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


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

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

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.

  1. Serge, at the time of the victory of Stalinism, was one of the first writers to use the term “totalitarianism” to describe the Soviet state formed in 1918. In a letter he sent from Moscow to friends in France in February 1933, Serge stated that the Soviet state was a “totalitarian, caste-ridden, absolute, power-mad state that does not care about human beings.”3 At that time Serge identified himself as a member of the Left Opposition, with whose positions he substantially agreed. Trotsky, who characterized the Soviet state as a “degenerated workers state,” defined the same state in September 1939 as a “totalitarian state” that — so he said — “was incapable of self-perpetuation.”4
    ….The concept of totalitarianism gained widespread currency during the war. In the middle of the war the former Austrian communist, Franz Borkenau, published a book entitled The Totalitarian Enemy in which he characterized Russia as a “red fascism” and Nazi Germany as a “brown bolshevism.”5 The same idea was set forth by the council communist Otto Rühle who, along with Karl Liebknecht, had voted against war credits in the German Reichstag in 1915. Rühle, in a work with the suggestive title Brown and Red Fascism, claimed that totalitarianism was nothing but a universal tendency towards state capitalism, which was especially highly developed in Russia and Germany. According to him, there was an “internal convergence of the tendencies toward state capitalism” in these two countries, “a structural, organizational, tactical and dynamic identity, whose result was the political pact and joint military action.”6 This idea had also arisen among the deported and imprisoned members of the Russian communist left. The young “democratic centralist” (Sapronov’s tendency) Volodia Smirnov said during the early 1930s that “communism is an extremist fascism, fascism a moderate communism,” and claimed that the world was heading towards a new social form: state capitalism.7
  2. The possibility of state capitalism in Russia was entertained quite early; Osinski first did so in 1918.8 He said that “Socialism and socialist organization must be built by the proletariat itself, otherwise it will not be built at all; something else will arise: state capitalism.”
    ….It was the anarchists and left communists (whom we can refer to as council communists) who first defined Russia as a capitalist state where the state organically controls all economic life as a collective body.
    ….In a work published in 1921, The Failure of Russian State Communism,9 the German anarcho-syndicalist “leader” Rudolf Rocker concluded his essay with a call for “socialism, not state capitalism.”10 At about the same time the Dutch and German left communists (the KAPD, Gorter and Pannekoek) proclaimed in 1921 that “the soviet and proletarian Russia of Red October is beginning to be transformed into a bourgeois state.”11 And the Russian anarchist Peter Arshinov noted in 1927: “There can be no doubt that the ‘historic mission’ of the Bolshevik party has been emptied of all content and that it will try to lead the Russian revolution to its final goal: state capitalism…”12

Curiously, for other left communists, those who upheld the tradition of Lenin and Bordiga such as the Italian left communists in exile associated with the journal Bilan, Russia was still a “workers’ state” with a collectivist economic foundation. The Russian state, although not capitalist, was in fact an instrument of the international bourgeoisie due to its integration into the world market.13

All these positions, whether addressing totalitarianism or state capitalism, were attempts to discover the “secret” of Russia’s evolution under Lenin and Stalin and to create an explanatory theoretical framework for its comprehension. Victor Serge — and Ante Ciliga14 — tried to understand this development from the inside, based on their own experiences living under Stalinism. The other positions tried to understand the Russian Enigma (Ciliga) from the outside by situating Russia’s history within an international context, where a tendency towards state capitalism was evident.15

Serge and the question of “totalitarianism”

Serge’s concept of “totalitarianism” was the fruit of his political trajectory, which followed a course from anarchism to a kind of “libertarian Leninism.” According to Serge himself, as he explicitly states in his autobiography, he never abandoned the vision of a libertarian world, as opposed to a Jacobin vision of the revolution. On April 1, 1918, while interned in the French concentration camp of Précigné (in the Department of la Sarthe), Serge was not dreaming of a dictatorship that would crush freedom of the press and of expression, which is what the Bolshevik Krauterkrafft was advocating, but of a “libertarian, democratic revolution — minus the hypocrisy and the passivity of the bourgeois democracies — egalitarian, tolerant of ideas and of men, that would use terror if necessary, but which would abolish the death penalty.” “From a theoretical point of view, we stated these problems very badly; certainly the Bolshevik put them better than we. From the human point of view, we were infinitely nearer the truth than he was. We saw in the power of the soviets the realization of our deepest hopes as he did also.”16

Had he revised his vision almost thirty years later? Of course not: there is a libertarian continuity in Serge, even during his “Bolshevik” period. In February-March 1919, he immediately put himself at the service of the Petrograd Soviet and, above all, of the newly-founded Comintern, where he played an important role in translating and publishing Russian texts. He joined the Bolshevik Party, which he supported but also criticized, “without renouncing thought or critical sense.”17 He was at that time considered a “sovietski” anarchist. The creation of the Cheka, “a state within the state,” froze Serge’s blood and he devoted a great deal of his time to attempts to help the innocent get out of prison or avoid the firing squad.18 Prior to Kronstadt, Serge denounced the repression of the Russian anarchists in 1920; his articles on this topic were published only by the French anarchist press. He clearly proclaimed his hostility towards all dictatorial authority: “I am and I always will be an inveterate antiauthoritarian.”19

When the Kronstadt Rebellion broke out at the same time that the strikes in Petrograd were taking place, Serge acted as a “mediator” between the government and the insurgents, and was the only one who was not arrested, mostly because of his reputation as a militant in the French workers movement. It appears that Serge had his doubts. He thought that if the “Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the Communists, the return of the émigrés and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian.”20 For him the peasant uprisings such as that of Tambov were new “Vendées.” According to Serge, it was another Thermidor which, moreover, was already predicted by Lenin, who said: “We shall make a Thermidor ourselves.”21 Serge emphasized the internationalism of the Kronstadt rebels and informs us that the imprisoned sailors shouted “Long live the world revolution” as they were being shot.22

Although Kronstadt opened up “an unbridgeable gap between Marxists and libertarians,”23 Serge still participated in the Comintern’s Third Congress. Sent to Germany in 1923, he witnessed — as an editor of Inprekorr — the fiasco of the planned October insurrection. In Vienna, where he was in contact with Gramsci and Lukács, he became a fervent advocate of the idea of a Balkan Federation and contributed to its journal. He defended the positions of the Left Opposition on the revolutionary events in China in 1927.24

As a member of the Trotskyist opposition, Serge was excluded from the Bolshevik Party in early 1928. Later that same year he was arrested, then deported to central Asia from 1933 to 1936, when he was finally able to make a miraculous escape from the “country of the great lie” thanks to an intense international campaign.

After his break with Trotsky in 1937-1938 over the issue of Kronstadt and his membership in the Spanish POUM, Serge assumed an orientation that led him to view the totalitarian system as a new historical phenomenon.

It is important to note that this view would be subjected to further consideration during the war, and also as a result of contact with an old POUM leader in Mexico, Julián Gorkin. It would even acquire a personalist philosophical guise under the influence of Emmanuel Mounier,25 and a touch of social psychology due to the influence of Erich Fromm.26

We may use the definition of totalitarianism provided by the American political scientists Friedrich and Brzezinski: “rule by a mass party led by a charismatic leader, an official ideology, the monopoly of armed force, terroristic police control, centralized control over the economy.”27

For Serge, reconsidering the phenomenon in 1945, totalitarianism crystallized between 1927 and 1930. He defined it negatively as:

  • a state run by the secret police and based on concentration camps full of deportees and prisoners condemned without trial;
  • a one-party regime;
  • the absence of “basic democratic freedoms”: freedom of the press and of expression; the lack of free elections and the secret vote.28

It is logical to expect, however, that such a phenomenological analysis, articulated for the most part at the beginning of the cold war, should be quite limited and that it cannot account for the real nature of the regime, i.e., its purpose. As Vadim V. Dam’e and Ja. S. Drabkin have demonstrated, it is debatable whether this concept used so casually, even by Serge, is at all relevant, since Serge sometimes dates the advent of totalitarianism to Stalin, but at other times to the formation of the Cheka under Lenin, before the Bolshevik Party was Stalinized.

It is therefore legitimate to ask whether the problem of totalitarianism should be grasped not only in its political dimension (ideological superstructure) but also in its economic dimension (material infrastructure) and its purpose. This is the issue highlighted today by Dam’e and Drabkin in Russia: “In the 1920s, the party leadership faced a historic choice: renounce power and postpone industrial modernization until better times or instead try to carry it out by violent means … This sui generis catch-up modernization was financed by the looting of the countryside, by a very low level of pay in the cities (between 1928 and 1940) that caused the real buying power of wages to be reduced by two-thirds while the productivity of labor more than tripled, by the export of raw materials and grain, by an increase in taxes, by printing massive quantities of currency, by the obligatory purchase of state bonds and by the expansion of alcohol sales. (…) Within thirty years all this made possible a massive expropriation of the countryside and the cities, the proletarianization of the majority of the population and the creation of a sui generis structure of industrial society without private capital and without bourgeoisie, which was called socialist.”29

Economic planning and state capitalism

Modestly, but with great literary talent, Serge above all tried to contribute elements for reflection in the form of precise facts that say much more than “facts are stubborn,” to borrow an expression of Lenin’s.

Serge’s work Destiny of a Revolution: The USSR 1917-193730 contains some essential elements that underpin his concept of a “totalitarian collectivism” on the economic plane. Like Trotsky,31 he had no doubt at all that a socialist economy was emerging which — according to him — was assuming a revolutionary dimension: he saluted “the titanic labors undertaken between 1917 and 1923-1927” that “constitute a powerful testimony to the revolutionary capacities of the workers and the vitality of socialism.”32 For him, total collectivization was the conquest of the socialization of the means of production: he opposed its “extraordinary power” to classical capitalism wracked by crisis.33 He even characterized it as “the bold outline of a transformation of man,” carried out by a state that is “at the moment the most virile in existence.”34 For Serge, this collectivization-“socialization” was such a “socialist” reality that even in his memoirs written during the war he thought that a “capitalist restoration was not foreseeable” in Russia.35

Serge did not have the economic or theoretical training that would have made it possible for him to address these new phenomena. His political apprenticeship was not truly Marxist, and it seems that what he knew of Marxism came from the Bolshevik theories of Lenin and Trotsky that he translated into French. It appears that he was unaware of certain writings, such as Engels’ discussion of the monopolistic concentration of the state to a point where the latter becomes “the ideal collective capitalist.”36 Serge would die without having given any indication of having heard of the left communist theories concerning state capitalism. While in exile he had practically no contact with those elements of the Russian left who analyzed the system as state capitalist. He considered himself to be a member of the “revisionist” camp among the Oppositionists, “who maintained that all ideas, as well as all recent history, should be reviewed from top to bottom,” whom he contrasted with the “doctrinaires,” some of whom were “followers of the theory that the USSR was establishing state capitalism.”37

Nor did he ever mention in any of his writings the conceptions of the Russian libertarians — concerning which he was quite well informed — or those of other currents regarding state capitalism, conceptions which had been articulated at approximately the same time as those of the “ultra-leftists.”

The only economic reference point Serge seemed to have was that of his friend Lucien Laurat who, following in the footsteps of the Belgian Henri de Man, advocated a “real planned economy,” which he contrasted to the Soviet “mixed economy,” which was less profitable than the classical capitalist sector.38

Serge’s writings nonetheless contribute — by way of the economic data he supplies — elements for a plausible interpretation of the Soviet economy as a form of state capitalism.

Serge provides extremely important data concerning the collectivizations, showing that the workers had to produce more and consume as little as the minimum required for the physiological reproduction of their labor power. Wages, the form of variable capital — “where there are wage workers, there is capital,” and where there is a proletariat there is capital, Marx held39 — underwent a significant decrease in relation to the wage levels of 1914.40

His observations concerning forced labor in the camps and factories are biased, although they do testify to an awareness of the phenomenon. He also took note of the anti-worker legislation of 1932 that decreed the death penalty for stealing state property, as well as the 1935 law subjecting minors to the death penalty. All of these practices were, moreover, used in precapitalist England. It must be recalled that, in England at the beginning of the Victorian era, workers were imprisoned in workhouses and the courts sentenced children to the gallows for stealing a loaf of bread.

At one point Serge suggests that Stalinism in fact corresponds to a primitive accumulation of capital: “How can one forget ( … ) the pages in Capital where Marx describes the merciless mechanism of socialist primitive accumulation. We are tempted to speak of a socialist primitive accumulation just as cruel, as well as antisocial due to its methods and the mistreatment it inflicts on man. But we are far from finished.”41

It is a curious lapse of Serge’s, where the capitalist accumulation analyzed by Marx in Capital is transformed into “socialist” accumulation.

One very important point in Serge is his observation concerning the birth of a true war economy, not connected to any particular theory.42

During the war Serge developed the theoretical framework that allowed him to explain the phenomenon of “totalitarian collectivism.” In 1944, in an unpublished work entitled Planned Economy and Democracy,43 Serge discovered similarities between the Nazi planned economy and Stalinist collectivization, both of which developed “within the national framework… which is autarchic.”44 Likewise, in Planned Economy and Democracy he considers — as did Otto Rühle — the possibility of a general tendency towards state capitalism, by way of nationalizations and state enterprises that “would temporarily allow them to respond to the needs of reconstruction,”45 but which have nothing to do with the real socialization of the means of production.

Finally, shortly before his death, Serge seemed to think that totalitarian “bureaucratic collectivism” of the Russian variety had in fact become a new form of imperialism of a political kind,46 characterized by integration into the Soviet Russian sphere of influence.

One searches Serge’s works in vain for an analysis of the class nature of the bureaucracy, situated at the head of what he defined as a “collectivist totalitarianism.” Only in 1941, under the influence of James Burnham, a Trotskyist dissident who formulated the theory of the “managerial revolution,”47 would Serge define the bureaucracy as a social class of managers which “will tend to crystallize into a class and monopolize power.”48 Was it a “new class,” as Bruno Rizzi maintained in 1939,49 or was it a bureaucratic form of the bourgeoisie that can be understood in the context of its underdevelopment and shortage of capital, as it attempted to accelerate the course of history by barbarous means50 in order to escape its backwardness? Serge was unable to answer this question, as death prevented him from doing so.

A philosophy of man’s collective existence

In his conception of the socialist revolution Victor Serge never conceived of himself as an individualist, but as a “collectivist.” But his collectivism had nothing in common with a dictatorial concept of the revolution: it was not based on the dissolution of the individual into an abstract collective. For Serge it was a matter of rediscovering man’s personality. Unlike classical socialism, which was based on an “overly-simplistic conception of man,” one that was completely oblivious to psychology,51 Serge appears to have been aware of the vital necessity of taking advantage of new philosophical concepts as well as psychology (Erich Fromm, Karl Mannheim, Bruno Bettelheim) and personalism. He writes in his Memoirs: “I do not think of myself as at all an ‘individualist’; rather as a ‘personalist’ in that I view human personality as a supreme value, only integrated in society and in history.”52 Serge speaks of the “dignity of man” in his essay “Psychology and Socialism.”53

Socialism is not the death of humanism, as some have proclaimed (such as the French philosopher Althusser), but its true beginning. It is then, towards a humanist philosophy that Serge’s last works pointed. A classic humanist philosophy, but one that was lost in the totalitarian perversion of socialism:

Defense of man. Respect for man. Man must be given his rights, his security, his value. Without these, there is no socialism…

Defense of the truth.

Defense of thought… It is not against freedom of thought and against man that Socialism can triumph, but on the contrary, through freedom of thought and by

improving man’s condition.54

These principles defended by Serge are not mere humanist declarations, but possess concrete implications for any socialist revolution in which man is not a simple tool of power but the very goal of the revolution:

  • The rejection of the use of terror or of any inquisition which, as Serge recalls, correspond to feelings of fear, to the intoxication of power, to ill-feeling and mistrust among the revolutionary masses;55
  • The radical abolition of the death penalty, even against enemies who still practice it, so as not to fall into a spiral of terror and counter-terror that is the justification for every dictatorship and therefore for the abolition of the most elementary freedoms;
  • Freedom of expression. Rosa Luxemburg called it the “freedom for the one who thinks differently,”56 which implies the categorical rejection of any idea of just one Party and therefore of just one way of thinking;
  • Man is not merely an economic instrument for the benefit of raising production figures, but a political being who consciously constructs his future;
  • “The formation of assemblies really elected on the basis of freedom of opinion,” or non-manipulated workers councils;
  • The establishment not of an arbitrary despotism but of a real socialist legal system, which prevents the formation of all despotism.57

For Serge, all these measures correspond to the real philosophy of socialist democracy, which cannot exist without democratic liberties. Democracy, so vilified by the Jacobin theoreticians of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” is not a weapon in the hands of the enemy, but the result of a society composed of persons.

What was most important to Serge with regard to a reevaluation of socialism was the subject of “autonomous thought.”58 This presupposes, and it is here that we reencounter the libertarian Serge, freedom from any boss, from any master, who would deprive the militant and the exploited of all responsibility, all initiative and any liberating doubts about established ideological certainties. On this point, as well, Serge situates himself in the Marxist tradition, that of Rosa Luxemburg, who asserted that the real meaning of the socialist movement was “the abolition of ‘leaders’ and the ‘led’ masses in the bourgeois sense.”59

Serge was nonetheless cautious; he did not ignore the existence of the seeds of irrationality — which were manifested in totalitarianism — that propaganda could utilize to curb and destroy all rationality in the consciousness of the exploited. He took note of the failure of classical socialism, and called for “an always-conscious proletariat.” He spoke sympathetically of the socialist thought of Rosa Luxemburg and of Herman Gorter, where they offered grounds for hope concerning the “spontaneity of the masses,” even if only exceptional, and he advocated an educational effort directed at the masses. He nonetheless emphasized the malleability of the intelligence and the feelings of the masses who were capable of acting against their own interests, and paying the price of a regression of their consciousness.60

Serge did not speak of “building” socialism, since the latter is not reducible to simple economic plans and abstract numbers. It was above all a matter of knowing who is behind these plans, who profits from them and towards what goals they are directed, towards those of humanity or towards a barbarism that does not speak its name: “Planning for whom? For what goal?”61

During his last years Serge avoided the use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” since its thoughtless use disguised the worst dictatorship, exercised over the proletariat. He preferred to speak of man, of whom the proletariat is the nucleus of his transformation. Does this mean, as some have held, that Serge yielded to the temptation of a pure philosophical humanism of abstract man and that, thereafter, he thought that this humanism had to be a philosophy of “human rights” in opposition to totalitarianism, as was later to be the case during the cold war?

It is necessary to undertake a modern reading of Victor Serge with regard to these questions. For Serge, the problem of emancipation and liberation from all economic and political chains affects not just the proletariat, in the classical sense of the industrial proletariat, which is in the minority, but also the immense majority, whom Serge designated as the “humble.” For Serge, “human rights” did not signify a formal juridical cloak over abstract democratic rights. Serge’s humanism is revolutionary, not liberal, as has been pointed out.62 “Liberal humanism” comes from the expansion of free exchange, the simple recognition of the right of survival in a totalitarian world economy (“globalization”), which is opposed to man’s existence.63 For Serge humanism is a universal problem, that of divided man who must discover his unity by means of a liberating economic and political project, that of the unity of a really humanized world.


Throughout his life, through his political commitment and his activity as a writer, Serge remained a revolutionary.

Victor Serge was not a theoretician, but a witness of his time. His perspective on the totalitarianism and the economic system of the old Soviet Union was inconsistent and required another step for a more profound reflection. Death interrupted this reflection that had begun to consider the nature and the function of the Russian system.

In fact, Serge accomplished a labor of deconstruction — to borrow the concept of the philosopher Derrida — of all the certainties, of any trace of the ideologization of social reality. Marxist and libertarian at the same time, Serge never wanted to stagnate in rigid theoretical frameworks, and this afforded him the freedom of unconstrained thought.

His humanist reflection reminds us that man does not live on bread alone, and still less on the statistical figures of a plan. In Serge one finds the idea that through the struggles of the workers, of the “humble” and the exploited, man is at the center of any real social project for transforming the existing world.

This philosophy of man, which entails the ethical demand for the self-emancipation of all of humanity,64 is not a philosophy of the individual. Serge’s philosophy is not a liberal anti-totalitarianism (like that of “globalization”), which conceals a destructive totalitarian economy, but an emancipatory “collectivism.” Socialization, or “collectivism,” is not an abstract totality that creates a schizophrenic being, as in totalitarianism; it is inscribed in the always-open hope for the formation of a global collective existence.


Translated from the Spanish translation by
Margarita Díaz. Source: Online Edition,
Andreu Nin Foundation, March 2002.


* Letter from Victor Serge to Jean-Paul Samson (June 1940), in Jean-Paul Samson, Journal de l’an quarante, Témoins, Spring 1967, pg. 124.
1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. (Michael Joseph: London, 1994.
2 Mussolini, Opera Omnia, XXI; La Fenice, Florence, 1967. Quoted by Enzo Traverso, Le Totalitarisme, Le XXe Siècle en Débat, Le Seuil, Paris, 2001. Texts selected and introduced by Enzo Traverso.
3 Letter from Serge to his friends, under the title “Victor Serge is Deported,” in The Masses, № 8, pg. 17, July-August 1933.
4 Trotsky, “L’URSS dans la guerre,” September 25, 1939, in Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism: The USSR, Marxism, and Bureaucracy, pg. 115, EDI, Paris, 1972. (Preface by Pierre Naville, introduction by Jean-Jacques Marie).
5 Franz Borkenau, The Totalitarian Enemy, Faber and Faber, London, 1940. The expression “red fascism” was not his invention; it was first used by the Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri in his book La Controrivoluzione Preventiva (Cappelli, Bologna, 1922).
6 Otto Rühle, “Fascisme Brun, Fascisme Rouge,” Spartacus, Paris, Oct.-Nov. 1975, pg. 6. According to Paul Mattick (“Otto Rühle and the German Labour Movement”), the theory of the universal tendency towards state capitalism was formulated by Rühle in the book he published under the pseudonym of Carl Steuermann, La Crise Mondiale ou Vers le Capitalisme d’Etat, NRF, Paris, 1932.
7 Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, Ink Links, 1979. On Ciliga’s career, see pg. Bourrinet, An Ambiguous Journey: Ante Ciliga (1898-1992), translated by George Gordon, 1993; online at www.left-dis website.
8 Nikolai Osinski, “O stroitel’stve sotsialisma,” in Kommunist: Organ Moskovskogo Oblastnogo Bjuro RKP (Bol’shevikov), № 1, April 20, 1918, and № 2, April 27, 1918. A German translation can be found in Arbeiterdemokratie oder Parteidiktatur, Vol. 1, DTV, Munich, 1972: N. Osinsk[y], “Uber den Aufbau des Sozialismus,” pg. 111.
9 Rudolph Rocker, “Les Soviets Trahis par les Bolcheviks,” in La Faillité du Communisme d’État, Spartacus, Paris, May-June 1973.
10 Ibid., pg. 92.
11 Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) pamphlet, Die Sowjetregierung und die 3. Internationale im Schlepptau der Internationalen Bourgeoisie!, Berlin, Verlag KAPD, 1921. Numerous quotations from this pamphlet and from the political current that published it can be found in Philippe Bourrinet, La Gauche Communiste Germano-Hollandaise des Origines a 1968, Editions left-dis, Zoetermeer (Netherlands), 1999. Selected chapters from this work, newly-revised by the author and translated into English, are now (December 2008) available on the website www.left-dis.
12 Peter Arshinov, “Dva Oktiabriya,” in Delo Truda, № 29, October 1927; a French translation can be found in Les Anarchistes Russes et les Soviets, Spartacus, Feb.-Mar. 1973, pgs. 194-195. In English: “The Two Octobers,” tr. Nick Heath, Libertarian Communist Review, № 1, Winter 1976.
13 See Ricardo Tacchinardi and Arturo Peregalli, L’URSS e i Teorici del Capitalismo di Stato, Piero Lacciata Editore, Manduria-Bari-Roma, 1990; and Philippe Bourrinet, Le Courant “Bordiguiste” 1919-1999: Italie, France, et Belgique, Ed. Left-dis, Zoetermeer (Netherlands), 2000.
14 Boris Souvarine (under the pseudonym Panaït Istrati), Vers l’autre Flamme, la Russie Nue, Les Éditions Rieder, Paris, 1929.
15 A comprehensive study as well as an almost exhaustive account of the different concepts of the mode of production in Russia under Lenin, Stalin, and the post-1953 era can be found in the important book by Marcel Van der Linden, Von der Oktoberrevolution zur Perestroika, der Westliche Marxismus und die Sowjetunion, Dip-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1992.
16 Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901-1941, translated by Peter Sedgwick, Oxford University Press, London, 1963.
17 Ibid., pg. 76.
18 Ibid., pg. 80.
19 “Lettres de Russie,” Le Libertaire, November 7, 1920 and Le Soviet, January 15 and May 1, 1921. For Serge’s view of anarchism circa 1920-1921, see his pamphlet, Les anarchistes et l’expérience de la révolution russe, Ed. De la Bibliothèque du Travail, Paris, 1921, where he tries to show that there were few points of disagreement between Bolsheviks and anarchists. For a study of Serge’s relation to anarchism, see Luc Nemeth, “Victor Serge et les anarchistes,” in Victor Serge, vie et œuvre d’un révolutionnaire, Papers submitted to a symposium organized by the Institute of Sociology of the Brussels Free University, March 21-23, 1991, Socialisme, № 226-227, July-October 1991, Brussels, pgs. 282-291.
20 Memoirs, pg. 129.
21 Ibid., pg. 131. Concerning the impact of the bourgeois revolution of 1789 on the ideological imagination of the Bolsheviks, see Tamara Kondratieva, Bolcheviks et Jacobins, itinéraires des analogies, Payot, Paris, 1989. And see also Claudio Sergio Ingerflom, Le citoyen impossible. Les racines russes du léninisme, Payot, Paris, 1988.
22 Memoirs, pg. 131.
23 Ibid., pg. 153.
24 Victor Serge, La révolution chinoise 1927-1929, Savelli, Paris, 1977 (with an introduction by Pierre Naville).
25 “Correspondence between Victor Serge and Emmanuel Mounier (1940-1947),” Bulletin des amis d’Emmanuel Mounier, № 39, Paris, April 1972.
26 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Farrar & Rinehart, 1945.
27 Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1956. On the question of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, is infinitely more relevant due to the profundity of its philosophical reflections on politics.
28 Victor Serge, “Les forces démocratiques en URSS,” 1945, in Le nouvel impérialisme russe. L’Europe au Carrefour: renaissance ou totalitarisme, Cahiers Spartacus mensualisés, № 13, January 1947, pg. 33.
29 Vadim Dam’e and Ja. Drabkin, “Le phénomène totalitaire,” in Marc Ferro, Nazisme et communisme. Deux régimes dans le siècle, Hachette Littératures, Paris, 1999, pgs. 167-179 (partial translation of an article from the book edited by Drabkin and Komolova, Totalitarizm v Evrope XX. Veka iz istorii ideologij, Moscow, 1996.
30 Destiny of a Revolution, Jarrolds, London, 1937. Originally published in French as Destin d’une révolution, URSS 1917-1937, Grasset, Paris, 1937.
31 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936. “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Capital, but in an economic zone comprising one-sixth of the earth’s surface; not in the language of dialectics, but in that of steel, cement, and electricity,” (pg. 449). In the same book, the author states: “The USSR is an intermediate society between capitalism and socialism,” quoted in Trotsky, De la révolution, Les éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1963, pg. 606.
32 Serge, op. cit., pg. 319 (French edition).
33 Ibid., pg. 323.
34 Ibid., pg. 319.
35 Ibid., pg. 322.
36 Engels, Anti-Dühring, Editions socials, Paris, 1971, pg. 315.
37 Memoirs, pg. 308.
38 Lucien Laurat (pseudonym of Otto Maschl, 1898-1973), Economie dirige et socialisation, L’Églantine, Paris-Brussels, 1934, pgs. 234-237. In his unpublished Souvenirs (Xeroxed copy at the Library of Social History at Nanterre), covering the years 1920-1928, Laurat occasionally mentions his friend Serge, whose works he quotes. See also Boris Souvarine’s journal, Est et Ouest, № 515, September 1973, “Mémoires d’un planiste (1932-1939),” pgs. 381-386.
39 In Capital Marx defines the proletariat as follows: “By proletariat, in the economic sense, one must understand the wage worker who produces capital and creates value; he is thrown on the street as soon as he is of no use for capital’s appetite for surplus value.”
40 Destin d’une révolution, pgs. 17 and 22. Serge discerns a very steep reduction in the real wage as a result of the revaluation of the ruble in 1934-1935.
41 Ibid., pgs. 202-203.
42 Ibid., pg. 297.
43 Victor Serge, Économie dirige et démocratie, manuscript, pg. 4. An English translation can be found in Revolutionary History, Vol. 5, № 3, London 1994, “Planned Economies and Democracy,” pgs. 177-196.
44 Ibid., pg. 4 (French manuscript).
45 Serge, op. cit., Revolutionary History, Vol. 5, № 3, London, 1994, pg. 183.
46 Serge, “L’URSS actuelle un régime socialiste?”, Masses, Paris, 1947.
47 James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, John Day Company, New York, 1941.
48 Victor Serge, “What is Fascism?”, in Partisan Review, Vol. VIII, № 5, Sept.-Oct. 1941, pg. 420. Quoted by Suzi Weissman, “Serge Reflects on Stalinism,” in Victor Serge, vie et œuvre d’un révolutionnaire. Papers submitted to a symposium organized by the Institute of Sociology of the Brussels Free University, March 21-23, 1991, Socialisme № 226-227, July-October 1991, Brussels.
49 Bruno Rizzi, La bureaucratisation du monde (La propriété de classe), Paris, 1939. Reprinted in 1976 by Champ Libre, Paris, under the title L’URSS: collectivisme bureaucratique: La Bureaucratisation du Monde, Part One.
50 Modern Quarterly, № 1, 1938. For Mattick, state capitalism “does not correspond to a new stage of capitalism, but is the index of the decline of the capitalist world. The tendency towards bolshevization and fascism is the political expression of the stagnation and decline of the capitalist system: it is barbarism.”
51 Victor Serge, “Socialisme et psychologie,” March 1947, Masses: Socialisme et Liberté, № 11, October-November 1947, pgs. 17-22. English translation: “Socialism and Psychology,” in Modern Review, Vol. 1, № 3, May 1947, pgs. 194-202.
52 Memoirs, pg. 371.
53 Serge, op. cit., pg. 22.
54 Letter to his friends in Paris, February 1933, quoted in Memoirs, pgs. 282-283.
55 Victor Serge, “Socialisme et psychologie,” March 1947, in Masses: Socialisme et Liberté, № 11, October-November 1947, pg. 20.
56 “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.” Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, pg. 69.
57 “Les forces démocratiques en URSS,” 1945, pg. 33, in Le nouvel impérialisme russe, January 1947.
58 Victor Serge, “Socialisme et psychologie,” March 1947, in Masses: Socialisme et Liberté, № 11, October-November 1947, pg. 20.
59 Rosa Luxemburg, “Espoirs de çus,” Die Neue Zeit, 1903-1904, № 2, published in French under the title “Masses et chefs,” in Marxisme contre dictature, Cahiers Spartacus № 7, July 1946, pg. 37.
60 “Socialisme et psychologie,” pg. 21.
61 Victor Serge, “GAT is Fascism?”, in Partisan Review, Vol. VIII, № 5, Sept.-Oct. 1941, pgs. 420-421.
62 Bill Marshall, “Victor Serge et la ‘pensée 68’,” pg. 455, in Victor Serge, vie et œuvre d’un révolutionnaire, op. cit. Papers submitted to a symposium organized by the Institute of Sociology of the Brussels Free University, March 21-23, 1991, Socialisme, № 226-227, Brussels, July-October 1991.
63 Raoul Vaneigem, Déclaration des droits de l’être humain: De la souveraineté de la vie comme dépassement des droits de l’homme, Le Cherche Midi, Paris, 2001, pgs. 7-8: “The history of the freedoms bestowed upon man has always been confused until now with the history of the freedoms bestowed by man upon the economy… The rights of man are not particular extensions of a single right, that of surviving with the sole purpose of working to perpetuate a totalitarian economy, which has been falsely imposed as the sole means of survival for the human species… To the extent that the economy of exploitation has extended its totalitarian enterprise over the entire world, it has attained an autonomous mode of existence, where the reproduction of speculative capital is sufficient to maintain its existence and, ultimately, enables it to escape the control of men…”
64 Maximilien Rubel, “Utopie et révolution,” 1965, in Marx critique du marxisme, Petite Bibliothèque Payot, Paris, 1974, pg. 424: “Socialism is a historic necessity to the extent that it is understood and desired as an ethical demand.”


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