Victor Serge’s contemporary account is a critical but essential defence of the Bolsheviks’ efforts to save the gains of the revolution, argues Richard Allday
Victor Serge, Year one of the Russian Revolution (Haymarket 2015), xx, 525pp.
The year 2017 will see the centenary of the overthrow of the brutal autocracy of the Romanov regime in Russia, the establishment of the first workers’ state in history, and the advent of a social turmoil that spread across the globe, but which was particularly marked across the European continent.
Next year will also see, I have little doubt, the emergence of any number of ‘learned’ (and very well-paid) professors, literati, and professional hacks producing (more or less) literate accounts of why the Bolshevik revolution was a disaster for humanity in general and Russia in particular.
This is why the re-issuing of this remarkable work, by a truly remarkable individual, is so timely, and welcome. The author, Victor Serge, was born to Russian revolutionaries, exiles from the Tsarist state, and from his earliest days received a theoretical understanding of the need for radical social change, derived from his parents. He also received a practical education in the brutality of social inequality, through the poverty of his family, leading directly to the death through privation of his beloved brother.
This led to an implacable hostility to oppression and exploitation which remained with him till his death (of which, coincidentally, 2017 will see the 70th anniversary). More significantly, he was not just theoretically opposed to the capitalist order, but from his teenage years was actively engaged in trying to bring about its demise. His initial teenage rebellion took the form of an almost nihilistic anarchism, and he never departed from his defence of those who lash out against an inhuman system. Even if he rapidly outgrew the limitations of anarchist individualism, he remained till the end of his life a defender of the ideals of libertarian socialism, which he regarded as an inherent part of the revolutionary workers’ movement.
This is why the book may make uncomfortable reading for a very wide range of its potential audience. A self-professed anarchist, who joined the Bolshevik party, he nonetheless refused to reduce himself to an uncritical support. His judgement on such significant matters as the right to exist of an oppositional press; of the suppression of political parties other than the Bolsheviks; of the Bolshevik refusal to allow sympathetic parties to join a coalition (though Bolshevik-led) government after the Civil War; his stinging rebuttal of Trotsky’s suppression of the Kronstadt uprising, and his insistence that there were happier alternatives; his condemnation of the creation and practice of the Cheka; these and many more criticisms of Bolshevik practice will infuriate those comrades who see any criticism of pre-1923 Soviet Russia as chinks in the defence of the gains of October.
The criticisms will be no less stinging for Serge’s apparently contradictory defence of these actions, placing them in the precise historical circumstances. His account of the Left Social-Revolutionaries’ attempted coup, intended to wreck the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany and outlaw the Bolsheviks, and initiated by the assassination of the German ambassador to the soviet state justifies the reader asking: “In what sense could the Bolshevik’s govern in coalition with a party who secretly plans to overthrow that same government?”
Likewise, his criticism of the very foundation of the Cheka, ‘… the most incomprehensible error – because deliberate …’ (p.474), is immediately undermined by ‘extenuating circumstances’, and by his evaluation of the importance of the role of the Cheka in preventing the counter-revolutionary coup by the White ‘Fatherland and Freedom Defence League’ in the summer of 1918.
Equally, his portrayal of the ultimately reactionary nature of Makhno’s anarcho-nationalism (stigmatizing him as ‘the don’ of various competing gangs) will antagonize those who wish only to concentrate on Makhno’s more progressive anarchist contributions, and ignore utterly the conscious terror that he and his supporters visited upon his native Ukraine; outdoing the Cheka, and competing with the invading White armies for ruthlessness.
For all its faults (and Peter Sedgwick, who translated this work, is unsparing in his criticisms of some of Serge’s analyses), this work is a tribute to an outstanding, and unyielding revolutionary who told it as he saw it, was a fearless opponent of Stalin, and an intransigent revolutionary to his dying day. More importantly, it gives the reader an ability to comprehend the hard choices facing revolutionaries at a time when no one knew the outcome, when the very revolution itself was facing defeat. And Serge knew the consequence of defeat. The mass repression that had followed the 1905 insurrections, the slaughter that accompanied the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1870, were not abstract historical facts to Serge, they were concrete reality, atrocities personally attested by living witnesses. The human cost of failure was an ever-present spectre, but equally important to Serge was the imperative to keep the beacon of hope alight, to serve as an inspiration to the multitudes around the globe that the dispossessed could guide their own destiny.
All of which makes this an heroic work. The book itself was written (as was so much of Serge’s work) under conditions of confinement, under the hostile eyes of Stalin’s secret police, in small self-contained chapters, so that if some were lost to the secret police, or the project halted mid-flow (due to the death of the author) the surviving fragments would still stand alone.
The very fact that this was a conscious method of work, designed to circumvent the Stalinist terror illustrates the courage and integrity of the author. Based on an intimate acquaintance with many of the leading actors, Serge has managed to reconstruct the immediacy of events, place the decisive choices within the prism of contemporaneity; the potential outcomes being presented as potentials, not givens. All the more remarkable, because of course Serge was not a participant in these events. He was still struggling to make his way to Soviet Russia, only arriving where this book finishes.
Desperate to arrive and help the revolutionary project, but not knowing what would be the balance of forces when he did arrive; not knowing whether the forces of counter-revolution would have triumphed; impelled to do what he could, whatever the personal cost, Serge finally arrives just as the heady days of exhilaration, of revolutionary optimism, are coming to an end. The revolution was facing strangulation from without, and economic devastation and famine at home. The White Terror was increasing its grip with sabotage and assassinations from within, and military invasion from without. Serge saw the necessary retreat from mass-participatory democracy, to increasingly ruthless and dictatorial methods of control being imposed by the only organization he trusted to protect the revolutionary gains.
It is a tribute to the unbending principles of the man that Serge neither closed his eyes to the reality before him, nor retreated into despair or uncritical acceptance, but realised the world-historical significance of the overthrow of the old order, of the emergence of the dispossessed onto the stage of history, as the lead actor, not ‘extras’.
It is this perspective that allowed Serge to locate all the gains and retreats, the mistakes and blunders, within the overarching imperative to protect the gains of October. With the rise of Stalin, he joined the Left Opposition to defend October against Thermidor. Witness to the brutality of Stalin’s machine of terror, seeing comrades executed, tortured, imprisoned, exiled, still Serge refused to bow his head. Aware that his time may be short, he decided to write this book, a testament of the first days of the world’s first workers’ state – warts and all.
It remains still one of the finest defences of those heady days, and though not cheap, is worth every penny. Thanks are owed to Peter Sedgwick for the translation, and to the publishers who have ensured it is still available as we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the events recorded here.
A minor point: Unlike English, Russian is a gendered language, and the Russian word for ‘people’ is masculine; it is understandable in a translation dating from the late ‘60s that it might be translated as ‘men’. But in 2016, it grates to read in Chapter 1 (regarding the ‘Peoples’ Will’ activists of the 19th century) ‘… these were heroic and dedicated men …’, when the following sentence reads ‘The first important attempt was that made by Vera Zasulich’, and over the page, naming the executioners of Tsar Alexander II, first in the list is Sophia Perovskaya (pp.31-2). Given Serge’s commitment to human equality, surely future editions could better strive to include both halves of humanity in generic terms?
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
More articles from this author
- 2017 - 2019: what changed?
- “We need to work together”: school student climate striker speaks to trade unionists about the way forward
- Why we all have to support the climate strike
- Something in the air? The strike action in aviation
- Can the Working Class Change the World? - book review
- Workers' occupation at Harland and Wolff shows how to take on the Tories
- Corbynism wins in Peterborough