Victor Serge was my guide through the history of the revolutionary movements of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a novelist and historian of the Russian Revolution, a memoirist of Boshevism and Stalinism, and a searching poet. I first read Serge when I was in my early twenties, and I was struck by how different his voice was from the often anxious, often sententious Bolsheviks. Serge’s fluent writer’s voice, never appears to be reaching after the rules of revolution, but always seems to be achieving the sensibility of revolutionary aspiration and idealism, even when it faces unwelcome truths and the destruction of hopes.
Something about his having started out as an Anarchist and a poet made me consider him a Bohemian as well as Bolshevik, and it added to his posthumous allure. What secured his place was that while he was a Bolshevik, he became an active member of the Left Opposition, which Trotsky led as a party faction 1923 -7. Nonetheless, Serge had also been a severe critic of the Red Army’s supression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921,when the Red Army had been led by Trotsky. In other words, Serge was capable of the critical thinking that can elude those who fear articulating their disagreements in order to maintain party unity.
Here in this long summer of 1938, Victor Serge writes a short but important essay about Marxism, and the essay’s clarity about what Marxism is at that moment makes the reader attend to its reality rather than to the position planks that were filling up the new world of Stalinism, and making noise where there had been debate and rules where there had been possibilities.
Perhaps most important to Serge’s arguments is his conviction that Marxism is not static but moving, shape shifting and as he writes, “gone through many metamorphoses.” The urge to place Marxist theory and practice under the lock and key of atrophied notions of ‘science’ is addressed by Serge’s interest not in the movement’s defeats, but rather, in the strength of capital’s fear of it: “The confused but energetic class-consciousness of the last defenders of capitalism, however, sees in Marxism its most dangerous spiritual and social enemy.” Serge is what we might call an ecumenical Marxist: “Almost all workers’ movements which have won any appreciable power have been inspired by Marxism.”
From the mess of 1938, Serge is able to address both the innocent bystanders in New York and the bewildered old Bolsheviks in Moscow without reaching for a statement that will explain the rightness and wrongness of either or both. What is significant is that even when Capitalism surrounded the working class in 1914,
“The workers showed themselves prisoners of the capitalism they fought even as they adapted themselves to it. But it was a Marxist part which, in the chaotic currents of the Russian Revolution, knew how to disentangle the main lines of force, to orient itself constantly according to the highest interests of the workers, to make itself, in the truest sense of the word the midwife of a new world. It is true that German Marxism in its two forms — Social Democratic and Communist –showed itself impotent before the Nazi offensive. Along with the degeneration of the Bolshevism, this is without question, let us note in passing, the greatest defeat that Marxism has ever suffered. Nonetheless, Marxism continues to mount the ladder of world history. While irreconcilable oppositionists are persecuted and exterminated by Stalinism, the Austrian Socialists carry o. struggle, desperate but heroic, which saves them from demoralisation; the Socialist miners of Asturias in ’34 deal a set-back to Spanish fascism. It would be absurd to isolate Marxist thought from these social realities. EVEN more than it is a scientific doctrine, Marxism is an historic fact.
This remarkably straightforward presentation of Marxism — in its successes and in its limitations — gives voice to an idea of social change that doesn’t exist as an idealisation or as a fait accompli. Instead .it is a process, whose concepts and practices are on-going. “Science,” Serge writes, “is never ‘finished’; rather it is always completing itself. Can science be anything except a process of continual self-revision, an increasing quest for a closer approach to the truth.
Serge is clear that the categories of the knowledge disciplines have been change through Marxism. “We are in debt to it for a renewing , a broadening of our consciousness.” And as he looks at the history of Marxism in his time, Serge can make sense of its errors and failures in a dialectical exchange with its power and intellectual range.
- The Marxism of the imperialist epoch was split. It was nationalistic and counterrevolutionary in the countries where it had been reformist; it was revolutionary internationalist in Russia the only country in which the foundering of an ancient regime forced the proletariat to carry out completely its historic mission.
- The Marxism of the Russian Revolution was at first ardently internationalist and libertarian; but because of the state of siege, it soon became more and more authoritarian and intolerant.
- The Marxism of the decadence of Bolshevism — that is to say, that of the bureaucratic caste which has evicted the working class from power — is totalitarian, despotic, amoral, and opportunist. It ends up in the strangest and most revolting negations of itself.
So Serge is able to see social consciousness doesn’t escape the effect of the realities it expresses, which it illuminates and which it tries to surmount. He ends the piece with another piece of reality: “IS it necessary to emphasise again that the confused, distorted and bloody Marxism of the gunmen of Moscow — is not Marxism? That it negates, belies, and paralyses itself?
As Summer draws to a close in 1938, Serge asserts, “The class struggle goes on. For all the dictators’ replastering, we hear the framework of the old social edifice cracking. Marxism will go through many vicissitudes of fortune, perhaps even eclipses. Its power, conditioned by the course of history, nonetheless appears to be inexhaustible. For its base is knowledge integrated with the necessity for revolution. Its the best piece of summer, 1938, because it is hopeful and also realistic.
Serge was a poet of hope as well. As a member of the Left Opposition, Serge was arrested and imprisoned in 1933. He was sent to the remote city of Orenberg in the Ural Mountains. Most of the Left Opposition that were arrested were executed but as a result of protests made by leading politicians in France, Belgium and Spain, Serge was kept alive. When he was released and allowed to return to Moscow, the officials would not let him take his manuscripts. The poems he wrote in the 1930s are political, tender, and attempt to scale the cosmos: here is one example, written in exile, in 1934.
I’ve seen the steppe turn green and the child grow; my eyes meet the human gaze
of my good old dog Toby, who trusts me.
The azure touches the earth, we breathe in the sky.
Red cows graze under clouds of glory,
and from afar the slim Kirgiz woman who tends them
seems released from all misery.
Setting sun, here are our breasts, take them!
Here are our bodies that you fill with radiance,
here we are washed,
at the point where river, plain, and sky touch,
Nothing is forgotten, nothing is lost, we are faithful,
faithfully men, men faithful to men
regardless of the moment, the risk, the burden, the pain,
faithful and trusting.
My son, my tall son, we are going to cleave the water with slow strokes —
let’s trust in the river pierced by sunbeams,
trust in these waters drunk by our brothers, the drowned.
Trust in the frail, supple muscles of the child
who dives from the steep bank and then cries out:
“O father, it’s terrible and good, I’m touching bottom,
the light is mixed with darkness and its quivering, quivering….”
Grace of the slender body darting through the air, through the water,
trust with eyes closed, trust with eyes open.
What could be more parabolic than this flight of birds?
My mind follows it, just as lively, just as sure,
an arrow through abstract space,
laden with moving images by all that was,
ethereal and prodigal,
offering the future many possible futures.
the scarab sleeps on the wild rose,
our shadows scared off the tadpoles in the pond,
a magnificent, peaceful day and the earth goes on
carrying off days, nights, dawns, evenings,
tropics, poles, deserts,
and our thoughts,
our common journey through the infinite,
toward the constellation of Hercules, itself swept along
by such great floods of stars that all night fades —
defeat swept away.