REVOLUTIONARY WITNESS TO HIS TIMES
As I have noted in my review of Leon Trotsky’s memoir My Life ( see my review elsewhere in this space) today’s public tastes dictate that political memoir writers expose the most intimate details of their private personal lives in the so-called public square. Here, as in Trotsky’s memoir, Serge will offer up no such tantalizing details. These old time revolutionaries seem organically averse to including personal material that would distract from their political legacies. That is fine by me. After all that is why political people, the natural audience for this form of history narrative, appreciate such works. Contemporary political memoir writers take note.
Serge was a militant from his youth. However the October 1917 Russian Revolution is the real start of his political maturation and wider political influence. I believe the reader will find the most useful information and Serge’s most insightful political analysis dates from this period. Serge became a secondary Communist leader after the Bolshevik seizure of power and in various capacities, most notably as a journalist for the Communist International, witnessed many of the important events in and out of Russia in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Moreover, for a long period of time he was a key member of the Trotsky-led Left Opposition to the rise of Stalinism which formed in the Russian Communist Party and later in the Communist International in the 1920’s. Serge eventually broke politically with Trotsky in the late 1930’s over the class nature of the Soviet state and organizational differences on the role of the revolutionary party in the struggle and in power. Serge's later politics and activities are murky, somewhat disoriented and the subject of controversy (see the Appendix in Memoirs and my review of Serge’s book Kronstadt). However, Serge’s analysis and insights as a witness to this period of history retain their value, especially his analysis of the, for leftists, very troublesome Stalinist purges and terror campaigns of the 1930’s.
Here, as with Trotsky’s memoir, you will find a thoughtful political self-examination by a man trying to draw the lessons of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the subsequent defeats of the international working class movement, the devastating destruction of fellow revolutionary cadre who made and administered the early Soviet state while still defending the gains of that revolution. Overshadowing these concerns is a constant personal struggle to maintain one’s revolutionary integrity at all costs. That is, the struggle not to wind up like Bukharin or Zinoviev and the like, compromised and lost to the struggle for socialism. On top of that, moreover, and perhaps hardest of all, be able tol maintain a sense of revolutionary optimism for the future organization of human society.
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin once commented that in the run-up to the October Revolution the political whirlwind stirred up by that revolution inevitably brought those individuals and organizations looking for the resolution of the revolutionary dilemma into the Bolshevik orbit. This was most famously the case with Trotsky’s St. Petersburg Inter-District organization that fused with the Bolsheviks in the fateful summer of 1917. That same whirlwind later drew in the best elements of the Western labor movement as word of the revolution reached the outside world. Previously, Serge had been close to the French anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement but as happens in great revolutions he, like other militant anarchists, was drawn to the reality of the Soviet experiment despite political differences over the question of the state. Able to override this difference he, generally, like many non-Bolshevik militants served the revolution with distinction. Thus, this fateful political decision to cast his personal fate with the Russian Revolution led him to the series of political adventures and misadventures that enliven his memoir.
At the beginning of the 21st century when socialist political programs are in decline it is hard to imagine the spirit that drove Serge to dedicate the better part of his life to the fight for a socialist society. However, at the beginning of the 20th century he represented only a slightly younger version of that revolutionary generation of Eastern Europeans and Russians exemplified by Lenin, Trotsky, Martov and Luxemburg who set out to change the history of the 20th century. It was as if the best and brightest of that generation were afraid, for better or worse, not to take part in the political struggles that would shape the modern world. Those same questions posed at the beginning of the 20th century are still on the agenda for today’s generation of militants to help resolve. This is one of your political textbooks. Read it.
Marxism in Our Time
From Partisan Review, vol.5, no.3, 1938, pp.26-32.
Reprinted in David Cotterill (ed.), The Serge-Trotsky Papers, London 1994, pp.176-83.
Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Victor Serge Estate.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Since the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, Marxism has gone through many metamorphoses and suffered many attacks. Critics still exist – and sometimes men of good will – who insist that it has been cancelled, refuted, destroyed by history. The confused but energetic class-consciousness of the last defenders of capitalism, however, sees in Marxism its most dangerous spiritual and social enemy. The preventative counter-revolutions of Italy and of Germany justly proclaim themselves “anti-Marxist”. On the other hand, almost all workers’ movements which have won any appreciable power have been inspired by Marxism. The CNT of Spain is almost the only exception to this rule, and experience has shown only too well the seriousness of its ideological bankruptcy, at a moment when the consciousness of the masses was called on to become one of the decisive factors in a revolution in the making – a revolution perhaps aborted today precisely because of the political incapacity of the revolutionaries.
The historic achievements of Marxism are not to be denied. The Marxist parties of the Second International united and organised the pre-war working class, raising it to a new dignity, shaping it democratically. In 1914 they showed themselves prisoners of the capitalism which they fought even as they adapted themselves to it. (They adapted themselves, in reality, a good deal more than they fought.) But it was a Marxist party which, in the chaotic currents of the Russian Revolution, knew how to disentangle the main lines of force, to orient itself constantly according to the highest interests of the workers, to make itself, in the truest sense of the word, the midwife of a new world. Marxists bore the brunt of the class wars of the post-war period; Spartacists in Germany, Tiessriaki in Bulgaria, Communists everywhere. Later, at the moment of its highest flight, the Chinese revolution was strongly influenced by the revolutionary Marxism of the Russians – already much deformed, incidentally, by the reaction even then arising inside the USSR. It is true that German Marxism in its two forms – Social Democratic and Communist – showed itself impotent before the Nazi offensive. Along with the degeneration of Bolshevism, this is without question, let us note in passing, the greatest defeat that Marxism has ever suffered. Nonetheless, Marxism continues to mount the ladder of world history. While irreconcilable oppositionists are persecuted and exterminated by Stalinism, the Austrian Socialists carry on a struggle, desperate but heroic, which saves them from demoralisation; the Socialist miners of the Asturias in ‘34 deal a set-back to Spanish fascism.
It would be absurd to isolate Marxist thought from these social realities. Even more than it is a scientific doctrine, Marxism is an historic fact. If one is to understand it, one must embrace it in all its scope. One then perceives that since the birth, the apogee and the corruption of Christianity, there has been no more considerable event in the life of humanity.
Top of the page
This fact goes far beyond the boundaries of the class struggle and becomes an integral part of the consciousness of modem man – no matter what his attitude towards Marxism. It is of secondary importance to ask one’s self if the theories of value, or of surplus value, or of the accumulation of capital are still completely valid. An idle question, essentially, and even somewhat puerile. Science is never “finished”; rather, it is always completing itself Can science be anything except a process of continual self-revision, an unceasing quest for a closer approach to truth? Can it get along without hypothesis and error – the “error” of tomorrow which is the “truth” (that is, the closest approximation of the truth) of yesterday. It is of minor importance, also, to point out that certain predictions of Marx and Engels have not been confirmed by history and that, on the contrary, many events have taken place which they did not at all foresee. Marx and Engels were too great, too intelligent, to believe themselves infallible and play the prophet. It is true – but not important – that their followers have not always reached this level of wisdom. It still remains true that Marxism has modified the thinking of the man of our modem times. We are in debt to it for a renewing, a broadening of our consciousness. In what way? Since Marx, no one seriously denies the part played by economics in history. The relationship between economic, psychological, social and moral factors appears today, even to the adversaries of Marxism, in an altogether different light from that in which it appeared before Marx. It is the same with the role of the individual in history, and with the relationship of the individual to the masses and to society. Marxism, finally, gives us what I call the “historical sense”; it makes us conscious that we live in a world which is li-i process of changing; it enlightens us as to our possible function – and our limitations – it is this continual struggle and creation; it teaches us to integrate ourselves, with all our will, all our talents, to bring about those historical processes that are, as the case may be, necessary, inevitable or desirable. And it is thus that it allows us to confer on our isolated lives a high significance, by tying them, through a consciousness which heightens and enriches the spiritual life, to that life – collective, innumerable, and permanent – of which history is only the record.
This awakening of consciousness insists on action and, furthermore, on the unity of action and thought. Here is man reconciled with himself, whatever be the burden of his destiny. He no longer feels himself the plaything of blind and measureless forces. He looks with clear eyes on the worst tragedies, and even in the midst of the greatest defeats he feels himself enlarged by his ability to understand, his will to act and to resist, the indestructible feeling of being united in all his aspirations with the mass of humanity in its progress through time.
Top of the page
One is no more able to deny the part played by economics in history than the fact that the earth is round... And even those who argue the point do not in the least deceive themselves. I should like to emphasise here an important point to which not enough attention has been paid in the past. The enemies of the working class have themselves largely assimilated the lessons of Marxism. The politicians, the industrialists and bankers, the demagogues sometimes bum the works of Marx and throw his followers into prison; but, dealing with social realities, they pay tribute to Marxist economists and political leaders. And if scholars refute the theory of surplus value, their masters do not put any less energy and stubbornness into the defence of the surplus value they appropriate as their plunder from the revenues of society. This sub-rosa Marxism of the enemies of socialism is in a fair way to become one of the most formidable means of defence of the privileged classes.
Marxism undergoes, in its own history, the conditions of development which it analyses. It is able to rise above them only in a small degree, since every gain of consciousness is an effect before it becomes a cause, and remains subordinate to pre-existing social conditions. “Social being determines consciousness.”
The Marxism of the imperialist epoch was split. It was nationalistic and wholely reformist. Very few of its adherents – a Rosa Luxemburg, a Lenin, a Trotsky, a Hermann Gorter  – saw beyond the moment to horizons vaster than those of capitalist prosperity. Either this Marxism dwelt on the heights of philosophy far removed from immediate action, or it was merely reminiscent of the ancient Christian utopianism (which was, in our culture, Hebrew before it was Christian: read the Prophets!).
The Marxism of the imperialist epoch was split. It was nationalistic and counter-revolutionary in the countries where it had been reformist; it was revolutionary and internationalist in Russia, the only country in which the foundering of an ancien régime forced the proletariat to carry out completely its historic mission.
The Marxism of the Russian Revolution was at first ardently internationalist and libertarian (the doctrine of the Communist State, the federation of Soviets); but because of the state of siege, it soon became more and more authoritarian and intolerant.
The Marxism of the decadence of Bolshevism – that is to say, that of the bureaucratic caste which has evicted the working class from power – is totalitarian, despotic, amoral, and opportunist. It ends up in the strangest and most revolting negations of itself.
What does this mean except that social consciousness even in its highest forms does not escape the effect of the realities which it expresses, which it illuminates and which it tries to surmount.
Top of the page
Marxism is so firmly based in truth that it is able to find nourishment in its own defeats. We must distinguish here between the social philosophy – scientific, to speak more accurately – and its deductions for, and applications to, action. (These are actually inseparable, and this is the case not only with Marxism but also with all those intellectual disciplines which are closely tied to human activity.) It is our business neither to force events, nor to control them, nor even to foresee them – even though we are constantly doing all these things, with varying success; our activity, being creative, boldly ventures into the uncertain; and, what we do not know generally getting the better of what we know, our successes are rather astonishing victories. As to the Marxist line of action, it would be enough to list the prodigious success of the Bolshevik party in 1917 (Lenin–Trotsky), the predictions of Engels about the world war of the future and its consequences, some lines from the resolution adopted at the Basle Congress of the Second International (1913) – for the Marxist line to be justified as the most rigorously, scientifically thought-out of these times. But even when it comes to the very depths of defeat, it is still the same. Do you wish to understand your defeat? You will be able to only by means of the Marxist analysis of history. Marxism showed itself impotent in Germany before the Nazi counterrevolution; but it is the only theory that explains this victory of a party of the declassed, paid for and supported during an insoluble economic crisis, by the chiefs of the big bourgeoisie. This complex phase of the class struggle, prepared by the national humiliation at Versailles and the massacres of proletarian revolutionaries (Noske, 1918-21), is made completely intelligible to us only by the scientific thought of the defeated class. And this is one of the reasons which make Marxist thought such a threat to the victors.
It is the same with the terrible degeneration of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR. There too, the punishment of the Old Bolsheviks, exterminated by the regime which they have created, is no more than a phenomenon of the class struggle. The proletariat, deposed from power by a caste of parvenus entrenched in the new State, can take an accounting of the basic reasons for its defeat and can prepare itself for the struggles of tomorrow only by means of the Marxist analysis.
Top of the page
The Marxism of the era of capitalist prosperity naturally lacked revolutionary ardour. It dared neither imagine nor hope for the end of the society in which it lived. Lacking this audacity, it disavowed itself when it became necessary. But there are times when to live is to dare.
The Marxism of the first great revolutionary crisis of the modem world, chiefly represented by the Russians – that is to say, by men formed in the school of despotism – has given proof of a lack of boldness of another sort, and one quite as ruinous: it has not dared to take a libertarian position. Or rather, it was libertarian in words and only for a short time, during the brief period of Soviet democracy which extended from October, 1917, to the summer of 1918. Then it pulled itself together and resolutely entered on the path of the old “statism” – authoritarian, and soon totalitarian. It lacked the sense of liberty.
It is easy to explain – and even to justify – this development of Bolshevik Marxism by referring to the constant mortal danger, the Civil War, the superbly energetic defence of the public safety by Lenin, Trotsky, Dzerzhinsky. Easy and just to recognise that this policy, in its early stages, made certain the victory of the workers – and a victory won in the face of difficulties that were truly without precedent. But one must realise that later on this policy brought about the defeat of the workers by the bureaucracy. The Bolshevik leaders of the great years lacked neither the knowledge nor intelligence nor energy. They lacked revolutionary audacity whenever it was necessary to seek (after 1918) the solution of their problems in the freedom of the masses and not in government constraint. They built systematically not the libertarian Communist State which they announced, but a State strong in the old sense of the word, strong in its police, in its censorship, its monopolies, its all-powerful bureaus. In this respect, the contrast is striking between the Bolshevist programme of 1917 and the political structure created by Bolshevism in 1919.
After victory had been won in the Civil War, the Socialist solution of the problems of the new society should have been sought in workers’ democracy, the stimulation of initiative, freedom of thought, freedom for working-class groups and not, as it was, in centralisation of power, repression of heresies, the monolithic single-party system, the narrow orthodoxy of an official school of thought. The dominance and ideology of a single party should have preshadowed the dominance and ideology of a single leader. This extreme concentration of power, this dread of liberty and of ideological variations, this conditioning to absolute authority disarmed the masses and led to the strengthening of the bureaucracy. By the time Lenin and Trotsky realised the danger and wished to retrace their steps – timidly enough, at first: the greatest reach of boldness of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party was to demand the restoration of inner-Party democracy, and it never dared dispute the theory of single-party government – by this time, it was too late.
The fear of liberty, which is the fear of the masses, marks almost the entire course of the Russian Revolution. If it is possible to discover a major lesson, capable of revitalising Marxism, more threatened today than ever by the collapse of Bolshevism, one might formulate it in these terms: Socialism is essentially democratic – the word, “democratic”, being used here in its libertarian sense. One sees today in the USSR that without liberty of thought, of speech, of criticism, of initiative, Socialist production can only go from one crisis to another. Liberty is as necessary to Socialism, the spirit of liberty is as necessary to Marxism, as oxygen to living beings.
Top of the page
In the very wake of its sensational victory in the Russian Revolution, Marxism is today threatened with a great loss of prestige, and in the working-class movement, with an unspeakable demoralisation. It would be futile to pretend otherwise. We have seen, in the country of Socialist victory, the Marxist party – enjoying the greatest, the most deserved prestige – in the space of fifteen years undergo the most disconcerting degeneration. We have seen it reach the point of dishonouring and murdering its heroes of yesterday, drawing from their very loyalty, for the purposes of judicial frame-ups based on glaring forgeries, confessions which are even more sinister than they are disconcerting. We have seen the dictatorship of the proletariat transform itself insensibly into a dictatorship of bureaucrats and of police agents over the proletariat. We have seen the working class, still in the flush of its recent victories, condemned to a moral and material level decidedly below that which it had under the Czarist regime. We have seen the peasantry dispossessed and exiled by millions, agriculture ruined by forced collectivisation. We have seen science, literature, thought literally handcuffed, and Marxism reduced to formulae which are frequently manipulated for political ends and emptied of all living content. We have seen it, furthermore, falsified, crudely adapted to the interests of a regime which in its mores, its actions, and the new forms of exploitation of labour it has superimposed on the base of common ownership of the instruments of production. We have seen, we still see the indescribable spectacle of the black terror, permanently established in the USSR. We have seen the cult of “the Beloved Leader”, the corruption of the intellectuals and the workers’ organisations abroad, the systematic lies broadcast by a huge journalistic apparatus which still calls itself Communist’, the secret police of Moscow murdering or kidnapping its adversaries as far away as Spain and Switzerland. We have seen this gangrene spread throughout revolutionary Spain, compromising, perhaps irretrievably, the destiny of the workers. And it is not over yet. All the values which comprise the greatness of Socialism from now on are compromised, soiled, obliterated. A fatal division, between the blind and the clear-sighted, rascals and honest men, deepens in the ranks of the working class, already provoking fratricidal conflicts, rendering all moral progress impossible for the time being. For it is no longer possible to discuss with good faith and intellectual courage a single one of the theoretical and practical questions that grow out of Marxism. The social catastrophe in the USSR taints in its growth, in its very life, the consciousness of modem man.
I wrote to André Gide in May 1936, before he left for Russia: “We make a common front against Fascism. But how can we bar its way with so many concentration camps behind our own lines? One’s duty is no longer simple, and it is no longer permitted to any one to simplify it. No new orthodoxy, no sacred falsehoods can any longer dry up this running sore. In one sense only does the Soviet Union remain the greatest hope of mankind in our day; in any sense that the Soviet workers have not yet said their last word.”
Every social conflict is also a competition. If socialism is to win out over fascism, it must bring humanity social conditions which are clearly superior.
Is it necessary to emphasise again that the confused, distorted and bloody Marxism of the gunmen of Moscow – is not Marxism? That it negates, belies and paralyses itself? The masses, unfortunately, will take some time to realise this. They live not according to clear and rational thought but according to impressions which the lessons of experience slowly modify. Since all this goes on under the usurped banner of Marxism, we must expect that the masses, unable to apply Marxist analysis to this tragedy, will react against Marxism. Our enemies have it all their own way.
But scientific thought cannot regress below the Marxist level, nor can the working class do without this intellectual weapon. The European working class is still recuperating its strength, sapped by the blood-letting of the world war. A new proletariat is arising in Russia, its industrial base greatly extended. The class struggle goes on. For all the dictators’ replastering, we hear the framework of the old social edifice cracking. Marxism will go through many vicissitudes of fortune, perhaps even eclipses. Its power, conditioned by the course of history, none the less appears to be inexhaustible. For its base is knowledge integrated with the necessity for revolution.
1. Herman Gorter (1864-1927), a member of the Dutch Socialist Party, opposed the war in 1914. He helped found the Dutch CP in 1918 and the German CP in 1920.