Victor Serge’s Critique of Stalinism, Part II

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Suzi Weissman

[The first half of this article, published in ATC 12-13, summarized the life and political career of Victor Serge, a lifelong revolutionary fighter and opponent of the bureaucratic destruction of the Russian Revolution. This concluding section examines Serge’s views on the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the relevance of his insights for today’s debates on glasnost and Soviet economic reforms.(])

SERGE’S CONTRIBUTION TO our understanding of the system Stalin created in the 1930s is increasingly relevant today not only because the same questions, such as plan vs. market, are being raised, but because the period Serge described was the one in which the class relations of the Soviet Union were formed. If one wishes to make sense of the Soviet Union today, one must turn to the period Serge examined.

Stalin’s system had a certain dynamic and logic that affected the lives of millions. Further, the particular relations that were established between regime and worker under the dizzying conditions of crash industrialization and forced collectivization became permanent and reproducible features of the system.

The chief characteristics of the relationship were that (1) democratic planning was excluded as a possibility and instead the plans drawn up were “command documents” issued from the center without accurate information to assess the real possibility of carrying them out; (2) because the workers’ needs were not taken into account the workers or implementers adapted the instructions to fit their own needs, which meant that the plans broke down or were disrupted by the workers’ individualistic responses to the system being forced upon them, affecting in turn the next chain in the economy as supplies were disrupted, causing the workers to similarly change instructions to fit their own needs.

The result was that the more the center tried to centralize to maintain tight control over economic events, the less control it actually had as workers, in short supply, looked to their own interests and managers lied to make themselves look good on paper. This form of planning became anti-planning: in place of a rational organization of production, an anarchic, irrational and costly system developed.

Unreliable information and a form of atomized and involuntary sabotage were the results. The workers disrupted because their interests were not the same as those of the planners—where asunder genuine socialist planning there would be no antagonism as the planners and implementers would be one and the same.

The end result was that Stalinist planning(as Serge1 finally called it)–the allocating and mobilizing of resources without democratic input-could not guarantee a recognizable correspondence of outcome of instructions to the instructions themselves.(2) As everyone falsified information in their own interests, a highly inefficient and wasteful system was created.(3) According to Serge:

“there is disorder, panic, terror … passive resistance, atomic as it were … all the statistics, all the balances, all the figures are false because nobody ever dares tell the truth….”(4)

The methods employed caused the workers to become hostile to industrialization and to resist in an atomized and individualized, rather than collective manner; by producing poorly, or not on time. What began as a response to forced tempos during a time of extreme labor shortage became a form of protest to the system.(5) In the heart of Stalin’s terror machine, the elite gained political control over the population through force, but not over economic events, hard though it tried.(6)

Serge, without theorizing, graphically illustrated these basic dilemmas of regime-worker relations. He began with the forced collectivization of agriculture, designed to break the collective resistance of the peasantry who had revolted against the bureaucratic measures imposed on them. To break their resistance, Stalin declared war on the resisters, who were called “kulaks, designated as enemies of the people to be ‘liquidated as a class.’”(7)

Serge pointed out that full collectivization was never intended. The plan, which had been in development since 1925-26, only envisioned collectivizing as much land as could be supplied with agricultural machinery.(8) The whole point of collectivization was that agricultural production would be industrialized and provide an attractive alternative to the small farms of the peasantry. The kolkhoz (collective farm) without tractors made no sense. Total collectivization was unforeseen and not planned for; as a result, giant factories had to be created to produce agricultural machinery, using up resources intended for other sectors, to their detriment. As Serge noted, collectivization produced a shortage of raw materials, hostility, a ruined agriculture, and it destroyed the plan for industry. As hostile peasants hoarded grain and destroyed their livestock, agricultural output dwindled; Stalin demanded higher quotas and extracted every last grain in Ukraine for the cities and export, causing a state-organized famine killing 7 million peasants in 1932-33.(9) Serge noted wryly that collectivization produced anarchy rather than a plan: he said, “Instead of applying a political pattern, Stalin is reduced to improvisations.”(10)

The bureaucratic and ill-thought-out haste of Stalin’s industrialization had far-reaching implications for future growth and quality of goods. Industrialization was financed through extreme pressure on the working class, producing intolerable conditions, which Serge catalogued in Destiny of a Revolution. He said, “Industrialization is directed like a march through conquered territory.”

The intensification of labor meant that the worker, in order to meet quantity quotas, had to forget paying attention to quality. This is corroborated by Rakovsky, Andrew Smith(11) and other observers. Defective goods produced at one point entered into circulation as means of production of future products which would also be defective,(12) turning out whole factories erected of defective construction materials and equipped with machines made from defective metal. This was indeed an expensive and highly wasteful way to industrialize, both for the machines and the people.(13)

Serge described the constant breakdown of machinery resulting from improper use; there wasn’t time as Stalin demanded the five-year plan be fulfilled in four or even three years! Precious resources, needed else­ where, had to be used increasingly to repair exhausted machinery. Spare parts were in short supply and often got lost in delivery, holding up production. Serge noted that Stalin’s answer to every problem was to squeeze the workers more; make them work harder, consume less; hold up their pay, cut their wages.

This produced a very high rate of labor turnover with a negative impact on production. Quoting official statistics, Serge noted that in Ukraine whole factories were turned over in three months as the workers moved on looking for food, housing and better working conditions. “You travel because wherever you are you feel bad.”(14)

In Soviets 1929, Serge pointed to the wasteful and high cost of production: lack of coordination meant that in some places whole factories were produced but lay idle because there were no power stations to feed them, and in other places power stations were constructed but awaited the building of factories. On paper and in growth statistics it might look good, but in both instances the construction was useless and wasted.(15)

In other areas, factories were left 70% constructed (you can’t use 70% of a factory) or in other instances Serge described factories, that produced 50%, 60%, even 100% defective goods, which often entered into circulation nonetheless.(16) Serge blamed the bureaucratic system for the costly, wasteful production and lamented that the self-interest of the bureaucracy was the only logic of the system, taking precedence over the needs of agriculture, industry and the population.(17)

While alluding to the problems and obviously aware of Rakovsky’s analysis as expressed in his oppositional article, “At the Congress and in the Country” [see note 11], Serge did not present an overall theory. Instead he characteristically surveyed the effects of these vast forces on ordinary people, looking at life in town, country and factory.

He examined the horrifying conditions of workers who starved while working, of women forced into prostitution after work to provide bread for their children, of grandparents who were refused bread cards because they did not work (being too old), of roving bands of children whose parents had been whisked into labor camps, of peasants starving in the state-organized famine of 1932-33. He contrasted this to the lavish lifestyle of the parvenus, barely hiding His cynicism for a system calling itself socialist while producing inequalities more akin to capitalism.

While Serge showed that the economy grew–despite Stalin’s industrialization-because the industrial work force expanded and machinery was introduced where it didn’t exist previously-not to mention the efforts of a truly massive slave labor sector in the camps(18)–he asked the essential question pertaining to this growth: growth intended for whose benefit? What kind of growth?(19)

And he described what went with this growth: pilfering, sabotage, misery, famine, passport laws, repression and terror. Stalin’s methods, according to Serge were anti-socialist, but were officially justified by using an “amoral vulgar Marxism.”

Serge discussed the draconian labor legislation and the various schemes employed to speed up production and squeeze more from the workers, such as shock work (udarnichestvo), “socialist competition” and Stakhanovism. He pointed out that these schemes were doomed because they were basically a fraud, rigged by opportunist managers and workers in collusion to win bonuses for themselves.

When workers resisted outright, which they inevitably did, Serge conveyed the somewhat contradictory response of the regime to resistance while showing graphically what happened to those who dared to contest their situation collectively. The youth were often the most militant, and there is evidence of strikes.

Serge described the strike at the textile plant in Ivanovo-Voznessensk in April 1931, where the workers had but one slogan to express their demands: “We are hungry!” The authorities yielded blaming the local leadership, food was sent in, work resumed and then the purge began quietly. The Trotskyists among the strikers were shot and not a word seeped out, except abroad.(20)

In this one episode Serge expressed the basic contradiction of a regime that manifestly fears the proletariat because it has usurped their political power. The same pattern of regime response to strikes can be seen today.

What the strikes showed was that the regime had to deal with organized resistance from youth and a section of older workers who had somehow survived the civil war, the New Economic Policy (NEP) and famines, with some collective memory, bred on the ideas of Marxism, from the days of the Revolution.

Serge noted that Stalin fought the workers, the peasants and beheaded the party. The regime also had to cope with the results of its policy-unfulfilled plans, high turnover, alcoholism amid extreme scarcity-all the while preparing for war. Serge made the point simply and forcefully: an underfed and malnourished workforce, living a joyless existence, could not be depended on to work well. What capitalist society had learned from the experience of slavery had been lost on the Stalinists.(21)

Serge answered his own questions about the nature of economic growth with examples of workers coerced into inhuman conditions while not being paid enough to stave off hunger, slave labor engaged in construction in the camps, and peasants whose resistance was met with deportation and expropriation. The situation led to demoralization of the working class accompanied by a sense of futility.

Pointing to the ubiquitous secret police who were stationed in all establishments, Serge evoked the life of ordinary citizens under these conditions:

Hemmed in by police, by poverty, by lies… [the] worker is preoccupied with obtaining, stamping, checking and re-registering a bread card which is refused half the workers on various pretexts; his wife runs from one empty store to another, registering in a queue at doors of fish stalls in the evening in order to wrangle the next morning over a ration of salt fish… exposed to spying in the shop… coming home to tell who was arrested last night.(22)

Serge revealed how the conditions of physical coercion and intimidation in the context of scarcity and speed-up left the population with nothing to think about but their own survival, their own self-interest. Serge’s style is to accumulate concrete examples; the process of atomization of the population is empirically demonstrated but not theoretically argued.

The Bloody Rupture

Stalin could only enforce his methods by wiping out all opposition. Serge noted the system was highly instable, resting on brute force alone. The purges, while unplanned and proceeding from an internal dynamic set in motion by Stalin’s methods of industrialization and rule, created new social relations. None of the basic problems of the society were resolved at the end of the bloody purges, but millions paid with their lives. All forms of collective resistance were broken, and any residual resistance was atomized as the weary population concerned itself with survival, not politics.

Following the exultant first ten years of the revolution came what Serge called ten black years, from 1927- 1937. These later years constitute the struggle of the revolutionary generation against totalitarian rule and the regime’s war against its own people in the form of industrialization, famine, deportation and execution. The founders of the revolution, who favored early industrialization and gradual collectivization, democratic planning, militant internationalism, democratization of party and society, and a fight against bureaucratization, passed “from power into prison, deportation, and death.”

Serge called the “Stalin counter-revolution” the bloodiest takeover in history, in which the resistance of the revolutionary generation was so tenacious that it was necessary for the regime to eliminate it entirely to consolidate itself. In his words:

“Bolsheviks perished by the tens of thousands, Civil War veterans by the hundreds of thousands, and Soviet citizens who were tainted by the condemned ideals by the millions. A few dozen companions of Lenin and Trotsky found themselves capable of dishonoring themselves by a supreme act of devotion to the party, before being shot. Thousands more were shot in basements. The largest concentration camps in history were set up to oversee the p1N’sical elimination of the vast masses of condemned.(23)

The new state, which Serge called a bureaucratic police state, was “reactionary in every important way with respect to ideals of the revolution. A Marxism of dead slogans born in offices takes the place of a critical Marxism of thinking men.” Further, Stalin was able to “hold the souls of the opposition through their party patriotism, which he used to divide and devour them.” The cult of the leader was born, the bureaucratic parvenus of the emerging totalitarian system parroted the words of the leader and hailed the theory of socialism in one country.

Reaffirming his commitment to the politics of the Left Opposition at the end of his life, but with certain qualifiers, Serge never defined the class nature of the Soviet state systematically, calling it finally “bureaucratic totalitarianism with collectivist leanings”; that is, he described its features, discussed its dilemmas; but was not precise about its class nature.

This can be attributed partially to Serge’s method of examination and partially to the contradictory nature of the organism coming into being. He alternately called the bureaucracy a caste and a class; he agreed that exploitation occurs, but he did not call the regime capitalist.(24) He did state that the USSR would need a new revolution–and worried that without it, the bureaucracy would do a deal with capitalism to jointly exploit Soviet workers.(25)

Serge developed “revisionist” ideas about the role of the technocracy and had rather “heretical” notions about the party: although he affirmed “we badly need an organizational framework,” he cautioned us to a healthy suspicion of centralization, discipline and guided ideology.(26)

Pessimistic that the USSR had created a “concentration camp universe,” had blocked socialism and helped create Nazism, Serge nevertheless was more optimistic than ever at the end of his life that the only solution was socialism, which would put the economy at the service of its freely associated producers. Although the Mensheviks around the New Leader, many Trotskyists and so-called centrists claimed Serge moved toward social democracy and away from Marxism, Serge himself posited the socialist transformation of capitalist society and the abolition of bourgeois rule.

He wrote that the revolution must be more than just proletarian, that is, it must be socialist in the humanist sense, “more precisely, socializing through democratic libertarian means.”(27) For Serge, it was vital that the revolution pay attention to the question of liberty. Serge was an intransigent internationalist, a revolutionary committed to the utmost personal freedom within the revolutionary process.

Unlike many other former revolutionaries whose “god had failed them,” Serge did not see Stalinism as the natural outgrowth of Leninism, but rather the corruption of it. He argued that there were seeds contained in Bolshevik thought which grew to full blown weeds under Stalin, but there were also many other seeds that could have flowered into a new democracy, had the circumstances existed for their germination.(28)

For Serge, Stalinism represented the crushing of the ideals of the revolution. After all this, the question arises as to the relevance of Serge’s ideas. I have shown how his descriptions and analyses pinpoint dilemmas and problems that indicate fundamental features of the Soviet system: wasteful production, a bureaucracy that does not have complete control over the working class since the workers collude with managers to make the system tolerable for themselves.

The elements of Serge’s critique, neither complete nor without internal contradiction, nonetheless provide us with essential prerequisites for understanding the Soviet Union: the processes that have survived to the present day and are at the heart of Gorbachev’s attempted “radical reforms” and glasnost.


  1. Serge’s insights into the problems that would arise under the Stalinist production system were particularly astute and remarkable for their farsightedness at the time. A more complete analysis of production relations in the ’30s has emerged today, and while Serge couldn’t have known how things would tum out, he understood more clearly than most.
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  2. See the debate on “market socialism” in Critique 14.
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  3. For a full discussion of the relation that developed between the Soviet regime and its working class, the wasteful nature of the Soviet economy, see Hillel Ticktin, Critique 1 (1973) and Critique 6 (1976). For a discussion on the implications of Soviet social and economic organization on the formation of class relations in the period of the first three five-year plans, see Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization (Sharpe, 1986).
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  4. Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, 297-298.
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  5. The demand for labor was so high that during the first five-year plan, the workforce virtually doubled. The workers were well aware of the shortage and used it to their advantage. If a worker was fired for an infraction, and wasn’t arrested, he knew another job could be found somewhere else. Managers began to hoard workers as consumers hoard sugar during shortages. This led to a certain collusion between managers and workers regarding the tempo and rules of work Thus the labor shortage gave the workers a certain protection that allowed them to partially determine the way they work; or as Ticktin terms it, the workers gained a certain measure of control over their own work process. The trade-off for this relative independence of the worker is the undermining of efficiency, which led to contracting more labor, further compounding the problem of labor shortage, even where there is an apparent overstaffing. See also, Filtzer 152-178.
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  6. Serge’s analysis of this period coincides with that of certain Left Oppositionists, mainly Rakovsky and Trotsky, whose work he complements and popularizes, and the Left Mensheviks around the journal Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik. Working independently of one another in conditions of repression and clandestinely in the late 1920s and early ’30s, a current of thought emerged that criticized the nature of economic growth and the chaotic state of planning, or rather the lack of socialist planning. They called it besplannovost. Serge’s work on the question of planning showed some identification and sympathy with this current. The current mentioned above is discussed in the afterward to Rakovsky’s article published in Critique 13: 553-4 and in Filtzer 39.
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  7. Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, 163.
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  8. Trotsky had noted that an entire class could not be eliminated by administrative methods but only by a change in technology and the mode of production. It was no more possible to create large-scale mechanized agriculture out of wooden ploughs and kulak horses than it was to create a ship by adding up fishing boats “it is impossible to build kolkhozy today without tractors of the future.” Byulleten’ Oppozitsii IX (1930) 3, 7. Quoted in Richard Day, “Leon Trotsky on the Problems of the Smychka and Forced Collectivization,” Critique 13, 1981.
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  9. Serge, Destiny of a Revolution 170. See also Bohdan Krawchenko, “The Famine in the Ukraine in 1933,” Critique 17 (1986) 137-147, and Robert Conquest Harvest of Sorrow (Oxford University Press, 1986).
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  10. Serge, Destiny of a Revolution 163.
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  11. See Khristian Rakovsky’s significant article “The Five Year Plan in Crisis,” originally published as “At the Congress and in the Country” (Na s’ezde iv strane), Byulleten’ oppozitsii’25/26 (1931), 9-32.Translated and published in Critique 13 (1981) 13-54. Also, Andrew Smith, I Was a Soviet Worker, 1937.
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  12. Rakovsky.
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  13. Serge devotes an entire chapter to this in Soviets 29, entitled “Le Gaspillage Bureaucratique dans ‘lndustrie,” 47-60.
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  14. Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, 172.
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  15. The conception of waste as a characteristic of Soviet economic development is theoretically developed by Ticktin in “The Political Economy of the Soviet Union,” Critique 1 (1973). He shows how waste partially nullifies the results of production, while showing on paper an apparent growth. This growth turns into non-growth as it cannot be usefully applied to create either means of consumption or usable means of production. Thus it is production that does not provide a productive base for future expansion or produces a defective base for future defective expansion.
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  16. Soviets 1929, 48-52.
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  17. Serge, Soviets 1929, 56-57; Destiny of a Revolution; and From Lenin to Stalin.
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  18. Serge estimated there were up to 15 million in the forced labor sector. See Destiny of a Revolution and Carnets, 189. He based his figures on David Dallin’s book Forced Labor in Soviet Russia and discussions with Trotsky, camp correspondence, and so on.
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  19. Typescnpts, unpublished, undated, Serge Archive, Mexico.
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  20. SotsialisticheskiiVestnik describes the same strike.
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  21. Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, 163-178.
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  22. Destiny of a Revolution 185.
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  23. Serge, “1rente Ans Apres…”
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  24. Like Trotsky, Serge noted that the bureaucracy was tied to the revolution and to the preservation of collective property and a managed, though not planned economy. See Destiny of a Revolution.
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  25. Serge, unpublished manuscript, no date, archives, Mexico.
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  26. Serge, “Trente Ans Apres…” 23.
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  27. Unpublished manuscripts, (no title, no date), archives, Mexico.
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  28. Serge expressed this thought in various essays: see for example, his letter to Sidney Hook of July 19, 1943, “Marxism et Democratie.”
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May-June 1988, ATC 14

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