The long polemic of Serge and Trotsky

Issue 

The Serge-Trotsky Papers: Correspondence and Other Writings between Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky
Edited by David Cotterill
Pluto Press, 1994. 275 pp., $44.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky, two of the most outstanding and talented socialists of the Russian Revolution and the international socialist movement, had, by 1939, parted from each other in a mood of acrimony and estrangement, much to the delight of inveterate anti-Marxists eager to darken the "anti-democratic" Trotsky, and the Bolshevik political tradition, against the libertarian light of the freedom-loving Serge.
But was it as simple as this? The recently published Serge-Trotsky correspondence, though a useful study in the personal and political chemistry of life on the left, does not ultimately contribute much to resolve the matter.
In 1917, Victor Serge had shed the anti-Marxism of his anarchist circles in Spain. He saw a radically democratic revolution in Russia and concluded that the discipline and organisation of the Bolsheviks, a mass revolutionary workers' party, was responsible for the revolution being effective in establishing working-class power and, with it, real freedom and democracy for the vast majority.
Serge arrived in Russia in 1919, at the height of the civil war, joined the Bolshevik Party and defended the revolution with pen and machine-gun (though he was never called upon to use the latter). He never forgot his origins, however, and always cast a critical, libertarian eye on proceedings. His "double duty", as he termed it, was to protect the revolution from its external enemies and from its internal excesses.
Serge deplored any infringements on liberty and the early symptoms of bureaucratic sclerosis, yet he recognised that the dominating element of the revolution during the harsh civil war years was "the danger of [the revolution's] death" and the victory of an incalculably worse capitalist counter-revolution.
Serge concluded that, though deplorable, it was necessary at that particular time to take actions such as outlawing the Mensheviks and anarchists after they had carried out assassinations and attempted insurrections, to suppress the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921, which would have opened the way to a successful military and political counter-revolution, and to establish a security police.
"The Revolution has the right and the duty to defend itself against those who, even with the best intentions, try to shoot it in the back", wrote Serge. The struggle for power brooked no half-measures. If the Bolsheviks had not fought to defend working-class power, wrote Trotsky, then fascism would have been a Russian word instead of an Italian one.
Trotsky and Serge were also at one during the struggle against the Stalinist cancer which fed off the revolution's battered working-class social base. The working class was physically decimated and weakened by the exhaustion involved in defending a revolution from a hostile environment of isolation, material poverty, counter-revolution and imperialist invasion and blockade.
When the revolution was in mortal peril, Serge and Trotsky were driven together, and the underlying differences between anarchism and Marxism were submerged. When the revolution was lost to Stalin in the late '20s, however, Serge and Trotsky began to drift apart. They fell out, from 1936 onwards, over the Spanish revolution and the role of the Fourth International, the Trotsky-inspired global revolutionary body which never had the numbers to match its ambition to challenge the Stalinist Third International.
Serge supported the POUM, an "independent Marxist" party in Spain which had some illusions about the revolutionary potential of the Popular Front, a cross-class alliance which had the allegiance of most workers but was politically bourgeois-Stalinist.
The timing, the social base and the revolutionary consciousness of the European working class, Serge argued, were not right for Trotsky's vanguard international to lead the struggle in Spain. Trotsky disagreed, labelling Serge a "centrist", a four-star abuse word in the Marxist armoury for someone who vacillates between reform and revolution.
Serge was clearly too naive about the POUM, whereas Trotsky was too optimistic about the prospects for the Fourth International. Their differences over Spain led Serge away from Trotsky.
Political differences over the suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, which resurfaced at this time, also led Serge to emphasise abstract libertarian principles over material context and the hard political decisions posed by the practical issue of class power. Serge began to stress the negative "germs" of Bolshevism. Trotsky, for his part, rather too brusquely tended to dismiss his critics as dilettantes and fair-weather socialists.
Personality differences did not assist in clarifying their political differences. Trotsky's letters reveal traces of what one of Trotsky's sons, Sedov, described as his father's "lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy", characteristics which were heightened during his exile and political isolation. To Trotsky's often petulant mood, Serge appears the more reasonable and generous person.
Yet it is not enough to blame Trotsky's personality (although it did play a part) for their estrangement. Nor can it be explained by the shenanigans (though real) of Stalin's agents in sowing misunderstanding and discord between the two. For Trotsky was, on political essentials, right — on Kronstadt, on the Popular Front and the POUM in Spain. Trotsky speaks of the "pitiless logic" of revolution — where revolution stops short of the conquest and vigorous defence of working-class power, the result is counter-revolution, fascism, military despotism and general carnage.
Serge was gradually shifting away from a classical revolutionary politics. He was under pressure from the big working-class defeats during the '30s and his isolation both from the working-class left currents which were predominantly loyal to Stalin and from Trotsky's band of revolutionaries. Serge declared, shortly before his death in 1947, that "proletarian revolution is no longer to be our aim". He began to take refuge in a primitive libertarianism, adopting the most un-Serge-like view that fear of liberty and of the masses "marks almost the entire course of the Russian Revolution".
The earlier Serge would never have subscribed to such silly right-wing drivel as the original sin theory of Stalinism — that Lenin ate of the Bolshevik apple and democratic socialism was forever damned.
This book of Serge-Trotsky correspondence, swimming in the always less than placid waters of polemic, presents both Serge and Trotsky in a partial and unflattering light. Trotsky's brilliant analytical mind (however wrong on details or on some forecasts) and his organisational genius (however mistaken on the Fourth International) are on limited display, as are Serge's psychological insight and exceptional literary skills in writing the meaning of revolution into the bones and souls of the leaders and humble makers (and betrayers) of revolution.
Too often, the impression left by the book is of two embittered old men arguing over Kronstadt. To be sure, there are lessons to be had from this — how to strike a balance between political necessity and principle without idealising the Bolshevik or any other revolutionary regime — but the Trotsky-Serge contribution to the history and living tradition of socialism has many other pages to it. Serge's novels are real diamonds of left-wing art, and Trotsky's anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist politics are diamond-like in their strength and clarity, even with the occasional flaws of both men.

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