor Serge Memorial Library’ has been established in Moscow and his texts are now at last being published in the land of the October Revolution. Meanwhile, new editions of his books are appearing in the West.

Undoubtedly, the rise of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement has generated the search by radical youth for a non-Stalinist socialist alternative to capitalism. Sections of the Left and anti-capitalist movement correctly cite Victor Serge as an inspiring historic figure who bravely fought both capitalism and Stalinism. A careful reading of Serge, in conjunction with the rich works of Leon Trotsky – who Serge always considered a giant of the Marxist movement, along with Lenin – provide indispensable lessons to socialists and anti-globalisation protesters.

From anarchism to Bolshevism

Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (he did not adopt the name Serge until 1917) was born in Belgium on December 30, 1890. His parents were émigré Russian intellectuals who fled repression following the assassination of Czar Alexander II by Narodnik terrorists in 1881.

At the age of 17 years, Kibalchich/Serge became involved with the Belgian Young Socialists. But he soon became disgusted with their "electoralism, corruption and opportunism". Kilbach/Serge and his friends then turned to anarcho-syndicalism because in contrast to the reformist social democrats it appeared to offer "a lifestyle that matched its principles".

He was forced to flee to France where he worked as an editor of the small weekly, ‘Anarchie’, and became associated with the ‘Bonnet gang’. This group of desperate anarchistic youth embarked on a series of bank robberies. Serge was revolted by the senseless slaughter, but following his arrest as ‘accomplice’ to the gang he would not turn informer on his former associates. After a sensational court trial, Serge was sentenced to five years in prison. His first novel, Men in Prison (1930), was written partly in order to purge himself of this terrible experience of incarceration.

Released in 1917, Serge was ordered to leave French soil immediately. He went to Barcelona, which was in the throes of class turmoil. He evolved from anarchist individualism to syndicalism, and took part in street fighting in Barcelona in June 1917. This episode was fictionalised by Serge in the novel, Birth of Our Power (1931).

The year 1917 however was to be decisively marked by the momentous events taking place far away in Russia. Serge closely studied the revolution unfolding there and was immediately attracted to the role of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin. He saw in the Bolsheviks the cohesive, disciplined force needed to change society, and set about attempting to travel to Russia to play his part in the struggle for working class power.

The rapid political evolution Serge went through in these few years provide important lessons for today. The collapse of the ex-Soviet Union and East European Stalinist states in the late 80s and early 90s led to widespread ideological confusion amongst the working class. Given the subjective weakness of genuine Marxism on a world level, a vacuum has opened up into which all sorts of ideas, such as anarchism and ‘anti-party’ moods, can gain a foothold, at least for a period. ‘Individualism’ and anarchistic ideas are today prevalent amongst sections of anti-capitalist and radical youth.

But if we examine Serge’s political trajectory in the years 1908-1917, we see that on the basis of sharp political and theoretical debate, his experiences with anarchism and individual terrorism, and, most importantly, in the context of huge class struggles, he correctly concluded the superiority of Marxist ideas and organisation. He understood that Bolshevism derived its strength in patiently preparing for revolutionary events by developing a base amongst the working class. Political programme, ideas, theory, and tactics and strategy, flowed from what was in the interests of the working class and oppressed as a whole. Bolshevism rejected all forms of adventurism, individual terrorism, and ultra Left ideas.

Serge was unable however to immediately join up with the Bolsheviks. On his mission to Russia he found himself interned in a French concentration camp, as a "Bolshevik suspect". Later, he was exchanged for a French officer war prisoner, and sent to Russia. He finally arrived in Petrograd in 1919 at the height of the Civil War and famine.

Fighter for world revolution

Serge immediately offered up his talents to the young, embattled Soviet government. During the struggle against capitalist intervention, he carried out an incredible number of important functions: serving in a special defence battalion, teaching in schools for workers, writing and translating many manifestos, and as a commissar he was in charge of investigating Czarist police archives. During this period, he wrote a book on Soviet literary life and also translated into French a number of works by Lenin and Trotsky.

Most significantly, although not yet a member of the Bolshevik Party, Serge was asked to help in the founding of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 and worked in its secretariat.

Characteristically, Serge joined the Communist Party after months of discussions with various political tendencies. He found the Bolsheviks "sincere, honest and possessed of bitterly clear vision" (page 22).

By 1922, Serge could sense the dangers to the revolution in Russia. He believed that only by spreading the revolution to the West could Soviet democracy survive and socialism triumph. In 1923 he became a member of the Left Opposition, which organised against the early rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The bureaucracy gained strength in conditions of backwardness, famine, and economic collapse. The working class was exhausted and decimated by war, revolution and civil war.

As a concrete way of furthering the interests of world socialism, Serge went to work for the communist press agency, Inprekorr (Correspondence Internationale) in Germany, where a revolution was unfolding. His eyewitness reports are an invaluable and passionate analysis of revolution.

A major blow was inflicted on the European proletariat and young Soviet state when the German revolution was defeated. The right wing social democratic leadership played an open counter revolutionary role. This was compounded by wrong advice of the leadership of the Comintern, under Zinoviev and Stalin and the influence of a nascent conservative bureaucracy, to the young and inexperienced German Communist Party (KPD).

The German defeat bolstered the crystallising bureaucracy in Russia, which became apparent to Serge on his return to Moscow in 1926.

Susan Weissman provides important details of Serge’s part in the heroic fight by the Left Opposition. She describes the internal life of the Opposition and the hysterical verbal and physical attacks it faced.

Soon the Opposition was openly persecuted. Serge was imprisoned for several weeks in 1927 and his family and relatives were also vindictively subjected to state repression. His first wife eventually suffered mental collapse.

During this time (1928-33), Serge was stripped of all official functions and the Stalinist apparatus blocked all his other income. Serge decided to devote the rest of this life to writing: "Guided by political considerations, Serge decided to bear witness to the Bolshevik experience" (page 110). He turned to writing histories, such as Year One of the Revolution (1930), and a series of novels.

This work was carried out in the most difficult conditions, and must partly explain the fragmentary, rapid style of his work.

Serge was rearrested and then deported to Orenburg in Central Asia in 1933, with his son, Vlady. They had to survive famine and extreme weather conditions, and would probably have died there like many other political oppositionists, if not for Serge’s burgeoning literary fame. A group of French writers and artists campaigned for his release, and succeeded in embarrassing the Stalin regime into expelling him from the Soviet Union in 1936. Serge was torn by guilt at the idea of leaving his fellow political prisoners behind, but they encouraged him to take the opportunity to explain to the world the real situation in the USSR. Serge and his son only just made it out of Russia, and at the last moment some of his draft fiction, including a novel about the pre-War anarchist movement and another Serge considered his best piece on revolution, was confiscated by the secret police (and have not been recovered to this day).

Serge lived first in Brussels and then Paris, where he struggled against Stalinism, rising Fascism and capitalism. He drew on these recent experiences to produce the novel, S’il est minuit dans le siecle (Midnight of the Century, 1939), which described the valiant last fight of the Oppositionists and Old Bolsheviks in the concentration camps. He also analysed the Stalinist counter-revolution in articles and books, including From Lenin to Stalin (1937), and Twenty Years After (1937).

During this period Serge played an important role aiding Trotsky in his heroic fight against the monstrous Moscow show trials – at a time when many intellectuals on the Left were intoxicated by the mighty Stalinist machine.

The Fourth International and the Spanish Revolution

However, the collaboration with Trotsky began to falter over a number of issues, especially concerning the formation of the Fourth International and the Spanish Revolution.

Serge believed, "the timing [of the creation of the Fourth International] was all wrong: the creation of a party of world revolution during a period of defeat (fascism, war, Soviet totalitarianism) was futile, if not pretentious" (page 231).

Trotsky concluded the opposite view from world events. The establishment of the Fourth International was, in his opinion, the most important organisational task for socialists. It meant assembling workers and youth under a clear banner that implacably fought capitalism and fascism and for a socialist revolution in the capitalist countries, and which struggled for a political revolution to overthrow the reactionary bureaucracy that had seized power in Russia.

In 1936 Serge had proposed the formation of a new "broad revolutionary Party". Trotsky called his approach "artistic and psychological" and insufficiently political. Weissman admits that Trotsky was "more concrete than Serge" on this matter.

Serge’s rejection of an ideologically clear-sighted Marxist international in favour of some broad based revolutionary grouping indicates his confusion and growing disillusionment at the time. It was not just the timing of the Fourth International that the disagreed with, he also expressed big problems with the whole concept of a revolutionary party and its form of internal democracy. He linked this to his belief that there had been too much state coercion in the young Soviet Union. Specifically, Serge criticised the quelling of the Krondstadt Uprising in 1921 by Soviet forces.

Trotsky responded by saying that the practice of ‘democracy’ in the early days of the Soviet Union had to be examined in the concrete conditions of revolution, civil war and famine and not as some abstract principle. In fact, despite huge hardships and cultural backwardness, the revolution introduced a general climate of free expression. Limitations on democratic rights were only introduced as temporary emergency measures to aid the struggle against armed capitalist intervention.

Trotsky explained that the 1921 rebellion at the Krondstadt naval base was led by anarchists and supported by all the counter revolutionary forces. If successful it would have put the revolution in peril.

In these debates with Trotsky, Serge was often returning to issues he had previously resolved for himself. When living in Russian during the early 1920s, Serge had often questioned Soviet policy and raised the cases of comrades and intellectuals he felt were being mistreated. But as Weissman’s book shows, Serge would grapple with critical issues such as Krondstadt and would more often that not end up supporting in principle the line taken by the Soviet government under Lenin and Trotsky.

A demoralised perspective

That Serge revised his opinion on many of these issues in the 1930s goes to show how the intense pressures of the period bore down on the dwindling numbers of genuine Marxists. During the upswing of workers’ struggles, Serge had supported and popularised Marxism. In a period of triumphant reaction, and when Serge and his family were isolated, hunted, and often went hungry, he increasingly brought a demoralised perspective into the movement. It is not accidental that Serge began to critically examine Bolshevik history after the defeat of the revolutionary wing of the Spanish Republican movement in 1937. His ‘libertarian’ and anarchistic sympathies also tended to come to the fore. He claimed that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution began in 1919, as a consequence of coercive Bolshevik state policy (including the establishment and role of the Cheka special police). This schematic and abstract argument, which echoed the Western capitalist academics, failed to see the difference between an encircled workers’ state defending itself against the threat of capitalist counter-revolution, and the actual bloody suppression of workers’ democracy under Stalinism.

Weissman clearly empathises with Serge during his disputes with Trotsky, even if she does not always give his arguments full backing. She emphasises the sharp polemical style of Trotsky during these debates, which she says exaggerated and distorted the differences between the two. She uses pejorative terms to describe Trotsky’s tone, saying, for example, that he "stepped over the line between viciousness and deadliness…" that he "spewed out the worst venom" (page 236) and that "He [Serge] was subjected to a torrent of abuse from Trotsky’s pen…" (page 232). This is made worse, Weissman claims, because of Trotsky’s "obvious ignorance of Serge’s writings".

The author also highlights the pernicious role of the Stalinist secret police, the GPU, in infiltrating and disrupting the Fourth International. Agents of the GPU probably exploited the Serge/Trotsky controversies further with the issue of the publicity surrounding Serge’s translation of Trotsky’s book, Their Morals and Ours. They attempted to make it appear that Serge was slandering Trotsky’s work and sabotaging the Fourth International. These GPU manoeuvres, Weissman argues, prevented a free exchange of ideas between the two men that could have provided the basis for a new understanding. She is of the opinion that, "The rupture between Serge and Trotsky was never really completed, and had the character of a quarrel with room for reconciliation" (page 236).

Blaming Trotsky’s personality for their estrangement does not hold water. Nor can their disputes be merely explained away by the role of the GPU in sowing misunderstanding and discord between the two revolutionary veterans. There were real and important political differences between Serge and Trotsky, and on essentials Trotsky was correct. Most of their disputes boiled down to grasping what Trotsky referred to as the "pitiless logic" of revolution: where revolution stops short of the vigorous defence of working class power it invites bloody reaction and capitalist dictatorship.

Lessons of the POUM

This difference in approach between the two was clearly expressed in their debate over the Spanish Revolution and the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity, the POUM). Serge developed close links with the POUM and its leader Andres Nin, who had previously collaborated with Trotsky and the Opposition. Trotsky strongly criticised Serge for taking too uncritical an approach towards the POUM. He characterised the party as centrist, meaning it stood between reform and revolution. The task of the Fourth International was to encourage the revolutionary elements in the POUM to develop a bold socialist programme that could win over the most advanced sections of the Spanish working class. A key task was to build a United Front of mass workers’ organisations to defeat Franco’s Fascist forces and capitalism.

Serge was "neither a centrist nor a class collaborationist," Weissman argues (page 233), but he believed the Trotskyists’ policy was "purist intransigence" and would prevent it from influencing the POUM.

History should be the judge on who was correct. Unfortunately, the POUM leaders, devoid of Marxist principles, signed a ‘popular front’ pact and joined a capitalist dominated government in 1936. This disorientated and weakened the revolutionary workers and paved the way for the outlawing and suppression of the POUM at the instigation of the Stalinists. In the hands of the Stalinists and ‘liberal’ capitalists, the revolution went down to bloody defeat. Stalin feared the success of the Spanish working class more than the potential threat of strengthened fascism in Europe: he correctly understood that a victorious Spanish revolution would act as an enormous impulse for Soviet workers to struggle to overthrow the bureaucracy.

Limited political activity in Europe was closed off to Serge with the advance of the Nazis on Paris in 1940. Weissman describes well his dramatic escape to Marseilles and then his fight to get a visa. With the Gestapo hot at his heels, Serge was finally allowed refuge in Mexico.

He arrived too late to meet Trotsky in person. A GPU agent struck down the ‘Old Man’ in August of that year. Despite their sharp political disagreements, Serge was overwhelmed by grief when he heard of the death of Trotsky. "When I think of the man’s high-minded intelligence, of the extraordinary rectitude of his soul, of his rich vitality, all our discords vanish, nothing remains of the quarrels over ideas that divided us, I am stunned, devastated…"(page 248).

The debate on the character of the Soviet Union

Deprived of making a journalist’s living by the long reach of the Stalinists, Serge continued to write articles and novels "for the desk drawer". These included the fictionalised account of the Stalinist Show Trials, The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

Serge and Vlady also became involved with the group Socialismo y Libertad, a "diverse collection of exiles…which later split due to internal divisions" (page 264).

In his hundreds of articles written in these years, Serge probed many issues, including one of the key questions of the day – what was the nature of the Stalinist regime in Russia? In doing so, Serge often made useful insights. However, he also departed from Trotsky’s brilliant analysis of Stalinism.

Trotsky explained that the Stalinist regime that had seized power in Russia had done away with all remnants of workers’ democracy in a bloody counter-revolution. Nevertheless, there was not a return to capitalism. The new ruling strata based itself on the state owned economy, from where it drew its perks, power and privileges. Despite the bureaucracy, the planned economy meant huge social gains for the working class, although at a terrible cost in terms of human life and general wastage. Trotsky defended the economic foundations of the USSR but gave no measure of support to the bureaucracy. In fact, as he pointed out, the only way to preserve what was left of the gains of 1917 was to overthrow the bureaucracy.

Trotsky brilliantly predicted however that under totalitarian rule the nationalised economy would eventually seize up and stagnate. A planned economy needed the oxygen of workers’ democracy. Either the working class would overthrow the parasitic bureaucracy and take power through a political revolution, or economic collapse would lead to capitalist restoration. Although for a number of unforeseen factors Stalinism lasted much longer than Trotsky had anticipated, the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European states in 1989-1991 did in fact lead to capitalist counter-revolution. In the absence of a powerful socialist alternative, the mass movement against Stalinism was derailed.

Weissman points out that although Serge accepted much of Trotsky’s analysis he was also heavily influenced by others, mainly disillusioned ex-Trotskyists, and "came very close to adopting a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the USSR, a ‘third solution’" (page 270).

An ex-leader of US Trotskyism, James Burnham, argued in his book, The Managerial Revolution (1941), that the world was moving towards a new form of society ruled by a managerial elite. Stalinism, Nazism and liberal capitalist democracy were all therefore essentially the same.

This non-class approach took no account of the fundamentally different property forms under capitalism and Stalinism. Moreover, it did not distinguish between what was reactionary and progressive: it meant abandoning the last main conquest of the October revolution – the nationalised economy.

Burnham’s position reflected the pressures of middle class and intellectual public opinion, which had swung against Stalinism after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Trotsky opposed this position. While standing for a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy, he called for the unconditional defence of the USSR in face of imperialist attack.

Weissman argues that Serge rejected both the "orthodox Trotskyist analysis and the new class analysis of the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist tendencies". He also attacked Burnham’s "vulgar Marxism" and "facile equation of Bolshevism and Stalinism" (page 273). One of Serge’s last unfinished writings characterised the USSR as a "bureaucratic totalitarian state" and called for "democratic planning" of the economy as opposed to "Stalinist planning".

As more often than not on issues of Marxist theory, Serge asked more questions than he answered. His writings were certainly often "rich, varied and questioning", but he often failed to produce clear conclusions and to point a way forward.

It is because Serge’s last writings are so often ambiguous, contradictory and suggestive that attempts can be made to claim him by many different tendencies. But his ideas can only be fully appreciated in the context of their relation to other Marxists, especially Trotsky. The debate about the class nature of Stalinism may at first glance appear historically redundant but we only have to look at one of the most controversial international issues today, Cuba, to see that it is Trotsky’s approach that is still fundamentally valid.

Many youth internationally are inspired by the symbol of Che Guevara and the Cuban people standing up to US imperialism. The Castro regime in Cuba continues, despite huge economic problems that have forced it to partially open up to the world market. The direction of events is towards capitalist restoration. But that does not exhaust the question. Will a section of the ruling elite resist further incursions by capitalism? Will imperialism attempt a bloody overthrow of the regime? And, most importantly, how can the social gains of the Cuban revolution be defended?

The position worked out by Trotsky in the 1930s is still valid in all its essentials. The only way to defend and extend the social gains of the Cuban revolution is through the working class democratically planning the economy and running society. A socialist Cuba would act as a beacon to the workers and poor of Latin America and indeed to the radicalised youth and workers of the US and internationally.

The "compass" of Marxism

Serge’s many projects for new books and struggles were cut short by his death on November 17, 1947. According to Weissman, some mystery surrounds his passing. His son and other collaborators believe the GPU may have been behind the fatal heart attack.

Some Left academics have also argued that at the time of his death, Serge was becoming a "professional anti-Stalinist" like other ex-Marxists who moved over to the standpoint of the capitalism.

Weissman refutes this argument. Serge rejected both Stalinism and capitalism, she claims, and to the end believed in a socialist future for humankind.

It is impossible to accurately predict where Serge would have ended up on the political spectrum had he lived after 1947. But we can certainly agree with the advice he gave to socialists when considering the legacy of the first half of the Twentieth Century: "…we have, in spite of everything, enough victories behind us to keep us going, provided we do not renounce the compass Marx has left to us" (page 52).

Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope by Susan Weissman, hardcover, published by Verso, October 2001, 320 pages

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June 2002