Anarchism, Marxism and Victor Serge on Counterpunch
by Staughton LyndCounterpunch
August 24th, 2015
Andrej Grubacic and I have suggested the importance of synthesizing two radical traditions, anarchism and Marxism. (Wobblies and Zapatistas, pp. 11-12, 98-99.)
In search of efforts in this direction in the United States, we called attention to the “Chicago idea” of two of the Haymarket anarchists, Albert Parsons and August Spies. Speaking to the jury and a packed courtroom before he was sentenced to death, Parsons distinguished two forms of socialism: state socialism, which meant government control of everything, and anarchism, an egalitarian society without a controlling authority. (James Green, Death in the Haymarket, p. 238.)
Twenty years later, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, presented their own rich mixture of ideas, practices, and songs, drawn from these two traditions.
This essay presents the lifelong efforts to synthesize anarchism and Marxism by a man who wrote under the name “Victor Serge.”
A New Book
Victor Serge was born in Brussels in 1890. His given name was Victor Kibalchich; he adopted “Serge” as a pen name. His parents had left Tsarist Russia after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. A distant relative, N. J. Kibalchich, a chemist, made the bombs that killed the tsar, and was executed. Thus Serge shared a biological connection to the terrorist act with Lenin, whose older brother was executed also.
In his best-known book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Serge recalled: “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged.” All political differences aside, the martyrs of the People’s Will movement set a standard for self-sacrificial conduct to which later Russian revolutionaries aspired. In a history of the first year of the Russian Revolution, Serge would say of the Narodniks and Social Revolutionaries of the previous generation that they “gave heroes and martyrs in hundreds to the cause of revolution.”
Serge wrote primarily in French. About twenty of his books, divided more or less equally between fiction and non-fiction, have been translated into English. Twenty-seven boxes of documents, mostly unpublished, are housed (improbably) at the Beinecke rare books library of Yale University.
It must be kept in mind that while living in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1936 Serge wrote in difficult circumstances. In anticipation of interference by the Soviet government, he sent much of his writing to French publishers segment by segment. An international outcry caused him to be released from confinement and allowed to go into exile, but the Soviet secret police confiscated manuscripts that were never recovered. Moreover, Serge had always to assess the personal and political context of a particular work. Thus, when he arrived in Mexico soon after Trotsky’s assassination and wrote a biography of the Old Man jointly with Trotsky’s widow, he understandably did not include the fact that he had “broken” with Trotsky a few years earlier (see below).
Anarchists Never Surrender offers precious documentation of Serge’s early career as an anarchist. Initially, it seems, he considered himself a “socialist.” Predictably disgusted with the tepid parliamentary activity of European Social Democrats, he became an anarchist of a more and more individualist variety. At this early point in his trajectory, Serge thought that workers were hopelessly caught up in immediate materialistic objectives, hence a revolution requiring mass participation and support was impossible.
Young Serge apparently drew a line at bank robberies and shoot-outs with the police. However, close friends of his were deeply involved and more than one was eventually guillotined. At their trials Serge refused to snitch. He received a five year prison sentence as an accomplice, and memorably described his experience in his first book, Men in Prison.
Released from behind bars, Serge wrote to a friend that he no longer championed the “sectarian intransigence of the past” and was prepared to work with all those who were “animated by the same desire for a better life . . . even if their paths are different from mine, and even if they give different names I don’t know to what in reality is our common goal.” In January 1919 he found his way to the insurgent Soviet Union. There he attempted to give unconditional support to a Communist government while never abandoning an anarchist concern to protect what Rosa Luxemburg called “the person who thinks differently” (der Andersdenkender).
The first great treasure in this book is a group of messages Serge wrote to French anarchists in 1920-1921. Here he seeks to explain why he “joined the Russian Communist Party as an anarchist, without in any way abdicating my ideas, except for what was utopian.” These documents attempt to communicate the almost indescribable suffering in St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) during the civil war. A young Jewish student from Kharkov matter of factly described to Serge half a dozen moments when he was almost killed by anti-Semites, whereas wherever the Communists established themselves “the pogroms cease.”
Serge concedes in these messages that the Russian revolution “has earned many criticisms, but I don’t know who has earned the right to make them.” He sees clearly that the “greatest danger of dictatorship is that it tends to firmly implant itself, that it creates permanent institutions that it wants neither to abdicate nor to die a natural death.” But the struggle against dictatorship, Serge was convinced, had to wait until after the revolution was secure. He pleads for a new anarchism that “will doubtless be very close to Marxist communism.”
Many years later, but in the same spirit, Serge asked Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov to take to his father a call for Trotskyists in the Fourth International to explore a “fraternal alliance” with Spanish anarchists and syndicalists.
Anarchists Never Surrender ends with a 26-page Serge essay on “Anarchist Thought,” to which I shall return in conclusion. It is a critical document if we are to understand how Serge viewed the possible synthesis of Marxism and anarchism.
Let’s go back to Serge’s own explanations, in his Memoirs, of the impact of the Russian revolution on the impressionable young anarchist from western Europe.
Serge was enormously impressed by Lenin. It was characteristic of the anarchist in Serge closely to study the conduct, even the physical characteristics, of individuals. Here is what he had to say about Lenin:
In the Kremlin, he still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. An old housekeeper looked after his rooms and did his mending.
Moreover, according to Serge, Lenin kept looking for ways to introduce democratic elements into the dictatorship of the proletariat. In April 1917, before the seizure of state power in November, Lenin proposed:
1. The source of power does not lie in law . . . but in the direct initiative of the popular masses, a local initiative taken from below.
2. The police and the army . . . are replaced by the arming of the people.
3. The functionaries are replaced by the people itself or are, at the very least, under its control; they are named by election and may be recalled by their constituents.
Lenin also advocated a Soviet form of free press, pursuant to which “any group with the support of 10,000 votes could publish its own organ at the public expense.” Serge insisted: “I know that . . . in May 1922, Lenin and Kamenev were considering . . . allowing a non-party daily to be published in Moscow.”
Victor Serge was of great value to the vulnerable young Bolshevik Revolution because he apparently was at home in French, Russian, German, Spanish, and English. But the comradely honeymoon or close working relationship between Serge and the Bolshevik Party lasted less than three years. Also included in Anarchists Never Surrender are fragments concerning the fundamental differences between Trotsky and Serge concerning the savage repression of an uprising by workers and sailors in 1921 at the military base in Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg. I remember being told when I was much younger that Trotsky ordered the rebels to surrender or he would lead the Red Army across the ice and “shoot them down like pheasants.”
For Serge, looking back in 1938, Kronstadt was only the tip of the iceberg. An earlier “black day” occurred in 1918, when the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party decided to permit the Cheka (the secret police) “to apply the death penalty on the basis of secret procedure, without hearing the deceased who could not defend themselves” (italics in original).
So what went wrong? Looking back, Serge found the error in dogmatism, in a Marxist conviction of scientific correctness in all that the Party undertook. Serge wrote in his Memoirs, “Bolshevik theory is grounded in [a belief in] the possession of the truth. Totalitarianism is within us.” In the 1930s, according to one of his editors, Serge began to emphasize Bolshevism’s “natural selection of autocratic temperaments,” an emphasis sharply criticized by Trotsky.
In the early 1920s, Serge at first sought to deal with his growing uneasiness by serving the revolution abroad as an underground organizer. In this capacity he witnessed the failure of the 1923 would-be revolution in Germany. That failure sealed the destiny of the Russian Revolution: it would need to find a way to survive in a single country. Serge returned to the Soviet Union to become part of the Trotskyist opposition.
According to Serge’s Memoirs, Trotsky, as commander of the victorious Red Army, could have settled his conflict with Stalin by seizing power. But
Trotsky deliberately refused power, out of respect for an unwritten law that forbade any recourse to military mutiny within a socialist regime . . . . Rarely has it been made more sharply obvious that the end, rather then justifying the means, commands its own means, and that for the establishment of a Socialist democracy the old means of armed violence are inappropriate.
Yet, in the end, Serge broke with Trotsky. He offered three reasons. First, he thought the idea of establishing a Fourth International in the mid-1930s was “quite senseless.” Second, he deeply disagreed with Trotsky’s approval of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. And third, he also condemned Trotsky’s refusal to admit that the establishment of the Cheka was “a grievous error . . . incompatible with any Socialist philosophy.” Serge considered that Trotsky exhibited “the systematic schematizing of old-time Bolshevism.”
Serge believed that his critique of Trotsky was shared by Lenin. According to Serge, Lenin wrote to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party on December 25, 1922, in a document sometimes referred to as Lenin’s “Last Will,“ that Trotsky was “attracted to administrative solutions. What he undoubtedly meant was that Trotsky tended to resolve problems by directions from above.”
For Serge, it all came down to the following, written at the end of 1932: “I mean: man, whoever he is, be he the meanest of men – ‘class enemy,’ son or grandson of a bourgeois, I do not care. It must never be forgotten that a human being is a human being.”
A Theory and a Way of Life
Probing further, one concludes that the conflict between Marxism and anarchism is essentially not a conflict between two theories, two schemes for understanding present dilemmas and for predicting the future.
Without question Marxism is such a scheme. Despite a tendency to expect events to occur earlier than they actually come about, Marxism offers a sturdy analysis of long-run trends in capitalist economies. The flight of investment in manufacturing from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to societies where wages are much lower is the latest illustration of the essential accuracy of this engine of analysis.
Anarchism, however, is not such a theory, and anarchists misrepresent what they can and should contribute by presenting Bakunin and Kropotkin as theoretical rivals to Marx.
Anarchism is an affirmation of values, of a way of life. Serge, in his memoirs, writes of “the first symptoms of that moral sickness which . . . was to bring on the death of Bolshevism.” Serge repeatedly attacks a belief that the end justifies the means. In a book entitled From Lenin to Stalin he argues that
moral criteria sometimes have greater value than judgments based on political and economic considerations . . . . It is untrue, a hundred times untrue that the end justifies the means. . . . Every end requires its own means, and an end is only obtained by the appropriate means.
Hence “a sort of moral intervention becomes our duty.” Serge is at his best when he describes the moral dimension of decisions.
In the late 1920s, after Trotsky had been ordered into exile and Serge was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Serge (in the words of one of his editors) decided to turn from agitation to more permanent forms of political and artistic testimony.
An early product was a history of the Russian revolution in the year 1918. Serge was not yet in Russia during that year and the book has a curious flatness, an almost academic two-dimensionality. (He also wrote a history of the revolution’s second year, when Serge was present and deeply involved. But this was one of the manuscripts that was confiscated by the secret police and has disappeared.) In a later work entitled Twenty Years After, Serge sketched the destinies of an endless list of individuals he knew and what happened to them. He sought to justify his approach as follows:
Yes, this struggle of the revolutionists against the machine that grinds down everything has about it something depressing when you think of it . . . in the abstract, without seeing the . . . faces, without being well acquainted with their lives, without the Russian land, the walls, the windows. I would like to efface this impression. Every one of these men has his true grandeur. They are not vanquished, they are resisters and they often have victorious souls.
The corpus of Serge’s work is not free of contradictions. In the book drawn from his experience in prison, Serge condemned the death penalty and the sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, but justified the death penalty when “we need it.”
Unlike many prison reformers in the United States today he saw that guards too are imprisoned, in France at that time from age twenty-five to retirement at sixty, and as a group are “no better and no worse than the men they guard.” Upon release after serving his five-year sentence, Serge wrote: “We wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels. We must become termites, boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives. In the end, the dike will crumble.”
It is also unclear where Serge came down as to a desirable economy. In the last book he wrote, the novel Unforgiving Years, D, a sympathetic protagonist, says: “The planned, centralized, rationally administered economy is still superior to any other model. Thanks to that, we survived in circumstances that would have made short work of any other regime.”
However, a decade earlier Serge had written in his Memoirs that in the New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union in the early and mid 1920s,
small-scale manufacture, medium-scale trading, and certain industries could have been revived merely by appealing to the initiative of producers and consumers. By freeing the State-strangled cooperatives, and inviting various associations to take over the management of different branches of economic activity, an enormous degree of recovery could have been achieved right away.
. . . In a word, I was arguing for a “Communism of associations:” – in contrast to Communism of the State variety. The competition inherent in such a system and the disorder inevitable in all beginnings would have caused less inconvenience than did our stringently bureaucratic centralization, with its muddle and paralysis. I thought of the total plan not as something dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing, by congresses and socialized assemblies, of initiatives from below.
The Final Novels
One forms the strong impression that Serge can say what he feels most fully in fiction. And so the reader turns to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, written in Marseilles, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico in 1940-1942, and to Unforgiving Years. The inscription at the end of the latter is “Mexico, 1947,” the place and year of Serge’s death.
The novel about “Comrade Tulayev” was prompted by the assassination of a leading Bolshevik, named Kirov, in 1934. At the end of the book three men are executed for the assassination of Comrade Tulayev. All are wholly innocent. Two are presumably typical ascending Soviet bureaucrats, venal but not murderous. The third must be one of the most attractive figures in Victor Serge’s fiction. He is Kiril Rublev, an historian who, together with his equally stalwart wife Dora, hopes to be “present at the moment when history needs us.”
There is a relentless integrity about this book, rather like Professor Rublev’s. The workers do not get a free pass. Four thousand women workers at a factory demand the death penalty for those who killed Comrade Tulayev.
Two things about the book stand out for me. I first encountered Serge and this novel seventy years ago. The single thing I remembered over time was the reflection of a character named Stefan Stern, murdered by Soviet agents in Spain. Before he disappears to his death, Stern reflects:
After us, if we vanish without having had time to accomplish our task or merely to bear witness, working-class consciousness will be blanked out for a period of time that no one can calculate . . . . A man ends by concentrating a certain unique clarity in himself, a certain irreplaceable experience.
Not yet twenty, I read this passage with detachment. It seems much closer to me now.
Still more extraordinary is the novel’s portrait of Stalin, known in its pages as “the Chief.” One old Bolshevik says to another: “The Chief has been at an impasse for a long time. . . . Perhaps he sees farther and better than all the rest of us. . . . I believe he has decided limitations, but we have no one else.” Amazingly, an old comrade named Kondratieff says the same thing directly to the Chief. He makes an appointment with the Chief to plead for Stern’s life. As the two men pace about the Chief’s enormous Kremlin office, Kondratieff says: “History has played us this rotten trick, we have only you.” And amazingly, the Chief does not dispatch Kondratieff to the cellar where the NKVD (successor to the Cheka) is executing a generation of Bolshevik leaders. Kondratieff is sent to manage gold extraction in furthest Siberia.
And where, then, lies hope, for the author whose own hourglass is almost out of sand? The Case of Comrade Tulayev ends with disjointed acts of individual generosity.
Xenia, daughter of an aparatchik, manages to go to Paris where she revels in bourgeois plenitude. Somehow, in a newspaper that comes her way, she sees next to the announcement of a sports event a note that three men are to be executed for Tulayev’s murder, including Professor Rublev, a sometime friend of the family. Distraught, she goes to see a well-known French fellow traveler. She telephones Russia. She is persuaded to get in a car, then in a plane, and we last see her under arrest, ominously on her way to an unknown destination.
Out on the steppe a collective farm named “Road to the Future” is at a standstill.
There have already been two purges. Famine is at the door. There are no seeds, no horses, no gasoline. They send messages to the regional center but no help is forthcoming. Kostia, a Young Communist, and an agronomist named Kostiukin, come up with an idea. The entire village will walk to the regional center 34 miles away and seek help by means of this direct action. It works! And on the way Kostia holds Maria in his arms and learns that she is a “believer.” In what? She cannot put it into words.
Before his execution, Professor Rublev has asked for the opportunity to take a few days to write a memorandum. He does so and it vanishes into papers connected with his death. Miraculously, these papers come into the hands of one of the very top bureaucrats in the secret police, named Fleischman.
First, Fleischman reads a letter from a young man who does not sign his name. The letter states persuasively that the author, acting alone, killed Tulayev. Fleischman burns the letter.
Then he reads Rublev’s memorandum. It includes the words: “we bear witness to a victory which encroached too far into the future and asked too much of men.” Fleischman finishes the memorandum with appreciation.
Then he leaves his office to attend the sporting event mentioned in the newspaper next to the notice of the execution of Rublev and the others. This is the end of the book.
Five years after Serge finished Tulayev, he finished Unforgiving Years. Very much in contrast to the editor who translates and introduces the work, I believe that the end of this novel is melodramatic, clunky, and altogether unworthy of its author. (Example: D, the sympathetic character quoted earlier, ends as the proprietor of a Mexican “plantation” at which, he says, “I work my peons.”) But in a first section, before the novel and Serge himself seem slowly to go to pieces, Victor Serge offers some incisive reminders of the synthesis of anarchism and Marxism to which he devoted his life.
Early in the book, D reflects: “When all is said and done, we did this to ourselves.” More at length he reflects:
I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I’m behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther’s words. Except that the German visionary . . . went on to add, “God help me!” What will come to help me? (Emphasis added.)
He also thinks to himself:
We can trust no one any longer. No one will trust us, ever again. That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor—those bonds, we’ve broken them.
D and his colleague Daria seek to imbed their anguish in economic analysis.
Daria lectures D on the theme that “Production will bring about justice.” But he is nagged by doubt, thinking:
Should one not, while attending to all those pillboxes and blast furnaces, have a thought for man? A thought for the poor devil of today . . . who cannot content himself with straining under the yoke while waiting for tomorrow’s medicines and railway lines? The end justifies the means. What a swindle. No end can be achieved by anything but appropriate means.
Daria says: “The days of primitive accumulation are behind us.” D responds:
“Not in our country. And the days of destruction lie ahead.”
In the end Daria appears to have come around to D’s perspective, saying:
“Sacha, I’m going to ask a question that might seem irrational or infantile, but listen to it anyway. Didn’t we forget man and the soul?” D responds:
Our unpardonable error was to believe that what they call soul – I prefer to call it conscience – was no more than a projection of the old superseded egoism.
There’s a stubborn little glimmer all the same, an incorruptible light that can, at times, shine through the granite that prison walls and tombstones are made of, an impersonal little light that flares up inside to illuminate, judge, refute, or wholly condemn. It’s no one’s property and no machine can take the measure of it; it often wavers uncertainly because it feels alone.
. . . We committed our mortal error . . . when we forgot that only this form of conscience can accomplish the reconciliation of man with himself and with others. . . . I’ve boned up on the relevant literature. . . . [The revolution] should have meant the release of what is best in man, but that got smashed along with everything else, I fear. And we’ve become captives of a new prison . . . . I’m getting out.
“Anarchist Thought,” in Anarchists Never Surrender, pp. 202-228, is Serge’s own conclusion as to how anarchism and Marxism might be synthesized. It was written at the end of the 1930s when he had left the Soviet Union but remained fully at the height of his powers.
Serge accepts Marxist economic analysis. He says of anarchism that it was “the ideology of small-scale artisans” and that as industrial development became more marked in southern Europe “anarchism surrendered its preeminence in the revolutionary movement to Marxist workers’ socialism.”
On the other hand, the workers’ movement of the late nineteenth century and the years before World War I was
stuck in the mud in a capitalist society in a period of expansion. Vast union organizations and powerful mass parties, of which German social democracy is the best example, in reality became part of a regime they claimed to combat. Socialism became bourgeois, even in its ideas, which deliberately suppressed Marx’s revolutionary predictions. The working-class aristocracies and the political and union bureaucracies set the tone for working-class demands that were either toned down or reduced to a purely verbal revolutionism. . . . This socialism has lost its revolutionary soul . . . .
The theory of communist anarchism,” Victor Serge continued, “proceeds less from knowledge, from the scientific spirit, than from an idealistic aspiration.” But as “for how this is to be accomplished, there is not a word of explanation.” Thus at the beginning of the Russian Revolution “events inexorably posed the sole capital question, one for which the anarchists have no response: that of power.” At considerable length Serge demonstrates that when the possibility of insurrection presented itself in Fall 1917, “[o]ne would seek in vain in the abundant anarchist literature of the period for a single practical proposal.”
There is a long discussion of the Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno (a subject about which I know little) in which Serge appears to be at pains to present both sides of a complex controversy, and to attribute some truth to each. Who was responsible for strangling this “profoundly revolutionary peasant movement?” Serge asks. He answers that it was not this or that person, not one or another group; it was “the spirit of intolerance that increasingly gripped the Bolshevik Party from 1919; . . . the dictatorship of the leaders of the party, already tending to substitute themselves for that of the soviets and even of the party.” Whoever was responsible, Serge continues, it was “an enormous error.” A chasm had been dug between anarchists and Bolsheviks that would not be easy to fill. “The synthesis of Marxism and libertarian socialism, so necessary and which could be so fertile, was rendered impossible for the indefinite future.”
Victor Serge ended his remarkably even-handed assessment by quoting the famous last message of Vanzetti, and continuing:
This moral strength . . . is not diminished by the intrinsic weakness of anarchist ideology. It offers little room for doctrinal criticism. It simply is. If, having learned from all we are living through [,] the libertarian socialism it animates would be strong enough to assimilate the gains of scientific socialism, this synthesis would guarantee revolutionaries an incomparable effectiveness.
Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mitchell Abidor's Editor Page | Back to Victor Serge's Author Page