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

Georg Lukács, philosopher of Bolshevism

I’ve posted about Georg Lukács in the past: here, here, and here. Lukács’ excellent polemic against Kautsky, from 1924, was also featured. Though he was denounced in 1924 by the vulgarian Zinoviev, and later forced to recant, the arguments he laid out in History and Class Consciousness, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, and his unpublished rebuttal Tailism and the Dialectic represent a high point in the history of revolutionary thought.

Victor Serge later recalled:

I held Georg Lukács in greatest esteem; indeed, I owe him a great deal. A former university teacher in Budapest, and then commissar to a Red division in the front line, Lukács was a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and possessing a free-ranging and rigorous mind. He was engaged in writing a number of outstanding books that were never to see the light of day. In him I saw a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power. Lukács’ thinking led him to a totalitarian vision of Marxism within which he united all aspects of human life; his theory of the Party could be taken as either superb or disastrous, depending on the circumstances. For example, he considered that since history could not be divorced from politics, it should be written by historians in the service of the Central Committee.

One day we were discussing the problem of whether or not revolutionaries who had been condemned to death should commit suicide; this arose from the execution in 1919 at Budapest of Otto Korvin, who had been in charge of the Hungarian Cheka, and whose hanging afforded a choice spectacle for “society” folk. “I thought of suicide,” said Lukács, “ in the hours when I was expecting to be arrested and hanged with him. I came to the conclusion that I had no right to it: a member o f the Central Committee must set the example.” (I was to meet Georg Lukács and his wife later, in 1928 or 1929, in a Moscow street. He was then working at the Marx-Engels Institute; his books were being suppressed, and he lived bravely in the general fear. Although he was fairly well-disposed towards me, he did not care to shake my hand in a public place, since I was expelled and a known [Left] Oppositionist. He enjoyed a physical survival, and wrote short, spiritless articles in Comintern journals.)

Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre, and Guy Debord would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Lukács. You can download full-text PDFs of his assorted writings below. And then, below that, you can read a brief reflection by Lukács’ fellow Marxist and countryman G.M. Tamás, occasioned by the removal of a statue in Budapest earlier this year.

Writings by Lukács

In English
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  1. Selected Correspondence: Dialogues with Weber, Simmel, Buber, Mannheim, and others (1902-1920)
  2. “The Sociology of Modern Drama” (1909)
  3. Soul and Form (1910)
  4. Theory of the Novel (1914-1915)
  5. “The Old Culture and the New” (1920)
  6. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1920-1923)
  7. Reviews and Articles for Die Rote Fahne (1922)
  8. Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924)
  9. Tailism and the Dialectic (1925-1926)
  10. “Art for Art’s Sake and Proletarian Writing” (1926)
  11. Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays (1919-1929)
  12. The Historical Novel (1937)
  13. Writer and Critic, and Other Essays (1930s-1940s)
  14. Goethe and His Age (1934-1940)
  15. The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (1938/1948)
  16. Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others (1940-1947)
  17. The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition (1945-1948)
  18. “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1948)
  19. German Realists in the Nineteenth Century (1951)
  20. The Destruction of Reason (1952)
  21. “Max Weber and German Sociology” (1955)
  22. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1957)
  23. “Reflections on the Cult of Stalin” (1962)
  24. “On Bertolt Brecht” (1963)
  25. “On Walter Benjamin” (1963)
  26. Essays on Thomas Mann (1963) [1909, 1936, 1948, 1955]
  27. “An Entire Epoch of Inhumanity” (1964)
  28. Solzhenitsyn (1964, 1969)
  29. The Process of Democratization (1968)
  30. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 1: Hegel’s False and His Genuine Ontology (1971, published posthumously)
  31. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 2: Marx’s Basic Ontological Principles (1971, published posthumously)
  32. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 3: Labor (1971, published posthumously)
  33. Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch (1971, published posthumously)
  34. Selected Writings

In other languages
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  1. L’anima e le forme
  2. Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die großen Formen der Epik
  3. Storia e coscienza di classe
  4. La letteratura sovietica
  5. Écrits de Moscou
  6. „Zur philosophischen Entwicklung des jungen Marx (1840-1844)”
  7. Thomas Mann e la tragedia dell’arte moderna
  8. Socialismo e democratização: escritos políticos, 1956-1971
  9. Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins. Die ontologischen Grundprinzipien von Marx

Writings about Lukács

In English
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  1. Victor Zitta, Georg Lukács’ Marxism: Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution — A Study in Utopia and Ideology (1964)
  2. Lucien Goldmann, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (1970)
  3. George Lichtheim, Georg Lukács (1970)
  4. István Mészáros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic (1972)
  5. Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (1976)
  6. Ágnes Heller, “Lukács and The Holy Family (1984)
  7. Constanzo Preve, “Viewing Lukács from the 1980s” (1987)
  8. Tom Rockmore (ed.), Lukács Today: Essays in Marxist Philosophy (1988)
  9. Moishe Postone, “Lukács and the Dialectical Critique of Capitalism” (2003)
  10. Michael J. Thompson (ed.), Lukács Reconsidered (2011)

The neverending Lukács debate

Gáspár Miklós Tamás
LA Review of Books
March 6, 2017
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Before 1914, Lukács’ early works were received with great antipathy by the literary establishment in Hungary; they were found to be too “German” — that is to say, too philosophical, not impressionistic and positivist enough. That was only the beginning, of course; from then on, Lukács would be attacked from the right incessantly, all his life. Lukács didn’t fare much better in leftist circles, either. When his most important book, History and Class Consciousness (1923), came out, it was savaged by both the Second and the Third International. It wasn’t to be republished until the 1960s. Lukács was given an ultimatum: if he wanted to stay in the Party, he had to repudiate the book and subject himself to self-criticism, which is what he eventually did.

He was harshly criticized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soon after he relocated from Vienna to Moscow, Lukács was exiled to Tashkent, and silenced. But in 1945, the Party needed him — or rather, his fame — in Hungary. He agreed to return there rather reluctantly; East Germany was also an option. After the dictatorship was established and consolidated in Hungary in 1947–1948, the “Lukács Debate” was launched in earnest: he was attacked as a “deviationist,” a “bourgeois,” as a man who did not esteem Soviet “socialist realism.” (Truth be told, he was indeed all these things.) He was again silenced, forbidden to teach or publish in Hungarian, but some of his work was smuggled out and printed in West Germany.

In 1956, Lukács was a member of the revolutionary Nagy government. That’s why he was arrested by the Soviet soldiers and temporarily deported to Romania. When he was brought back, he was expelled from the Party, blacklisted, and pensioned off. Once again, he had to smuggle his texts abroad, this time to West Germany, where Luchterhand Verlag began to publish his complete works (a project taken over by Aisthesis Verlag in 2009). A slander campaign was launched against him both in Hungary and in the DDR; he was now condemned as a “revisionist” and, possibly, “counter-revolutionary.” Entire volumes were dedicated to making this case; they were even translated into quite a few languages.

Continue reading

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

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Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
Communism
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)
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Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches. Continue reading