Victor Serge is my favorite socialist of all time. I’m willing to admit that this choice is decidedly divergent from the norm.
It’s true that Serge may have lacked Marx’s powers of economic and historical analysis, Lenin’s strategic and tactical instincts, or Trotsky’s organizational powers. Yet Serge tops my list for an altogether different quality: his unparalleled political honesty. Serge was able to look brutal facts in the face while at the same time sacrificing nothing in the way of revolutionary intransigence.
In the preface to the 1930 edition of his Year One of the Russian Revolution, Serge writes,
The working class is the only class which has everything to gain, whatever the circumstances, by knowing the truth. It has nothing to keep hidden, at any rate not in history. Social lies have the same function as they ever had: that of deceiving the working class. This class refutes deception in order that it can conquer; its refutation of deceit is the measure of its conquest.
Serge began his life as Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, born in born in Brussels to Russian parents living in exile in Belgium. He began his political life working his way through the individualist anarchist current in France in the early 20th century before seeking political asylum in Spain where he worked among the anarcho-syndicalists.
Like many syndicalists, Serge was captivated by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and started to move toward Bolshevism. He made his way to Russia in 1919 and served the revolution tirelessly, eventually working for the Comintern in Germany. He joined the Left Opposition with Trotsky, for which he was eventually expelled from the party. During this period Serge wrote novels published in Paris as well as his history, Year One of the Russian Revolution.
Arrested in 1933, he was finally released and deported in 1936 after an international campaign by his artistic and political sympathizers. Serge’s deportation narrowly saved him from Stalin’s show trials in which Serge almost certainly would have been imprisoned in a labor camp or killed. Serge lived in exile in various countries around Europe until finally settling in Mexico, where he died November 17, 1947, 75 years before this writing.
Through his unique political honesty, Serge becomes a guide without equal to the history he lived through. At the small scale, Serge’s sketches of the principal characters of the period who he encountered betray an uncanny ability to see immediately and deeply into the essence of a personality. As Serge himself said, “I have always believed that human qualities find their physical expression in a man’s personal appearance.”
Of Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka—the secret police formed to combat counter-revolution—Serge writes that he was “a singular idealist, ruthless but chivalrous with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity.” On Zinoviev, whom Serge also describes as “Lenin’s biggest mistake,” Serge relates, “There was an impression of flabbiness, almost of a lurking irresolution, emanating from his whole personality.” Serge also offers important descriptions of lesser known communists, often putting their work into important context. On the Italian Angelica Balabanova for example, he writes, “Small, dark, and beginning to age, Angelica still led her eager militant’s life which, with its romantic fire, was about three-quarters of a century too late.”
At the larger scale of human history, Serge is equally perceptive. Serge’s account of the history he lived through is removed, although not equally so, from both the outright caricature and condemnation of the Russian Revolution that we find in bourgeois histories, as well as the attitude, found among many well-meaning socialist historians, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were purely victims of circumstance, divinely inspired and incapable of doing wrong.
For example, speaking of the Russian pro-parliament intellectuals, Serge writes in Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951):
I saw that their cause of democracy had, at the end of the summer of 1917, stood between two fires, that is to say between two conspiracies, and it seemed obvious to me that, if the Bolshevik insurrection had not taken power at that point, the cabal of the old generals, supported by the officers’ organizations, would have certainly done so instead. Russia would have avoided the Red Terror only to endure the White, and a proletarian dictatorship only to undergo a reactionary one. In consequence, the most outraged observations of the anti-Bolshevik intellectuals only revealed to me how necessary Bolshevism was.
At the same time, Serge says elsewhere in Memoirs that he believed ,
“That the formation of the Chekas was one of the greatest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day (without excluding secret sessions in particular cases) and admitting the right of defense, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity.” [“Cheka” is plural here because the organization had multiple branches that operated with relative independence.]
There exists a fear among many revolutionary socialists that by admitting the Russian revolutionaries’ shortcomings, we render a service to the global bourgeoisie and start to slip toward centrism and reformism. In fact, the opposite is the case. By meticulously separating truth from fiction, Serge renders an enormous service to revolutionary socialism. In short, Serge makes it possible to sort out those aspects of Bolshevism that serve a perspective of “socialism from below” and those which do not.
It was the honesty of Serge that won me to Leninist politics, and I feel that I cannot be alone in that. Serge showed that it was possible to be critical of specific aspects of Bolshevism while at the same time seeing this revolutionary collective’s overall contribution to socialist practice and thought as being indispensable to the cause of human liberation from below.
Seventy-five years may have passed since his death, but Serge’s legacy lives on. Serge remains, as the French novelist Francois Maspero remarked, “indispensable to anyone who does not wish to die an idiot.”
Featured Image credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Theodor Lena is a U.S.-based socialist.