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.