Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The case of Comrade Serge

This issue of the ecumenical Trotskyist journal Revolutionary History (RH) contains material on the international revolutionary Victor Serge (1890-1947). It's not entirely clear on what basis the selection was made, even apart from the fact that Serge isn't exactly unknown. Still, most of the articles were interesting. If you really never heard of Serge, the short story is that he was born in Belgium to Russian expatriates, became an anarchist and moved to France, and in 1919 settled in Soviet Russia, where he became a Bolshevik and subsequently a supporter of Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition. He was arrested by Joseph Stalin's regime in 1933. After his release and return to the West, Serge became a supporter of the POUM, an independent Marxist party in Spain. He is buried in Mexico. Serge is the author of several interesting books (including novels), mostly dealing with the Russian revolution and its subsequent degeneration.

One of the Serge-related articles in this issue of RH is a tribute to V I Lenin written by Victor Serge himself, dealing with Lenin's actions in 1917. While Serge is at pains to portray the Bolshevik leader as a champion of workers' democracy, he does occasionally hint at the man's other sides. Here and there, we learn about Lenin's striving for a dictatorship, his Jacobinism, his “state capitalism”, etc. It's unclear what Serge is trying to tell us here, since he simultaneously paints Lenin as a genius, while the RH editors excitedly claim that the article will recommend the Communist leader to libertarian socialists! I don't think so, Mr Richardson.

The following quote from one of Serge's articles on China is humorous, at least if you're familiar with my other reviews: “The influence of Bolshevism over Asia is very great. That of the old Asia of the oppressed over Bolshevism is practically nil. Whoever knows the life of the USSR, however slightly, knows it. The thoughts and ideas of the old Asia, on the other hand, have for some years been finding a very favourable welcome in the cultured circles of the European bourgeoisie. Buddhist studies are in favour in Germany, Britain and America. There are theosophical circles in almost all the world capitals. Count Keyserling’s school of wisdom has followers in the whole of continental Europe, but not among the proletarians… The decadent or despairing spirits of capitalist Europe are turning freely towards the mystery of the great Asian decadences. We Bolsheviks and world Communists are the most vital of Europeans.”

As already indicated, in 1933 Victor Serge was arrested by the Soviet regime and banished to Orenburg (close to Kazakhstan). A vociferous campaign for his release was organized in France, with Romain Rolland as the foremost spokesperson. (Perhaps ironically, Rolland was interested in the “mystery of the great Asian decadences”, having written books about Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.) Richard Greeman's article deals with this campaign, which managed to secure Serge's release in 1936 – the only time Stalin ever listened to this kind of Western public opinion. In passing, Greeman mentions that the French and Belgian Trotskyists didn't participate in the defense efforts. Neither did the Surrealists, who at this time had contacts with the Trotskyists. Greeman doesn't discuss the exact reasons for this abstentionism.

Ernest Rogers retells a very bizarre anecdote about Serge which casts some doubts about his capacity for sound judgment. I won't retell it here for lack of space, except to say that it involves a certain Etienne alias Mark Zborowski, who infiltrated the Trotskyist movement on behalf of Stalin's secret police…

Julián Gorkin's article deals with Serge's last years in Mexico, where he and Gorkin organized anti-Stalinist leftist protests. Gorkin was a former militant of the POUM. Both men were persecuted by the Mexican Communists and Soviet spies, who intended to assassinate them. Although numerically small, the Stalinist Communist Party had a strong influence in Mexico at this point in time, an influence which included armed goon squads. Its most well known goon action was the attack on Trotsky's residence at Coyoacan in May 1940.

RH has translated a very interesting article found in Victor Serge's private papers after his death, “Planned Economies and Democracy”. Judging by this unfinished piece, Serge was developing an analysis similar to that of James Burnham and Max Shachtman. He seems to be arguing that Stalinism will become the major totalitarian danger after the defeat of Nazism (the article was probably written in 1944). The next socialist revolution must be democratic and grow out of the European traditions of liberty, which include parliaments and local self-government. He also attacks another totalitarian danger, something he dubs neo-Fascism, which he connects to the rise of a new bureaucratic class. At one point, he seems to be suggesting that revolutionary socialists should support “conservatives” against Stalinism, but it's not clear who these conservatives might be. He does support Social Democracy.

Curiously, Serge's political evolution closely parallels my own. We even share the same birthday! However, I'm more interested in the “Asian decadence” than Serge was. Perhaps I am a reincarnation of the Russian revolutionary, who in this manner has been given a second chance to set things right? :O


The rest of RH contains comments and book reviews on a wide variety of subjects, many of them refreshingly heterodox. Despite their nominal Trotskyism, several RH contributors have soft spots for Paul Levi, Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer. Since these German Communist leaders had conflicts with Lenin and Trotsky, supporting them is a no-no for more orthodox Trotskyist groups. Mike Jones denies that a revolution was possible in Germany in 1923, which if true would invalidate the entire Trotskyist worldview, which is predicated on the notion that it was both possible, desirable and absolutely necessary. Trotskyists argue that the revolutionary situation was derailed by the Brandler-Thalheimer leadership of the German Communist Party, which derailed the entire world revolution and made Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union inevitable, und so weiter. Jones believes that somebody somewhere should perhaps cool down a bit.

All in all, a relatively interesting issue of a usually very “academic” and “in house” journal.
Four stars.

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