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Ian Birchall and Victor Serge

Ernie Haberkern

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that Ian Birchall chose to reply to my article "Victor Serge and ’Libertarianism’" in a manner that is all too common in this kind of discussion ("Victor Serge: Hero or Witness?", What Next? No.10) .

In order to avoid taking a position on the central point, the author replies with personal attacks, raises a number of tangential and even irrelevant issues, and in general discusses everything and anything except the issue at hand.

What is the issue here? It is Victor Serge’s "libertarian" defense of the one-party dictatorship erected by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the early ’20s. As the selection of essays edited by Birchall himself demonstrates, Serge was one of those in the early Third International who insisted that such a one-party dictatorship was the road to power. Any revolutionary party worthy of the name would have to take that road.

This was not a youthful indiscretion on Serge’s part. I realized what Serge was doing for the first time when I came across the passage from Memoirs of a Revolutionary which I quoted in my article. This is the one in which Serge argues "there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick or Harry, whether in the Soviets or elsewhere" and that "Within the Party the sole remedy to this evil [careerism] had to be, and in fact was, the discreet dictatorship of the old, honest and incorruptible members, in other words the Old Guard".

I was shocked and puzzled when I read this because Serge was widely regarded by members of the "third camp" Independent Socialist Clubs in the United States and International Socialists like Peter Sedgewick in England as an alternative to Bolshevik "authoritarianism". Yet here was an apology for a dictatorship not of the working class but over the working class. And this book was published in 1940! To me it appeared to be a retreat from the position that Trotsky had come to by 1936 in his The Revolution Betrayed. I read Serge’s Year One of the Revolution and found the same thing. In fact, I first heard of Serge’s anarchist material only in 1994 when Richard Greeman referred to the collection Le Rétif in the magazine New Politics. Reading Le Rétif made clear the genealogy of Serge’s politics. The logic behind those politics was more apparent but the politics themselves were the same.

What is the relevance of this dispute today? Obviously, at a time when the Communist Party of the ’20s, and for that matter the Bolshevism of 1903, 1905 or 1912, is amalgamated with Stalinism, at a time when the idea of working-class power is treated as a foolish fantasy that can only end in a disaster like Stalinism, it is important to defend the heritage of the Russian Revolution.

But what in that heritage do we want to defend? Do we want to defend the tradition of the early Third International and insist that a party dictatorship over the working class is inevitable and desirable in a "proletarian" revolution? That is what Serge was doing and, at least at one point, Birchall seems to agree with him. See, for example, the passage on p.25 in which he states: "... the working class, burdened with decades of ideology, will not go over to the revolution in one block; large sections of it, and associated middle-class groupings, will remain hostile for a long time." What is Birchall arguing for here? And, in fact, in 1917, after seven months of Bolshevik "patient explaining" to every "Tom, Dick, or Harry", didn’t a decisive majority of the working class go over to the idea of a soviet government? Isn’t that why the Bolshevik government won the civil war despite its material inferiority?

There are at least three distinct historical events that people are referring to when they use the term "Bolshevism".

The first is the successful attempt by Lenin to build a revolutionary left wing in the mass workers’ movement before World War I. There has been only one other successful attempt at this. In the 1880s, the Engels-Bebel tendency of the German SPD also built a powerful left wing in the mass movement. Lenin was consciously imitating what the German left had done earlier.

The second is the political victory inside the Soviets in 1917. This would not have been possible without the prior victory in the first period.

The third is the heroic defense of the revolution against foreign invasion.

That defense was heroic. And Serge is one of the few who does justice to the story. But Serge also describes the distortions that inevitably resulted from that brutal civil war and the economic collapse that followed. Serge’s problem is that he knew nothing about the first two phases of the historical development of the first workers’ party to actually seize power. And, given his politics, he would not have known what to make of it if he had.

But it is precisely this earlier development which is of relevance for us. Today, throughout the developed world, the left is as isolated from the mass movements of the working class as it has ever been. This is especially true in the US, of course, but it is also true in England, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. And the more "left", in the sense of anticapitalist, a tendency is the more isolated it is. Lenin was Marx’s only real disciple when it came to the question: how to build a revolutionary wing in the class movement. That is what is relevant for us today. It makes no sense to hold up as a model the militarized Communist Party of 1920, heroic though it was. On the contrary, it only encourages the tendency on the left today to make a virtue of its isolation from the class movement.

And that is what Ian Birchall is doing when he defends Serge’s attack on the working-class movement by pretending that Serge is simply refusing to idolize the horny-handed proletarian. What Serge was attacking was the militant syndicalism represented by people like Alfred Rosmer.

There is one charge made by Birchall which needs to be answered not because it is really relevant but because it perpetuates an anti-Bolshevik slander that is assiduously spread by the academic anti-Leninists. That is the charge that "the Bolsheviks also robbed banks" which Birchall uses to compare the antifascist "fighting squads" of 1906-7 to the Bonnot gang. The only point of comparison is that both used illegal violence. But the fighting squads were workers’ self-defense units against the officially-protected "Black Hundreds". While Lenin and other members of his tendency supported them, they were in fact class organisations which included social democratic workers, Socialist Revolutionary workers and anarchist workers. Of course, this kind of activity always has a tendency to attract undisciplined people and a tendency to corrupt others. The same forces were at work here as were later at work on a much larger scale in the civil war. But Martov’s characterization of the fighting squads in his pamphlet Saviors or Wreckers as simple bandits of the Bonnot or Ravachol type was a slander so outrageous as to provoke even Karl Kautsky to denounce him.