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Ernie Haberkern and Victor Serge

Ian Birchall

I ORIGINALLY DID not intend to respond to Ernie Haberkern’s piece "Ian Birchall and Victor Serge" in What Next? No.11. I am very sympathetic to the view of Jo Green in that same issue that there are more important things to do than "endless impractical discussions". But on looking more closely at Haberkern’s argument I became convinced that elementary honesty required a reply.

Haberkern seems to have abandoned around 90% of the arguments he developed in his first article ("Victor Serge and ‘Libertarianism’", What Next? No.9), and to which I had endeavoured to reply ("Victor Serge: Hero or Witness?", What Next? No.10). All that stuff about anarchism, to which he devoted pages in his first piece, is apparently "tangential" if not "irrelevant", and a diversion from "the central point".

That "central point", we now learn, is to be found in the passage Haberkern quoted from Serge’s Memoirs in his first article. Fine. Let’s turn to the Memoirs.

Haberkern tells us that "this book was published in 1940"! Now since the title of the book is Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, and since Serge himself dates its composition on the final page as "Mexico, 1942-February, 1943", that seems unlikely. Actually it was published posthumously, in 1951.1 Since Haberkern also manages to misspell the name of Serge’s translator, Peter Sedgwick, I started to wonder if he had actually laid hands on a copy of the Memoirs. The truth, unfortunately, is rather more sinister. Let’s turn to the passage which first opened Haberkern’s eyes:

"However, these impassioned dissidents of the Revolution, crushed and persecuted as they might be, were still right on many points, above all in their demand, on their own behalf and that of the Russian people, for freedom of expression and the restoration of liberty in the Soviets. The Soviets indeed, which had been so lively in 1918, were now no more than auxiliary organs of the Party; they possessed no initiative, exercised no control and in practice represented nothing but the local Party Committees. But as long as the economic system remained intolerable for nine-tenths or so of the population, there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, whether in the Soviets or elsewhere. The state of siege had now entered the Party itself, which was increasingly run from the top, by the Secretaries. We were at a loss to find a remedy for this bureaucratization: we knew that the Party had been invaded by careerist, adventurist and mercenary elements who came over in swarms to the side that had the power. Within the Party the sole remedy to this evil had to be, and in fact was, the discreet dictatorship of the old, honest, and incorruptible members, in other words the Old Guard."2

I have quoted the paragraph in full, italicising the sections not quoted by Haberkern in his first article, so that readers may see the Haberkern school of falsification at work. A reading of the first sentence shows the monstrous deception that has been practised here. Far from justifying dictatorship over the working class, Serge is agreeing with the critics of the Bolsheviks (the Mensheviks, Left Social-Revolutionaries, anarchists and the Workers’ Opposition, discussed in the previous paragraph) that free speech in the soviets should be restored. In other words, his position is the exact opposite of that attributed to him by Haberkern.

So what do we make of the sentence in which he writes that "there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick, or Harry ...".3 Doesn’t this directly contradict the previous assertion? It appears to; all the more reason for not avoiding the contradiction by suppressing one half of it. In fact what we have here is a literary device frequently used by Serge whereby he quotes or reconstructs the opinions of others without directly attributing them to a source.4 Serge is here citing the "official" justification for limitations on free speech, not endorsing it. I realise this is a bit subtle, but after all by 1942-43 Serge was no longer a political activist. He was writing a work of literature, not a contribution to an internal bulletin which he might expect a crowd of Haberkerns to seize on and quote out of context.

If we place the paragraph where it stands in the book, between a survey of the various oppositional groups and a long account of Kronstadt, it is clear what Serge is actually arguing. Given the serious degeneration of workers’ democracy since 1917, revolutionaries had the choice of going into open opposition, or staying within the Party to defend revolutionary values as best they could. Here he is explaining why he decided not to support the Kronstadt rising, and instead resolved to carry on the fight within the Party. It is thus an argument for "entrism" which I would expect to find favour among many readers of What Next?

It is also clear that Serge is here talking about the available options in a specific historical situation. There can be no justification for deducing from this that Serge believed as a general principle that "a party dictatorship over the working class is inevitable and desirable in a "proletarian" revolution". As Haberkern explains in his earlier article, civil war and international blockade had effectively destroyed the working class as such.5 The real reason why Tom, Dick and Harry were no longer chirping up in the soviets was that Tom had gone back to the countryside, Dick had died in the civil war and Harry was too hungry and exhausted to be bothered.

In his first article Haberkern argues that "for a Marxist, the decay of the revolution and the victory of the counterrevolution were inevitable in such a situation". It is an interesting judgement to debate such inevitability in retrospect (though it seems to disqualify Lenin and Trotsky as Marxists). But what option did the Bolsheviks actually have at the time? They could hardly say "Sorry, we got it wrong" and hand power back to the bourgeoisie. The result would undoubtedly have been a catastrophic White massacre. So the only option was for the Party to substitute itself for the class until the beleaguered revolution received some support from abroad. And until the end of 1923 it looked as though such support might indeed come from the German revolution. Serge himself put his head on the line and went to Germany to assist with the preparations for the German revolution.6

My own views are of considerably less interest than those of Serge, but since Haberkern accuses me of believing in the inevitability and desirability of party dictatorship over the working class, let me clarify the point. I am for the maximum degree of workers’ democracy at all stages of a revolution. I am also for revolutionary terror, to whatever extent necessary in the circumstances. Hopefully a future revolution will have less problems than the Russian; hopefully the representatives of the old order will recognise that they are beaten and give up the struggle. But if they don’t, they will have to be dealt with.

What I argued was that in any future revolution a section of the working class (steeped in bourgeois ideology over many years) together with parts of the middle class, will oppose the revolution. The nature of their opposition will determine what kind of repressive measures the revolutionary regime will have to exercise.

Haberkern thinks he has refuted my point by pointing out that the Bolsheviks won a "decisive majority of the working class". Indeed. Only a fool would attempt to take power without the support of a majority of the working class. But in revolutions minorities do not obey the rules of parliamentary democracy. A minority may try to undermine or sabotage the power of the majority. If they do not respect workers’ democracy, then the majority may have to suspend the rules.

Has Haberkern never been on strike? It is possible to get 90% support for strike action, and still find that 10% of scabs are sabotaging the action. How that is dealt with depends on the concrete circumstances, but the traditional method has been for workers to form a picket line so imposing that the scabs dare not cross. Similar measures will have to be used in any real revolution, as distinct from those in Haberkern’s textbooks.

Let me end on a conciliatory note. I pledge to defend unconditionally Ernie Haberkern’s right to speak in the soviets of any future revolution. In return, perhaps he will do us the courtesy of keeping his mouth shut till he has checked his facts.


1. Some extracts appeared in English in the New York journal Politics in 1944-45.

2. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford 1967, pp.118-9. This paragraph is in fact only the latter part of a longer paragraph in the French original: Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire 1901-1941, Paris 1978, pp.128-9.

3. Those oddly named Russian workers Tom, Dick and Harry, for whom Haberkern shows such concern, are an invention of Peter Sedgwick. Serge’s original refers simply to the less colourful "qui que ce fût".

4. There is an interesting discussion of the use of this technique (relating it to the work of Bakhtin) in Serge’s novels in Bill Marshall’s excellent study Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent, New York/Oxford, 1992, pp.114-28.

5. For an excellent survey of the situation, which concludes that by 1921 the working class "was simply not a meaningful entity", see Mike Haynes, "Popular Violence and the Russian Revolution", Historical Materialism 2, Summer 1998, pp.185-213.

6. I have just completed a translation of Serge’s writings from Germany in 1922-23 (published under the pseudonym R. Albert); hopefully they will be published later this year.