Victor Serge’s World and Ours

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

Susan Weissman

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION of October 1917 ushered in a new epoch; a large country had broken from world capitalism and socialists from all over the world watched with hope and enthusiasm the development of the first society beginning its transition to socialism. Revolutionaries flocked to Red Russia, “leaving the void and entering the kingdom of will … where life is beginning anew.”(1) One of them was Victor Serge.

Who Was Victor Serge?

Victor Serge, dissident communist, former anarchist, on the left of the Left Opposition, represents one of the “blank spots” in Soviet political history. Mikhail Gorbachev has declared that this history is in need of examination. The rich and hotly contested development theories debated in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, accompanied by divisions within the Communist Party have been suppressed, just as all their leaders and supporters were repressed in the brutal purges of the 1930s.

Why study Serge? There are five key reasons:

1. Bolshevik history has been falsified and suppressed; Serge wrote to correct the record and to provide lessons for revolutionaries. But his unique life experience and his revolutionary writings are an eloquent challenge to orthodox notions of the Soviet Union. Twenty years before Khrushchev’s Secret Speech about Stalin’s crimes, Victor Serge was trying to alert the world to what was happening in Stalin’s Russia. His words fell largely on deaf ears. Victor Serge’s ideas — his antipathy to both the capitalist West and the Soviet state — assured his marginality. His life and works amount to a corrective to Stalin, and present an alternative to Bukharinism — both in Serge’s own lifetime and in its present incarnation in Gorbachev’s perestroika.

2. It is virtually impossible to understand today’s problems in the Soviet Union without examining its history; particularly the defeat of alternatives to Stalin’s policies and how his policies shaped the production relations which developed in the Soviet Union. Serge’s works are a valuable, neglected addition to the existing literature which shed light on this formative chapter in Soviet political history.

3. Serge wrote as an insider with a particular point of view: as a Left Oppositionist, a consistent anti-Stalinist who, as we shall see, did not see a line of continuity between early Bolshevism and Stalinism, but precisely the opposite. This particular question, of “Stalinism versus Bolshevism,” is the most divisive within Soviet studies, and is the quintessential interpretive question having to do with the whole of Soviet historical and political development since the revolution.

4. Serge’s political experience led him not to renounce socialism once Stalin had triumphed, but to bring to it a declaration of the rights of man, enriching socialist goals. He opposed the one-party system, declaring as early as 1918 and again in 1923 that a coalition government, although fraught with dangers, would have been less dangerous than what was to transpire under Stalin’s dictatorship of the secretariat and the secret police. Serge criticized the New Economic Policy (NEP) for bringing back inequality and misery, while not revitalizing democracy and a multi-party system. Serge’s proposals for economic reform included workers’ democracy and a communism of associations instead of rigid, top-down, anti-democratic “plans.”

5. Finally, reading Serge’s body of work on the Soviet Union, including his memoirs, histories and novels is, I would say, indispensable, for anyone who wants to get a feel from the atmosphere of the 1920s and ’30s inside the Soviet Union and the Communist movement; a testimony to his literary achievement, his political acumen and his unflagging honesty.

Serge’s Political Journey to Russia

Victor Serge lived from 1890 to 1947. He was politically active in seven countries, participated in three revolutions, spent more than ten years in captivity, published more than forty books and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence and articles. Serge was born into one political exile and died in another, and spent his life as a sort of permanent political oppositionist. He opposed capitalism as a socialist; he opposed certain Bolshevik practices with his anarchist leanings; he opposed Stalin as a Left Oppositionist; he opposed fascism and capitalism’s Cold War as an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist.

Serge’s work is that of a witness/participant. He wrote from deep within the Soviet revolutionary experience as both a political actor and a victim of the degeneration of the revolution. As an insider, he knew the men and women who made the revolution and those who destroyed it. He wrote of them in his political works and fleshed them out in his novels.

Serge was not a dispassionate objective reporter, but an ardent Left Oppositionist whose political outlook frames his exposition. He wrote with a novelist’s eye for penetrating detail, posing essential questions, pointing out contradictions which he often left unresolved.

Serge was not an original theorist; there is no such thing as a Sergist. His writing is passionate and honest and sometimes poetic; but always remains critical, and always retains his allegiance to the ideas of the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks.

His written legacy includes seven novels, two volumes of poetry, three novellas, a collection of short stories; more than thirty books and pamphlets of history and politics including biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. There is also his autobiography, diary or personal notebooks, and scores of journalistic articles and essays on a variety of themes. Although he was born in Belgium and wrote in French, Serge is arguably more “Russian” than anything else.

Born to an exiled Russian couple who belonged to the organization, People’s Will, that was responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1881), Serge was raised in extreme poverty in Belgium, “in mid-journey across the world, because my parents, in quest of their daily bread and of good libraries, were commuting between London (the British Museum), Paris, Switzerland, and Belgium.” Serge learned early on what would become his credo: “thou shalt think, thou shalt struggle, [and] thou shalt be hungry.”(2) His younger brother did not thrive on their diet of stale bread dunked in sweetened coffee and died of starvation at the age of nine.

With no formal education (his father was contemptuous of the “stupid bourgeois education for the poor”) Serge nevertheless inherited his parents’ passion for knowledge, imbibed their conversations, and educated himself by ransacking encyclopedias and making the rounds of museums, libraries and churches. For Serge, learning was not separate from life, but was life itself.

Serge was drawn into active politics as a youth, joining a socialist organization (the Jeunes-Gardes Socialistes) in Belgium at age 15, in 1905. He moved to France and became an anarchist-individualist, experimented with alternative life styles, including vegetarianism, became associated with the infamous Bonnot gang of anarchist outlaws, whose idealistic motives led them to carry out revolutionary bank expropriations, often accompanied by shoot-outs and death.

Serge was repulsed by the violence and madness of the Bonnot gang’s exploits, though he sympathized with their motives. As editor of L’Anarchie, Serge was already evolving politically, changing the orientation of the newspaper from individualism to social action. Nevertheless, when the law caught up with the Bonnot gang, Serve refused to break solidarity with his comrades by condemning them, and so ended up with a five-year prison sentence, an experience so unbearable that he could only free himself from what he called the “inward nightmare” by writing it into the novel Men in Prison.

This novel, like his others, blurs the lines between fact and fiction; his novels serve as testimony in fictional form of his experiences and his perceptions of social reality. Upon his release and expulsion from France, Serge went to Barcelona and plunged into the syndicalist insurrectionary street fighting of July 1917. But he was politically disillusioned with anarchism, which he found manifestly unprepared for power. Disgusted with European social democracy, he had his sights on revolutionary Russia, the country of his roots and his language, which drew him like a magnet.

Serge set off for Russia via France, but wound up behind barbed wire in a French prison camp, accused of being a Bolshevik. There Serge languished, barely escaping the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, studying Marxism and revolution(3) with Bolshevik prisoners for fifteen months. After the Armistice, Serge was released in a prisoner exchange and in February 1919 found himself in revolutionary Petrograd.

He described his never-seen homeland as “ … a world frozen to death … a metropolis of Cold, of Hunger, of Hatred, of Endurance ….”(4) Serge managed to arrive in the midst of counterrevolution, famine and disease, to a city expectant of a world revolution, which would save them.

In Revolutionary Russia: Serge’s Experience

After a few months of intense observation, participation and discussion with the various revolutionary tendencies in Russia, Serge joined the Bolsheviks. He had arrived in Russia as a seasoned revolutionary armed with “a critical method, doubt and assurance” and thirteen years’ experience as a socialist, anarchist and syndicalist. As a man of revolutionary practice, his political positions flowed from a concrete analysis of actual situations. Serge’s experiences forced the development of his political outlook. The situation in Russia was grave,(5) and Serge determined that the Bolsheviks not only had vision, but the necessary will to carry forward the revolution. His allegiance to the Bolsheviks was based on what he saw as the correctness of their political positions, although he was always critical of their authoritarian excesses.

Serge threw himself into the struggle to defend the revolution and began the construction of socialism. He was a machine-gunner during the Civil War, became an intimate of the Bolshevik top leadership and collaborated with Zinoviev in the first congresses of the Communist International.(6) He became a Commissar in charge of the Tsarist secret police archives, and after digging in the records of the Okhrana, wrote an article in Bulletin Communiste in 1921 that was to become the book What Everyone Should Know About State Repression.(7)

At the same time Serge translated into French the works of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, became friendly with poets, writers, anarchists and Social Revolutionaries, mingling in richly varied political, social and literary milieu. He belonged to “the last free thought society” and was probably their only Communist member. This was the Free Philosophic Society led by the symbolist novelist Andrei Bely. As a confirmed, but critical Bolshevik, Serge was developing his Marxism.

Serge’s brand of Marxism was fused with an anarchist’s spirit and a primary commitment to socialism’s international character. His Marxism was deeply humanistic, preoccupied with questions of personal development and individual freedom with the social whole. His central concern with the condition of life of the masses always meant that Serge saw democracy as an integral component of socialist development.

This critical spirit was not Serge’s alone. The Bolsheviks early history was characterized by lively debate, with members standing on different sides of every question. This is confirmed by reading the Bolshevik Central Committee minutes as well as Robert Daniels’ book, The Conscience of the Revolution.(8)

One of what Serge called the tendentious myths of the Russian Revolution’s historiography was that the Bolshevik’s immediate goal was to establish a monopoly on state power.(9) Serge wrote that the truth was just the opposite: the Bolsheviks were most afraid of being isolated in power.

The left Social Revolutionaries participated in the government with the Bolsheviks from November until July 1918. They refused to recognize, along with a good third of the known Bolsheviks, the terms of peace with Germany put forth in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. On July 6 they began an insurrectional revolt in Moscow, proclaiming their intention to govern alone and to “reopen the war against German imperialism.” They were defeated and from then on the Bolsheviks ruled alone. Serge noted that “as their responsibilities increased, their mentality changed.”

The left Social Revolutionaries weren’t the only early critics from within the revolution. Arguing against the “peace of shame,” Preobrazhensky and Bukharin, later to stand on opposite sides of the industrialization debates, joined with others to put out the Theses of Left Communists in 1918.(10) They also warned against the growing bureaucratization of industry that would separate the proletariat from control over economic and political life, leading to increased dependence on bourgeois specialists and capitalist methods of labor organization, such as piecework and Taylorism.

Serge sided with Lenin on the question of Brest­Litovsk, although he sympathized with the anti-bureaucratic stance of the Left Communists. Writing that the Bolsheviks were forced into accepting the terms of the peace by the advancing German front, he nevertheless wrote forcefully of the consequences of this treaty: loss of huge tracts of the Ukraine, the sacrifice of the Finnish revolution, which was drowned in blood in 1918.(11)

Serge wrote in his Portrait de Staline that the gravest error committed by the Bolsheviks was the establishment of the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for the Repression of Counter-Revolution, Speculation, Espionage and Desertion), the security force formed to protect the revolution from counterrevolutionaries. He called it an inquisition.(12)

Writing in 1939, Serge said the Bolshevik Revolution died a self-inflicted death with the creation of the Cheka, instrument of Red Terror, forerunner of the GPU, NKVD and KGB, which exterminated the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks. Thus Serge dated the beginning of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution several years earlier than the more common figures of 1921 (Kronstadt and the banning of factions) or 1924 (death of Lenin) or 1927 (defeat of the Opposition) or 1929 (forced collectivization and liquidation of kulaks).(13)

Yet in 1919-20 Serge was not publicly critical of the Cheka. Under the conditions imposed by the Civil War it appeared to be a tragic necessity. Serge was working in the Comintern and used his offices to intercede on behalf of victims of the Cheka when he could.

These were “early days” for the revolution, and Serge believed that certain characteristics of Bolshevism gave it an innate superiority over the rival parties with which it shared a common outlook. These were its Marxist conviction, its view of the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolutionary process, its intransigent internationalism and its attempt to unify thought and action.(14)

Serge also concurred with Lenin on the question of industry. The Bolsheviks believed that socialism was impossible in such a backward setting, but that a gradually socializing Russia would be an example for the European working class. Thus Lenin advocated not blanket nationalization of the means of production, but instead workers control over them. The Civil War changed everything and made nationalization imperative for defense.

The intransigent internationalism of the Bolsheviks rested on their belief in the coming revolution in Europe. Lenin had said that in terms of world socialism, a revolution, such as in Germany, an advanced capitalist country, was more important than the Russian Revolution. If need be, the Russian Revolution would be sacrificed for the success of the first revolution in an advanced capitalist country.

Serge shared this analysis while being less optimistic about successful revolution in the West. He wrote that the Bolsheviks were mistaken about the imminence of the European revolution, misjudging the parliamentary opportunism of the mediocre leaders of the European socialist movement.

Nevertheless Serge understood that isolated Russia’s only change for survival was pinned on the West European extension of the revolution. He was convinced that revolutionary Russia, in the throes of hunger, isolation and defeat, would collapse if left to itself. Ready to translate theory into practice, Serge threw himself wholeheartedly in support of the policy and volunteered to go to Germany to help prepare the insurrection by working in the Comintern (Communist International). He also confessed he was disgusted by the growing bureaucratization of the Bolshevik Party and their counterterror,(15) and psychologically exhausted; a change of scenery and new activity would be welcome.

In Germany Serge edited the French edition of the Comintern journal, International Press Correspondence, or Inprecorr. With the failure of the German Revolution of 1923, Serge moved to Vienna, where he continued his work in the Comintern in the company of comrades such as George Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci. Of his life at that point (1923) he wrote:

“All we lived for was activity integrated into history; we were interchangeable; we could immediately see the repercussions of affairs in Russia upon affairs in Germany and the Balkans; we felt linked with our comrades who, in pursuit of the same ends as we, perished or else scored some success at the other end of Europe. None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our name, our posting and our work at the Party’s need; we had just enough to live on without real material discomfort, and we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.”(16)

The failure of the German Revolution left the Bolsheviks isolated and in turmoil. The defeat paved the way not only for Hitler, but also Stalin-and an inward looking Bolshevik faction. During Serge’s sojourn in Western Europe, he anxiously watched the growing inter­party struggles at home and declared himself with the Left Opposition of the New Course in 1923. At the end of 1925, Serge demanded to return to the USSR to take up the fight within the Bolshevik Party.

Critical of the use of terror, the bureaucratization of the party and the state, the growing privileges that distanced the bureaucracy from the population and the aims of the revolution, the Left Opposition of Leon Trot­ sky and others identified the bureaucracy as rooted in the new conditions of Soviet rule.

Given that the original revolutionary working class had been largely decimated by Civil War and foreign intervention and the new working class was drawn mostly from a semi-literate peasantry, the Left Opposition argued that it was necessary for the Soviet state to pro­ mote an early and gradual industrialization as a precondition for the regeneration of class consciousness of the newly formed proletarian, with just one foot out of the countryside.

The dire situation in both industry and agriculture following the Civil War meant that the Bolsheviks were surrounded by an increasingly hostile peasantry. Preobrazhensky argued that industrialization would win them over by transforming the peasants into a new working class whose habits and education would conform to the needs of a genuinely socialist industry; industrial expansion would ensure that an increasingly portion of the population would be grouped around collective production relations, which would serve to generate a proletarian consciousness among the mass of the population, as opposed to the petty-bourgeois consciousness of the peasantry.(17) This new working class created from the process of industrialization theoretically would serve as a check against bureaucratic excesses and anti-democratic measures.

Serge was anxious about the growth of the rich peasant, the self-serving bureaucrat and the weakness of industry under NEP; a crisis situation was developing and needed prompt measures: he was in complete accord with the program of the Left Opposition.

The party was embroiled in the debate over industrialization. Without the hoped for international solidarity of successful German socialists building factories in revolutionary Russia, the accumulation would have to be drawn from within.

Preobrazhensky (the main economist of the Left Op­ position) argued that the “primitive socialist accumulation” would have to come from the private peasant sec­ tor, but it had to be a reciprocal relationship; higher productivity in industry would provide products for the peasants to buy, and a revolution in agricultural technique would be possible only with more farm machinery, a product of higher productivity from the working class.

In the end, the Left Opposition argued they could only humanly surmount the problem with material assistance from victorious revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.

Bukharin came up with the opposite program, developing Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country” into a theory. He argued that increased concessions to the well-off peasant were necessary to stimulate growth.

Stalin, standing midway between the two positions, was jealous of Trotsky’s potential influence and wanted to undermine his authority. So in order to remove Trotsky as a political force, he favored Bukharin’s minimal aid to industry and increased concessions to the private sector. Thus, industrial accumulation was not taken up systematically until later, while NEP proceeded apace. This meant both the political climate and economic situation were left to deteriorate to the point of crisis.

During the 1923-26 period Stalin packed the various bureaus of the party with his people, making the outcome of party congresses and debates preordained. As a spokesman for the Left Opposition in the Leningrad party organization, Serge found it impossible to make a speech without being hooted down by Stalin’s cohorts. This meant that if Trotsky and his supporters wanted an audience for their alternative political program, he would have to take it outside the party, something neither he nor the others in the Left Opposition were prepared to do.

By 1927-28 the combination of lack of industrial policy and the growth of the private sector in agriculture led to a grain crisis. The low prices peasants were offered for their grain coupled with high prices charged for scarce industrial goods was a powerful disincentive to produce more than the peasant needed for himself and his family. Then a series of poor harvests threatened both the state’s export plans and food supplies.

The peasants boycotted grain requisitions and Stalin responded by ordering extraordinary measures to collect the grain. Red Army soldiers began to take the grain from the peasant at gunpoint.

The question of which way forward was now unavoidable. To proceed by increasing NEP and the private sector would lead back to capitalism and subjection to international capital and the world market; to institute genuine workers control of industry and democratic planning would make the bureaucratic structure superfluous. Either alternative meant Stalin and the bureaucracy would lose power.

As Serge (as well as other Left Oppositionists) so powerfully explained, neither option was realistic for a bureaucracy whose reason for being was to maintain its privileged position in power.(18) They operated to maximize their own self-interest. Therefore, Stalin took the only road open to him: eliminate the challenge from the peasantry, the party and the working class without creating either capitalism or socialism. Neither plan nor market. The ground was laid for ruling society through bureaucratic fiats, rapid industrialization with five-year “plans” administered from the top down-and forced collectivization.

At the same time, Comintern policy became a rubber stamp for Stalin’s directives, which flowed logically from the politics of “socialism in one country.” Serge wrote a series of articles that were published in the French journal Clarie, criticizing Stalin’s policy of forcing the Chinese Communist Party into the Kuomintang of Chiang-Kai-Shek, leading to the beheading of the Chinese Revolution of 1927 and the subsequent massacre of Chinese communists.

These articles sealed Serge’s fate. He was expelled from the party, joining a by now honorable list of expelled Oppositionists. Later he was arrested and held for seven or eight weeks in 1928. Upon his release, Serge nearly died of an intestinal occulsion. Remarkably, he refused to cooperate or confess anything while he was in jail. This saved his life in 1936 when the record was checked for admitted offenses before he could be released.

Although Serge survived his imprisonment and illness, he suffered a political death. Open political activity was now closed to him, forcing him to exchange political activism for the pen. He committed himself to writing, and sketched out in his mind the series of documentary novels about these “unforgettable times,” determined to preserve the ideas, experience, and memory of the men and women with whom he had shared in the struggle.

During the period 1928-33, Serge survived in precarious liberty, living off his writings, which he sent to France for publication. He also worked as a French translator of Lenin’s works for the Lenin Institute. The translations were checked line by line “by experts charged with the task of uncovering possible sabotage in the disposition of semicolons.”(19) Serge lived for a while in the countryside with Panait Istrati, the Rumanian writer, and traveled enough to have a chance to observe closely the effects of Stalin’s policies.

Serge began to write about the effects of industrialization and collectivization, the creation and consolidation of the Stalinist system. In 1929 Panait Istrati published under his own name Serge’s Soviets 1929.(20) Over the next four years Serge published in France and Spain his monumental history, Year One of the Russian Revolution; three novels: Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City. None of his books were ever published in the Soviet Union.

Serge experienced Stalin’s campaign of terror directly: he was arrested in 1933, held in solitary confinement for eighty days in the infamous Lubianka, subjected to relentless nocturnal interrogations. He was then deported to Orenburg, where he and his son Vlady nearly starved to death.(21) While in deportation he wrote four further books, which were subsequently confiscated by the Soviet regime upon Serge’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1936, and despite attempts to secure their “release” by his family, scholars and politicians, they have never been recovered.(22)

These books included two novels: one about the French anarchist movement, Lost Men, and the other a novel about War Communism set in 1920, The Torment. This second novel, which Serge described as conveying “the grandeur of the revolution” forms a sequel to his Conquered City. The third manuscript was a book of poems that he reconstructed once in exile, and the fourth, his history, Year Two of the Russian Revolution. Serge said he never had the luxury of time to polish as he did with these books, which makes their loss all the more tragic.

Serge was already known in France and Spain for his pamphlets and political articles; the publication of his history and three novels in the years 1930-32 established him as a serious revolutionary writer. His reputation in the West saved him from oblivion and death, a fate not shared by many Russian writers who had no such international following.

A campaign was waged on Serge’s behalf by Parisian intellectuals, embarrassing Communist “friends of the Soviet Union” Romain Rolland and Andre Malraux. Apparently Rolland interceded in his favor with Stalin when he visited Moscow.

In April 1936, just months before the first of the Moscow Trials, Serge was removed from Orenburg, put on a train, but “relieved” of his suitcases bulging with manuscripts and memorabilia, and expelled with his family from the Soviet Union. He was then stripped of his Soviet citizenship, making him a man without a country in Western Europe, where skies were already darkening with fascism and war.

From 1936-40, Serge lived a precarious existence in Brussels and Paris, campaigning against the persecution of his comrades left behind in Stalin’s gulag. Active politically with non-Stalinist groups and Trotsky’s Fourth International, Serge watched the drama of the Spanish Civil War, the opportunism of the Popular Front, and the decline and ultimate defeat of the European left.

A Communist campaign of slander effectively prevented Serge from publishing in all but the tiniest far left journals in France.(23) Despite severe economic hardship and constant danger from both the GPU and the Nazis, Serge continued to write in profusion. While in Europe he produced Midnight in the Century, a novel about the resistance of the Opposition to Stalin from within the gulag, translated Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, and analyzed the political, economic and social effects of Stalin’s policies in From Lenin to Stalin, written in one fifteen-day stretch in 1936, Destiny of a Revolution (1937) and Portrait of Stalin (1939).

He also published several booklets on the Moscow Trials, and campaigned publicly for recognition of the crimes against the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks by Stalin, which fell largely on deaf ears in France. There the reality of fascism and the impending war blinded many eyes to what was- happening in the Soviet Union.(24) Serge continued his battle nevertheless, remaining in Paris until 1940, literally leaving the south of Paris as the Nazis invaded the north. Penniless, he fled lo Marseille, where he spent months fighting for a visa out of the nightmare, and trailed by the Gestapo. The United States refused to admit him. But at the last minute Mexico, the last refuge of Trotsky, offered a place to Serge and his family.

Serge was by now unpublishable by any press-one publishing house was ruined after publishing his Hitler contra Stalin. Politically isolated and deprived of a livelihood, Serge wrote mostly for the desk drawer, producing some of his best work: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, what is arguably the finest novel about the purges; The Case of Comrade Tulayev; his novel about the experience of defeat and exile called The Years Without Reprieve, and a large collection of essays, correspondence, and articles on World War II, the future of socialism, fascism, the Jewish Question, psychology, literature, and the evolution and nature of the Soviet system.

The end of the war found Serge in a weakened physical condition, his head brimming with writing projects. He tried to return to Europe but was stopped by a fatal heart attack in November 1947. He died after just hailing a cab, before he could tell the driver where to go. His clothes were threadbare, he had holes in his shoes; the driver thought he had picked up a pauper.

Serge left behind him a lifetime of struggle, a commitment to the truth no matter how uncomfortable, “a victorious revolution and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness,” and a certain confidence, born of his critical intelligence, in the possibilities of the future.

[The second and concluding part of this article, to appear in the next issue of Against the Current, will examine Serge’s perceptions of the system established by Stalin in the name of “socialism in one country.” In particular it will look at Serge’s view of forced collectivization, crash industrialization, the rise of the bureaucrat and the significance of the purges of the late 1930s, in which the surviving cadres of the 1917 Revolution were eliminated.]


  1. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, (London & New York: Writers & Readers, 1987) 67.
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  2. Serge, Memoirs, 2-3.
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  3. According to the Memoirs (63-66) and Birth of Our Power (199-208), they studied Marx’s Civil War in France, kept abreast of events in Russia and discussed all the questions facing the Bolsheviks.
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  4. Serge, Memoirs, 71.
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  5. His vision of revolutionary Russia is portrayed without compromise in the last chapter of Birth of Our Power, and in the novel Conquered City.
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  6. Serge organized the administration of the Executive Committee of the Comintem in Petrograd, creating from scratch the organization which was to be the seat of world revolution.
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  7. The book was reissued by the French police as an internal educational document during the 1968 events!
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  8. The debates were passionate and committed; in the minutes one finds that every member of the Central Committee threatened to resign at least once during the course of different debates; that is, every member except Stalin, who never threatened resignation.
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  9. See “Trente Ans Apres La Revolution Russe” in La Revolution Proletarienne, Nov. 1947, a retrospective Serge wrote on the revolution’s thirtieth birthday.

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  10. See “Theses of the Left Communists (1918)” published in the first number of the Moscow-produced journal Kommunist on 20 April 1918, translated and published as a pamphlet by Critique (Glasgow, 1977).
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  11. See Year One of the Russian Revolution, Victor Serge (New York: Holt & Rhinehart, 1973) 182-191.
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  12. Victor Serge, Portrait de Staline (Paris, Editions Bernard Grasset) 1940, 57-8.
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  13. But, according to Serge, Thermidor was only realized in November 1927, ironically on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. This coincided with the defeat of the Opposition within the party and the subsequent expulsion, arrest and deportation of its members; and the sacrificing of the Chinese proletariat for the prestige and power of Stalin. See Serge, Memoirs, 215-243.
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  14. Serge, ‘Trente Ans,” 7.
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  15. For Serge, the errors and mistakes of power were exposed with the handling of the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921. The sailors were protesting against the economic regime of War Communism and the dictatorship of the party; but according to Serge they only revolted because of the brutality with which Kalinin refused to listen to them. He agreed the Bolsheviks were right to fight to hold on to power, but their mistake was “to panic at the Kronstadt revolt, which they could have handled … with persuasion and understanding.” Nevertheless, Serge declared himself on the side of the party, against the “infantile illusions” of the backward workers of Kronstadt. See Victor Serge, Memoirs, 124-132; ‘Trente Ans;” and New International, July 1938 and Feb. 1939.
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  16. Serge, Memoirs, 177. 0 Morali, 105-7, quoted in Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, (New York, M.E. Sharpe, Inc.) 18, 276n.
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  17. See, inter alia, Victor Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, and From Leinin to Stalin. Also, Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, among other works.
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  18. Serge, Memoirs, 273.
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  19. Istrati published the book as the second part of his trilogy, Vers L’Autre Flamme. He used his name to give the book a wider audience and to protect Serge, who was still at large in the Soviet Union.
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  20. Serge’s experiences in deportation are captured in his novel Mid&night in the Century, superbly translated by Richard Greeman. Serge was joined in Orenburg by some thirty other members of the Left Opposition. Many of the discussions and meetings of the Opposition are recounted in the novel.
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  21. Testing the limits of glasnost, I have recently written to Gorbachev, various agencies and leading Soviet periodicals to recover these manuscripts. To date, there has been no response.
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  22. With one notable exception: the Belgian La Wallonie provided a platform for Serge from 1936-40.
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  23. Serge also became active with the International Left Opposition, took part in the congresses of Trotsky’s Fourth International, and with the outbreak of Civil War in Spain, joined the POUM, which was one of the causes of his rupture with Trotsky and the Fourth International.
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  24. January-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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