Curious delay and publication switch

Rexx Dunn reviews: 'Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova Trotsky The life and death of Leon Trotsky', Haymarket Books, 2016, pp396, £12.99

Natalia Sedova and Leon Trotsky

The life and death of Leon Trotsky was originally published in 1946 and the first English publication had to wait until 1975. But now it is back in print, thanks to Haymarket Books. But it was supposed to have been published by New York Review of Books. (Thanks to the NYRB, I started reading Serge’s novels again, as well as his Memoirs of a revolutionary.) Midway through last year, NYRB flagged the upcoming Life and death, so I put in my order - only to find that publication was delayed. And when it finally came out, the publisher had switched to Haymarket Books.

Haymarket is a self-described non-profit book publisher and distributor. It is a project of the Chicago-based Center for Economic Research and Social Change, known for publishing ‘provocative books’ from the left end of the political spectrum. Founding editors Anthony Arnove and Julie Fain previously worked on the International Socialist Review.

The fact that the editors worked on the ISR suggests that Haymarket is a the project of a group of intellectuals who harbour anarcho-syndicalist sympathies: viz, the remnants of the old International Socialist activist tendency. This goes hand in hand with a state-capitalist position as to the class nature of the Soviet Union: the Bolshevik regime never broke with capitalism; therefore the Workers’ Opposition was right, and so on.

Not happy with just republishing Serge and Sedova’s attempt to write the first biography of Trotsky, Haymarket Books have also included an unpublished article by Serge, written in 1940, in response to Trotsky’s 1938 Their morals and ours. This appears as appendix B, while appendix A, on the other hand, is a eulogy of Trotsky by Serge, first published by Partisan Review in 1943. The two are completely antithetical. The previously unpublished article is a damming attack on Trotsky, which is deeply flawed, as we shall see. I can only conclude that the publishers chose to do this in order to push their own agenda. Whilst they are free to do so, this is a scurrilous way to do it, not least because it does a disservice to both Trotsky and Serge.

I refuse to make wild accusations about individuals. Therefore I shall confine myself to the facts as much as I can. But I assume there must have been a dispute between NYRB and Haymarket Books over things like the foreword and afterword to Serge’s and Sedova’s book: ie, how should it be contextualised? Perhaps the NYRB disagreed with the initial proposal. Was this anything to do with the Marxist-humanist, Richard Greeman, its go-to man in relation to the publication of Serge’s works? I do not know. But it is he who provides the contextualisation.


Of course, the question of contextualisation is unavoidable, given the disagreement which emerged between Serge and Trotsky in 1937-40. In his ‘afterword’, Greeman reminds us that this boiled down to two main issues: firstly, Trotsky’s responsibility for suppressing the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921 and, in relation to this, “the creation of the Cheka secret police with its inquisitorial methods”; secondly, Trotsky’s attack on the role of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in Spain during the civil war, which he regarded as reformist. Should one remain neutral about these questions (as if this were possible) or should one come down on the side of Serge? Greeman or anyone else from the Haymarket editorial board have a right to come down on Serge’s side, if they want to. But they should have made the case themselves, as well as defer to Serge’s published work, for which there is ample material (eg, his Memoirs of a revolutionary). Instead they chose to publish his private response to Trotsky’s Their morals and ours, despite the fact that, in the end, Serge decided not to publish this; which is not surprising.

He starts out by saying of Their morals and ours:

The tone of the book, the domineering role of Bolshevik speech of the great years, along with its echoes of the imperious and uncompromising style of Karl Marx, the polemicist, ... is essentially one of intolerance, [because it] implies the claim to the monopoly of the truth (p295).


Wearing his new hat, Greeman tries to be even-handed. On the one side, he points out that, on the 10th anniversary of the revolution, Trotsky talked about “the need to democratise the party and industrialise the country”. On the other, he refers to the moment in 1939 when Trotsky’s “collaboration with Serge exploded” into an “ad hominem” attack, although this was based on a misunderstanding. The ‘old man’ was referring to an article that he “had not bothered to read” and that he “erroneously attributed to Serge”:

Trotsky castigated Serge in a sarcastic polemical article entitled ‘Moralists and sycophants against Marxism’. In it, Trotsky called Serge a “disappointed bourgeois intellectual who writes poems about revolution, but is incapable of understanding it” (p285).


Strong stuff!

In his previously unpublished article Serge reminds us that “psychology exists”, which can alter our subjective standpoint, vis-à-vis objective reality. This is true, although it is often overlooked by Marxists themselves. It is a pity Serge was not mindful of this fact himself when he joined in a public attack on Trotsky over Kronstadt. This took place just when the latter was girding himself up to defend his old Bolshevik comrades, who were about to be executed - on the basis of forced confessions - at the infamous Moscow trials (or they already had been).1

Likewise Greeman should have pointed out Trotsky’s overall situation here. He had seen his whole family wiped out by Stalin’s assassins and, as someone in exile, he knew he was living on borrowed time: ie, once he had served his purpose (as the alleged leader of the ‘conspirators’ against Stalin), then an assassin would come for him. Apart from Trotsky’s ordeal, Serge himself had not long escaped from the gulag and a GPU (State Political Directorate) death squad. Both men were fighting a losing battle against the counterrevolution. But it was only later that Serge realised they were living through “the midnight of the century”. Neither were immune to such psychological factors, which are, by their very nature, destabilising in terms of any individual’s ability to maintain an equilibrium between heart and mind.

Greeman fails to remain neutral regarding Trotsky’s theory and practice. In a section on ‘Serge and Natalia Sedova’, he goes out of his way to point up Sedova’s growing differences with the Fourth International, which concerned the class nature of the Soviet Union, and led to her ultimate break with the organisation in 1951. Apparently she erred on the side of the state capitalist-argument. Grist for Haymarket Book’s mill, whatever Greeman’s intentions!

But Serge plays a ‘straight bat’ as regards his old friend and comrade. On the one hand, he defers to Trotsky’s own works: eg, his History of the Russian Revolution, My life, The new course, The revolution betrayed - even Their morals and ours! On the other hand, of course, there is the restraining hand of Trotsky’s widow, Sedova. Her own contributions are attributed in single quotes. So there is no need to defer at length to the text itself (at least for the time being).

But why did Haymarket Books want to get their hands on the publishing rights of the Serge/Sedova biography? Without being in possession of the facts, I can only say that somehow they were in a position to use Serge’s articles on Trotsky - in particular the unpublished one of 1940, which is so critical of the “old man” - in order to counterbalance the Serge/Sedova biography: ie, in a book which they could publish under their own steam. It fits into the group’s contradictory agenda (it has always been contradictory). On the one hand, they sentimentalise Trotsky’s role as a great revolutionary; on the other, they adhere to the - by now - thoroughly discredited state-capitalist argument on the class nature of the Soviet Union. In a word, the position of the editors of Haymarket Books is fundamentally anti-Trotskyist!

Serge’s article

As I have said, Serge’s previously unpublished article should not have been published without criticism. Therefore I am obliged to comment on it. In the article he tries to generalise from what he sees as a basic “error” in Trotsky’s Their morals and ours, in order to explain why he got things “wrong” over Spain vis-à-vis the role of the POUM. By so doing, Serge raises some important questions, such as, is it enough just to say that the end justifies the means? How does the subject change the object in the real world? These questions are also relevant to today’s debates: eg, on the question of how small revolutionary groups relate to things much bigger than themselves - like Corbynism or the EU referendum, etc. Opportunism is not the answer. The left is split and weakened as a result of getting these questions wrong.

Serge bases his defence of the POUM against the charge of reformism by pointing out that Trotsky and the Left Opposition were guilty of the same offence: ie, in 1930-31 they were slow to condemn the Thermidor in Russia; in particular the first faked trials and false confessions, such as the case of the technicians in the ‘Industrial Party Affair’; the affair of the ‘Menshevik Centre’, as well as the execution without trial of 48 alleged saboteurs involved in meat supply. At that stage, western socialists too were unable to understand the “mystery of confessions on demand”. Instead they used the same argument as Stalin’s inquisitors of 1928, who, as Serge reminds us, told the accused:

subjectively you are convinced revolutionaries. But objectively, by discrediting the leader of the party, you are playing the game of the class enemy, of fascism … Years later I was saddened to see Leon Trotsky, who knew better than anyone Andres Nin’s devotion to the working class, denounce him as a traitor (objectively, alas), only to posthumously recognise his revolutionary probity (subjective, no doubt) ….

[This is] disdain for the psychological fact, disdain of the moral fact, which is also an objective reality of primary importance. [It is] contempt for different convictions, … exaggerated judgements, unjust and hence as clumsy politically as they are to revolutionary morality (p297).


Yet in the Serge/Sedova biography, with regard to the events in Barcelona in 1937, Serge - still with his straight bat - attacks the POUM for being in the reformist government, because one of its leaders, Largo Caballero, had refused to outlaw it as a revolutionary party. But, once he was removed, “the POUM was crushed and the Spanish Republic, with its back to the wall, was at once hideously defiled by a string of crimes” (p223).

But in his 1940 article, Serge commits the same error as Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1930-31 (which echoed that of Stalin’s inquisitors), in order to justify the POUM’s strategy and tactics during the Spanish Civil War: ie, “subjectively” they saw themselves as “convinced revolutionaries”. But “objectively”, as a result of a reformist strategy and tactics, “they were playing the game of the class enemy, of fascism”.

Serge should have learnt the lesson, which Trotsky later did, regarding the “mystery of confessions on demand”. Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight, in Their morals and ours, on the question of means/ends, he argues:

the use of any means, which by itself may be morally indifferent, must be justified or condemned according to the nature of the end it serves. To fire a shot is morally indifferent; to shoot a mad dog threatening a child is a good deed; to shoot to murder is a crime ...

All means are permissible which genuinely lead to mankind’s emancipation; but such is the dialectic of ends and means that certain means cannot lead to that end.2


The means/end argument is the same, whether we are talking about show trials and executions or how revolutionaries should relate to reformism and bourgeois initiatives that affect the working class. It is a question of ends. Of course, as Lassalle points out, there is always a danger of losing one’s way:

Show not only the goal; show also the road.

So inseparably grow goal and road into each other.

That the one always changes with the other;

Another road brings another goal into being.3


To return to Serge’s article, he goes on to point out how much harder things got for revolutionaries in the 1930s. In the face of the twin repressive collectivities (Stalinism and fascism), the gap between subject (revolutionaries) and object (reformist/Stalinised parties, etc) just got bigger. But this leads him to a defence of reformism and the role of the POUM. It also reveals a lapse into subjective idealism, thanks to the betrayals of German Social Democracy and, he argues, in particular,

Noske’s order to kill Karl and Rosa and along with them 15,000 revolutionary proletarians, “Stalinism has succeeded in killing the Russian Revolution”; in 1919-20 the Italian socialists renounced the seizure of power for fear of a blockade ... the Austrian socialists were much less responsible, for they were placed in an extremely disadvantageous historical and geographic situation and fought when it was too late, when all they could do was save their honour - I mean their dignity as the vanquished, which still counts (p299).


But maybe the German uprising in 1918 was also a mistake (compare the Austrian socialists); German Social Democracy’s betrayal in 1914 was by far the greater; because it led to the defeat of 1918, wherein the German masses, despite the slaughter in the trenches, failed to rise up in support of the Spartacists. This is the real tragedy. Serge continues:

But in extenuation of the Spanish socialists it must be said that the decisive element in all this is Stalinist intervention. They knew to take up arms in Asturias in 1934, showing that they had learned the lesson of Germany. Largo Cabellero considered forming a worker-union government, [but] the pressure of the Soviet ambassador, Rosenberg, … dissuaded him …

… working class reformism seems to me to be too grand a thing to be subject to summary judgements and even less to vehement condemnations in the form of insults … since the vertical fall of Stalinism into falsehood and blood the old reformist socialism has demonstrated moral stability far greater than that of the communist parties, and that the socialist spirit of the masses has taken refuge there. It maintains its traditions and effectiveness everywhere ... (my emphasis, p 299).


But in the next sentence he says: “In Germany we saw that a million unemployed vote alternatively for communists and Nazis; in Sarre and in Austria communist functionaries went over to Nazism”!

Serge ignores Trotsky’s analysis of fascism (in his Struggle against fascism in Germany), which must have been available to him. Thus he fails to understand Trotsky’s point, that the leaders of German Social Democracy or the Spanish socialists “are only distinguishable from the GPU by the fact that for the moment they are not spilling blood” (p300).

How could Serge forget what really happened in Germany? Consider the Comintern’s crazy, sectarian left turn, which meant that the Communist Party of Germany eschewed a united front from below - even though this was essential to unite the German working class, to arm it, as well as form alternative organs of power. The reformist Social Democratic leaders had to be isolated and cast into the dustbin of history. That was the only way to defeat fascism in Germany, and it could have been done. Instead, by 1933, once again the reformists found themselves stuck in the Reichstag. Only this time, they did not vote for war credits; rather they were hapless witnesses to their own demise! Fascism came to power via the ballot box and then abolished it! Here Trotsky has every right to be angry and vehemently sarcastic!

Two Serges

A bit further on, Serge returns to the role of the POUM. Its leader, Andrés Nin, refused to follow Trotsky and the Fourth International’s strategy, based on a a clear revolutionary programme and independent organisation, opting instead to enter the Socialist Party and joining the Popular Front, which was dominated by the Stalinist Comintern.

This led to a breach, with the POUM accusing the FI of ‘sabotaging the Spanish Revolution’. Serge acknowledges that Trotsky was right, but then excuses the POUM by adding that Trotsky failed to understand the objective situation: the fact that the majority of the Spanish working class were imbued with the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism and therefore did not understand the difference between Stalinism and Bolshevism. They showed a “lack of historical understanding and method”; but they were an example par excellence of “moderation in polemics, loyalty in organisational methods, absolute devotion to combat”. Moreover, argues Serge, the POUM did much to repair the damage caused by the way in which the Bolsheviks had treated the anarchists during their own civil war.

Once again, he relates this to moral questions, which stand alongside that of the class struggle itself - concretely Trotsky’s responsibility for the suppression of Kronstadt and the role of the Cheka. But this completely contradicts Trotsky’s own position, with which Serge concurs in the Serge/Sedova biography. This is, of course, consistent with what Trotsky says in Their morals and ours:

I am ready to admit that civil war is not a school for humane behaviour. Idealists and pacifists have always blamed revolution for excesses. [But these] spring from the very nature of revolution, which is itself an excess of history.4


However, in the Serge/Sedova biography, following Trotsky, he places Kronstadt in its proper context. It was the arsenal of the Baltic Fleet, crucial to the defence of Petrograd. The naval base was no longer a hothouse for revolutionary ideas. The rebellion itself was incited by a new layer of anarchists and left Social Revolutionaries, who were able to exploit the situation. Food shortages and rationing led to the demand for new elections to the Soviets and for “soviets without Bolsheviks”.

Elsewhere the revolution was threatened by Makhno’s bands in the Ukraine. South of Moscow a Social Revolutionary army of 50,000 was shooting communists and calling for elections for a new constituent assembly. Once it rejected Trotsky’s overtures for negotiations, Kronstadt had to be suppressed quickly before the winter thaw set in. Otherwise a rebel fleet could sail in and capture the fortress, opening the door of reaction to the Whites. Wherever the Whites had triumphed, they installed a military dictatorship which “had visited bloody vengeance on the poor” (p107).

But in his 1940 article, Serge’s idealist humanism gets the better of him. Once again, he turns to the question of the Cheka. Not only does he take this out of context; he separates the moral question from the struggle to defend the revolution:

[Is] it possible to consider founding a republic of free workers by establishing the Cheka - I mean an extraordinary commission judging in secret based on case files, outside of any control than that of the government, [the] accused it doesn’t see, who have no right to defence and can be executed in the shadows? (p304).


Compare this to the Serge /Sedova biography:

The red terror was still mild compared with the White terror in Finland ... Dzerzhinsky, the president of the Cheka, did his best to discipline the local commissions, many of which had been infiltrated by sadists and criminals. He frequently telephoned Trotsky to discuss the fate of suspect officers (p91).


The Serge of 1940 omits Trotsky’s key point in Their morals and ours: “All means are permissible which genuinely lead to mankind’s emancipation; but such is the dialectic of ends and means that certain means cannot lead to that end.”

As for the Cheka, here Serge is on firmer ground. Yet, even in his Memoirs, which is critical of the Bolsheviks, Serge is still mindful of the actual situation:

[The] formation of the Cheka was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades and interventions made them lose their heads ... [But] was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition? [By 1919 the local Chekas had been infiltrated by men who were perverted and corrupt.] …

I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be “half-rotten” and saw no solution to the evil except shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death penalty as soon as possible ... Meanwhile the terror went on, since the whole party was living in the sure inner knowledge that they would be massacred in the event of defeat, and defeat remained possible from one week to the next.5


Serge is right about one thing: communists must learn from history. In a future revolution there will be no excuse for the methods of the Inquisition.

In 1940, when he wrote his attack on Trotsky’s Their morals and ours, Serge was still in denial vis-à-vis the fact that the tide of history had turned against the world revolution at least 15 years before. He refers to the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition between 1923 and 1928, as well as to 1936, when Stalin and the bureaucracy were able to “use the gears of power that were forged before their arrival in power” to start massacring the old Bolsheviks; then to falsify this by means of “legal ideas”; so that the dictatorship of the proletariat had become synonymous with the bureaucracy’s “bloody dictatorship over the proletariat”. As a consequence, given their small size, neither the POUM nor Trotsky’s Fourth International - regardless of who was right about the means/end argument - were able to counteract Stalinism’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution. Once again, that is the real tragedy.

One final word on Serge’s unpublished article. He concludes this by saying that the revolution has a double duty:

to simultaneously… stand firm against the principal enemy, and defend the movement against its own maladies, against the polluting of organisations, against dumbing down, against petty interests, our own errors, our own failings ... Bolshevism, despite its unity of thought and discipline, was always prey to contradictory tendencies. While some of them opened the way to history’s most beautiful futures, others clearly led to its destruction (p306).


No-one would quarrel with that! But I disagree with his following sentence: “It must be said: the seeds of death [Bolshevism] bore within itself were always visible.” Wrong analogy! What he should have said is that the seeds will wither and become deformed, if they are left to grow in poor soil. That is more consistent with historical and dialectical materialism.


I am a deep admirer of Serge as a man, who evolved from anarcho-syndicalism to Bolshevism, before moving to his final position as a Marxist-humanist. (Rather a Marxist-humanist than a Stalinist or a reformist! What about a humanist-Marxist?) I applaud his principles, his courage and his ability to withstand extreme suffering and the threat of death, his revolutionary optimism - not to forget his undoubted literary talent, so clearly evident in his brilliant political novels: eg, The case of comrade Tulayev and Midnight of the century. But at the end of the day I have to be critical, because his idealist tendencies got the better of him. Thus he ends up defending reformism, because the subject is unable to change the object (compare Lassalle’s poem!).

On balance, I am not surprised that Serge - after sober reflection - decided not to publish his attack on Their morals and ours. It is possible that he himself realised just how bad it was. He had succumbed to the very psychology that he accused Trotsky of, which leads to subjective idealism. Therefore he was only too happy when, a year or so later, Sedova sent him those warm greetings, which led to their collaboration in writing The life and death of Leon Trotsky. It gave him a chance to come to his senses and write something which he would not be ashamed to see in print.

That is why the decision of Haymarket Books to publish Serge’s attack on Trotsky’s Their morals and ours without criticism is reprehensible and shows the poverty of its particular brand of Marxism.

Rex Dunn


1. I Deutscher The prophet outcast London 2003, p353.

2. Ibid pp354-55.

3. Quoted in ibid p356.

4. Ibid p354.

5. V Serge Memoirs of a revolutionary New York 2012, p 94.