Socialist Classics: Victor Serge, ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh considered a unique witness of the rise and fall of the Russian revolution in Issue 21 (March 2005).

When Victor Serge began to write his autobiography in 1942 he had three and a half decades of revolutionary activity to look back on. He had fought in several countries and clocked up about ten years of imprisonment. He had just managed to escape from France as the Nazis took over, repeating a pattern that saw him win release from Stalin’s prisons in 1936 and from a French internment camp in 1919. As an accomplished writer, novelist as well as polemicist, his memoirs are full of penetrating pictures of the circumstances and personalities of the stormy years he lived through.

What stands out above all, though, is the fate of the Russian revolution, a fate Serge was uniquely well placed to witness. He was one of many anarchists who in 1917 found themselves in basic agreement with what the Bolsheviks were advocating, and putting into practice, in Russia: the workers should not just kick out the Tsar, but go on to take power for themselves. Serge joined them in Russia in 1919. He was now a Bolshevik, but a critical one (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London 1963, p 76):

I was neither against the Bolsheviks nor neutral; I was with them, albeit independently, without renouncing thought or critical sense. Certainly on several essential points they were mistaken: in their intolerance, in their faith in statification, in their leaning towards centralism and administrative techniques. But, given that one had to counter them with freedom of the spirit and the spirit of freedom, it must be with them and among them.

Unlike other supporters of the revolution, he did not believe “that approval of it entailed the abdication of the right to think” (p 138).

What disturbed Serge most was the Bolsheviks’ sanctioning of wholesale terror, which ranged further and further from outright enemies of the revolution until it took on a bloody life of its own. The most horrifying incident he relates comes in January 1920 when the Bolshevik government abolished the death penalty: even as the decree was being printed, the Cheka secret police executed hundreds of prisoners while they still had the chance. Serge realised that any revolution needs to defend itself with violence against its opponents, but this type of violence endangered the revolution rather than protecting what it stood for (p 80‑1):

I believe that the formation of the Cheka was one of the gravest 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 defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it so necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?

While the constant military attack and economic collapse could explain the curtailment of individual rights, reinforcing this curtail­ment after the danger of war had passed was “an immense and demoralizing blunder” (p 153).

Part of the blame for such blunders lay in the way Bolsheviks sought to justify the repression in itself, rather than something that had to be done in the circumstances. When Serge and his fellow ex-prisoners reached Russia in 1919, they saw a copy of a soviet newspaper (p 69):

From it came our first shock. We had never thought that the idea of revolution could be separated from that of freedom.… In Petrograd we expected to breathe the air of a liberty that would doubtless be harsh and even cruel to its enemies, but was still generous and bracing. And in this paper we found a colourless article, signed ‘G. Zinoviev’, on ‘The Monopoly of Power’. ‘Our Party rules alone… it will not allow anyone… The false democratic liberties demanded by the counter-revolution.’ I am quoting from memory, but such was certainly the sense of the piece. We tried to justify it by the state of siege and the mortal perils; however, such considerations could justify particular acts, acts of violence towards men and ideas, but not a theory based on the extinction of all freedom.

Some were putting such a theory forward even before the revolution and the difficulties it faced had materialised: a Bolshevik interned with Serge had already “advocated a merciless dictatorship, supp­ression of Press freedom, authoritarian revolution” (p 63).

Anyone reading this book cannot but realise how tough a situation the revolution faced. With the troops of a dozen empires invading, hunger and disease devastated Russia and left people literally scavenging to get by. (As Serge points out, Bolshevik leaders shared the misery, living on the same rations as the average worker—something that one or two socialist chiefs in our own time find to be beneath their dignity.) A perfect model of workers’ democracy is hardly to be expected from workers who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Clearly, the only solution was “that relief and salvation must come from the West… a Western working-class movement capable of supporting the Russians and, one day, superseding them” (p 155).

But throwing all the blame on to ‘objective conditions’ is a lame excuse. Even in the most dire straits, people have some freedom of movement, and too often—though not always—Bolshevik leaders chose an authoritarian solution. While this may have appeared more convenient from an administrative point of view, it steadily chipped away at the socialist ideals of 1917. Most leading Bolsheviks were of a mind that predisposed them to take this path:

The Party is the repository of truth, and any form of thinking which differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute convict­ion of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity—and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.

This dogmatic intolerance favoured bullying and browbeating over argument and persuasion: “a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result” (p 134). A similar atmosphere of heresy-hunting prevailed even amongst those who opposed the strangling of the revolution, as Serge’s difficulties with Trotsky showed: “Trotskyism was displaying symptoms of an outlook in harmony with that of the very Stalinism against which it had taken its stand” (p 349).

In 1933, anticipating the arrest that would send him to a Stalinist prison for three years, Serge restated some fundamental principles of his socialism (p 282‑3):

Man must be given his rights, his security, his value. Without these, there is no Socialism.… I hold that Socialism cannot develop in the intellectual sense except by the rivalry, scrutiny and struggle of ideas; that we should fear not error, which is mended in time by life itself, but rather stagnation and reaction; that respect for man implies his right to know everything and his freedom to think. It is not against freedom of thought and against man that Socialism can triumph, but on the contrary, through freedom of thought and by improving man’s condition.

It is a point of view that will still get you in trouble with most of today’s left. What sets Serge apart is that all his criticisms of Bolshevism come from within the revolutionary camp. He is never so lazy as to resort to a concept of ‘Bolshevik original sin’ which reduces the whole revolution to a mistake, destined to failure through violating a preordained scheme of things. He was a libertarian within the revolution, not against it: he was the one defending the concept of workers democratically running society. This kind of criticism always seems to get up the noses of socialists far more than the attacks of the ruling class do. The proper response to socialist criticisms should be to take them on board seriously, see whether any truth can be learnt from them, and amend your viewpoint accordingly. Even if the criticism is false, the scrutiny of our own ideas will strengthen our understanding of them.

But don’t go holding your breath, now. Going to a left-wing meeting and raising a criticism of the prevailing line is just asking for it. Far from a sympathetic hearing, you will probably be treated something like a fly to be swatted away, or preferably smashed into the wall with a rolled-up copy of the party paper. (If they wipe the remains off it carefully, they can still sell it at the door….) Funnily enough, when those on the receiving end get fed up with this kind of thing, they sometimes reproduce the same method themselves, as if to prove how orthodox they still are, without addressing the basic fault.

Such intolerance was clearly a factor in the degeneration of the Russian revolution. If we swallow the notion that the objective historical difficulties are responsible for it all, we are in big trouble, because there never was nor never will be a revolution with no such difficulties to contend with. If similar difficulties justify similar treatment of dissenters, then some of us should start acquiring a taste for prison food. Either that, or fight for a socialist movement that welcomes diversity instead of stifling it.

Of course it is right that socialists should hold their opinions strongly and argue for them keenly, but that doesn’t mean contemptuously dismissing other opinions. Rather than jabbing the finger to pulverise an opponent, we should start from a sincere recognition of other people’s honesty and respect the different view they advocate. We should maybe, as Bertolt Brecht once said, draw up a list of things that we have no answers for. In no field of human thought has the final truth been attained, and unless we are open to the possibility of friends correcting our mistakes, we face the prospect of enemies tearing our ideas to pieces.

Left-wing authoritarianism is an enemy within, and the tragedy Victor Serge survived should serve as a weapon against it (p 374‑5):

I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent. These evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of the intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit towards these same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs.

Revolution in legend and reality

In March 2016 Red Banner bowed out with Issue 63, which featured the first English translation of this article by Victor Serge.

The Russian-Belgian revolutionary Victor Serge (1890-1947) lived in Russia from 1919, witnessing the triumphs and tragedies of its revolution. As well as working for the revolution within Russia, he attempted to win over to its side European socialists, particularly of the libertarian tradition. This article, published in the French Communist Party’s Bulletin communiste on 27 October 1921, is an example of that. It is translated into English here for the first time.

Man thinks badly and little—as little as possible. In order to lighten the task of thinking, he has imagined ready-made ideas which need only be accepted and repeated, commonplaces, conventional images, clichés. It is essentially a verbal currency. It rarely occurs to those who think to inquire as to the true value of the coin passing through their hands, to test the metal. So they become dupes and playthings of a mass of illusions, which are all the more difficult to unravel because our mind, obscured by book knowledge, has to some extent lost the sense of reality. The generations which have seen and experienced the great war did not expect to play a certain role in “great revolutions”. Before the war the word revolution had a certain vogue. You could say that a kind of general admiration surrounded it. Thinking of 1789-93,1 it was freely given the epithet great, and peaceable people of bourgeois and fairly conservative customs honourably earned their good daily living by compiling or writing laudatory tomes on the personalities of “the revolutionary epic”.

Witnesses to the Russian revolution, not those who speak warmly of it from thousands of miles away but those who have lived it in the dismal streets of Petrograd or Moscow, can now almost conceive what the great French revolution was—what the citizens of the One and Indivisible Republic lived through. History—which is usually legend, let us note—has almost nothing to say of it. It has done worse. It is through Victor Hugo, Michelet,2 and every Tom, Dick and Harry who vulgarises them that we have learned to conceive the revolution: tragic, epic, great, magnificent, superb, poetic, what have you! To find a more objective description of it you have to open Taine,3 who the general public don’t read—precisely because he offends their love of the legend, perhaps.

Danton, Robespierre, Marat.4 The Homeland in danger, Valmy, Thermidor!5 The adolescent closes his history text book (or Ninety-Three) and sees a luminous procession of heroes file past in his feverish imagination, surrounded by lightning and light. Madame Roland dies while reading out a most beautiful phrase…6 Essentially, and it is an absolute truth, the literature has completely falsified the idea of the French revolution in our minds. When you consider that it is after all recent—less than a century and a half—a great scepticism has arisen regarding historical works and notions… All that has been conserved of the revolution by the literature and the legend certainly happened—but is lost, drowned, inextricably mixed up in a mass of other things altogether. ’89-93 was a long torment where the wisest no longer saw clearly, an infinite anguish, an era of brutalities, of crimes, of errors, of exaltations, of inexpressible misfortunes. Concretely, the terror was nothing but a pool of dark blood that stank below the guillotine erected night and day, which was only, if you want a symbol, a heap of hideously decapitated, disfigured heads… The “giants of the Convention”7 were afraid of each other; the war had led to atrocious butcheries greater—if possible—than the “lace warfare” of monarchical times;8 the campaigns burned and savaged, people were hungry, and desperately asked themselves when the un­intelligible drama would come to an end. And hardly anyone could foresee anything.

In Russia the revolution legend coincided powerfully with the success of the revolution in reality; then it did the greatest harm to it. It has divided the revolutionaries. Many—among the best—were frightened upon seeing the thing. They didn’t recognise it, and disowned it. Essentially I have no other explanation for the aberration of certain absolutely sincere and unselfish people (Tchaikovsky, Breshkovskaia)9—who have in fact passed to the side of the counter-revolution, and the sorrowful stupor of a Kropotkin in the face of events which confirm his own theories (see his Great French Revolution)10 is of the same kind. Only such people could remain un­moved in the presence of realities greater than themselves—due to clairvoyance, equanimity, prejudice—or whose heart and obtuse mind live only a life without intensity. A revolution is not an epic poem; it makes more sense to compare it to an unexpected violent attack during a disease. And there is no better comparison here than that borrowed from the language of biology or medicine. The abscess bursts open, the larva laboriously transforms itself, perhaps painfully, into an insect, life begins again in suffering and physical destitution. “The childbirth of societies”, it has been called.11 So be it. Childbirth is not pretty. The flesh contracts, tears, rebels, bleeds, and the new being is born without intelligence, without power, but bent on living and already suffering as it cries. And it too begins by being hungry.

The idea of the revolution must be revised in our minds, in contact with actual reality, in order—above all—to replace a false notion with an exact one—purely for the benefit of intelligence (which is reason enough), so that, finally, those who desire the revolution and go towards it know well where they are going.

War is not glorious. It is frightening. Glory is merely a subjective notion on the part of the observer—the distant observer, what’s more. Without doubt, d’Assas, pierced by bayonet thrusts for crying in the night: “Over here, France! Here is the enemy!”12 is magnificent… to describe, but the reality he lived through himself, the only reality for him was the frenzy, the sudden despair of the man in dire straits, encircled—and then the frightful physical pain of his flesh torn by the knives. Social war, with its innumerable dramas, must also be judged objectively and especially outside of literary considerations…

Two vast experiences should finally allow a healthy judgment to those who care. When an old society is weakening and dissolving but, determined to persist, represses with senile violence the new forms of life arising, a jolt from without or within is enough to bring about the revolution. One world bursts open, another world is born. Mental disequilibrium becomes frequent among both masses and individuals. Fanaticisms are enraged. People and things are carried away by a kind of tempest where the strongest survive—but many by chance… Economically, chaos and disorganisation. No one can work, and production seems to be destroyed. Besides that, robbery. It is always a matter of expropriation (in 1789-93 the third estate13 expropriate the nobility and clergy, in 1917-19 the proletariat and muzhik14 expropriate the bourgeoisie and nobility); and no one expropriates without thinking—at least, not as a general rule. Morally, trouble, disturbance, anguish, disarray. The old values vanish; the new are not at all certain. Such is the revolution in reality. It cannot be otherwise. To pursue his path to the future through this torment—or to consent in advance to all the risks of a voyage through this torment—he who wants “the old world burst open” and the new order born must not view reality through the legend—but while stoically taking its side. The great revolution­ary work must be accomplished as a rough and painful task necessary for the birth of the future.

Petrograd, August 1921


  1. The most radical period of the French revolution.
  2. Hugo’s last novel Ninety-Three revolves around counter-revolutionary revolts of that year. Jules Michelet’s History of France included a widely-read account of the revolutionary period.
  3. Hippolyte Taine’s Origins of Contemporary France offered a very critical, but wide-ranging account of the revolution.
  4. George Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Jean-Paul Marat were radical leaders of the revolution who suffered early deaths as a result.
  5. The French National Assembly proclaimed that “the Homeland is in danger” in 1792, mobilising the people to resist invasion. The battle of Valmy that year saw the first major victory of the revolutionary army. Two years later in the revolutionary month of Thermidor, the con­servative Directory took power from the Committee of Public Safety.
  6. Jeanne Manon Roland was executed in 1793 in a purge of conservatives, announcing at the guillotine: “Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”
  7. The French National Convention sat from 1792 to 1795.
  8. This refers to warfare before the revolution, when dynasties supposedly fought each other with due respect for each other’s noble status, while the soldiers suffered on their behalf.
  9. Nikolai Tchaikovsky was a veteran revolutionary whose opposition to the Bolsheviks led him to collaborate with foreign armies invading Russia. Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya’s activity earned her the nickname ‘Grandmother of the Russian Revolution’, but she too took up with the Bolsheviks’ enemies.
  10. Pyotr Kropotkin, anarchist philosopher and author of The Great Revolution 1789-1793, was openly critical of the Bolsheviks.
  11. “Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one”, wrote Karl Marx in Capital.
  12. Surrounded by British soldiers at the battle of Kloster Kampen in 1760, Captain Nicolas-Louis d‘Assas is supposed to have cried out to this effect, sacrificing himself to alert his comrades.
  13. The third estate comprised commoners, all those outside the two estates mentioned here.
  14. Peasant.