For those who will come after us

Susan Weissman - Victor Serge: the course is set on hope - Verso 2001, pp364, £22

The life of Victor Serge was exemplary. The fact of his survival was unique. His work is therefore of unparalleled significance in what Trotsky called the Machiavellian century of universal dishonesty. Serge's novels and reports are hugely important to any understanding of both the Soviet social formation and the relationship between Bolshevism and its Stalinist apotheosis. His work has inspired by both love and an almost universal distrust. A bitter opponent of the Stalinist bureaucracy, he also came into conflict with orthodox Trotskyism and died, in Mexico in 1947, a renegade from all camps but the revolution. His work is a lasting testament, from beneath the weight of both Stalinist and Trotskyist slander, to those left oppositionists murdered by the bureaucracy. He was one of the few to survive and document both their nature and their fate, and in doing so also contributed to an understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union and the "vengeance of history" that was to be its ultimate fate. Serge was born in Brussels 1890 to a Russian revolutionary émigré family. Imprisoned for his early anarchist activities, he was converted to Marxism after his experience of the abortive Spanish uprising of 1917 and the victory of October. Joining the Bolshevik Party, he became an agent of the Comintern in Germany and found his way into the ranks of the left opposition. Expelled in 1928, he was imprisoned by the bureaucracy from 1933 to 1936. As an exile he joined the Trotskyist opposition in the west, but rapidly fell out with Trotsky over questions of morality and his support for the POUM. He died in Mexico in 1947, a friend and comrade of Trotsky's widow, Natalia Sedova. They were really the last of the old opposition - the last scattered remnants of Bolshevism. Serge truly lived the revolution. His life is only really comparable with others of the left opposition. But of course he was one of only a handful of survivors. As Serge once said of himself, "I have undergone a little over 10 years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing. On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and the future than ever before"(V Serge Memoirs of a revolutionary London 1984, pp9-10). His novels recount the nature of that lived revolution and its destruction. Written in periods when political activity was impossible - largely after his expulsion from the Communist Party in the aftermath of the Chinese massacres of 1927 until his death - they are a witness to the struggles of oppositionists and their tenacity in the face of the bureaucracy. Victor Serge saw his novels, to use Trotsky's words, as a kind of "spectral voice from the mausoleum" of Stalinist degeneration. They testified to those who had been physically and politically eliminated from the terrain of history - fixing their nature "for the benefit of those who will come after us" (J Berger The look of things London 1972, p75). His analysis of Stalinism led him to uncover the process by which its victory had been secured. One of the reasons for an almost universal distrust of his work from within orthodox Trotskyism was his assertion that the germs of the Stalinist degeneration were present within Bolshevism. As Serge rightly notes, however, there was also a mass of other germs - there were other routes possible. Another reason for the denigration of Serge by Trotskyists is what has been called his moralism, particularly in regard to the debate over Kronstadt. Having fought against the Kronstadt rising, Serge was convinced of the necessity of defeating it, but he nonetheless regarded it as the revolution's darkest and most tragic moment and constantly fought against any attempt to hide the real process by which it had occurred. He truly felt that it could have been avoided. It was on the question of Kronstadt and morality that he argued with Trotsky on his return to the west - largely as a result of Trotsky's misguided notion of what Serge was saying, but also because of a slander campaign against Serge to do with the circumstances of his release and his later (false) implication in the murder of Ignace Reiss. Because of these untruths and under the weight of Stalinist falsification, Serge came into conflict with a 'Trotskyism' which proved incapable of unflinchingly facing reality, particularly with regard to the founding of the Fourth International. As he once said, "Institutions can be defended by lies; revolutions never." (ibid p79). It is clear then that a new biographical study of Serge is to be welcomed. Weissman's book is not really a definitive biography, but it is still a great addition. There have been previous assessments of Serge's work. Richard Greeman, in particular, has sustained a long-running project to rescue Serge from obscurity, through translating his work and the formation of the Victor Serge Foundation. David Cotterill's edition of the Serge-Trotsky correspondence is useful and Bill Marshall's literary study of Serge is excellent. Susan Weissman herself has edited a special issue of Critique on Serge, and Revolutionary History has done much the same thing. Of course, anybody who can get their hands on a copy of Serge's own Memoirs of a revolutionary is off to a good start. Weissman's new book, however, is invaluable for thinking more deeply about Serge's search to uncover the nature of the Soviet Union and it is within these parameters that the book is written. Rather than set herself the daunting task of covering all of the revolutions and struggles with which Serge concerned himself, Weissman explicitly undertakes an assessment of Serge's understanding of the fate of the Russian Revolution. Richard Greeman has been working for three decades to write a comprehensive biography of Serge and the task has proved too much so far, so a narrower focus on Stalinism is useful. There are some unnecessary repetitions in Weissman's book and it does not fully relate some of the theoretical explorations with Serge's life and practice, but on the whole it is an absolutely superb piece of work. Her exploration of the Reiss debacle is very good, as is her detective work on Serge's politics at the end of his life. There have been slanderous allegations that he had abandoned revolutionary Marxism and Weissman resoundingly refutes this absurd claim. Particularly impressive is the account of the relationship between Serge and Trotsky and, although I might not accept Weissman's ultimate assessment of the nature of the Soviet Union, I do not think she does any violence to Serge's basic concepts in outlining his theory of degeneration. Richard Greeman, in a recent article in International Socialism has, however, levelled some serious charges against Weissman (spring 2002). Firstly, that she downgrades the literary status of the novels in order to inflate the importance of Serge's core project of understanding the Soviet Union. Greeman charges her with abandoning the aesthetic aspect of Serge's project in her haste to prove Serge's credentials as a witness of the left opposition. Indeed, in her terms, she is ransacking the novels for news of the fate of the left opposition and its destruction. This is absolutely correct. They are experimental, literary novels, but they are all we have in the way of clues to the fate of that great generation of revolutionaries and we need to use them as important historical documents. An aesthetic assessment we await from Greeman himself. Greeman's second charge is that she misleads us over the basic nature of Serge's ideas, because she abdicates his theoretical development in favour of a more linear biographical narrative. There is some justice in this, but his specific charge that she misunderstands Serge's view of the Cheka is misplaced, since she think she contributes much to the discussion, particularly in her account of the relation between the Cheka and the relentless process of Stalinisation so apparent to Serge himself. The objection that she fails to understand the biographical context in her "aversion" to chronology (Greenman, p111) is also misplaced, as she is not writing a straight biography, but a study of ideas that Serge had on the nature of the revolution and its aftermath - unravelling "the labyrinth of madness", as he would have it (Weissman, p6). What moves me about Weissman's study is its relentless attempt to uncover the relationship between Serge's political conscience and the process of revolution. The dialectic between individuality and those vast social forces unleashed by October is expressed admirably by Weissman. As a writer Serge fulfilled the double duty of rebel and revolutionary. He fulfilled that central responsibility to speak the truth to the masses that was so much a part of the culture of the left opposition and of course abandoned by orthodox Trotskyism and Stalinism. Weissman understands the deeply human aspect of Serge's novels and politics - that the revolution could not be divorced from suffering, kindness and love. Even that "midnight in the century" was a night filled with a rain of stars and in this Serge glimpsed that in the accumulation of such defeats there were also great victories for human beings (ibid p280). Serge constantly reasserted that in order to love others we had to understand world history and of course, at the end of the day, history really is the world's judgement. This account of Serge and the left opposition leaves us in little doubt about the ultimate nature of that judgement. It is a further resource of hope retrieved from that century of disaster. Martyn Hudson