Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guest Post: Victor Serge- Memoirs of a Revolutionary

This little composition is not intended to be a recapitulation of the historic and biographic content that was eloquently disposed onto the pages of Serge's memoir. So though this review may appear to be on a work of belletristic nature, it is only because it is the aesthetic properties of his memoir that I found to be particularly profound. The francophonic author, born in Belgium, had joined the Bolshevik party after his arrival in Russia, which was only a short time after the October revolution of 1917. His experiences within the Soviet borders are largely what are expounded upon in the work. After the death of Lenin, he joined the Trotskyist/Left Opposition camp of Soviet politics in disgust of Stalin (though even broke relations with that movement over disagreements regarding the Krondstadt uprising and the role of the Cheka), which ultimately led to his arrest (he was eventually able to obtain a visa allowing him and his immediate family to depart from the Soviet Union, unfortunately the rest of his friends and family died in prisons and gulags).

Serge beautifully narrates in his memoirs a despondent environment but coupled it with a reluctant, but still, sanguine attitude. His memoirs are a reflection of an immensely complex personality, an extremely moral character, and above everything else, a genuine and categorical humanist. A piece of romanticism that really could melt the hardest of hearts, it puts the transcendentalists to shame! Throughout his memoirs, Serge recollects from his childhood, through the tumultuous beginning of the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazis moving through Europe. Solemnly, he describes the transition of many of his comrades shift from romantic idealists to brutal pragmatists. In contrast, it is also a tribute to his comrades who would sooner give up their lives than their principles, friend after friend, comrade after comrade, their lives prove to be nothing more than ephemeral, giving way to suicide, to execution, to illness, to starvation, to madness. Serge struggled internally with the concept of violence, with his utmost priority focused on humanity, he defended the initial revolutionary violence, but as he witnessed the ideology descend into bleak and brutal nihilism, he broke relations with all his former comrades, including Trotsky, who he affectionately referred to as "Old Man".

I beyond recommend this piece of literature, it is a must read for everyone.

Some closing words from Serge himself, of what he learned from his direct and personal experiences:
"What can I say that is at all essential, to these forty faces gathered together in the twilight between sky and sea, and blending with the stars? I have a faint inkling of what is really essential: that we have not lost after all, that we have lost only for the moment…It is no longer the revolutionaries who are making the world's tremendous revolution; it is the tyrannies that have set it going, it is the actual technique of the modern world that is breaking brutally with the past and throwing the peoples of entire continents into the necessity for starting life afresh on new foundations. That these foundations must be of social justice, of rational organization, of respect for the individual, of liberty, is for me a wonderfully evident fact which, little by little, is asserting itself beyond the inhumanity of the present time. The future seems to me full of possibilities greater than any we have glimpsed throughout the past. May the passion, the experience and even the faults of my fighting generation have some small power to illumine the way forward!"


1 comment:

Sjörövare said...

When I read Serge, I'd meant to write up a post, but never did. The following are my disconnected notes:

Serge believed the creation of the Cheka was the greatest mistake of the revolution. Abolition of the death penalty and free and open trials would have been infinitely better.
Still, with the blockades, the interventions, the plots, and Kolchak burning Red prisoners alive at Ufa, who would have done better? (Before Lenin published his decree ending the Terror, the Chekists "liquidated their stock.")

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Serge's book is the memorial to the forgotten, erased individuals who made the Revolution, and who would have probably avoided the disaster which followed: Riazanov, who argued tirelessly against the death penalty, Shatov the anarchist mayor of St. Petersburg, Bordigia who opposed Lenin on organization and Soviet domination of foreign Communist parties and on the issue of supporting rather reactionary Third-World revolutions. Even Martov, the inventor of the Mensheviks, who Lenin protected from the Cheka.

Probably due in no small part to Serge's anarchist background, it is surprising the prominence which the anarchists play in his story. On p.104, he writes that Lenin "was very anxious to have the support of 'the best of the anarchists.'" and goes on to explain quite credibly that there probably were not any real Communists in the world outside Russia and Bulgaria at that time (it seems like China is a notable absence here, but even then we may quibble over definitions) but instead the vast majority of revolutionaries were some stripe of social democrat or anarchist or syndicalist.

On the failure of Tukhachevsky to take Warsaw, which Taylor saw as the turning-point for all of Europe: here we find Stalin, who instead of providing support marched on Lvov to gain a personal victory. The disaster for the cause of world revolution cannot be overstated.

As early as the winter of 1920-21, there was a "Workers' Opposition," protesting the increasing bureaucracy, the forceful compulsion of economic activity, the suppression of dissent. By then the Soviets had become auxiliary organs of the Party, and the intolerable nature of the economic system required an abolition of the freedom of speech.

According to Serge, Trotsky wrote in 1938 that Lenin considered recognizing an autonomous region in the Ukraine under the control of Nestor Makhno's anarchists. "That arrangement would have been both just and diplomatic, and w perhaps an outlook as generous as this would have spared the Revolution from the tragedy towards which we were drifting." p. 122, on the great use and aid given and won by the anarchists in the Ukraine and the Crimea, only to be arrested and shot by the Cheka.

Lenin in 1917 wrote of a press organization whereby any group with 10k votes could publish its own journal free, of peaceful transitions of power within the Soviets from party to party, and of police made through the people, run by directly elected councils, protected by a people's militia.

At Krondstadt, the Reds lied to the people, refused to negotiate, and killed everyone, despite enacting the NEP which proved the Krondstadt demands had been correct anyway. The NEP meant economic liberalism without a shred of political or social liberalism; the justification was the failure of the German revolution.

p.153, "I was and still am convinced that the new regime would have felt a hundred times more secure if it had henceforth proclaimed its reverence, as a Socialist government, for human life and the rights of all individuals without exception."

p. 374, "[Intolerance and persecution] originated in an absolute sense of possession of truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life."

and "the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity."

p. 377 The Central Committee in 1918 could have set up public revolutionary trials with no death penalty, habeas corpus, right of defense, etc to deal with counter-revolutionaries. But it didn't, it set up the Cheka, with secret trials, no right of defense, and no input of public opinion.