Victor Serge's libertarian message
By Tapani Lausti
Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. New York Review Books 2012.
The late Welsh political writer Raymond Williams once wrote that we have still not quite grasped the damage to the Left caused by the Stalinist experience. Many people even today see the Bolshevik Revolution as an example of how things inevitably go wrong if people try to move beyond capitalism. The tragic history of Soviet Russia offers plenty of warnings about the dangers of social progress being led astray by anti-democratic forces.
Few writers offer as closely observed critical accounts of the hopes and disillusions of the Bolshevik experience as Victor Serge. As a half-outsider — he was born in Brussels to Russian refugee parents and grew up in Paris — and a libertarian, he watched with consternation the authoritarian tendencies of the Bolshevik leaders. Often he gave them the benefit of the doubt based on the desperate hope of creating a better world. Afer all, the revolution aimed to get rid of the awful reality of Czarist Russia. Yet Serge wasn't fooled by the antics of Lenin and Trotsky. He could see how their authoritarianism had its roots in age-old Russian despotism.
This version of Memoirs of a Revolutionary is the first unabridged edition in English. (The earlier abridged version was published in 1963. Serge finished the original French version in 1943.) The publication of this new edition is very timely as the international left is rethinking its history and turning towards a more libertarian mindset, as witnessed by the Occupy movements in many countries and los indignados in Spain.
As if sending a message to future generations Serge wrote: “The passion, the experience, and even the errors of my fighting generation may perhaps help illumine the way forward, but on one condition, which has become a categorical imperative: never to give up the defense of man against systems whose plans crush the individual.”
In this book Serge offers many telling descriptions of a revolution taking all possible wrong turns. Here is one: “I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent. These evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life.”
A truly liberating spirit — if it had been possible under Russian conditions at the time — might have carried the revolution in a direction which could have tolerated dissent, encouraged debate and enthused people in the wide-open possibilities of a different future. Serge offers some testimony of other possible routes which might have avoided the development into a police state.
Serge's idea of how to organize a post-revolutionary society also has a spirit closer to our time than the bureaucratic centralism which emerged: “… I was arguing for a “Communism of associations”, in contrast to the Communism of the State variety.” He describes his idea thus: “I thought of the total plan not as something to be dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing , by congresses and specialized assemblies, of initiatives from below.
Serge describes the growing “official truth” which to him was the most disastrous thing imaginable: “The Party is the repository of truth, and any form of thinking that differs from it is a dangerous and reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity – and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.”
Serge offers many unforgettable portraits of famous Bolsheviks and other lesser known revolutionaries who struggled to understand what was happening to their revolution. From authoritarian tendencies the road opened towards more and more totalitarian politics. In 1926 Serge already detected an atmosphere which he describes as “the obscure early stages of a psychosis.”
In front of Serge's eyes a mentality was forming which eventually would plunge the country into the incredible brutality of the purges of the 1930s. Serge writes: “Much later the whole of Soviet Russia was to experience years of tragedy when it would live ever more intensely in the grip of this psychosis, which must be a psychological phenomenon unique in history.”
Serge's testimony of a revolution gone wrong is a classic. His writings, both non-fiction and fiction, should make him one of the greats of the literary world. Maybe current generations will eventually learn to appreciate his immense contribution to an understanding of Soviet history and social conflicts. His emphasis on creative freedom is something we today can understand better than many of his contemporaries.