Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Bryan Palmer

Victor Serge:
The Course is Set on Hope
by Susan Weissman
London and New York: Verso, 2001, xvii + 364 pages,
$35 hardback.

AMONG THE LAST Bolsheviks forced to live their days of Left Opposition on a planet without a visa were Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge. The two revolutionaries, so different in background and political inclination, nevertheless had come to share much in the cauldron where the first workers’ state was made and unmade in the decade reaching from 1917 to 1927.

After that they were never quite able to shake the vise-like grip of Stalinist deformation, an ugly politics of murderous extermination that may well have contributed to a falling out between the dissident communist comrades.

This tension was heightened in the late 1930s by differences that began to crystallize around Kronstadt [the suppression of the 1921 anti-Bolshevik revolt –ed.], the Spanish Civil War, and divergences over means and ends that came to a head with Serge’s refusals of certain of Trotsky’s views in the aftermath of translating into French his Their Morals and Ours.

At this point, Trotsky and Serge were locked in an at times personalized animus, and differed quite fundamentally in their understandings of the strategic direction necessary for revolutionary forces whose weakness was masked by the headiness of the formation of the Fourth International.

Today, the two Russian Left Oppositionists are remembered quite differently, with Serge more often than not assimilated to a tradition of libertarian anarchism, regarded as a novelist of “the Gulag,” while Trotsky is revered or reviled as “the Old Man” of Bolshevism’s revolutionary continuity.

Revolutionary Optimism

Susan Weissman’s book complicates such divergent readings. In the process she presents a view of Serge that is based on a relentless recovery of his post-1917 literary and political trails, so often obscured by the complacency of bourgeois scholarship and the calumny of Stalinist slander.

Weissman’s Serge is not so much a full-scale biography, in the sense of a deeply researched history of an individual contextualized in his times; but neither is it a literary aesthetics of Serge’s prolific array of publications, totaling almost fifty books and hundreds of articles, encompassing fiction, poetry, translation, history, politics, diary and reminiscence.

Rather, Weissman concentrates her considerable knowledge of Serge in a presentation of his writings as an articulation of revolutionary optimism, unleashed in 1917, and then pitted against the face of Stalinist counterrevolution.

The book thus largely bypasses Serge’s youthful adventures in anarcho-socialism and socially conscious banditry, which predated but bear a striking resemblance to the more sustained 1920s and 1930s experiences of the Spanish anarchist, Buenaventura Durruti.

Weissman’s Serge thus moves quickly from anarchism to Bolshevism. Perhaps too quickly, for a more detailed appreciation of his anarchist beginnings might shed some light on Serge’s refusals of certain Left Opposition intransigence in the late 1930s. His anarchist background is certainly relevant to his views, controversial in Trotskyist circles, of Kronstadt and the Spanish Civil war, not to mention the formation and possibilities of the Fourth International.

Serge, for Weissman, is thus a Bolshevik, and remains one, albeit in a dissident mold, for the vast bulk of his life. He was not, unlike Trotsky, an “Old Bolshevik,” but gravitated to Bolshevism after the fact of Revolution itself.

Revolutionary Partisan

Born in Belgium in 1890, Serge’s parents (whose name was Kibalchich) were Russians, but their socialist son would not actually set foot in his “homeland” until February 1919; he joined the Bolshevik Party a few months later and became an advocate of the Revolution and Marxism.

Throughout communism’s beleaguered “civil war” years (1918-21), Serge occupied no prominent Bolshevik Party posts, but worked for the Revolution through teaching, editing, archival management, propagandizing and writing, especially, given his facility with languages, on assignments associated with the Communist

If he retained ties to anarchists, Serge regarded them, correctly, as largely ignorant of political economy, emotional in their approach to theory, and somewhat innocent of the problems in wielding power — a balance sheet decidedly detrimental in the moment of consolidating the proletarian state.

An intimate of Bolshevik leaders, Serge himself avoided the responsibilities and burdens of leadership. According to Weissman, this was because he wanted to remain with the rank-and-file, and to keep open his options to exercise critical judgment.

He was an early opponent of the Cheka’s [Soviet secret police] excesses, and at the time of Kronstadt was disturbed by the bloody suppression of the revolt as well as the Bolshevik Party’s propaganda campaign, which Serge felt erred on the side of lies and slander, promulgated further by the Russian press.

Yet for all his unease, and for all of his empathy with the program of the “Kronstadt sailors,” which he thought a “renewal of the revolution,” Serge sided reluctantly with the Bolsheviks and Trotsky: Abstract assertions of principle were no substitute for holding on to a fragile proletarian power, which faced a revolt of reaction from within and hostile encirclement of the capitalist world without.

An Early Dissident

Weissman places her accent on Serge’s disgust at the Bolshevik heavy-handedness and dishonesty during the February-March 1921 Kronstadt crisis, as indeed would Serge later, in 1930s publications.

But in focusing so resolutely on Serge’s accounts, Weissman keeps somewhat out of view recent historical writing that suggests just how different the social basis of the Kronstadt naval fortress was in 1921 than it had been in the revolutionary fervor of 1917.

Serge, limited by his access to sources and information, may well not have known how spent the revolutionary elements of Kronstadt were in 1921, and how highly influential the inherently individualist peasant ethos of reaction had become in the once proud bastion of sailors’ revolutionism.

This is a point Trotsky was better placed to appreciate, and which undoubtedly influenced his decisions. But Serge knew enough, in the armed heat of the moment, to understand that one outpost of discontent should not be allowed to bring the first workers’ state crashing to its knees, which is precisely what threatened and exactly why Trotsky and other Bolsheviks opted for the tragically necessary course of suppression.

They too had their qualms, their doubts, their difficult nights of conscience. But they acted, as Serge had not been required to do. Serge, at the time, had both the judgment and the resolve to stand with the Bolshevik deed of preservation.

Kronstadt, then, was no Thermidor. If Serge saw aspects of this, he was perhaps prone to look in the wrong places. But the counterrevolution was not long in coming, and when it arrived Serge could locate origins where other degenerations were more important.

The critical point, by the mid-1920s, was that a profound bureaucratizing conservatism had overtaken Bolshevism, deforming the vanguard of world revolution, the Comintern, and registering in global defeats reaching from Bulgaria to China, from Great Britain to Germany.

Domestically, the Soviet Union was impaled on a crisis of subsistence, and class differentiation in the countryside was threatening disorder, as was the fallout from an accelerated industrialization that was clearly stalling. As Stalin privileged the socialist fatherland over proletarian internationalism, a Left Opposition emerged, with Trotsky at its head.

Serge, again the Bolshevik, cast his lot with the dissidents. From this point until his death in 1947, as Weissman makes abundantly clear, “Serge’s critique of Stalinism was the core of his life and of his work.” (9)

Left Oppositionist

Serge, who throughout the early 1920s had been engaged largely on the cultural front, in literary critiques and endeavors, was now forced dramatically into the political arena.

He embraced much of the Left Opposition’s program, especially around the necessity of advancing the pace of industrialization; but he was a somewhat quirky dissident, called upon largely to write and central to the small Leningrad cohort that would eventually be merged with the much larger Zinoviev forces.

The latter had slandered Serge and his comrades viciously until they switched sides in the party line-up and joined with Trotsky for a time, a coalition Serge distrusted. [Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik leader and head of the party machinery in Leningrad, was an early supporter of Stalin’s faction until around 1925 –ed.]

Indeed, Weissman’s presentation of Serge in the years of the Left Opposition from 1923-1933 takes pains to present Serge as a loyal Oppositionist who nevertheless always harbored distrust of the “Party patriotism” that guided Trotsky’s sense of strategic orientation to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

As Stalin’s repressive assault on the Left Opposition hardened, with Trotsky forcibly removed to Alma Ata, Serge’s importance in the international campaign intensified. At Trotsky’s request he worked closely with French comrades, writing extensively in French communist publications on the Chinese Revolution, predicting the bloodbath of defeat [Chiang Kai-Shek’s 1927 coup –ed.] that flowed out of Stalinism’s programmatic suppression of revolutionary potential and initiative.

Serge’s “offshore” writings on China — he was barred from publishing in the Soviet Union — as well as his public stand as a Left Oppositionist, culminated in a short eight week arrest in 1928, but pressure from European comrades led to his release.

Repression and Terror

His health weakening, increasingly isolated in the shriveling ranks of a Leningrad Left Opposition now reduced to two, Serge saw the Revolution retreat into Stalinist defeat in the 1928-33 years. He lived in a communal apartment, where he co-habited with GPU [Stalinist police] agents who opened his mail, reported his conversations, and monitored his comings and goings.

Serge’s entire extended family was persecuted: his father-in-law, an old revolutionary, was hounded from his factory job, brought to trial along with his spouse and daughter, Serge’s wife, the domestic unit charged with advocating capitalism, terrorism and anti-Semitism (they were Jewish).

The elderly man died, while Serge’s wife succumbed to a mental breakdown. Prominent Left Oppositionists simply went missing, and entire families were obliterated: thirty-six of Trotsky’s immediate family perished over the years of Stalinist political genocide.

Before Preobrazhensky disappeared, he and Serge had a clandestine conversation underneath a symbolically barren tree: “I do not know where we are going,” Serge said, “They are stopping me from breathing, I expect anything to happen.” (140)

The arrest toll probably climbed to 5,000 between 1928-1930, at which point there were almost no Left Oppositionists still at large inside the Soviet Union. A fresh round of repression commenced again in 1933-34 as the Opposition prisoners were released after serving five-year sentences.

Most were rearrested, and after the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a Political Bureau member and Party Secretary in Leningrad, on 1 December 1934, Stalin unleashed a new terror culminating in the Moscow Trials. Scores of dissidents were immediately executed and thousands were arrested and deported to Siberia, the Urals, central Asia and elsewhere.

Serge himself was incarcerated in the first wave of this 1933-1934 revival of terror. “Interrogated” for three months, Serge was eventually deported to the famine-ruined Asian outpost of Orenburg, on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. One-tenth of the population were deportees; Serge, convicted of “counter-revolutionary conspiracy,” had a “home” for three years.

He scraped together a living by his writing, sold to foreign connections, and was plagued by ill health, but his cause was promoted by a European defense committee. It was an atrocious situation; Serge knew well it could have been worse.

In the company of other Left Oppositionists, he kept the politics of dissident Bolshevism alive, although Serge no longer harbored any illusions that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could be won back to its revolutionary politics.

Decade of Exile

The Soviet authorities finally succumbed to the pressures of an international campaign to free Serge, who was allowed to relocate to Paris, which he would leave only as the Nazis amassed on the city’s borders. A number of his manuscripts were seized before leaving the USSR, and have yet to be found.

Over the course of the next decade, Serge, like Trotsky before him, was forced to wander far from his countries of birth and adoption, ending his days in Mexico. During this period his relationship with Trotsky and the successor of the Left Opposition, the Fourth International, deteriorated.

Trotsky came to see Serge as a Menshevik, given to vacillation over the potential of the workers to lead the Revolution in Spain and elsewhere. The “Old Man” and the Left Oppositionists’ leading “Man of Letters” clashed, as well, over how to best build the revolutionary forces, with Serge arguing strongly for an open, non-sectarian “Party,” broad rather than narrow, and tolerant about ambivalences over what Serge regarded as “secondary differences.”

For Serge the critical work was anti-Stalinist and, unlike Trotsky, he was willing to co-exist within a party with those who failed to abide orthodox Bolshevik views on the nature of the Soviet Union and the necessity of its defense, a position with which Trotsky could broach no disagreement.

By 1937-1938 these strains had widened into programmatic fissures relating to Kronstadt and, more critically, the Spanish Civil War, where Trotsky distrusted the anarchists in general and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in particular.

Serge stood in solidarity with the POUM, arguing within the Fourth International that the organization, to which his old Bolshevik friend Andres Nin was affiliated, should be supported in its involvement in the Catalan government (the regional administration from which it would soon be expelled) in order to influence policy and arm the masses as the struggle escalated.

Tensions associated with such positions were in fact critical divides over the role and place of the Fourth International in leading the world’s revolutionary forces. Trotsky was adamant that the new international lead, and expected Serge to play a role befitting his experience as one of the last surviving Left Oppositionists.

Serge, in contrast, thought the Fourth International project premature, stressed the weakness of its national sections, and thought that any such leading body forged in the late 1930s climate of defeat and retreat would be destined to fail.

Revolutionist to the End

From this point on, with Serge backing away from the Fourth International, the gulf with Trotsky widened and, following the Stalinist murder of the “Old Man” in 1940, few Trotskyist organizations tolerated what they regarded as Serge’s capitulation to liberalism.

In Mexico, Serge worked with Socialismo Y Libertad, a group no less fractious than the Trotskyist parties in Europe that he had insisted were too small and faction-ridden. Increasingly drawn to totalitarian theory, Serge was, to the end, a Marxist maverick who deplored the politics of Trotskyist renegades such as James Burnham, but who often echoed their interpretive stands.

He grew increasingly close, throughout the 1940s, with Dwight Macdonald and the “New Leader,” a publication that also published the ever-rightward moving Max Eastman and Sidney Hook.

Weissman is insistent, however, that Serge remained a revolutionary socialist to the end. She paints Serge with the consistent brush of a Left Oppositionist as intransigent in his non-“party patriotic” bolshevism as he was in his anti-Stalinism. In the process she rescues Serge from the condescension of a posterity drawn tightly critical in the taut factionalism of Trotskyism’s founding moment of the mid-to-late 1930s and early 1940s.

Stalinist Agents

No one can read this book, with its detailed exposition of the role played by Stalinist agents in fomenting discord among the exiled Left Opposition forces, and not appreciate Weissman’s point that Trotsky was, with respect to Serge, somewhat insensitive to the slanderous disinformation campaign waged by GPU agents who were, as well, capable of murder and other physical crimes.

Weissman exposes in particular the unsavory role of one such agent, Marc Zborowski, in reducing Serge to pariah status in Left Opposition circles in Paris in 1938-1939. It is entirely possible that Zborowski, who later moved to the United States and testified before a Senate Committee on the Scope of Soviet Activities in the United States, played some role in the death of Trotsky’s son Sedov, who expired under suspicious circumstances of complications resulting from an operation at a Parisian hospital run by White Russians.

Zborowski drove Sedov to the hospital, informing the GPU of his whereabouts; was rumored to have fed Sedov a “poisoned orange;” and at best delivered Trotsky’s son to a Chekist surgeon, whose operating history reveals a number of fatalities following relatively simple procedures.

Recovering a Legacy

Weissman’s Serge is at times indeed two books. The first, about Serge, his history, his ideas and his writings, is developed alongside a second Serge, in which Weissman’s sleuthing, tracking down of individuals, search for lost manuscripts, and rehabilitation of the Left Oppositionist writer and political activist unfolds.

Paragraphs of personal statement of trips taken, phone calls made, archives explored, and search and reconnaissance missions undertaken weave into and out of accounts of Serge and his history.

If the first book of Serge situates ideas and engagements, chronicles repression and exile and commitment, the second is the tale of a wandering post-Serge advocate, whose willingness to trek the globe in search of traces of a heroic figure, her inquiring nose pressed to a grindstone on which a lost manuscript may resurface, or her support freely given to a Moscow library bearing Serge’s name, testifies to a research resilience and political commitment that is admirable.

Few sources were left unturned in this quest to revive Serge as an important figure in the Bolshevik tradition — including the execrable Zborowski, on whose doorstep Weissman was known to stand, demanding, to no avail, answers to her pointed questions.

These two books, coexisting between one set of covers, make for an at times back-and-forth read. But it is one that, even acknowledging Weissman’s penchant for presenting Serge in the best light and understating critique from the Trotskyist left, is as revealing as it is refreshing.

No Bolshevik can read this book and fail to see in Serge one of “the constellation of dead brothers” that our tradition hails as part of its history and meaning. Weissman has done a remarkable job in making that apparent.

ATC 99, July-August 2002