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A Letter and Some Notes

Victor Serge

This article was first published in the February 1939 issue of the New International, journal of the US Socialist Workers Party, and consists of four pieces. The first is a letter to the editors from Victor Serge, and this is followed by two notes by the same author on the Bolsheviks’ response to the crisis of 1921 – a reply to Leon Trotsky and another to the Yugoslav ex-Trotskyist Ante Ciliga. The fourth piece is a reply to Serge by the editors of the New International. The full debate between Serge and Trotsky can be found in The Serge-Trotsky Papers, edited by David Cotterill, published in 1994.

DEAR COMRADES, here are a few pages of discussion on Kronstadt 1921 in which I reply simultaneously to L.D. Trotsky and to A. Ciliga. I should like to see the New International, where our comrade Trotsky has several times criticised my views on this important subject.

In publishing in your August number a letter which I sent to you, you followed it with commentaries which did not come to my attention, as I did not receive that number. I am sorry. I am told that you raised the question of my attitude towards the POUM. I would not have failed to answer you fundamentally. Since I am not acquainted with your text, I confine myself today to two remarks:

1. Our comrade L.D. Trotsky wrote recently that "it is necessary to learn to think ...". On this point (as on many others) I am entirely of his opinion. It is even necessary, I think, to learn to discuss and that means not to mix up with historical subjects subjects of present-day policy; not to inject into the discussion of a question concerning the Russian revolution in 1921 the polemics concerning the Spanish revolution in 1936-1938. The Marxian method is more serious and more concrete; or if one wishes to discuss, for the purpose of broad syntheses, all the great questions at once, it is well charitably to notify the reader and the interlocutor of the fact; for my part I would excuse myself.

2. On the POUM, however. This heroic and persecuted workers’ party alone represented revolutionary Marxism in the ranks of the Spanish revolution. It gave proof of clairvoyance and a magnificent courage. It was all the more up against it by the fact that even in the best days the uncomprehending and brutal attitude of the Third International towards anarchists and syndicalists had made Marxism unpopular in the labour movement of Spain. Nevertheless, it was not infallible, far from it. And I do not dream of reproaching it for that, for I know of nobody, really, of nobody, infallible down there. On the other hand, nothing is easier than for a dozen comrades to meet, and then announce that they possess the monopoly of the full truth, the only correct theory, the infallible recipe on how to make the revolution succeed – and thenceforth to denounce as traitors, opportunists and incompetents the militants who are at grips with that reality which events and masses constitute. This way of acting seems to me incorrect and vexatious, even if it happens that its defenders say things which are, in themselves, quite right.

Paris, 31 October 1938

Reply to Trotsky

BY A NOTE published in America at the end of July, Leon Trotsky finally specified his responsibilities in the episode of Kronstadt. The political responsibilities, as he has always declared, are those of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist party which took the decision to "suppress the rebellion by military force if the fortress could not be induced to surrender first by peaceful negotiations and then through an ultimatum". Trotsky adds: "I have never touched on this question. Not because I had anything to conceal but, on the contrary, precisely because I had nothing to say .... I personally did not participate in the suppression of the rebellion nor in the repressions following the suppression ...."

Trotsky recalls the differences which separated him at the time from Zinoviev, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. "I stepped aside", he writes, "completely and demonstratively from this affair."

It will be well to remember this after certain personal attacks directed against Trotsky out of bad faith, ignorance and sectarian spirit. For there is room, after all, in history for distinguishing between the general political responsibilities and the immediate personal responsibilities.1

"Whether there were any needless victims", continues Trotsky, "I do not know. On this score I trust Dzerzhinsky more than his belated critics.... Victor Serge’s conclusions on this score – from third hand – have no value in my eyes...." Dzerzhinsky’s conclusions, however, are from seventh or ninth hand, for the head of the Cheka did not come to Petrograd at that time and was himself only informed by a hierarchical path on which a lot could be said (and Trotsky knows it better than anybody). As for myself, residing in Petrograd, I lived among the heads of the city. I visited anarchist comrades in the Shpalernaya prison, imprisoned moreover in defiance of all common sense, who saw the vanquished of Kronstadt leave every day for the ordnance yard. The repression, I repeat, was atrocious. According to the Soviet historians, mutinous Kronstadt had some 16,000 combatants at its disposal. Several thousand succeeded in reaching Finland over the ice. The others, by hundreds and more likely by thousands, were massacred at the end of the battle or executed afterward. Where are Dzerzhinsky’s statistics – and what are they worth if they exist? The single fact that a Trotsky, at the pinnacle of power, did not feel the need of informing himself precisely on this repression of an insurrectional movement of workers, the single fact that a Trotsky did not know what all rank-and-file Communists knew: that out of inhumanity a needless crime had just been committed against the proletariat and the peasants – this single fact, I say, is gravely significant. It is indeed in the field of repression that the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party committed the most serious mistakes from the beginning of the revolution, mistakes which were to contribute most dangerously, on the one hand, to bureaucratising the party and the state, and on the other, to disarming the masses and more particularly the revolutionists. It is high time this was acknowledged.

Reply to Ciliga

WHAT GREATER injustice can be imagined towards the Russian revolution than to judge it in the light of Stalinism alone? Of Stalinism which emerged from it, it is true, only to kill it, but in the course of thirteen or fifteen years of struggles, by favour of the defeat of socialism in Europe and Asia! It is often said that "the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning". Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?

"All that was still socialistic and revolutionary in this Russia of 1921, was contained in the rank and file", writes Ciliga in the Révolution Prolétarienne of Nov. 10. "In standing up against them, Lenin and Trotsky, in agreement with Stalin, with Zinoviev, Kaganovich and others, responded to the desires and served the interests of the bureaucratic cadres. The workers were then fighting for the socialism whose liquidation the bureaucracy was already pursuing."2 One can see, Ciliga, that you did not know the Russia of those days; thence the enormity of your mistake.

In reality, a little direct contact with the people was enough to get an idea of the drama which, in the revolution, separated the Communist Party (and with it the dust of the other revolutionary groups) from the masses. At no time did the revolutionary workers form more than a trifling percentage of the masses themselves. In 1920-1921, all that was energetic, militant, ever-so-little socialistic in the labour population and among the advanced elements in the countryside had already been drained by the Communist Party, which did not, for four years of civil war, stop its constant mobilisation of the willing – down to the most vacillating. Such things came to pass: a factory numbering a thousand workers, giving as much as half its personnel to the various mobilisations of the party and ending by working only at low capacity with the five hundred left behind for the social battle, one hundred of them former shopkeepers ... And since, in order to continue the revolution, it is necessary to continue the sacrifices, it comes about that the party enters into conflict with that rank and file. It is not the conflict of the bureaucracy and the revolutionary workers, it is the conflict of the organisation of the revolutionists – and the backward ones, the laggards, the least conscious elements of the toiling masses. Under cover of this conflict and of the danger, the bureaucracy fortifies itself, no doubt. But the healthy resistances that it encounters – I mean those not based upon demoralisation or the spirit of reaction – come from within the party and the other revolutionary groups. It is within the Bolshevik Party that a conflict arises in 1920, not between the rank and file – which is itself already very backward – but between the cadres of the active militants and the bureaucratic leadership of the Central Committee. In 1921, everybody who aspires to socialism is inside the party; what remains outside isn’t worth much for the social transformation. Eloquence of chronology: it is the non-party workers of this epoch, joining the party to the number of 2,000,000 in 1924, upon the death of Lenin, who assure the victory of its bureaucracy. I assure you, Ciliga, that these people never thought of the Third International. Many of the insurgents of Kronstadt did think of it; but they constituted an undeniable elite and, duped by their own passion, they opened in spite of themselves the doors to a frightful counter-revolution. The firmness of the Bolshevik Party, on the other hand, sick as it was, delayed Thermidor by five to ten years.

Let us recall that several analogous movements occurred at the same time. Makhno held the countryside. Red Siberia was in a ferment throughout. In the Tambov region, the peasant army of Antonov numbered more than 50,000 men, with an excellent organisation. Led by right-wing Social Revolutionaries, it too demanded the end of the regime of repressions and the "dictatorship of the commissars"; it proclaimed the Constituent Assembly. It was the peasant counter-revolution of the plainest kind. Tukhachevsky subdued it with difficulty in the summer of 1921. To try to conceive what would have been the consequences of a defaulting of the Bolshevik Party at the time of Kronstadt, it is well to have in mind the spectacle of a vast famished Russia, in which transportation and industry were succumbing, while almost everywhere there arose, under variegated forms, not the Third Revolution but a rural Vendée.


1. As certain of the attacks to which I allude have come from the anarchist press, let me ask to specify here my thought by means of a recent example: The comrades of the POUM and of the CNT having been persecuted and assassinated with impunity in the Spanish republic while the CNT participated in various capacities in a bourgeois government, the CNT obviously bears its share of the political responsibility for these crimes against the labour movement, though it would be unjust to render its leaders personally responsible for them.

2. Kaganovich scarcely existed in 1921. Stalin stayed in the background. I do not like to see, under the pen of so honest a writer as Ciliga, this bunching together of names belonging to different phases of history.

Reply to Serge

1. WHAT IS said so appropriately by Victor Serge in replying to the superficial elucubrations of A. Ciliga is well worth calling to the attention of our readers, especially in the light of the widespread attempts by all sorts of liberal muddleheads, social democrats, anarchists and renegades from Marxism to cover their crimes by condemning, as the twin of its antithesis Stalinism, the party that organised and defended the Russian revolution. It is also worth calling to the attention of Victor Serge, for the realities of 18-19 years ago which he describes are in conflict with his own afterthoughts on the early period of the Russian revolution – afterthoughts, we must repeat, that are not unrelated to his position in Spain.

2. Victor Serge finds that a factor which contributed heavily to the victory of Stalinism was "the most serious mistakes from the beginning of the revolution" committed by the Bolshevik leaders in the repression of other groups. We cannot subscribe to this repetition, however guarded, of the hoary reformist analysis of the Bolsheviks’ repressions and their role in the subsequent development of the Russian revolution. It is unhistorical; it is thoroughly one-sided – and therefore thoroughly false – because it says nothing of how and why the repressions were directed at Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and anarchists. That can be learned not from Victor Serge’s reflections of recent date, but from that excellent history, L’An I de la Révolution Russe (Year One of the Russian Revolution). For instance:

"The anarchists put the Bolsheviks under the obligation for the first time to subdue by force a minority of dissidents of the revolution. Sentimental revolutionists would have resisted. But what would have happened? Either the [anarchist] Black Guards would have finally risen in arms, Moscow would have gone through days of infinitely perilous tumult (remember the want and the lurking counter-revolution, already strongly organised); or they would have been dissolved with time, after numerous incidents difficult to settle. A revolution that did not subdue its dissidents when, armed, they form the embryo of a State within the State, would offer itself divided to the blows of its enemies."

"The leaders of the counter-revolutionary parties – SRs, Mensheviks and Cadets – had just contributed, in March [1918], a common organisation, the League of the Renaissance (Soyuz Vozrozhdenya). ‘The League’, writes one of the heads of the SR party, ‘entered into regular relations with representatives of the Allied missions at Moscow and Vologda, principally through the organ of M. Noulens.’ ... The League of the Renaissance was the large clandestine organisation of the ‘socialist’ petty bourgeoisie and the liberals determined to overthrow the Soviet power by force.... The chain of the counter-revolutionary organisations thus went without interruption from the most ’advanced’ socialists to the blackest reaction."

We commend these quotations, and a hundred others which give a complete and accurate picture of how the anti-Bolshevik "working class" groups brought down upon themselves the repressions of the Soviet power, to the attention of the book’s author, Victor Serge. They need re-reading, not re-writing. Or, if a new edition is needed, would it not be more in place, in view of the realities of the labour movement today, to add a few pages showing that the Menshevik and anarchist "weapon of criticism" nowadays directed at Bolshevism is in no way superior to their "criticism of weapons" directed at Bolshevism two decades ago?

3. Victor Serge’s latest contribution to the story of the suppression of Kronstadt, which does not describe the alleged excesses of the Bolsheviks in the most restrained manner, in our opinion adds nothing fundamental to the discussion. Having already given a good deal of space to Kronstadt, allowing the presentation of contending opinions and stating our own views, we are now terminating, at least for the time being, the discussion of this question in the review.

The Editors