Victor Serge, chronicler of revolution

A week ago, the centenary of the October Revolution came and went. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share the works of one of its most important witnesses and participants. Victor Serge was a Belgian-Russian anarchist who repatriated to Russia shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, joining Lenin and Trotsky in their historic effort to overthrow capitalism. You can download PDFs of Serge’s major works by clicking on the following links:

  1. Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908-1938
  2. Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921
  3. Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany, 1923
  4. “Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?” (1925)
  5. Men in Prison (1929)
  6. Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
  7. Conquered City (1930-1931)
  8. Birth of Our Power (1931)
  9. Midnight in the Century (1936-1938)
  10. From Lenin to Stalin (1937)
  11. Russia Twenty Years After and Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution (1937, 1947)
  12. The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1940-1942)
  13. Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947
  14. Unforgiving Years (1946)
  15. Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (with Natalia Sedova, 1946)
  16. Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1947)
  17. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems

Most of the secondary literature on Serge is comprised of rather short essays, articles, and reviews. The only book-length studies in English are Suzi Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (2001) and Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness: Victor Serge and the Politics of Hope (2013). Hopefully a more Bolshevik book on Serge will appear at some point. Back in 1994, the Trotskyist scholarly journal Revolutionary History dedicated an issue to Serge under the title Century of the Unexpected, which is probably worth checking out.

One of Susan Sontag’s last works, “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” is roughly thirty pages long and appears as the foreword to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, above. Andras Gyorgy’s “But Who, After All, was Victor Serge?” (2008) offers a nice corrective to the aforementioned writings of Sontag and Weissman, both of whom are far more liberal in their politics than Serge ever was. Something similar could be said of Richard Greeman, to be honest, though his translations of Serge redeem him somewhat.

Doug Enaa Greene, an incel Trot historian who hates my guts for some reason, wrote a piece for Red Wedge “Victor Serge: On the Borders of Victory and Defeat” in 2015. Rather pedestrian, on the whole, but nevertheless a serviceable introduction to Serge’s work. Finally, my former teacher Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice review of Serge’s memoirs for The Guardian a few years back. Weissman and others exchanged some critical remarks on Serge in the US socialist magazine Against the Current, which were subsequently compiled and published over at Links.

Philippe Bourrinet’s 2002 essay on Serge, which traces the evolution of his thought vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and relates it concurrent left communist views, is reproduced below. A couple words on this piece: Bourrinet seems to be unfamiliar with Evgenii Preobrazhensky’s concept of “socialist primitive accumulation,” doubtless the source of Serge’s own conception. Obviously, criticisms can and should be made of this notion, but it is not as if it was an original coinage by Serge or an insight into the bloodiness of forced collectivization.

I’ve recently been reading Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1991), which compellingly argues that only the juridical existence of capital was suspended in the USSR while its economic existence remained intact. Serge recognized this fact, Bourrinet alleges, in writing that “where there are wage workers, there is capital.” While I plan to reread the works of Hillel Ticktin to finally determine where I come down on the whole “state capitalism” debate, I must confess I’m more open to this category than previously.

Victor Serge:
Totalitarianism and state capitalism

Philippe Bourrinet
Collective Action
January 1, 2002
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Night heralds the advent of a morning so radiant and so full of promise we cannot even conceive of it.

Let us not be discouraged.

— Victor Serge

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Russia’s transition towards a relative democratization, based on a private capitalist sector, poses three questions: how did so-called “Soviet totalitarianism” take power and endure for such a long time, only to finally collapse; how was it that the transition from state capitalism, which some have called “collectivist planned economy,” to a private capitalist sector was so easily accomplished; and also how can a socialist alternative for the twenty-first century1 be realized that responds to the needs of a new autonomous social movement whose goal is to free man from his economic and political chains.

Victor Serge’s testimony is of unique value for the new social movement for the purpose of addressing these crucial questions in the wake of the disappearance of Stalinism. Victor Serge has bequeathed a valuable legacy to succeeding generations. His works, both political and literary, and his talents, constitute a rich mine for understanding the origin of totalitarianism in Russia as well as how its economic infrastructure functioned for almost seventy years.

Defining totalitarianism and state capitalism

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Beginning in the 1930s, Serge would make frequent use of the term “totalitarian” in his writings.

The term originated among the Italian antifascists, although the fascists also used it. In 1925 Mussolini proclaimed the “fierce totalitarian will” of his regime. Totalitarianism was above all the total absorption of civil society by the state, which, of course, the fascists defined as no longer capitalist. According to Mussolini himself, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”2 Hitler’s accession to power, which installed a racist totalitarianism where the state was the embodiment of the will of the Leader (Führer) lastingly impressed the notion of totalitarianism on antifascist literature. Continue reading