By Victor Serge

Haymarket Books. 532 pages.  $24.95. ISBN 978-1-60846-267-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Victor Serge spent all of his adult life involved in revolutionary activity of one sort or another. Born in Brussels on December 30th, 1890 into a family of exiled Russian revolutionaries, he joined the Socialist Young Guard (youth section of the Belgian Workers Party), though he felt that they were not radical enough. He became involved with local anarchists and favoured “individualist anarchism and illegalism.” Serge left Brussels in 1909 and moved to Paris where he wrote articles for anarchist publications. In 1913 he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for “conspiracy” because of his association with members of the notorious Bonnot Gang, a group of anarchist bandits, though it was claimed there was no evidence to show that he took part in any of their robberies.

Released from prison in 1917, Serge moved to Spain, where he mixed with anarcho-syndicalists, but on hearing the news of the October events in Russia he decided to go there. This meant travelling through France and he was arrested and imprisoned for breaking the rules of his parole. He spent over a year in a French gaol and was eventually freed in October, 1918. He arrived in Russia in January, 1919, and soon joined the Bolsheviks. He had become somewhat disillusioned with anarchism, thinking that, though it was a “good ideal,” it wouldn’t work in practice, whereas the Bolsheviks had a more practical approach to carrying through a revolutionary programme. But he still maintained contacts with anarchists and other radicals, and generally supported their being involved in activities leading towards the foundation of a workers’ state.

Serge initially obtained a post as an Inspector of Schools and also worked as a lecturer for the Petrograd Soviet. But he soon developed a relationship with Zinoviev and began working for the Comintern, a role which allowed him to meet visitors from abroad. He was also in a position to try to help people who he thought had been unfairly suspected by the secret police. This was a time of great unrest in Russia, with the new state threatened by interventionist forces and White Russian armies. No-one was quite sure who could be trusted and it was easy for someone to arouse suspicions by merely expressing mild disapproval of some of the actions of the authorities. Serge at first supported the harsh measures instituted during the Civil War period, but he grew increasingly uneasy when those measure were retained once the war had ended. He joined with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in protesting against the harassment of anarchist and other minority groups, and the way in which the government had dealt with the Kronstadt sailors. Serge supported the Bolsheviks in suppressing the mutiny, but he thought it could probably have been resolved without the excessive use of force.

Becoming more and more concerned at the way in which Zinoviev and Stalin seemed to be developing their power base, Serge joined the Left Opposition in 1923. It was still then relatively safe to make such a move, but as Stalin’s grip seemed to tighten the situation worsened. By 1927 Zinoviev had broken with Stalin and both he and Trotsky were expelled from the Party. Serge soon followed and in 1928 he was arrested and spent two months in prison. On his release he worked for the Lenin Institute as a translator, but his activities were closely monitored by the GPU. He was arrested again in 1933 and exiled to Orenberg. Serge was lucky in that, thanks to his books, he was known far beyond Russia. Various writers and intellectuals protested against his detention, and in 1936 Stalin finally agreed to him being allowed to leave the country.

He passed through Belgium and France, but eventually settled in Mexico, where Trotsky was also living. But his situation was precarious. The GPU had spread the word throughout the international communist movement that Serge was a Trotskyist, and so a legitimate target for abuse and even assassination. But at the same time a GPU agent who had infiltrated the Trotskyists was suggesting that Serge had been given permission to leave Russia so that he could work for the Bolsheviks. He was harassed by local communists and attempts were made on his life. He had made contact with members of the POUM during the Spanish CiviI War and that, too, made him suspect in the eyes of Stalin’s supporters, the POUM being looked on as a Trotskyist organisation and its  members hounded and imprisoned in Spain. Serge continued to write, and produced what is, perhaps, his most famous book, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel which explores the state of mind of the old Bolsheviks who were tried and executed in the purges of the 1930s, but who often continued to believe that the Party could do no wrong. Serge was not a well man. His periods in prison in France and Russia had weakened his constitution and he had suffered from serious illnesses during his years in the Soviet Union. He died from a heart attack on the 17th November, 1947 in Mexico City.  

It will be obvious from the dates I have given for Serge’s arrival in Russia that he was not present during the events of the first year of the revolution. And his book was, in fact, only completed in 1930. But, as Serge pointed out in his preface to a 1938 edition, it was “based entirely on contemporary documents, (and) written in daily contact with participants in the revolution.” The interesting question may be one of Serge’s interpretation of the facts as he obtained them from the documents or in conversations with those who had been present at situations he describes. It’s generally believed that he spoke up for anarchists hounded by the Bolsheviks, but from what is said in The First Year of the Russian Revolution he supported the government when it moved against them. Referring to anarchists he said: “The anarchist ‘party’ was rendered incapable of any practical initiative through its divisions, its Utopian spirit, its contempt for reality, its thunderous phrasemongering and its lack of organisation and discipline. Whatever it enjoyed in the way of real capacities and energies were wasted in small and chaotic struggles.” And he further pointed out that, despite their alleged disorganisation, the anarchists were armed and could be dangerous if they were beyond the control of the Bolsheviks, who were the main proponents of the revolution: “For the first time the Bolsheviks were obliged by the anarchists to suppress by force a dissident minority within the revolution.” Which is a way of saying that the anarchists brought the suppression on themselves because of their unruly behaviour, and it was inevitable that they would have to be forced into line: “Any revolution which could not subdue its dissidents when these were armed to form an embryonic State within the state would be offering itself, divided, to the blows of its enemies.”

To be fair to Serge he does qualify what he has said by pointing out that, although the Bolsheviks disarmed the anarchists, they did say that “no obstacles would be placed in the way of the anarchists’ continued existence or their propaganda.” Of course, we know that such pledges were quickly broken when it became opportune for all minority groups outside the Communist Party to be suppressed. But Serge was describing a situation where the very existence of the revolution was under threat. There is an interesting reference to the situation that existed when “victorious Reds entered the offices of the Municipal Duma in Moscow.” All the municipal employees were on strike. The Bolsheviks had to organise the pay of other workers who weren’t on strike. There were thousands of refugees to be fed, and the usual services, such as water, sewage, transport, electricity, gas, etc., had to be maintained. All that, together with hostility from some of those officials who had continued to work, added to the problems the Bolsheviks faced with regard to fighting the White and interventionist forces. It’s easy to understand why Serge could be sympathetic towards the actions taken by the new government against anarchists.

Later in his account Serge discusses the “Terror,” the institution of harsh treatment of any kind of dissenter from Bolshevik pursuit of victory in the Civil War. He was in favour of the executions of saboteurs, deserters, White prisoners, food hoarders, and others, and justified them on the grounds that the circumstances demanded extreme measures to preserve revolutionary control and discipline. And, in any case, the Whites committed even worse acts when they occupied a town that had shown any inclinations towards supporting the Bolsheviks or when they took Red Army prisoners. He also related what was happening in Russia to the situation in France following the 1789 revolution. Had not the revolutionaries there found it necessary to execute members of the aristocracy and other counter-revolutionaries? Again, Serge uses the argument that reactionary elements have always used systems of terror against peasants and the proletariat if they’ve attempted to challenge the status quo. It was, therefore, legitimate to use terror against opponents of the revolution and anyone else deemed an enemy of the state. As he claimed, “it is out of White terror that Red terror is born.” But he added that “the Red terror is always far less bloody than the White terror.” His argument seemed to be based on the numbers involved. When Whites imposed terror on whole populations of towns or districts, or executed captured Red army soldiers, they often killed hundreds, even thousands, whereas “the toiling masses use terror against classes which are a minority in society.” Somehow, these sound like the arguments of an intellectual who hasn’t had to be involved in the bloody hands-on business of terrorising people. And as the terror became permanent, even after the Civil War had ended, it may have struck Serge that his seeming approval had played a part, if only minor, in its perpetuation. He did himself eventually become a victim of state terror.

Not long before he died in 1947 Serge wrote an essay entitled “Thirty Years after the Russian Revolution.” In it he maintained that the Bolsheviks “took power because, in the process of natural selection that took place among the revolutionary parties, they showed themselves the most adept at expressing in a coherent, far-sighted and determined manner the aspirations of the mobilised masses.” And he pointed to some very real achievements, as he saw them, that had taken place in Russia in terms of “collectivised production,” agriculture, wage levels, and other matters by 1927 or so. But, as he also said: “The dictatorship of the proletariat has since 1920-21 (the dates are approximate and arguable) become the dictatorship of the Communist Party, itself under the dictatorship of the ‘Bolshevik old guard.’”  And that led to “the dark night of Stalinism.” Serge was of the opinion that:  “The degree to which the Stalinist regime has managed to inculcate in its oppressed masses a horror and disgust for socialism is incalculable.”  He thought that “powerful forces of reaction are to be expected in Russia, and even more among the non-Russian peoples, above all, including the Central Asian Muslims, who for many years have been permeated with pan-Islamic aspirations.”  It would be intriguing to know what Serge might have thought of developments in Russia following Stalin’s death in 1953, and even more importantly following the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1990.But I’m not about to hazard guesses concerning his attitude towards leaders like Gorbachov, Yeltsin, and Putin, nor his views on the level of democracy in Russia today. To do so is to engage in a kind of intellectual parlour-game that takes us nowhere.

I’m conscious of having only picked out one or two areas of Serge’s history of the first year of the revolution. As I mentioned earlier, he may not have been there at the time, but the fact of arriving just shortly after did mean that he could talk to people who were, and he could study newspapers and other documents while they were still available. By 1947, when he looked back, he could remark that much material was no longer to be found: “Documents have been destroyed, hidden, or falsified.” From that point of view, Year One of the Russian Revolution is a valuable document in itself. And the quality of Serge’s writing adds to its value. It isn’t necessary to always agree with his views about the anarchists, the Bolsheviks, the use of terror, and other topics, to accept that he has the skills to make events appear real on the page.

It should be noted that this is a particularly valuable edition of Serge’s book. It has extensive notes, a useful introduction by the translator, Peter Sedgwick, and a foreword by Wilebaldo Solano of the POUM which was originally used in a 1997 edition of Year One of the Russian Revolution. Solano knew Serge and his comments about both the man and the writer are constructive and informative. There are a number of Victor Serge’s books now in print, and it’s good to see this latest edition of Year One of the Russian Revolution alongside them.