A Review of Victor Serge’s “Revolution in Danger”

Viplav

Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921 (Translated & edited by Ian Birchall), Haymarket Books, 2011

The pamphlets collected here were written during the Russian Civil War. They were read by Victor Serge’s anarchist comrades as justification for Bolshevik authoritarianism and excess, while his new comrades possibly saw in them an anarchist hangover and germs for future deviation.

Victor Serge has been known mainly for his anti-Stalinism. More recently, his novels have become an attraction for their description of contradictions, bureaucratisation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution. However, he is seldom recognised for the originality of his understanding of revolutionary tasks in general, and their realisation in the Russian scenario. Hopefully, this collection will be an impetus for critical inquiries into his ‘revolutionary theory’.

Specifically, if something survived in Victor Serge throughout his life, it was his commitment to libertarianism. He saw his road to Bolshevism as something borne out of this commitment, rather than as its dilution. Writings from his initial Bolshevik days which have been compiled in this book demonstrate two things. Firstly, they represent Serge’s struggle to explain his involvement in the Russian Revolution, during the turbulent days of the Civil War, to himself and to his anarchist comrades. Serge seeks to show how it entailed the furthering of the revolutionary libertarian cause, not its abandonment. And secondly, the texts provide an important insight into lesser known aspects, or tenets of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, which opponents conveniently forget, while supporters in their doctrinaire zeal to draw definite lessons, are incapable of tracing – uncomfortable with the multiplicity, and even contradictory political currents that constituted Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. Of course, histories of anarchism never forget to show its active presence in the Russian Revolution, especially in initial months. In fact, individual libertarian groups found some representation in the Comintern in its initial days. But an inquiry into Victor Serge’s life and works would go further in tracing the libertarian current in the rebirth of Bolshevism during the Russian Revolution.

The first two pamphlets are reports of specific days in Petrograd in the year 1919. They are about the revolutionary defense of the city against the whites. The significance of Petrograd lay in the fact that its labouring population was in the front ranks of leadership of the Russian Revolution, and when the Provisional Government was dismantled, power came into the hands of the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd Soviet was the epitome of the revolutionary transition. Being “a front-line city”, “the city of the revolution”, Petrograd was “permanently in danger” – “The air you breathe there is more vibrant than elsewhere. You can feel the nervous tension and the awakening of a crowd living on permanent alert”. (65)

Like John Reed, Serge wrote these pamphlets in struggles and on the streets. He successfully located the politics of the times in the everydayness of city-life – political ideas and ideals are constituted and reconstituted in day to day happenings, thus shifting their significations radically. This has given the texts, as the translator and editor of the volume, Ian Birchall, rightly, notes, “the freshness of immediacy and, even more, the power of revolutionary enthusiasm… they convey a vivid sense of what it was actually like to experience the first years of the revolution.”(3) However, unlike Reed’s, these texts would be read much more in an ideological manner, as parallel to these narratives runs a continuous and intense self-inquiry into the role of these events in (re)defining the particular politico-ethical legacy, from which the author came. Thus, Serge’s pamphlets are definitely more than mere good or even radical journalism. Serge himself asserts in one of the pamphlets that “his observations and reflections are those of a Communist formed in the libertarian traditions of the Latin countries.” (60)

In fact, it is this legacy of activism that allows him to appreciate the immediate and the spontaneous in the revolution, even in its most difficult phase, when the planned unity of action and thought was considered the greatest virtue, and whose ossification ultimately constituted “the tragedy of a social revolution”. His continuous stress on the “this-time”-ness of “violence, authority and constraint” – of “Red terror”, “dirty jobs”, “sadness”, “draconian measures” dissolves the purported absoluteness and linearity of the revolutionary course in Russia. The Russian situation in Serge’s pamphlets becomes full of possibilities – interplay of necessities, dangers and hope. “Certain necessities of struggle, which it is always difficult to accept in the abstract, stand out clearly just as they followed logically from the events.”(17) After all, “Anarchy is not an ideal formula: it must be life and can be born only from action.”(51)

The grasp of the instantaneous leads him to appreciate the role of the Communist party – its efficiency in organising internal defence – “to mobilize cadres and members, something which was done within a few hours.”(74) He reflects,

“The party at this time is the only organization capable of inspiring, channeling and directing the energies which have just triumphed (and moreover let us note that it maintains its unique situation in dictatorial fashion), but it is nonetheless true that they exist outside it, that they constitute its strength only because it represents them knowingly, because it is, in short, only one of the means of the revolution, in some sense the most powerful lever of the proletariat.”(98, emphases mine)

As clear in this rethinking of the role of the party, Serge’s endeavour was essentially to grasp the revolutionary needs from below – how the situation was building up on the ground, and how specific organs and agencies were appropriated, modified or challenged to suit these needs. It was also an endeavour to explain how an anarchist like himself gravitated towards Bolshevism, despite his continued stress on anti-authoritarianism, direct action, morality and other libertarian motifs. In fact it is this continuity that made Serge capable of capturing those (anomalous) characteristics of the Russian Revolution, which others have generally neglected or could not take account of, usually due to various kinds of ideological baggage. With the examples of Anarchist revolutionaries who were active in the Russian revolution Serge pronounces the same virtue that gathered the Marxists, Blanquists and Anarchists in one fold during the Paris Commune of 1871 – “that in the face of the common enemy, the great revolutionary family – where there are so many enemy brothers – is one; and that at the most critical moments, class instinct wins out over ideological deviations and sectarian spirit. In these times of struggle, the most serious divergences of opinion become secondary; for the very life of the first socialist society is at stake.”(99)

The final pamphlet in this collection is not a narrative of events, but a reconceptualisation of Bolshevism and the lessons of the initial years of the Russian Revolution in a language which can speak to the libertarians. Serge, in 1921, already speaks of “the tragedy of a social revolution being contained within national frontiers… [which] is thus stifled and reduced to playing for time with the enemy within and without.”(118) However, he does not yet consider the situation completely hopeless and perhaps thinks that the mobilisation and integration of anarchists at this juncture will rescue the Russian Revolution from implosion, “elevating, ennobling and enlightening the spirit of the communism of the future”.(119)

Serge was never completely cut off from his Anarchist comrades. Many of them had already written obituaries of the Russian Revolution and wanted to have nothing to do with it, but a section represented by none other than Peter Kropotkin (greatly respected by Lenin) was more self-reflective. Kropotkin found the revolution advancing “in its own way, in the direction of the least resistance, without paying the least attention to our efforts…. That is why it is a revolution and not a peaceful progress, because it is destroying without regarding what it destroys and whither it goes. And we are powerless for the present to direct it into another channel, until such time as it will have played itself out… Then – inevitably will come a reaction.” Kropotkin found even the “governing party” to be powerless, “being carried along by the current which it helped to create but which is now already a thousand times stronger than the party itself”. The only task that he envisaged at that juncture was “to use our energy to lessen the fury and force of the oncoming reaction”, along with the task of gathering “together people who will be capable of undertaking constructive work in each and every party after the revolution has worn itself out.” (Kropotkin, 1920, emphases original)

In one of his letters written in 1920, Kropotkin asked Lenin, “Don’t your comrades realize that you, communists (despite the errors you have committed), are working for the future? And that therefore you must in no case stain your work by acts so close to primitive terror?…I believe that for the best of you, the future of communism is more precious than your own lives. And thoughts about this future must compel you to renounce such measures.”

It is not incidental that Serge’s pamphlet sought to confront exactly those questions that Kropotkin raised in his speeches and writing during the year 1920. Obviously, Serge knew quite well what irked the libertarians most, and it was nobody’s case to present the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism in any triumphalist manner. Hence, at the outset he accepts all the descriptions that Kropotkin and others painted of the Russian scenario as true. Serge speaks of people who “are fighting on the various front lines of Soviet Russia, those who are carrying out the humble, melancholy, dangerous—and sometimes immoral—tasks of the revolution”. He clearly states that it would be unfair to give all credit for the revolution to Bolsheviks – “Social Revolutionary propagandists and terrorists, whose courage was unstinting; anarchists and Mensheviks, whom no persecution could stop” must not be forgotten. It is they “who, before the time of Bolshevism, actually practiced revolution”.(124) Only on the eve of the Russian Revolution did the Bolsheviks come out of their “relative obscurity”, to emerge “as a movement to the left of socialism – which brought it closer to anarchism – inspired by the will to achieve the revolution immediately.”(126)

According to Serge, the Bolsheviks, by calling themselves communists, by declaring the incompatibility of the ideas of communism and the state, by rejecting bourgeois democracy and patriotism, by advocating the immediate expropriation of the possessing classes, by publicly recognising the need to use violence and the principle of terrorism, renounced the traditions of social democracy, and thus came closer to anarchism. Serge’s understanding of new Bolshevism is corroborated by the fact that the same Lenin who talked about the wide gulf between socialism and anarchism, rejecting any unity with anarchists in 1905 was “drawing a parallel between anarchism and Bolshevik views” and admitting that “the concept of anarchism was finally assuming concrete features” in 1918. Lenin further stresses, “When the masses were themselves taking up arms to start an unrelenting struggle against the exploiters, when a new people’s power was being applied that had nothing in common with parliamentary power, it was no longer the old state, outdated in its traditions and forms, that they had before them, but something new, something based on the creative power of the people. And while some anarchists spoke of the Soviets with fear because they were still influenced by obsolete views, the new, fresh trend in anarchism was definitely on the side of the Soviets, because it saw their vitality and their ability to win the sympathy of the working masses and arouse their creative energy.” (Lenin, 1918)

However, for Serge, the new Bolshevism could be understood only by a “new anarchism”, devoid of the “obsolete views” that Lenin spoke about, and which in Serge’s words, were “the notions of yesteryear”, a result of “an incapacity to distinguish words (the old words) and things”, “a sad lack of a sense of reality”. This new anarchism must accept “as a whole the set of conditions necessary for the social revolution: dictatorship of the proletariat, principle of soviets, revolutionary terror, defence of the revolution, strong organizations.” (133) So what remains of libertarianism? Its worth for Serge is precisely in the libertarian critique/struggle through actions and words against crystallisation or institutionalisation.

Serge remained very conscious of “the internal danger of the revolution” building up around the revolutionary government and the power, which is “by its very nature, conservative and hence reactionary.” The crystallisation of the workers’ state and of state communism had to be challenged vehemently. Only this would ensure a continuous movement towards “spontaneous order, to the free association of free workers, to anarchy”. Serge puts the revolutionary attitude towards the state in a typically Leninist style (almost paraphrasing what Lenin said while advocating the independence of trade unions and workers organisations against Trotsky’s proposals):

“Thus as far as the old question of state control, so often disputed between socialists and anarchists, is concerned, the experience of the social revolution in Russia leads us to a twofold conclusion: first of all the necessity of taking hold of the state, a powerful apparatus of coercion; and secondly the necessity of defending ourselves against it, of relentlessly working for its destruction, perhaps at the price of a long and laborious struggle.”(151)

Serge gives a very clear summary of the major problems of the Russian Revolution arising out of statism that were already visible during those early years, which in turn was symptomatic of the crystallisation of the workers’ state. He argued that this statist authoritarianism, taking the form of “the obsession with commanding, prescribing, decreeing, ordering and bullying… has been one of the major causes of the cruelties and of the mistakes of the Russian Revolution.” (157) One of the greatest problems that the revolution faced at that moment was the growing “subordination of the creative apparatus (industry) to the destructive and murderous apparatus (the state)” – this is how Serge characterised the nationalisation drive sans workers’ control (154). However, revolutionary successes, according to Serge, came hardly due to authority or the state – in fact, laws and coercion came across as impotent many a times. “The soviet state is not preserved by its apparatus of compulsion, but by its apparatus of agitation and propaganda, and above all because it is the most basic expression of proletarian interests.”(158)

For Serge, it is in the task of developing a committed critique (in Marx’s sense) of “these conditions” or of the dynamic reality of the revolution that the libertarians could play a major role, because they were equipped with an anarchist philosophy that “proposes a morality”, relatively insulating them from the temptation of power. Ian Birchall in his introduction does well to note that for Serge the concept of morality was a corrective to Second International Marxism and was to be found in his account of the revolutionary defence of Petrograd, as in the following passage:

“One day, when these things are discussed with a concern for justice and truth, when, in the society of the future that we shall ultimately build, where all the wounds of humanity will have been healed, then the revolution will be praised because it never, even in its most tragic days, lost the concern for art; it never neglected rhythms, fine gestures, beautiful voices full of pathos, dream-like settings, poems, anthems played on the organ, the sobbing notes of violins. Never. And I cannot help discovering in this obstinate quest for beauty, at every hour of the civil war, stoicism, strength and confidence. Doubtless it is because the Red city is suffering and fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all.”(30-31)

Serge’s writings are definitely historical documents that help us in confronting the problems of the Russian Revolution. They at least indicate that the Bolshevik successes did not reside just in the strength and wisdom of personalities, but in their reemergence as a movement that could help realise in the initial years, the spirit of revolution in its wholeness (which unavoidably includes radical contradictions). The Bolsheviks could recognise and unite the various levels of experience and consciousness of the Russian working masses – the various revolutionary traditions are, in fact, “in the last instance” nothing but representations of this diversity of the working class praxis. The cohesive richness of the initial revolutionary experience cannot be explained simply by calling Bolsheviks opportunists, as many libertarians have done, rather it was a realisation of what Serge calls the four-word essence of Bolshevism – “the will for revolution”, which definitely had a libertarian ring to it.

References:

Kropotkin, P. “What is to be done?”, 23 November 1920 & “Letter to Lenin”, 21 December 1920. Reprinted in Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread & Other Writings (Ed. Marshall S. Shatz), Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lenin, Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, January 10-18 (23-31), 1918.

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