By Ian Birchall
Victor Serge was witness to some of the most momentous events of the first half of the 20th century. He was an anarchist in Brussels and Paris, then, after a spell in jail, went to post-Revolutionary Russia. He supported the Revolution loyally for some years, then opposed the rise of Stalin, returned to the West and ended up in Mexico, escaping the Nazi occupation of France. Best known for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) and novels such as The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1967), he was also a prolific journalist. One of the main themes in his work is an ongoing dialogue with anarchism. Mitchell Abidor has assembled here a fascinating collection of his writings on the subject.
The first half of the book consists of articles written for various anarchist publications. Serge was a very angry, very young man – several of the pieces were written when he was still a teenager. There is much in Serge’s contemptuous rage against the madness of contemporary society that still rings true, like his hatred for commercialised sport and those who flock ‘to see brutes pummel each other, break each other’s jaws, and give each other black eyes.’ He mocks the practice of wishing ‘Happy New Year’ as ‘the festival of great social hypocrisy’ and scorns public holidays when we all agree to ‘rejoice on a fixed date.’
There are some remarkable insights. To this day secularism (laïcité) is almost universally seen as the backbone of the French Republic. But Serge denounced the ‘stupefying charlatans of the secular,’ seeing already before 1914 that the aim of secular education was to prepare children to be loyal soldiers: ‘who will they spill their blood for in the impending slaughterhouses?’ He also has some acute observations on how to ‘revolt usefully.’ While he recognises that hungry people will see shopkeepers as the enemy, he points out that ‘hanging a baker from a lamppost (which, I hasten to recognize, could be agreeable)’ cannot shorten an economic crisis and the only result will be that ‘good people will get months of prison time.’
Yet Serge’s anarchist philosophy has major weaknesses, and the very vividness and lucidity of his writing makes them easier to analyse. His anarchism comprised a radical individualism, inspired by Albert Libertad, whose teaching he later summed up as: ‘Make your own revolution, by being free men and living in comradeship.’ He may have had a vision of ‘a beautiful and harmonious life from which hatred and anger, injustice, and poverty will be banished,’ but he had no strategy for getting there other than individual revolt and self-improvement. Individual change preceded social change: ‘let us show how, by the transformation of men, society is transformed.’
Anarchism might appear ultra-democratic, but as Serge shows, it could easily develop into an ugly élitism. He rejected the proposals for collective action that came from socialists and syndicalists, and rejected the socialist belief that the working class would be the agent of social emancipation. Instead he sneered at ‘the imbecilic devotion to his master’s money of the wage earner.’
The second part of this book shows how Serge’s thinking developed. Already by 1917, when he came out of jail, he had clearly been reconsidering his position. There is a major essay on Nietzsche from 1917 which brings out many of the questions that the young revolutionary was now reconsidering. While many anarchists had admired Nietzsche, Serge saw him as ‘profoundly barbarous and an enemy of the progress for which we are fighting.’ Yet he ends with an expression of his torn ambiguity: ‘I love him … but I don’t follow him.’
The real turning-point came with Serge’s arrival in Russia in 1919. Here was what he called ‘the reality-revolution, quite different from the theory-revolution, and even more from the ideal-revolution.’ Serge’s eyes were wide open to the horrors of the civil war and to the disturbing trends towards bureaucratic and dictatorial power which were evident even in the very first years of the Revolution. But he also saw the powerful hope embodied in the Revolution: collective action by working people was not some hypothetical abstraction but a reality on the streets of Petrograd.
Serge joined the Bolsheviks; there would be no time for criticism until the civil war was over, and he commended those anarchists who threw in their lot with the communists. He was subjected to much abuse from his former anarchist comrades, but for years he devoted his efforts to trying to win over European anarchists to support for the Russian Revolution – a task encouraged by Lenin and Trotsky, though not by some of their fellow-Bolsheviks.
In his last decade of exile Serge was preoccupied with the problem of what had gone wrong with the Revolution to which he had devoted himself. And some of the questions posed by anarchism continued to haunt him as he recognised that there had been many failures long before Stalin consolidated his power. As he noted: ‘In all of history there is no example of a dictatorship that died on its own.’
The mature Serge did not simply jettison his youthful anarchism; rather, he sought to raise it to a higher level, to achieve a ‘synthesis of Marxism and libertarian socialism.’ The final item in this volume is a thoughtful essay from 1938 on ‘Anarchist Thought.’ While being respectful to the anarchist tradition, Serge is forthright on its weaknesses. Anarchist thinkers, he writes, have not proffered ‘a word of explanation’ as to how social transformation is to be accomplished. The Russian Revolution ‘posed the sole capital question, one for which the anarchists have no response: that of power.’ Anarchist ideas will revive each time a new section of humanity rebels against an increasingly unjust world. These writings provide a valuable tool for understanding and criticising them.
Mitchell Abidor will be speaking about Victor Serge at an event in London on 15 May. Full details are available here.