Last month we dug into Victor Serge’s ‘Memoirs of a revolutionary.’
An introduction to the text was given by a comrade:
This is a big book and there is no way we can discuss much of it in a 90 minute session. I just hope I can persuade you all to read right through it.
We are dealing with a person’s life that covered the whole period of the revolutionary wave across Europe and elsewhere and the eventual defeat of this working class upsurge – a defeat that was organised by the direct representatives of capital, but also, increasingly, by the very regime that came out of the Russian Revolution.
These events, with the Russian Revolution at their heart, have shaped the world ever since, and, above all, have dominated the thinking and practices of subsequent generations of revolutionaries.
I read Serge as a young teenager, but when I joined the Trotskyist movement and found out that Serge had opposed the founding of the 4th International, I no longer bothered to read him. So I got all my knowledge of the Russian Revolution from Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’. This presented the narrative that all was well with the revolution until Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin who ushered in the counter-revolution. Much of the ‘left’ followed this line or else that of the global Communist Party that Stalin was building Socialism in one country.
It was not until I had put the 4th International behind me that I started reading Serge again. His ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ and also ‘Year one of the revolution’ made an enormous impact on me. Serge was born to Russian emigre parents who were involved in the Narodnik movement. Serge grows up in Belgium, becomes an Anarchist and moves to France. His refusal to grass on friends of his who had embarked on a series of bank robberies, landed him in a French jail at the outbreak of WW1. In 1918, he goes to Russia as part of a prisoner swap arrangement. In Russia he seeks out his fellow anarchists but finds them a disappointing bunch. Instead he reads Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ and takes Lenin’s declaration of the Bolsheviks’ intent to smash the bourgeois state at face value. He joins the Bolsheviks and is at the centre of the revolution from then on, playing a big part in its international work.
But Serge’s account of the Revolution is very different from the one I knew from Trotsky. Much earlier, Marx had written how, in a revolutionary period, all the ‘old muck’ rises to the surface. As a new society tries to emerge, everything that is most rotten in the old one also rises to crush it. Serge sees this ‘old muck’ not just in the open opponents of the Revolution, in all those trying to crush it by force, but also inside the working class itself and above all, inside the revolutionary forces and organisation. For Serge the battle of the old against the new reaches its highest point inside the Bolshevik party. The question was: which side would prevail. And it is with this outlook that Serge details, day by day, the events and actions of all the people involved in the Revolution.
Serge sees himself as part of this fight, above all fighting for Lenin’s smashing of the bourgeois state. But of course this old against the new, the ‘old muck’ against a new humanity, does not appear in some nice black and white form, clearly labelled for all to see. Every day of the revolution, life and death questions have to be settled. What will strengthen the revolution? What will weaken it? And on every question there are different views within the revolutionary forces themselves.
Here there is the continual interplay between the desires of the revolutionary workers and the objective conditions that bear down on them – world war then civil war, hunger, a small and uneducated working class surrounded by a vast, largely conservative peasantry etc. etc. All these factors hem in the revolution and impose terrible conditions on it. Often, it seems, decisions are forced onto the revolution, with no alternatives. Yet Serge frequently points out that behind the line, ‘There is no alternative’, there often is. But from day one, not just after the death of Lenin, decisions are taken – ‘for the defence of the revolution’ – that in reality tend to resurrect the ‘old muck’. Serge, for example is strongly opposed to the resurrection of the death penalty. He opposes the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. Measures which Trotsky says were unavoidable if the revolution was to survive. Measures which Serge says are increasingly resurrecting the ways of the old society and alienating the working class.
Serge traces the growing despair and pessimism that he and many other party members feel as the world revolutionary tide ebbs and the Russian leaders take more and more decisions to ‘consolidate’ the revolution, at the same time as resurrecting the old state machine.
The monstrosity that emerged – with the red star on its cap and the name of communism on its banner – murdered millions of workers in the USSR and around the world. The new state, with Stalin at the helm, more and more takes an international course of action that undermines revolutionary struggles. The more they fail, the more Stalin talks of ‘building socialism in one country’, with its corollary of ‘socialism nowhere else’. Yet, despite this, millions and millions of militant workers around the world gave their uncritical support to the USSR and their own communist parties. This is not a problem that has simply gone away with the end of the USSR. What did it say about these workers’ view of what communism is? I recently read the history of the DRUM – the black Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement based mostly among black car workers in the 1970’s. No-one can doubt their militancy and hope for revolution. But they put these views alongside admiration for people like Mao and Castro, anti-working class dictators.
Serge writes at length about the actions of the Russian secret police – the cheka – apparently necessary for the protection of the revolution against the external class enemies but all the time restoring the ‘old muck’ of Czarism and increasingly acting against militants. More and more of Serge’s friends vanish into the growing prison system and that will eventually grow into an enormous killing machine and provider of slave labour to industrialise the northern regions. The cheka defends a hierarchy that more and more separates itself from any influence of the working class. And the cheka also has ‘communism’ on its badge.
Before 1917 none of the Russian revolutionaries thought that socialism was on the cards in any social upheaval in Russia because of its economic backwardness. They all looked to the rest of Europe with its growing industries as the force that would come to the aid of backward Russian. But now what do people do, left as they are, alone and isolated, in charge of the country where socialism is impossible?
Throughout, Serge deals with a central problem for revolution. In order for the new society to emerge from the old it has to confront and put an end to the power of capital. But capital comes with its armed protectors. So the working class has no choice but to destroy these forces with force. But, Serge says, this raises a big problem. The use of force stands opposed to everything the future should be and the use of force, the method of the old society, again opens the door for the ‘old muck’.
Reading Serge’s book gives the real and terrible reality of this situation. He describes how, at each moment, this global reality impinges and bears down on events in Russia. We will never have another Russian Revolution, but the working class everywhere will face similar problems in different forms, and I think reading this book and thinking about these things is essential for us today.
I want to look at just a couple of aspects of this history Serge describes. In our reading group on Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’, some comrades said they thought November 1917 was a coup, not a revolution. I understand – and sympathise – with where they are coming from, but I think they are wrong. This really says there was no real revolutionary workers movement – just the Bolsheviks – but at every point the working class, its most militant sections, made themselves felt and to only see things as a ‘Bolshevik coup’ is to not really get to grips with events. We have to look at the complexities and above all the complex relationship between human consciousness, the ideas of the most militant workers, and the material reality.
I’m not trying to draw conclusions, all I’m trying to say is that it is vital for people to really know this history in order to be able to evaluate the ideas and decisions that were taken.
And in terms of problems that will always arise again, even though future struggles will take place on very different terrain, Serge highlights the problem of party loyalty. He writes how none of them, even as the Cheka was shooting old militants, could believe that their party, the party they had all given everything they possessed to, was resurrecting the old state with a new hat on. And this is just as real a problem today as it was then. How to develop a workers’ movement that is sufficiently cohesive and organised that it can challenge the power of capital, but at the same time allow and encourage critical thought. It seems so easy but it is really very difficult. We are back to Marx’s ‘old muck’ rising to the surface and one aspect of that muck is group or party loyalty that takes precedence over independent thought.
In the discussion I think everyone indicated that they had found the book, or the parts they had read, very useful and gave them a much greater understanding of the Russian events than they had before.
One comrade said he was interested to see the degree of debate and disagreements there were inside the Bolsheviks and how those differences were debated democratically – at least in the early days. (Some of this is missing from the ‘Memoirs’ as Serge only arrives in Russia in 1918, but he recreates 1917 in his book ‘Year One of the revolution’.)
Other people said how well they felt Serge had captured the turmoil and complexity of events.
One comrade put a quote from Radek (April 1918) in the chat. The comrade thought that even though it was written so early after October, it seemed to be so accurate in predicting the counter-revolution that Serge described. The quote was: If the Russian revolution is crushed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, it will be reborn from its ashes like the Phoenix; but if it loses its socialist character, and by this disappoints the working masses, this blow will have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and international revolution. The article (from the Left Communist journal “Kommunist”) is reproduced with a CWO introduction at https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2017-02-17/an-epitaph-for-the-october-revolution.
Other points the same comrade made were:
- The degeneration of the revolution and its transformation into totalitarian party-state monstrosity still weighs heavily on us. Many on the left see the Soviet Union as, at least, a halfway house to socialism. This is also echoed in their admiration for other Stalinist-inspired models including support for the Cuban state and the willingness of many leftists to declare their support for China even as the imperialist rivalries that lead to war are being ratcheted up.
- A different variant is leftist advocacy of state ownership/intervention (state capitalism – at its peak in the Soviet Union once the first Five Year Plan is implemented)) as being essentially “socialist”
- With hindsight the counter-revolution is already clearly evident by 1921 (banning of factions, violent suppression of Kronstadt and reintroduction of state- sanctioned capitalism via NEP). This is while Lenin is still active and supporting all those measures. Great credit should be granted to those inside Russia who were able to understand the depths of the reaction as it happened – e.g. Workers Opposition, Miasnikov’s Workers Group and the Democratic Centralists. This contrasted with Trotsky and his supporters who continued to operate within the Party-state and continued to argue that the “gains of October” were somehow still embedded in the Soviet Union.
- Serge is not as clear as those early oppositionists. He writes that “Thermidor” (not a helpful analogy but one that Trotsky and his followers maintained) takes place in November 1927 but that was, in fact, part of the faction fight within the Party/State that led very quickly to the industrialisation that the Left Opposition had been calling for.
- Serge is also unclear when at the end of his memoirs he is defensive towards the Soviet Union during the Second World War. That is inconsistent with Serge’s own analysis that the proletarian revolution had long ago been defeated. The Trotskyists had split during 1939-40 with the official majority also refusing to apply “revolutionary defeatism” to the Stalinist Soviet Union.
- When Serge ends up in Belgium and France after his release from the Soviet Union, he observes how many of the old Social Democratic spokespeople had found their place in the capitalist order. He also observes that there is no widespread revolutionary class consciousness left amongst the working class. That negative trajectory has continued since then (with the decade from the late 60s to the late 70s appearing as a “false dawn”). This reinforces the comments made by a series of comrades that the next revolutionary wave, an absolute necessity for humanity, will not resemble the wave that started in 1917.
In relation to people worshipping at the feet of assorted dictators like Castro one comrade said that it was becoming harder for people to justify such support as the reality of life under their rule becomes clearer to see (as, for example, we see Cubans taking to the streets and Chinese workers rioting and going on strike). The impact of the increasingly blatant moral degeneracy of state leaders would almost certainly have an effect on peoples’ ideas of what a revolution could look like and their own role in it.
Another thing made clear in the book was the idea that unless material needs like food and shelter are met, a revolutionary impetus probably won’t last very long…
Finally it was pointed out that in all the hundreds of pages of his memoirs, Serge refers in just one sentence (and totally out of the blue) to the fact that he has a wife and child. This is demonstrative of the general lack of women as active agents of the revolution in the book, and that the ‘personal is political’ hadn’t gained much traction yet!