Secrecy and Revolution: A Reply to Trotsky
This article was written during a dispute over Trotsky's pamphlet Their Morals and Ours, the French edition of which, translated by Serge, was accompanied by a publisher's prospectus attacking Trotsky's class-based conception of morality. In reply, Trotsky wrote an article entitled "The Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism", in which he suggested that the prospectus was written "naturally, not by Victor Serge but by one of his disciples, who imitates both his master's ideas and his style. But, maybe after all, it is the master himself, that is, Victor Serge in his capacity of ’friend’ of the author?"1
Serge responded by writing the piece reprinted here, which was intended for publication in the French syndicalist journal La Révolution prolétarienne. However, he decided to withdraw the article because, as he later explained, he preferred "to suffer this unjust attack in silence. And I still think I was quite right: truth can work its way out in different ways than by offensive polemics".2 The original manuscript was found among Serge's papers by Peter Sedgwick while he was preparing the English edition of Serge's book Memoirs of a Revolutionary. The article was translated by Sedgwick and published in the 27 December 1963 issue of Peace News.
Such indeed, is their idea of discussion – an approach which is not new to me, having been a Left Opposition militant for so long within Russia. On the first occasion, Trotsky objected to an article I published in the United States and France, under the title "Marxism in Our Time".3 Strangely enough, he criticised it to all appearances without having read it, imputing to me propositions which are directly opposite to my own. This time his polemical fervour and waspish intolerance have led him even further. Almost the whole of his article ("The Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism") rests upon charges of crying inaccuracy, which I am bound to take up despite the repugnance I feel towards debasing an argument which could be both straightforward and fascinating.
Trotsky reproaches me with being the "severest critic" of his little book Their Morals and Ours, which I translated into French for Éditions du Sagittaire. However, I have never published a single line concerning that work of his, in any publication or in any shape or form.
Trotsky credits me with the authorship of the publicity copy accompanying the distribution of his booklet to the press. On this matter, too, much to my own vexation, I must reply to him with a categoric denial. I am not the author of this prospectus; I have had no part, direct or indirect, in composing it; I have no idea who its author is; and I do not care either. Is that clear enough? Before running these false imputations to the length of five columns of argument, Trotsky would have been wise to make enquiries from the publishers, from myself or from other competent persons. The most elementary accuracy would have demanded this.
Having in this manner ascribed to me a piece of writing with which I have had nothing to do, Trotsky spends a long time refuting ideas which he fathers on to me, whilst systematically ignoring those ideas which I have frequently published on the very same subject. Once again, and sadly, I recognise here an approach which has so often been used in Russia against him and against us; a bad approach, one of small intellectual worth, stemming from a profoundly sick Bolshevik mentality.
On the theme of the civil war in the Russian revolution, Trotsky credits me with heaven knows what high-flown nonsense; although on these very issues I have written a work of nearly 500 pages, which is fairly well known: L'An I de la Révolution Russe.4 It would have been enough for Trotsky to have opened it, and he would have seen what I say and what I do not say. But that would have been too simple. Did they ever open his books in Russia before accusing him of every crime under the sun? All the same, it is a remarkable fact that in the six columns of his "refutation" of me, he does not quote a single line of mine. Which is exactly the way Pravda used to treat him once upon a time.
I will pass over incidental charges, couched as they are in a style which, alas, could well be called "Muscovite"; as for instance that of having, along with X, who is indeed some old friend or comrade of mine, and with Y, whom I have never met, conspired against the "Fourth International". As for these quarrels of sects and sub-sects, I am and always have been a complete stranger to them. Possibly X or Y, or even Z, has made use of my writing: I cannot help that – writings are produced with the intention of circulation, ideas belong to everybody.
In this remarkable article by Trotsky there is only one short passage which actually replies to me. Here it is: "... still another of V. Serge's discoveries, namely, that the degeneration of the Bolsheviks dates from the moment when the Cheka was given the right of deciding behind closed doors the fate of people. Serge plays with the concept of revolution, writes poems about it, but is incapable of understanding it as it is. Public trials are possible only in conditions of a stable regime. Civil war is a condition of the extreme instability of society and the state. Just as it is impossible to publish in newspapers the plans of the general staff, so it is impossible to reveal in public trials the conditions and circumstances of conspiracies, for the latter are intimately linked with the course of the civil war."5
Since the majority of regimes at the present time can scarcely be classed as stable, Trotsky is in this passage supplying all reactionaries with an excellent argument for replacing normal courts of justice by secret courts-martial. However, we shall soon see that his argument is strictly worthless. (A personal aside: Trotsky could well have recalled that between 1919 and 1936, or rather since 1906, I have not confined myself to "writing poems" about revolution. But the little device of only mentioning poems, and thereby making a passing sneer at a long and rich record of activity which has included ten years of varied persecutions in the USSR – this little business has not a great deal to do with the matter under discussion.)
Trotsky makes use of a euphemism which is so excessive that I could justifiably charge him with making light of a concept that, despite everything, has its own social and human importance: I mean the death penalty. The Cheka, he writes coolly, received the right "of deciding behind closed doors the fate of people": whereas what the Cheka was in fact given was the right to apply the death penalty on a mass scale and in secret, without hearing the accused, who were unable to defend themselves and whom in most cases their judges did not even see! By comparison with this inquisitorial process, the "closed door" status of any court in which the judges and the defendants are face to face, and to which defence counsel are admitted, appears to overflow with safeguards. Either here Trotsky is gerrymandering the historical facts and the whole basic problem, or else the verb "to gerrymander" has lost all its meaning in this or any language.
One would gather from him that it was simply a matter of repressing conspiracies; however, the Cheka's full title was "Extraordinary Commission for the repression of counter-revolution, sabotage, speculation and desertion". If the necessity for secret procedures could reasonably be invoked in the case of conspiracy, is it proper to invoke it for the housewife who sells a pound of sugar that she has bought (speculation), the electrician whose fuses blow (sabotage), the poor lad who gets fed up with the front line and takes a trip to the rear (desertion), the socialist or the anarchist who has passed some remark or other in the street, or has some comrades together at home (agitation and illegal assembly)? Cases of this sort literally swamped those of conspiracy, whether genuine or non-existent; of this Trotsky cannot be unaware. Nor, at this stage, can he fail to be aware how favourable to the manufacture of non-existent conspiracies was the darkness which he champions; there were just as many of this kind of plot as of the real variety. He cannot be unaware that in all the different kinds of case that it dealt with, the Cheka made a frightful abuse of the death penalty. Why then is he so eager to defend the indefensible, and with such poor arguments?
During the civil war there was perfect order behind the front itself, in the interior of Soviet territory. Travellers to these parts have described this plainly enough. There was nothing to prevent the functioning of regular courts, which might in certain cases have sat in camera, before which the accused could have been able to defend themselves, have their own counsel present, and show themselves in the light of day. Would not the revolution have enhanced its own popularity by unmasking its true enemies for all to see? And, correspondingly, the abuses which arose inevitably from the darkness would have been avoided.
But the party's central committee was bent on maintaining its monopoly of power, and so on confounding its too troublesome critics with spies, traitors and reactionary plotters; it would often have found itself embarrassed before the criticisms of Menshevik socialists, anarchists, maximalists, syndicalists or even Communists and spirited non-party citizens, whom the courts would not have been able to convict without discrediting themselves. In other words, the consequences of the secrecy in the Cheka's methods lay as much in attacking and destroying working class and revolutionary democracy as in cutting off the heads of the counter-revolution. (This, even though the early Cheka only very rarely used the death penalty against members of working class organisations.)
On such questions of history (which are also, since moral reality is inseparable from social reality, questions of socialist morals) the working class movement's whole interest is to shed light everywhere, and to make its views known without any passion beyond that of serving man and the future. Whether Trotsky wills it or not, no limit has been set to the analysis of the Russian revolution, which he has served so outstandingly, so tremendously - despite the measure of responsibility which must be laid to his name for certain tragic errors. And no amount of ponderous irony, no broadsides of discredit, directed against men who dare to think and sometimes to pronounce according to their conscience, will render him free to substitute mischievous polemic for the necessary debate to which, with a little less pretension to infallibility, he could bring the most precious contributions of all.
1. Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, 1973, p.54.
2. Victor Serge, letter to Angelica Balabanova, 23 October 1941, in David Cotterill, ed, The Serge-Trotsky Papers, 1994, p.189.
3. The article was published in 1938 in Partisan Review, and is reprinted in The Serge-Trotsky Papers, pp.176-83.
4. Published in an English translation by Bookmarks, as Year One of the Revolution, 1992.
5. Their Morals and Ours, p.58.