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Victor Serge: Hero or Witness?

Ian Birchall

I WAS PROFOUNDLY puzzled by Ernie Haberkern’s piece on Victor Serge ("Victor Serge and ‘Libertarianism’", What Next? No.9). Puzzled by the negative tone of a vituperative attack against a writer I have always admired; puzzled by the fact that a so obviously well-informed commentator as Haberkern should give such a selective and one-sided account; puzzled above all by the political motivation that seems to lie behind this attack.

Haberkern asserts that "most of the left today looks for new heroes in marginal figures". Yet at no point does he specify which left he is referring to – in which country, in (or outside of) which organisations, etc. I am a fairly regular attender at left demonstrations, but have not observed any banners reading "Sergeists demand minimum wage/no benefit cuts/ban on Nazis" or whatever. I am not a member of the Labour Party, but from what I hear there is no widespread tendency to quote Serge at ward meetings (I rather wish there were).

Now it is true that in the last ten years there has been a certain revival of interest in Serge. Conferences were held in London, Glasgow and Brussels to mark the Serge centenary in 1991 – papers from the Brussels conference, together with other material, have now appeared in a volume edited by Critique.1 A special issue of Revolutionary History in 1994 published some important texts;2 Susan Weissman has produced a new edition of Destiny of a Revolution;3 David Cotterill has published a critical edition of the Serge-Trotsky correspondence;4 Bill Marshall has published the first book-length study of Serge’s novels.5 The Socialist Workers Party’s publishing house has been instrumental in producing new editions of The Case of Comrade Tulayev6 and Year One of the Russian Revolution,7 as well as Serge’s previously untranslated pamphlets from 1920 and 1924.8 In French, Serge’s articles from Germany in 1923 have been published by Pierre Broué.9

There is considerable body of work by and on Serge here, but Haberkern refers to hardly any of it, preferring to stick with vapid generalisations about "the left". So no real debate is engaged. Haberkern directs his fire against those who claim that Serge is a "libertarian"; but he makes no reference to two important essays by Philip Spencer,10 which explicitly link Serge to what he calls (in Marcel Liebman’s phrase) "libertarian Leninism". No reference is made to the various writings of Richard Greeman, the leading Serge scholar, or to Peter Sedgwick, who introduced the anglophone left to Serge in the sixties, although Sedgwick’s essay "The Unhappy Elitist"11 raises some of the same issues as Haberkern’s piece, but in a far more sensitive and well-informed fashion.

So we are left with something of a straw person. As Peter Sedgwick pointed out many years ago, "there is no such ideology as Serge-ism and there are no Serge-ites.12 As one who has made a modest contribution to the translation and propagation of Serge’s work, I have considerable political differences with most of the others named above who have worked on Serge. Yet I have been happy to collaborate in making available what seems to me to be an important set of writings. But there is no hidden agenda on my part – or as far as I know of anyone else – to replace Lenin by Serge. (Just as translating the poetry of Heine should not lay one open to the charge of trying to replace Marx by Heine.)

While disregarding so much else that has been published on Serge, Haberkern seizes on Serge’s early anarchist writings. Now of course it is no secret that Serge began his career as an anarchist. But what is novel in Haberkern’s account is the suggestion that this early anarchism represents Serge’s "real politics". Serge entered politics very young; in 1909, when he began writing for l’Anarchie, he was just eighteen, and when he went to jail in 1913 he was only twenty-two. It may be that Ernie Haberkern leapt from his mother’s womb clutching Draper’s commentaries on Marx and chanting the correct slogans. Most of the rest of us have had to find our own way, often a tortuous way, there. I, and most comrades I know, began as reformists, anarchists, pacifists, Christians, animal liberationists or whatever before becoming Marxists. Imagine an account of Karl Marx that insisted that his writings before 1841 were the key to his "real politics". Yet Haberkern insists that Serge "had never been a Marxist" and that he essentially retained his pre-1914 ideas throughout his life. Again, there is a refusal to offer any documentation for such a claim, and a complete neglect of such documents as Serge’s 1936 Crapouillot article on anarchism in which he sharply criticises the Russian anarchists for failing to respond to the challenge of the Bolshevik revolution and in particular for not understanding the significance of Lenin’s State and Revolution (though he still believed that anarchist morality could have a positive influence on Marxism).13

Haberkern makes much of Serge’s links with the Bonnot gang of bank robbers. Again there is nothing new here. Serge deals with the situation in his Memoirs, and Richard Parry’s excellent book The Bonnot Gang14 explores all the main issues. The affair has always been a convenient stick to beat Serge with – when Serge was released from Stalin’s Russia in 1936 the French Communist Party (PCF) press used it to try and discredit him. (Of course, as is well-known, the Bolsheviks also organised bank robberies; doubtless Haberkern has documentation to show that they always handed leaflets to cashiers rather than pointing guns at them.)

Now if Haberkern wants to insist that bank robberies do not provide a road to socialism, few will disagree with him. Indeed, as he half admits, Serge himself had considerable reservations about the "bandits’" activity. Richard Parry’s study shows that many of the anarchists felt that Serge had given insufficient support to his comrades. Yet when it came to it, Serge was willing to put his head on the line, and side with the "bandits" against the bourgeois state. Other socialists took a similar position; the syndicalist Alfred Rosmer, while sharply criticising Bonnot’s politics, vigorously denounced the hypocrisy of the press and the police.15 Would Haberkern have had it otherwise? Should Serge have lined up with the bourgeois police against the anarchists? Should he have fingered his old comrades? He could have avoided jail on those terms. If that is indeed Haberkern’s position he should say so in so many words.

This leads on to the whole question of anarchism. Haberkern tells us that "anarchism is a thoroughly anti-democratic ideology". The proof: a footnote referring us to the appropriate chapter in Hal Draper. It is unfortunate Draper’s book was not available in 1917; it might have saved everyone a lot of time. There were, after all, four anarchists on the Military Committee that organised the Petrograd insurrection in October 1917. Bill Shatov, an anarchist who always refused to join the Bolsheviks, was elected "governor" of Petrograd by the city’s Red Guards. Lenin found time, amid his other commitments, to sit down with Russian and foreign anarchists such as Makhno16 and Emma Goldman,17 in order to try to win them over. The Comintern, in its early years, made a quite deliberate attempt to win over anarchist and syndicalist sympathisers. Indeed, Serge’s role in the Comintern apparatus was partly to contribute to this work. His 1920 pamphlet on anarchism was conceived as part of this strategy and to quote it out of context risks failing to understand it at all. Despite their ideological failings, many anarchists were genuine class fighters, and the Bolsheviks obviously wished to win them over if at all possible.

Likewise, Haberkern is able to have great fun quoting Serge’s pre-1914 writings. Obviously nobody is going to support Serge’s positions. Haberkern can even suggest an element of proto-fascism in Serge’s writings of this time – though unfortunately he seems to have missed his essay on Nietzsche,18 which would have doubtless strengthened his case.

Yet when the knockabout is over, there are some serious points to be dealt with. Serge observes that the working class is brutalised and corrupted by capitalism, and that for the time being revolutionaries remain in a minority. Disgraceful elitism, of course, even if it is true. For the working class is corrupted by capitalism (recently the British working class has been far more preoccupied with supporting a particularly brutal and inept football team than with making the revolution). That is why Marxists seek the abolition of the working class, not its glorification. Would Haberkern prefer Serge to adhere to the Socialist Realist myth of a handsome, virile, clean-limbed and saintly working class? I am reminded of attacks, by Stalinists and their precursors, on such writers as Zola and Orwell for daring to suggest that the workers are less than perfect.

Haberkern professes shock and horror at Serge’s suggestion that workers are to blame for their own fate. But Marx himself wrote: "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself." If the working class is free to emancipate itself, then it is also free to fail. In that sense it is quite legitimate to hold workers to blame if they do not liberate themselves. Moreover, Serge’s anarchism must be placed in context. Haberkern says nothing of Serge’s life, merely dissecting his texts with scholarly condescension. If Serge is an elitist, is not the elitism of a bourgeois intellectual, looking on at the workers with disdain. Serge grew up haunted by hunger; he never went to school. He lived in poverty in Paris, for a time working ten-hour days as a draughtsman, one of the "prolos" he wrote about. This is not the elitism of an outsider, but the impatient anger of a worker because his fellow-workers refuse to fight for their emancipation. Such anger and impatience may be to be deplored as moralism which lacks a proper analysis of alienation and ideology; but they represent an attitude which has recurred time and again in the working-class movement. I for one should welcome a translation of Serge’s anarchist articles as a valuable historical document.

Haberkern also frequently evokes Serge’s use of the French term "prolo" for proletarian. Now it is true that in English the term "prole" has a largely pejorative sense, mainly under the influence of Orwell’s 1984. But the French term does not seem to have had similar negative connotations.

The next major argument that Haberkern puts forward is that Serge knew nothing of Bolshevism. Why? Because he was not in Russia before 1917. Now this is true to the point of banality. But unless Ernie Haberkern is a lot older than I imagine, neither was he. In fact, he knows about it only from books. Serge, from 1919 onwards, lived, fought and discussed among veterans of Bolshevism. Of course the civil war had catastrophic effects on both the class and the party. But there were many old Bolsheviks still around; Serge knew a number of them and gives striking pen portraits in his writings. Haberkern’s juxtaposition of pre-1917 Bolshevism with the later experience is indeed rather sinister. It sounds as though he feels much happier with the cosy limitations of a small oppositional organisation than with the realities of taking and holding power.

Yet Haberkern dismisses the whole thing with a couple of rather misleading quotations. He makes no mention, for example, of Serge’s 1925 pamphlet on Lenin where Serge makes his most systematic attempt to analyse Bolshevism in context as a historical phenomenon.19 Of course, Serge may have got it wrong. But simply to ignore such a key text in favour of unsubstantiated generalisations is not serious.

Again, Serge is accused – with very little documentary support – of believing that all revolutions must follow a "Jacobin" pattern. Apparently nobody understood the true meaning of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (due to the unfortunate accident of the unavailability of Mr Draper’s "How To Do It" manual). Now Serge in fact was much more sceptical about what future revolutions might look like. In Birth of Our Power he looks forward to a date in the indefinite future when "other men, infinitely like us, infinitely unlike us" take the city.20 We see this from the pamphlet on anarchism. The passage that Haberkern cites21 as particularly "wooden-headed" and "openly anti-democratic" states simply that any successful revolution will have to organise to defend itself and that many workers will still bear the ideological legacy of the past. Anyone who waits for a revolution that will avoid these problems will wait forever. Since Lenin believed, up until April 1917, that the forthcoming revolution would be a bourgeois one, it is a little hard to blame Serge for bringing in a "Jacobin" scenario.

Personally, I am very open-minded about what form a future revolution may take. But there are a couple of things I am fairly clear about. Firstly, our enemies, at home and abroad, will fight back with the utmost ruthlessness. And secondly, the working class, burdened with decades of ideology, will not go over to the revolution in one bloc; large sections of it, and associated middle-class groupings, will remain hostile for a long time. And if that is the case, then there will be many lessons to be learnt from Serge’s account of the Russian Revolution.

There are a couple of other points where Haberkern cannot resist having a go at Serge. Firstly, he claims Serge did not join the Opposition early enough. Again it easy enough to make this kind of judgement from a 1990s armchair. When one had lived through a revolution that was inevitably distorted in all kinds of monstrous ways, the decision to make an open break was not a simple one, even leaving aside purely tactical considerations. Trotsky himself had enormous difficulties in deciding when it was time to go over to overt opposition – thus in 1925 he urged Rosmer and Monatte to try to rejoin the PCF and condemned their independent publication, La Révolution prolétarienne.22

Secondly, I find the account of Kronstadt very confusing. Haberkern blames Serge for omitting Kronstadt from his pamphlet on anarchism. But if he consults the text, he will find it was written well before Kronstadt and that Serge explains that he did not have time to revise it.23 It may well be true that at the time Serge wished neither to condemn nor to endorse the repression of the Kronstadt rising; but it is also true that these were hectic times.

Serge’s position on Kronstadt is fairly clear (see the extensive treatment in The Serge-Trotsky Papers).24 At the time, although profoundly unhappy, he decided to accept the suppression of the revolt as necessary. Later, in the 1930s, when he was trying to explain why the revolution had degenerated, he came to see Kronstadt as one of the key stages. This led to a sharp exchange of views with Trotsky, which became perhaps unnecessarily polarised.

The alleged link with the POUM mystifies me. Haberkern says merely that Serge "seems to imply" a connection, but adduces no textual reference. Serge supported the POUM; he considered the suppression of Kronstadt, not as inevitable, but as a grave error. So how it is used to justify the POUM is difficult to grasp.

Haberkern asserts that Serge, having worked in Zinoviev’s apparatus, was somehow a political defender of Zinoviev. But the Memoirs make clear that Serge’s experience of Zinoviev had made him one of his sharpest critics. He commented on the disastrous Tallinn rising of 1925:

"How could Zinoviev have initiated this imbecile adventure? The man terrified us. He refused to acknowledge the German defeat. In his eyes the rising had only been delayed and the KPD was still marching to power. The riots in Cracow were enough for him to announce revolution in Poland. I felt that he was obsessed by the error in his otherwise sensible judgement which had led him in 1917 to oppose the incipient Bolshevik revolution; in consequence, he had now swung into an authoritarian and exaggerated revolutionary optimism. ‘Zinoviev’, we used to say, ‘is Lenin’s biggest mistake.’"25

I have tried to deal with some of Haberkern’s main arguments against Serge. But it is not any particular point so much as the entire approach of the article that I object to. It is marked by that peculiar tone of moralising sectarianism with which Shachtmanites have traditionally consoled themselves for their lack of contact with the working class. Serge is measured against the "politically correct" line and found wanting.

But there is no attempt to understand Serge for what he was. The most grotesque aspect of this is Haberkern’s attitude to Serge’s novels, probably the part of his work best known to most readers. Haberkern realises it would be a bit philistine to damn the novels because their author made a few political lapses – where would that leave Balzac? So he evades the issue by never mentioning at any point in the article that Serge was a novelist.

For the record, I think Serge was wrong on Kronstadt, wrong on Spain, and in the last resort wrong on the Fourth International, although he made some very valid criticisms of Trotsky. But I would urge any socialist, or anyone anxious to understand our century, to read what Serge wrote on these, or any other topics. For Serge’s importance is, precisely, not as a political leader, nor as a "hero", but as a witness. He is interesting and perceptive even when he is wrong (a dialectical concept obviously entirely foreign to a sectarian moraliser like Haberkern).

Indeed, Haberkern’s approach is a strange mirror-image of Stalinism. Stalinists carried banners of the four "great teachers", sometimes adding a fifth in Chairman Mao. Now in the last resort I am happy to accept that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are the four greatest Marxists. But the socialist tradition over the last two centuries is much richer than these four individuals; rather than defensively confining our tradition to the basic scriptures, we should welcome the richness and variety of a history that includes Babeuf, Morris, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukács, Serge, Rosmer and hundreds of other socialist thinkers and activists.

Revolutions are messy, untidy affairs. Things do not work out according to pre-arranged concepts like the "dictatorship of the proletariat". People do not leap directly to "correct" ideas, but make detours through ideas like anarchism. Serge is a superb witness to the successes and failures of the Russian revolution, and hence, not a prophet, but a guide to those who want to make the future in a way that will be infinitely different and infinitely the same. If you want to sit in a comfortable study and feel morally superior to a man who suffered forty years of jail, exile, persecution and bitter poverty in pursuit of a revolutionary ideal, then read Ernie Haberkern. If you want to understand the contradictory and often messy realities of the twentieth century, read Victor Serge.


1. Susan Weissman, ed, The Ideas of Victor Serge, Critique Books, Glasgow, 1997. This contains several of the papers given at the Brussels Conference. The full collection of papers, including work by Richard Greeman, Susan Weissman and Pierre Broué, was published in French in the Brussels journal Socialisme, No.226-227, July-October 1991.

2. Revolutionary History, Vol.5, No.3, 1994, entitled "Victor Serge: The Century of the Unexpected". This includes Serge’s 1925 pamphlet on Lenin, his 1927 articles on the Chinese Revolution, and his 1944-45 manuscript on "Planned Economies and Democracy", as well as biographical material by Richard Greeman and Julián Gorkin.

3. Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, New Jersey, 1996.

4. D.J. Cotterill, ed, The Serge-Trotsky Papers, London, 1994.

5. Bill Marshall, Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent, New York & Oxford, 1992.

6. Jointly with Journeyman, London, 1993.

7. Jointly with Pluto and Writers and Readers, London & New York, 1992.

8. Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger, London, 1997.

9. Victor Serge, Notes d’Allemagne, Montreuil, 1990; it is hoped an English version will appear in 1999.

10. "Victor Serge and Bolshevism", in The Serge-Trotsky Papers, pp.1-9; "On the Leninist Tradition", in The Ideas of Victor Serge, pp.135-59.

11. Peter Sedgwick, "The Unhappy Elitist: Victor Serge’s Early Bolshevism", History Workshop, No.17, Spring 1984, pp.150-6.

12. Peter Sedgwick, "On Socialism", in The Ideas of Victor Serge, p.183. This article originally appeared in International Socialism (series I), No.14, 1963, pp.17-23.

13. Victor Serge, "La Pensée anarchiste", Crapouillot, January 1938, pp.2-13.

14. London, 1987.

15. Alfred Rosmer, "Le cas Bonnot", La Vie ouvrière, No.65, 5 June 1912, pp.329-36.

16. Makhno’s Memoirs, cited in Ni Dieu ni maître, Lausanne, 1969, p.461.

17. Emma Goldman, Living My Life, New York, 1931, II, p.765; Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, London, 1925, p.143.

18. Published in Spanish in the Barcelona syndicalist journal Tierra y Libertad, August-December 1917; see discussion in Marshall, Victor Serge, pp.42-4.

19. Translated in Revolutionary History, Vol.5, No.3, pp.3-53.

20. Victor Serge, Birth of Our Power, Harmondsworth, 1970, pp.65-6.

21. Revolution in Danger, p.92.

22. Robert Wohl, French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924, Stanford, 1966, p.425.

23. Revolution in Danger, pp.83-4.

24. The Serge-Trotsky Papers, pp.18-20, 150-191, 217-8; see also Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901-1941, London, 1967, pp.124-32.

25. Ibid, p.177.