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The Unhappy Elitist: Victor Serge’s Early Bolshevism

Peter Sedgwick

This article, originally published in History Workshop Journal 17, Spring 1984, was found among Peter Sedgwick’s papers after his death in 1983. It was written as part of a commentary on a collection of Serge’s writings that was never published.

IN HIS debates with Trotsky during the Thirties, and in the frequent retrospects over Soviet history which he conducted until his death in 1947, Victor Serge constantly counterposes the authoritarian record of Bolshevism (in great measure seen as due to Trotsky’s own responsibility) against the rival, more libertarian currents of the Revolution: i.e., those stemming from anarchism or the oppositions within the Party preceding that of the 1923 Left Opposition. The Kronstadt incident of 1921 is rightly taken by Serge as a cardinal point in the in the development of this case: while Serge never accepted the full anarchist glorification of Kronstadt as a radical mass rising, uncomplicated by any danger of counter-revolution, he insisted against Trotsky that it constituted a legitimate expression of the sailors’ and workers’ discontent with a repressive system, focusing widespread aspirations for a democratic Soviet republic freed from Party monopoly. His posthumously-published Memoirs of a Revolutionary: 1901-1941 are celebrated for their unmistakeable sympathies with the outraged Russian masses in the bureaucratic epoch of War Communism; for their constant identifications with humanistic and dissident elements both in the Russian party and in the Communist International; for their biting criticism of the rationalizations and evasions whereby the incumbents of bureaucratic State power seek to justify their brutality and mystify their usurpation of Socialist ideals.

For those who know Victor Serge from his maturer writings as the chivalrous knight-errant of freedom within revolutionary Socialism, it would be a natural conclusion that these attractive, insightful positions of his, rare indeed in the history of the radical thought of the period, represented his conscious awareness at the time of these dark events during the heroic and bloody apogee of Leninism. These judgments, surely, represent not the hindsight of the loser against a despotic system whose crimes he had endorsed until that very system turned to demote and disappoint him – a common criticism offered by some radicals against, for example, Trotsky, or against successive waves of ex-Communist dissidents who in our own age have woken up late indeed to the evils of a Stalinism which had afforded them considerable spiritual (and sometimes even material) advantages. They mark, for one thing, a signal continuity with the anti-Statist ideology of his youthful years as an anarchist editor. They are strengthened by their obvious harmony with Serge’s evident personal accessibility towards free-thinking, nonconformist militants, inside or outside the Communist movement, and equally evident personal dislike for the more sadistic, or bureaucratically opaque, executants of revolutionary office during the Comintern era. They are in keeping, finally, with generous rank-and-file sympathies of his whole output as a great novelist in the Russian radical-democratic school. For as a creative writer, Serge never celebrates the wisdom of Soviet institutions; even in his novel on the Civil War period (Conquered City) he is alert to the authoritarian worm in the bud of revolution, and his distance, in this and other fictions, from the institutional inheritance of Bolshevism is nearer to the attitude of the more sensitive "White" writers than to that of even the most liberal proponents of Soviet "Socialist realism".

But the writings that we have collected in this sampler of Serge’s literary activity from the early Twenties, along with other published work by him that is more widely known, is on the whole most unrevealing of any libertarian impulsion in this anarchist-turned-Bolshevik. On the contrary: at this stage what is evident in Serge’s public political alignment is an uncritical retailing of the official legitimations of Bolshevik statism. The contrast is obvious between the Serge of libertarian reputation and the author of these manifestos for the elite leadership of the Bolsheviks. In his account (given in the Memoirs1) of the impact made upon him by the Soviet regime on his arrival in Petrograd in 1919, Serge relates what a shock it was to read an article by Zinoviev in the local newspaper proclaiming "The Monopoly of Power": "Our Party rules alone ... it will not allow anyone ...", etc. Yet most of Serge’s writings from 1922 as far as 1930 show no sense of shock at the Party dictatorship;2 its monopoly of power is defended as an inevitable law of revolution, on the grounds that every mass upheaval is bound to generate an elite of the clear-sighted.3 Nor in these publications is any incrimination to be found of the Cheka – even though, in his controversy with Trotsky, Serge argued that the very establishment of this extraordinary and uncontrolled organ of repression by the Bolsheviks was a fatal calamity for the later course of the revolution.4 In public, Serge gives no hint of the savage practices of the Cheka for whose victims he frequently interceded in private in 1919-21. For example, in his discussion of "the problem of revolutionary repression", written in 1925 for a French readership, there is none of the familiar Sergean ambivalence about violent means and unchecked police power: the moral sensitivities seen in the later Trotsky debate yield before a crass justification of the Cheka as an instrument "effective" in its repression since "it acts along the line of historical development" in the cause of "an energetic class, conscious of what it wants ...". "Excesses, errors and abuses" are admitted: but these are to be limited by "the political and moral control" of the "most conscious vanguard of the working class", beside that of "the masses of the people". "The class character of the repression" is supposedly guaranteed by these grandly floating historical forces. It is true that "a certain cruelty arises from the material circumstances of the struggle" (overcrowded prisons with poor hygiene) and that "second-rate personnel", lacking the high moral qualities of the top Bolsheviks, are left in charge of coercive affairs.5 These limited reservations about the practice of Red Terror, which of course fail in any way to probe the decision-making structure of the Bolshevik regime, are the most that Serge is prepared to publish even after his experience of Chekist butchery was, as we know from his later memoirs, fairly detailed.

Serge’s credibility among anarchists and libertarians thus became extremely thin during the Twenties. There had to be an explanation for the contrast between his public conformity and his vehement private criticisms of the regime, on one tantalizing occasion committed to paper (as in a letter to Michel Kneller) but normally retailed in conversation to dissident visitors like Gaston Leval in 1921, who after hearing Serge talk about the Communist Party’s "dictatorship over the proletariat" published this judgment side by side with what he termed the "conscious lies" of Serge’s pro-regime journalism.6 The "privileges" of the system enjoyed by Serge, referred to in a statement by Pierre Pascal, explain this duplicity hardly at all. For Serge’s bizarre inner need for contrary political identifications (within an overall radical perspective) got him into an unsympathetic reception from stricter Leftists both before and after his love-hate oscillation in the embraces of the Bolshevik State. During the activity of the "anarchist bandits" in France over 1911-12, one of the terrorists actually threatened to "eliminate" Serge because of his private dissent from their tactics (otherwise defended by him publicly in the pages of his journal L’Anarchie).7 And it is clear that Trotsky, during his differences with Serge in the Thirties, mistrusted the open expression of his cross-sectarian allegiances to opposed political currents on the Spanish and international Left. Victor Serge was, in his eyes, "trying to manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism and Marxism" and in so doing had joined "the advocates of the anarchists".8 Accused by anarchists of Leninism, by terrorists of liberalism, by Trotskyists of semi-anarchism and (by the Stalinist propaganda apparatus) of both Trotskyism and terrorism, Serge could have pleaded innocence to particularly outrageous versions of these charges: but not to the inconsistency and even irresponsibility whereby he was constantly drawn close enough to contending alignments of the Left to earn the opprobrium and suspicion of each camp in turn.

For several years in the period of the Soviet power that is germane to the writings of the following section (1919 to the mid-Twenties), Victor Serge’s political standpoint was more "authoritarian", autocratic even, than that argued by the regime’s orthodox defenders in the Leninist line. For Serge persistently resorts to a concept in the analysis of authority which is traditionally alien to Marxist thought: that of the elite, or psychologically privileged minority, which was entitled through its possession of superior energy, or of moral force, to rule over the inert and confused mass of the populace. Serge’s nearest affiliation during his most recent anarchist phase (his sojourn in Spain during 1917) had been with the syndicalist movement, which on an international scale was steeped in the anti-democratic ideas of Georges Sorel, and the direct-action revolutionaries of the French CGT. The literature of French syndicalism (of which Serge could hardly have been unconscious as a primarily francophone militant) is replete with elitist legitimations of the violent action of conscious minorities, undertaken irrespective of the wishes of the deluded majority of workers.9 In the early years of the Russian revolution, Serge was in particularly close contact with that fraction of revolutionary-syndicalists in the West whose drift towards the Comintern brought with it a semi-authoritarian complex, similar to his own, of rationalizations for Bolshevik violence against dissidents. The underwriting of Leninist coercion, for example, by reference to the precedent set by the Jacobins of the French Revolution (hardly a trouble-free analogy for any Marxist commentator on that earlier "bourgeois" transition) was employed by Serge’s friend Andreu Nin, in 1922 a CNT delegate in Moscow for a meeting of the Communist International’s trade-union affiliate:

" ... in the same manner as the Jacobins saw themselves obliged to guillotine the Hébertists, in spite of the fact that they represented a tendency to the left, in the same manner that we ourselves [i.e., in the CNT] have eliminated those who constituted an obstacle to the realization of the objectives we pursued, our Russian comrades see themselves inevitably obliged to smother every attempt which might break their power. It is not only their right but their duty."10

The other distinctive legitimation for elite rule used by Serge, that resting on a parallelism between the Bolshevik Party and an unpopular but determined group of shop stewards, proved especially palatable to the current of French syndicalism that affiliated with Moscow in the early Twenties: "A victorious struggle of the masses inevitably implies the limitation of their right to free speech, in the name of discipline. That is the experience of every large strike, and correspondingly the experience too of the Russian Revolution."

As in the case of a lengthy strike where workers have become exhausted in the struggle; so in a post-revolutionary regime: "... workers must literally be protected against themselves by the medium of discipline. Defeatist and destructive tendencies must be crushed ... and it matters little whether such tendencies have their origin inside the heads of reactionary plotters or of intractable Socialists, syndicalists or even Communists. They have to be crushed just the same."11

Such paternalist arguments came easily to the inheritors of a long-standing commitment to violent direct action led by heroic worker-chieftains. It is small wonder that Serge’s main outlet in France during the Twenties, the Vie Ouvrière which printed his and other paeans of the Bolshevik dictatorship "over the proletariat", marked the death of Georges Sorel with an uncritically eulogistic obituary.12

It is against this background of the powerful elitist component in Victor Serge’s early divided loyalties that we can understand the first crystallization of a fealty that would remain with him for the rest of his life: his devotion to the personality and personage of Leon Trotsky. The thread of this devotion runs without a break from its beginning in Serge’s journal of Red Petrograd’s siege in the 1919 winter; through a subsequent encounter with Trotsky at some distance in 1921 at a Comintern congress (the Russian leader being "superbly martial, with his powerful chest ...", but – only in Serge’s retrospect many years later – with "something authoritarian" and even "dictatorial" or "imperious" in his makeup);13 and then into a long politicized defence of Trotsky’s positions in international Communist debate, where the opportunity is consistently taken to supplement the ideological Trotskyist case with some apt invocation of Leon Davidovich’s character and presence.14 It will be clear from the present book that this strand of near-absolute homage, while vulnerable over several and various stresses (not least from Trotsky’s own attempts at rupture in 1938-9) was never parted by Serge, and remained substantially intact for almost three decades. Its origins do not lie in any perception of Trotsky as a democratic, anti-bureaucratic campaigner: on the contrary, it is Trotsky as the ruthless and energetic orator-organizer in the Civil War period, without a vestige of democracy in his iron rhetoric, which first captures Serge’s allegiance. It is also, fairly obviously, Trotsky as an outstanding intellectual revolutionary, a cultured figure with great linguistic gifts in the written as well as the spoken word, who proves to be a suitable idol for Serge, himself a militant of many-sided culture. Force; intellect; zeal in communication: these are indeed engaging and rare qualities, having little logically to do with the values of a libertarian Socialism.

At this stage of Victor Serge’s political career, the temptations of power, and of powerful human beings, are moderated nonetheless by elements of a more compassionate and sensitive outlook. Repeated intercession, conducted by Serge with the Cheka’s killers-in-charge on behalf of innocents caught in the Terror, was one such countervailing particular. So was the brief encouragement of mediation between the Kronstadt rebels and the Bolshevik authorities, where Serge’s ambivalence seems to have earned him the mistrust of people on both sides.15 There were also the private confidences of disenchantment, of the kind that we have seen made to visiting libertarians; and one attempt to withdraw physically from the regime’s contradictions, in the ill-fated "French Commune of Novaya-Ladoga" in remote Soviet Karelia (a venture of 1921 which survived hardship and dissension for only three months).16 More lastingly for the development of Serge’s creative talents, we have the first hints of the typically Sergean ambivalence toward moral forces at play within the revolutionary cause. Already it is being suggested – and it is a bold suggestion from a Bolshevik – that whatever is inhuman, retrograde or plain bad in the revolutionary camp is not simply the result of external agencies (the isolation of Russia, for instance) where ultimate responsibility lies alone and surely with the White class-enemy. The revolution is itself the repository of an internally-generated evil, in the "intolerant or tyrannous collectivities"17 spawned by the regime and in the abuses of extrajudicial coercion in the Red Terror. A struggle within the revolution against the revolution’s own darker nature is therefore an early necessity – although posed incoherently – in Serge’s Bolshevik concerns. To the duality of revolution, that mixed curse and blessing, there corresponds a dualism of the revolutionary’s own endeavours, to correct interior vices as well as to combat external menaces. In the years of his journalism covered in the following section, Serge clearly subordinated the internal reformation of Bolshevik practices to the "defence" of that regime against external opponents – including left-wing opponents. In so doing he trod the familiar path of the professional apologist.

Having counted the costs of Bolshevism’s violence and administrative centralism, Serge makes it clear that they are, for him, acceptable: his judgments about particular facts and issues in the Soviet politics of the time are bent in line with that unswerving acceptance. Consequently, the quality of historical analysis in these early documents of his is crude, inconsistent and sometimes flagrantly deluded. All the same, his rationalizations are of a distinct sort which will shortly enable their transcendence. It is noticeable that Serge still takes the revolution as the object of an ethical scrutiny which is independent of the official justifications of the Leninist regime. There is no resort here to the sealed categories of the Marxian "class-based" morality. He was incapable of sustaining that odd but recurrent casuistry whereby nothing of importance in the revolution can be morally condemned, since all moralities express a class-standpoint which has to be situated on one or other side of the barricades. Nor does he deny the Leninist suppression of mass initiatives. He was, after all, affirming not "the dictatorship of the proletariat" but dictatorship by the most conscious (rather than the most "class-conscious") elements. He was not squaring the circle of a "democratic centralism" but espousing the centralism of a declared elite. In this unashamedly elitist perspective, it is still morality which judges the revolution and not vice versa. And this is a morality appealing not to "the interests of the proletariat" (interests which, in the more usual Leninist apologetics, are necessarily articulated through the Party) but rather to the superior energy and clarity of the directing minorities themselves. Ruling elites could earn Serge’s approbation only so long as they embodied this uncommon degree of drive and intelligence; once they failed to do so, his sympathies would circulate towards other minorities, of an oppositional or even literary nature, who exhibited the requisite qualities of brilliance and steadfastness.

In a later retrospection on this phase of his journalism, Serge confesses that then "whenever I did any writing, there was such a striking discrepancy between my sensibility and my rational thought that I could actually write nothing of value".18 Readers must judge for themselves the value of these contradictory but still forceful texts: they may illuminate more than the dilemmas of one particular writer, or even of one particular generation caught up in its epoch of mortal war between red and White.


1. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, Oxford 1963, p.69.

2. The one published piece by Serge in this period which questions Bolshevik authoritarianism is his Les anarchistes et l’expérience de la révolution russe, Paris 1921; reprinted in A. Skirda (ed.), Les anarchistes dans la révolution russe, Paris 1973, pp.129-161. Here, although arguing the inevitable rise of an elite on Bolshevik (or Jacobin) lines in any post-revolutionary regime, Serge waxes eloquent on "the numerous classes of the privileged" in the new Soviet state, the "arrogance and disdain for the personality of others ... the contempt for human life, the brutality" (p.157, Skirda edition). As a corrective to these manifestations of authoritarian statism, anarchists are bidden to bring to the revolution the benefits of their own philosophy which "in making an appeal to the individual, compels on him appropriate attitudes in his private and inner life, inspires in him a morality of which the class-struggle doctrine of Marxism is less capable" (p.160). Anarchists may have to "organise themselves side by side with Communist organisations" (i.e., separately from the Party though in a broad front with it) in order to act as this kind of counterbalance (p.160). The extinction of Russian anarchism through Bolshevik suppression after Kronstadt rendered obsolete these perspectives for a separate leavening presence of anarchism in the Soviet regime, and Serge never publicly reverts to them.

3. See, in the present book, the article "The Tragic Face of Revolution" and the extract on dictatorship. Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution, written between 1925 and 1928, also hymns the Bolshevik Party as the "brain" and "nervous system" of the working class: "all that the masses now accomplished was accomplished only through the medium of the party." (Year One, London 1972, p.366.)

4. See his letter to the New International of August 1938 on Kronstadt, which is typical of Serge’s later position on the issue.

5. The quotations are from Serge’s What Everyone Should Know About State Repression, London 1979, pp.78, 75, 76, the English version (with a laudatory foreword by its orthodox Trotskyist publisher) of Les coulisses d’une sûreté générale, Paris 1926; reprinted as Ce que tout révolutionnaire doit savoir sur la répression, Paris 1970.

6. The Leval incident is cited in Daniel Guerin, L’Anarchisme, Paris 1965, pp.113-4, 189.

7. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p.34. Serge refers more obliquely to the "old friends" who became "adversaries" in this period of anarchist illegalism through his refusal to support them, in his "Notice autobiographique", appendix to Pierre Pascal, En commune: mon journal de Russie 1918-1921, Lausanne 1977, p.106.

8. Trotsky "Hue and Cry over Kronstadt", Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, New York 1970, p.163.

9. See the references to such revolutionary-syndicalist writers as Pouger, Lagardelle and Berth in Zeev Sternhell, Ni Droite ni Gauche: L’idéologie fasciste en France, Paris 1983, pp.68-9, 321. Pouget’s invocation of the "obligation" of the "conscious minority" to "act without taking account of the refractory mass", in his 1908 book La confédération du travail, is interestingly close to Serge’s endorsement of Bolshevik rule, as is Berth’s celebration, in the same year, of a "working-class Napoleonism". The syndicalist Utopia outlined by Pataud and Pouget in Comment nous ferons la révolution, includes a scene in which Parliament is dissolved in mid-session by a crowd of insurrectionary radicals, in a fashion which almost exactly foreshadows the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918 (see the references to Pataud and Pouget in R.J. Holton, "Syndicalist Theories of the State", Sociological Review, Vol.28, 1980, pp.5-21, especially 9-10).

10. In La Lucha Social (Lerida), 29 April 1922, cited in Gerald H. Meaker, The Revolutionary Left in Spain 1914-1923, Stanford 1974, p.423.

11. Paul Dupres, "En Russie: discipline contre liberté", Vie Ouvrière, 4e année, No.50, 17 March 1922.

12. Obituary by Robert Louzon, Vie Ouvrière, 4e année. No.174, 9 September 1922. Meaker points out that Joaquín Maurín, at this time a CNT fellow-traveller with Moscow who also produced anti-democratic eulogies of Bolshevism, was particularly inspired by Sorel’s thought (Meaker, p.389).

13. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp.141, 142.

14. E.g., in the dedication to "a great living revolutionary" (obviously Trotsky) which begins Year One of the Russian Revolution, composed in 1925-8; in the section "He Who Is Not Seen" of the pseudonymous Soviets 1929; in the portrait of the unnamed figure, with "a glance of penetrating intelligence, an inner certainty ... and a rather deceptive Mephistophelean mask in his laughter", who is shown conferring with Lenin in the novel Conquered City written in 1930-1, London 1978, p.155; and in the large number of tributes to Trotsky given in Serge’s writings after 1936 when he was in the West and able to express himself freely.

15. See the reference to his brush with Russian party loyalists at this point, in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp.127-8. The hostility of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to Serge is told by Marcel Body.

16. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp.148-9; Marcel Body, Un piano en bouleau de Carélie: mes années de Russie (1917-1927), Paris 1981, pp.207-12.

17. Les anarchistes et l’expérience de la révolution russe, in Skirda, op. cit., p.161.

18. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p.262. I have here rendered as "rational thought" Serge’s pensée which conflicted with his sensibility.