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Victor Serge and "Libertarianism"

Ernie Haberkern

AS IS USUAL in periods of reaction, the left today has lost all confidence in its old idols. And, again as usual, rather than rejecting idol worship in favor of a serious analysis of the past and present, the left simply looks for new idols. The collapse of the Soviet Union has discredited not only the Stalinist counterrevolution but the Russian Revolution itself and the people who made it. Just as the fall of Napoleon discredited the French Revolution, even though it was Napoleon himself who stuck the final knife into the back of the already defeated popular movement, so today the collapse of Stalinism has discredited the Bolshevik party which led the Russian Revolution, even though it was Stalin who liquidated the last remnants of that party.

Having rejected the Bolsheviks – the only socialist party to have led a proletarian revolution – because its "authoritarian centralization" paved the way for Stalinism, the left still does not want to reject the revolution itself. So, rather than try and discover what it was about the Bolsheviks that made it possible for them to lead the first successful workers’ revolution and what finally defeated them, most of the left today looks for new heroes in marginal figures who represent in Robert Conquest’s phrase "the conscience of the revolution".

Victor Serge is the best known of these marginal figures. His imprisonment by Stalin, his release as a result of the public outcry in France, and his eloquent defence of the men who led the revolution and were now being disgraced by Stalin – all combined to make him an archetype of the "Old Bolshevik" oppositionist. But there was something else. He wasn’t quite an "Old Bolshevik". In fact, he was critical of the "authoritarian" Bolshevik tradition from the standpoint of something called "libertarian" socialism. What is "libertarian" socialism? Well, that is usually left pretty vague. For reasons which will become abundantly clear in the course of this article.

Victor Serge and anarchism
One thing Victor Serge was not. He was not a defender of proletarian democracy. He wasn’t a democrat. He had nothing but contempt for democracy. Revolution was the work of a virile, enlightened elite, free spirits ("libertaires"), freed from the moral constraints of bourgeois society. The "prole" ("prolo" is the French word used by Serge) was not only a slave of these conventions. His subservience to convention was what made this oppressive society possible. The proletarian was not part of the problem, he was the problem. That is the explanation for the special meaning given the word "authoritarian" by "libertarians". It was the "authority" of the democratic majority over the "libertaires" they objected to. What right had the inferior mass to dictate to the superior elite?

The real politics of Victor Serge are muted in his best known works – the only ones which have been translated into English – because they were written for an audience that considered itself Marxist, actively supported the Socialist and Communist Parties, and was heavily involved in the trade union movement at all levels. Serge was an anarchist. He was philosophically an anti-Marxist, contemptuous of political parties, and considered trade unions, even trade unions run by his anarchist comrades, at best a waste of time. To state these positions openly in the late 1930s and ’40s – the period of his greatest political influence – would have cost him his audience.

But, from 1909 until 1914, Serge wrote extensively for the anarchist press. In fact, during this time he was one of the main editors of as well as a principal contributor to the weekly l’anarchie. In these pages, and those of other "libertarian" journals of the day, his political point of view, his "libertarian" communism, appears in all its glory. These writings were long buried in the archives, but in 1991 an anthology of Serge’s writings from this period consisting of some 30 articles from l’anarchie, along with a handful of others which appeared in Le Communiste, Le Révolté and Les Réfractaires were published. The title of the book is Le Rétif. This was Serge’s pen name and it means a horse or mule that refuses to be broken. These articles have never appeared in English. It is hard to see why anyone would want to translate them since the result would be to tarnish the reputation of the author.

One of the articles, entitled "l’ouvrièrisme", which can be translated "workerism" but more accurately in today’s jargon "class-reductionism", sums up "libertarianism" as well as anything:

"The anarchists are not workerists. To them it is puerile to place on a pedestal the workers whose despicable apathy is probably more responsible for the universally miserable state of things than the rapacity of the privileged.... We are not sympathizers of the workers any more than we are of their masters. They are just as ignorant and apathetic, their physical and moral decay more pitiful. It is the slaves who create the masters, the people the governments, the workers the employers – it is the weak, the stupid, the degenerates who create this swamp of a society and force us to swim in it! They don’t know how to behave any other way. They don’t know any other way to live.

"Only the elite minority made up of those healthy individuals with minds cleared of rubbish and with burning energy can lead humanity towards happiness by their superior lives.... And what has to be done is to support this minority of anarchists against brutalization by the bourgeoisie, the workers and the workerists. So, let us go among the plebeians, sowing at random the seed of revolt. And the minority in which there still remains some strength, they will come to us, swelling the ranks of the lovers of life and the fighters for life.... As for the others – the majority – they will spend their life in routine, servility, and stupidity – but what do we care?"2

Serge, for his audience, does not even have to draw the conclusion that electoral politics is nothing but currying favor with the ignorant rabble. But he did have to address himself to the appeal of militant unionism since a significant segment of the anarchist movement was attracted to it. Especially since anarchists, or people claiming to be anarchists, were a dominant force in the French union movement. In an article entitled "Our Antisyndicalism",3 Serge uses the same argument from the inferiority of the masses, especially the working class, to demonstrate that the unions are as much a dead end as electoral politics. The pressure of the ignorant mass will inevitably turn the unions into conservative defenders of a privileged caste.

So what does the enlightened anarchist elite do if electoral politics and trade unionism are rejected? How does it demonstrate its superiority? Well, there is journalism, of course. But, to what end? To inflame the masses? Impossible! The masses are sheep. To recruit other anarchists? And what do they do? There is, after all, a limited market for libertarian journals.

Several of Serge’s comrades on the editorial board of l’anarchie solved this problem in the fashion that was traditional among individualist anarchists in the waning years of the last century and the beginning years of this one. They staged a series of holdups. In the course of one, and this too was part of the ritual, they shot and killed a cashier.

Serge, by all accounts, took no part in the action and was not aware what his comrades were doing. Personally, he claimed to have been appalled by what had happened. Nevertheless, he jumped to the defense of his comrades. They were men. They had rebelled against this soul-destroying society:

"The bandit is a man. We have seen some workers’ demonstrations dispersed by the cops with a kick! And for some workers the boss’s loud voice suffices! ... But then there are the bandits! A few separate themselves from the crowd, determined not to waste the precious hours of their lives in servitude. They choose to fight. And, without mincing words, they go and take the money that confers power. They dare. They attack. Often they pay for it. In any event, they are alive."4

Unlike the pitiful, ignorant, apathetic prolo who got shot.

Serge was convicted as an accomplice after the fact and sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment. But he continued to write as if the bandit were the only real revolutionary:

"You have to understand! You finally have to realize that we are the barbarian vanguard in present day society; that we have no respect for virtue, morality, honesty; that we are outside law and rules. You oppress us, you persecute us, you hunt us down. Always the rebels find themselves faced with the sad choice: submit, that is give up their freedom and enter the wretched troop of the exploited, or take up the fight with the entire social organism."5

Throughout his life Serge continued this pattern. His model rebel was not the political or trade union leader, the working class organizer, but the man of action. And he considers the bandit, the criminal, whether motivated by anarchist ideals or not, the archetype of the man of action who refuses to be broken. And he continued to emphasize that it was the common herd and its slavish values that was the enemy even more than the oppressor. Serge himself, we note, was not such a man of action but only their literary apologist and champion.

But the bandit was not the only example of the man of action who was above the law and flaunted his contempt for the rules of society. (Serge constantly and deliberately refers to his enemy as "society", not the capitalist class, not the bourgeoisie, not even "the state".) The Third French Republic throughout its life faced the constant threat of a military dictator, a new Bonaparte. All classes of "society" contemplated the possibility with anxiety – tinged with hope. Serge took up this threat in an article titled "Waiting for the Dictator":

"A dictator is necessary. They all need an adventurer without scruples and without principle who will dominate them completely with his arrogant cynicism. These bourgeois deserve a man who will come and violate their laws, their rights, their principles; these workers deserve a renegade who will suddenly appear to crush them under iron decrees; these rhetoricians of the Revolution deserve an audacious despot who will do away with their freedom of speech. They deserve him because they need him. One needs a Bandit by Law daring enough to proclaim from above his contempt for the law! Whether he comes or not makes no difference to us. We are above it all...."6

I defy anyone familiar with the history of the early fascist movement to read Le Rétif without feeling a shudder up the back of the neck.

The reader may be asking at this point: are these quotes typical of Serge? Are they taken out of context, perhaps? For anyone who can read French, even a little, I suggest a simple experiment. Get a copy of Le Rétif from the library. Toss the book on the floor so it opens to a random page. Pick up the book, close your eyes, and point. When you open your eyes you will see a passage that sounds pretty much like the ones quoted above. That is because there is nothing else in this collection. What else could there be? Comments on trade union struggles and government crises? Pantomimes to distract the sheep! When Serge does mention a real world event other than the exploits of anarchist bandits (his word not mine) it is simply to provide a lead-in to one of his discursions on his three themes: the gullibility of the masses, the duplicity of their leaders, and the anarchist elite’s contempt for both.

Bolshevik "authoritarianism"
But wasn’t Serge a sympathetic critic of the Bolsheviks, like Rosa Luxemburg? Wasn’t he sensitive because of his "libertarian" background to the Bolsheviks’ "authoritarian" and anti-democratic tendencies. That, after all, is how he portrays himself. Now, it would take far too much space to do it here but it has been demonstrated elsewhere that anarchism is a thoroughly anti-democratic ideology and proudly so.7 In any case, even the few quotes given above should give pause to anyone who thinks that Serge’s "libertarianism" would lead him to criticize the Bolsheviks from a democratic perspective.

But there is a more fundamental problem. In order to judge the validity of Serge’s criticism of the Bolsheviks don’t we have to ask: what did Serge know about the Bolsheviks? The answer to that question is – absolutely nothing.

It so happens that the crucial years in the formation of the party that led the revolution were the very years – 1909 to 1914 – that Serge was writing for the anarchist press. It was in these years that the political factions within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party hardened and their internal quarrels culminated in a final split. You will find no mention of the Bolsheviks in Serge’s articles of the time and it is unlikely that he had ever heard of them. If he had he would have not been interested. It was in these years that Lenin successfully won the overwhelming support of the organized working class in the legal trade union movement inside Russia. The final act in this drama was Lenin’s splitting of the social democratic delegation in the Duma, the Russian parliament, into left and right factions. Why would someone with Serge’s politics care about such "bourgeois" shenanigans?

But it is the polemics and party maneuvers of these years that also provide the main ammunition for those who have created the myth of Bolshevik "authoritarianism’. A myth that Serge simply accepted uncritically. All the more easily since the charge that Marxists were "authoritarians" because they believed in political democracy was standard with "libertarians" going all the way back to Bakunin and his supporters in the First International.

If you concentrate only on the polemics of the various factions in the Russian party (approximately seven – whoops! now there are eight!) during these years you can prove practically anything you want. They all sound crazy. It is only if you look at what was going on in Russia that the picture becomes clear. Two books have appeared in English that help explain what was going on.8 The authors of both are card-carrying, academic Lenin-bashers but the story they tell is fascinating and enlightening.

In the demoralizing aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1905, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party fell apart in a flurry of mutual recriminations. There was nothing unusual or peculiarly Russian about that. A facade of unity was maintained by the simple expedient of banning factional papers. Lenin objected to this ban but went along with the majority and was actually made editor of the paper of the united party. As such he was subject to the discipline of "the all powerful central committee", one of whose members was Rosa Luxemburg. Of course, all the other factions soon violated the ban by publishing factional papers. Lenin, as editor of the "unified" paper, was stuck.

It all blew up in 1910. A revived labor movement once again began to shake the Czarist state. The trade union leaders, all social democrats, and the social democratic delegates to the Duma openly opposed supporting the wave of strikes that broke out. These leaders are usually classified as "Mensheviks" but that inverts the real relationship. The ideologues in emigration were reflecting the pressure of the leadership inside Russia not the other way around. These trade union leaders and Duma delegates acted not out of any ideological conviction but simply out of fear that this explosion of violent strikes might jeopardize their legal status. They preferred to maneuver for an alliance with the liberal opposition in the Duma in the vain hope of gaining greater legal safeguards and rights for the trade unions. The liberals were frightened and might be willing to cooperate with trade union leaders who were seen to be doing their best to restore calm.

Lenin was furious. This policy reflected the worst tendencies in the social democratic movement. The trade unions should have been leading the strikes against the state not opposing them. And those social democratic trade union leaders and Duma delegates who opposed the strikes should be replaced. Lenin was countered by an unholy combination of left and right.

The social democrats in emigration were as frightened by the possibility of a split with the trade union leadership and a split in the party as the trade union leaders were frightened by the possibility they would be outlawed. Left and right joined forces to oppose Lenin. This alliance was possible because both "left" and "right" could agree that the official trade unions should not be involved in the strikes.

For the "left", which included Luxemburg and the majority of the people who then considered themselves Bolsheviks, it made no sense to split the party over the question of what policy to follow inside the legal trade unions. They were opposed to work in these unions on principle. They were for unions under party control. Unlike Lenin, they were not for winning the members of the existing trade unions to a policy of class struggle. They were for setting up unions limited to socialists or people willing to take orders from a socialist party. Of course, these "socialist" unions took no part in the great strikes of 1910-12 because they didn’t exist.

On the right, Julius Martov and Theodore Dan were the ideological reflection of the trade union and Duma leadership. They proposed to dissolve the party. Why didn’t they just quit the party if they no longer believed in it? Well, they wanted a party decision that forced everybody to quit! The idea was that if the party was dissolved then the Duma delegation and the trade union leaders could negotiate with the Duma liberals without the encumbrance of a membership. Martov is usually held up as a representative of the "democratic" aspect of Marxism as opposed to the "authoritarian" side represented by Lenin.

Trotsky was able to play the mediator who brokered this deal because he never seems to have paid much attention to trade unions at all. There has never been a clearer historical example of a seemingly "left" position covering up a very conservative practice.

Lenin resigned his post at the official paper and founded his own factional paper Pravda which ran a slate against the old trade union leadership. Both the émigrés and the old leadership denounced this "splitting tactic". All, including Rosa Luxemburg, were against letting the trade union membership vote on the crisis confronting the movement. Lenin persisted. Pravda’s slate won by majorities of four and five to one in the St Petersburg Metal Workers’ Union, the main bastion of the legal trade union movement. It got overwhelming majorities elsewhere in the movement too.

When 1917 came Lenin had a working class base. The only other prominent émigré on the left who played any role in the Russian Revolution at all was Trotsky. He had nothing but a faction of independents floating in mid-air and had no choice but to merge with the Bolsheviks. Not even the most rabid academic anti-Leninist denies that Lenin won a majority in the soviets in 1917 by an open, democratic, political appeal to those Victor Serge called "prolos".

Victor Serge and "Bolshevism"
Serge, now out of prison, was living in Spain when the Russian Revolution overthrew not only Czarism but capitalism. As it did the rest of the international left, the news affected him like a rejuvenating electric charge. Like practically everybody else on the left he knew next to nothing about Lenin or the Bolsheviks or what they stood for. Like everybody else on the left he saw in this upheaval the revolution he wanted. The Bolsheviks were men! Men of action. Not politicians or trade union bureaucrats. They had dared and fought and won while everybody else talked.

But didn’t Serge discover what "Bolshevism" was really all about when he arrived in Russia itself? No. By the time Serge arrived in revolutionary Russia in 1919 the Bolshevik party, like all the prewar parties and factions, had dissolved. All parties and tendencies during the civil war were split between those who supported the revolution and those who chose counterrevolution. The Communist Party was composed of all those who chose the revolution. And all who joined it brought their own politics with them when they joined. There were no loyalty oaths. No one was forced to renounce their past or their old programs. But the old programmatic differences were pretty much irrelevant anyway by 1919. Everything was subordinated to winning the war. Not to mention keeping the population of the country from starving to death. And by 1919 the overwhelming majority of Communist Party members were people who had never been part of the prewar movement. They knew as much about the "Bolshevism" of 1909-14 as Serge did.

What was more important was that the civil war destroyed the organized working class that had been the base of Bolshevism. Trotsky later pointed out that the militants were inevitably absorbed into the military and the administration of the country. But there was more to it than that. The economic devastation caused by civil war and the international blockade of the country effectively destroyed the working class as a class. Paul Avrich points out that in Petrograd the industrial proletariat had fallen from 300,000 to 100,000 by 1920. And most of those left could only live by selling what they stole from the factories they worked in.9

In short, the Communist Party had really become, by the time Serge had arrived on the scene in 1919, a bizarre simulacrum of his prewar fantasies. The Party had become that energetic, enlightened moral elite fighting the good fight while the majority of the population was reduced to the most elemental and brutal struggle simply to find enough to eat. Imperialist war, civil war and imperialist intervention had produced the kind of nightmare in reality that Serge had dreamed about in his anarchist writings. It never occurred to him that this "Bolshevism" he found was a product of the defeat of the revolution on a European-wide scale. He never realized that this "Bolshevism" was what was left after Lenin’s old party had disappeared and the working class that produced it had been destroyed.

For a Marxist, the decay of the revolution and the victory of the counterrevolution were inevitable in such a situation. With the organized working class of 1914 reduced to prolos, those who had led the revolution could only be destroyed, driven into opposition and exile, or corrupted. But Serge had never been a Marxist. For him the decay of the Communist Party was nothing more than the moral decay of the moral elite. In one of his earliest discussions of "Bolshevism" he puts it very clearly:

"The formation of a Jacobin party and the exclusivity of the dictatorship do not therefore appear inevitable; and everything henceforth depends on the ideas which inspire it, on the men who apply these ideas, and on the reality of control by the masses...."10

What is being described here is "Stalinism with a human face". How can one talk about "the reality of control by the masses" in a one-party state? One can argue that the presence of factions within the one party and the relatively free debate and contest for power within the one party provide a substitute for contending parties. And these contending factions in the middle 1920s really did provide such an ersatz democracy. But the charade ends on the day when one faction decides to appeal to the masses over the head of the one party. That is what Trotsky’s opposition in 1923 threatened. And then all the old revolutionaries, "Marxist" or "Libertarian", had to choose which side they were on.

Throughout this crisis, Serge remained as contemptuous of the "prolos" as ever. As late as 1940, long after the triumph of Stalinism, he explained why the Workers’ Opposition of 1920 could not be supported:

"... 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.... 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."11

Of course, Serge was not the only one making such arguments in 1921. Former Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were making similar ones. But, as Marxists, they were abandoning their former principles. "Le Rétif’ was not. When Serge made what he called the slow transition from anarchism to Marxism he did not abandon the notion that the incorruptible elite was the sole guardian of political virtue. What he abandoned was the anarchist rejection, at least in theory, of state power as a possible tool of the virtuous elite. Of course, the elite faced the possibility of corruption by state power. But for Serge this exercise of state power came to be seen as an almost saintly decision by the elite to risk their own souls for the good of suffering humanity. It never occurred to Serge’s anarchist mind that democratic control could prevent such corruption. Anarchists in general and "Le Rétif" in particular had always denied that democracy could ever be anything more than a sham. The prolos simply didn’t have it in them to rule; they would always be duped. Everything depended on the moral strength of the "Old Guard", which was just another incarnation of the anarchist band.

Serge’s transition from anarchism to pseudo-Marxism was made easier because under the pressure of civil war and famine the Communist Party itself had shelved the Marxist view of the state and its relation to democracy and working class power. Communists defended their one-party rule, conceived as either a temporary aberration or an inevitable stage in the transition to communism, with a new ideological invention called the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat". It is clear that none of the participants in this debate knew what Marx had meant by it.12 It sounded "hard" and seemed to justify a one-party dictatorship which denied to a majority democratic rights. Serge’s discussion of this slogan contains some of the most wooden-headed and openly anti-democratic formulations:

"From the day when working class militants of any tendency, leading the masses, overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie, then even if they are libertarians they will immediately have to organise supplies for the great cities, internal and external defence against the counter-revolution, in short, all the complex mechanisms of modern society. And they cannot rely on the consciousness, the goodwill or the determination of those they have to deal with; for the masses who will follow them or surround them will be warped by the old regime, relatively uncultivated, often unaware, torn by feelings and instincts inherited from the past."13

Like Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev (and unlike Lenin), Serge insists that this dictatorship, which he defines explicitly as the dictatorship of the conscious minority over the majority – not only of the population at large but of the working class itself – is not simply a result of the peculiar situation in Russia. It is nothing more nor less than a law governing all revolutions. Serge points to Cromwell’s army and the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety as examples of this "law".14

Serge goes so far as to use the terror of 1918-19 as proof that the Bolsheviks have adopted the anarchist position. After all, he argues, isn’t this just the application of the anarchist’s individual terrorism on a mass scale?15 The suppression of the Constituent Assembly by the soviet power is also used for the same purpose. The soviets, like the prewar anarchists, have nothing but contempt for sham parliaments. Both the terror and the dismissal of the assembly are, of course, the result of the "iron laws" of revolution, not the fortuitous circumstances of this particular revolution in this particular country.

Serge’s description of the Communist Party in the period of War Communism is brilliantly done. In his account of the siege of Petrograd, his account of Year One of the Revolution and his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he not only describes the process of decay but, as a necessary part of that, what the Communist Party had really been like at the height of the civil war. This portrait not only condemns by contrast the Stalinism that followed but also shames the bourgeois detractors of the revolution.

But there are problems with Serge’s account. In the first place, it is an account from the inside. Serge went to work in 1920 for the Communist International and as a translator and propagandist. His closest associates were Maxim Litvinov and Gregory Zinoviev. This was the foreign office of the revolution. These were the ambassadors of the revolution. And like all diplomats and ambassadors they were apologists for the regime. At one point Serge describes the Zinoviev opposition to which he belonged:

"Formed by functionaries who had been the first to apply the methods of constraint and corruption in the party, it was in large measure a coterie turned out of power, fighting to regain it and thereupon brought around to raising the great questions of principle."16

Serge was himself one of these functionaries. He was not associated with either of the opposition groups that surfaced in 1920 – the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. Of course, he had just arrived on the scene and it is quite understandable that he would not want to get involved immediately in a factional dispute he only half understood. But he didn’t rally to Trotsky’s side in 1923 either. He claims, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, to have sympathized with the opposition but remained a loyal functionary.17 He says he read and agreed with Trotsky’s Lessons of October and The New Course, but then "went on endlessly printing our news-sheets, with the same insipid, nauseating condemnations of everything that we knew to be true".18

It was only when his boss Zinoviev went into (or, rather, was shoved into) opposition that Serge made an open break. And Serge’s descriptions of Zinoviev’s role in the early 1920s, both internationally as boss of the Comintern and internally as boss of Leningrad, is, if anything, understated. Zinoviev was, after all, one of the main figures in the campaign of defamation against Trotsky in 1923.

This is not to accuse Serge of direct complicity in these campaigns – there is no evidence of that – nor to take anything away from the enormous courage and integrity he displayed in his subsequent career as an oppositionist. But it does raise a question of what Serge could have understood by "Bolshevism". The "Bolshevism" he knew as Zinoviev’s collaborator in 1919-22, let alone the "Bolshevism" of 1923-26, bore little resemblance to Lenin’s working class party of 1909-17.

Postscript: What about Kronstadt?
Serge’s reputation as a sympathetic critic of the Bolsheviks from a democratic point of view rests in considerable degree on a confrontation with Trotsky that took place in the late 1930s. This dispute concerned the 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks by the garrison at Kronstadt. The history of this uprising has been told in Paul Avrich’s book which I mentioned earlier. What I am interested in here is Serge’s particular use of the event.

The most interesting point is that Serge made no comment on it at the time. And that is strange because in 1921 this uprising was one of the main pieces of evidence in the anarchists’ campaign against the Soviet government. Yet Serge’s essay, addressed to an anarchist audience, and completed only a few months after the bloody suppression of the uprising, does not mention it. In fact, it is in this essay that Serge is most open about the need for a minority dictatorship, most flagrant in his use of "hard" formulations. Certainly, by implication he accepted the need for this suppression.

Serge raised this issue against Trotsky in a very specific context 15 years after the Kronstadt uprising. Most readers of this magazine will be familiar with the events. In Spain in 1936, after the mass resistance of the socialist and anarchist trade unions had initially saved the Popular Front government from General Franco’s insurrection, this same government proceeded to disarm the working class both politically and militarily. Crucial to the success of this endeavor was the political cooptation into the government – in a minority position – of the leaders of the socialist and anarchist movements. Among the political leaders who, with some reluctance, accepted this role were the leaders of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity), and Serge defended them. Trotsky denounced this move, comparing it to the behavior of those socialists who collaborated with the provisional government in Russia in 1917.

In 1936, the Popular Front government made its move against the working class in the union stronghold of Barcelona. The workers’ movement was broken by a government in which its leaders sat. And once the movement was broken those leaders themselves were no longer needed and were systematically cut down. It was at this point that Serge began to raise the analogy of Kronstadt. Just as the Bolsheviks were forced to turn against the Kronstadt mutineers, he seemed to imply, so the POUM was trapped, tragically, into an action against striking workers.

The problem with this analogy should be obvious. Kronstadt was a military garrison whose mutiny, whatever the provocation, could hardly be permitted in the middle of a civil war. In Spain, however, it was the "revolt" of the Popular Front government against the workers who had saved it that threatened to open the gates to the external enemy. Which is, in fact, what happened.

Trotsky, in the course of this debate, raised most of the right objections. But he was hampered at this point by his own, as yet unworked out, views on Stalinism and what it meant. I think it is fair to say, however, that Serge was just as confused on the differences between the workers’ state of 1917 and the Soviet Union of 1936. And just as unclear on what had led from one to the other.


1. Victor Serge, Le Rétif: Articles parus dans "l’anarchie" 1909-1912, edited and introduced by Yves Pagès, Libraire Monnier, Paris, 1991.

2. Ibid, pp.105-6.

3. Ibid, p.107.

4. Ibid, p.164.

5. Ibid, p.204.

6. Ibid, p.184.

7. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.4, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1991, chapters 5 and 6.

8. Victoria E. Bonnell, Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organizations in St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914, University of California Press, 1983. Geoffrey Swain, Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labour Movement, 1906-1914, Macmillan, 1983.

9. Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, W.W. Norton, New York, 1974, pp.24, 26. But the entire chapter on "the Crisis of War Communism" has to be read to appreciate the situation the regime faced.

10. "The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution", in Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921, Redwords, London, 1997, p.107.

11. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp.118-9.

12. Hal Draper, The "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" from Marx to Lenin, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1987.

13. "The Anarchists...", p.92

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid, p.96.

16. Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands NJ, 1996, pp.118-9.

17. Serge, Memoirs, p.190.

18. Ibid, p.191.