Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge - review

Red or dead.

Communist leaders including Stalin and Trotsky. Photo: Getty Images

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, New York Review Books, 416pp, £9.99

“We revolutionaries, who aimed to create a new society, ‘the broadest democracy of the workers’, had unwittingly, with our own hands, constructed the most terrifying state machine conceivable: and when, with revulsion, we realised this truth, this machine, driven by our friends and comrades, turned on us and crushed us.” The Russian revolutionary Victor Serge’s assessment of the role that he and his comrades played in building the machine that would destroy them is striking in its candour. Virtually all of his friends who managed to survive the dictatorship that was installed in the revolution of October 1917 blamed the totalitarian repression that ensued on factors – the Russian civil war, foreign intervention, Russian backwardness – for which the Bolshevik regime was not responsible.

Refusing to acknowledge his part in constructing and using the machinery of repression, Leon Trotsky pinned most of the blame on Joseph Stalin – a single human being. Here, Serge was more clear-sighted. Trotsky, he wrote, “refused to admit that in the terrible Kronstadt episode of 1921 the responsibilities of the Bolshevik central committee had been simply enormous, that the subsequent repression had been needlessly barbarous, and that the establishment of the Cheka (later the GPU) with its techniques of secret inquisition had been a grievous error on the part of the revolutionary leadership, and one incompatible with any socialist philosophy”.

From a family of anti-tsarist émigrés, Serge (a pen name: his real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) had been active as an anarchist and taken part in an insurrection in Spain, incarcerated in a French concentration camp and released as part of a deal in which several leading Russian revolutionaries in detention in the west were allowed to travel to Soviet Russia in exchange for the release of western diplomats who had been arrested there.

Working in the Comintern after he arrived in Russia in 1919, Serge soon began to question the Bolshevik regime. Following the Kronstadt massacre, in which thousands of soldiers, sailors and workers were gunned down or captured and executed, following an order signed by Lenin and Trotsky threatening that the rebels would be “ shot like rabbits”, Serge wrote: “The truth was that emergent totalitarianism had already gone halfway to crushing us. ‘Totalitarianism’ did not yet exist as a word; as an actuality, it began to press hard on us, even without our being aware of it.” Contrary to what countless western progressives have insisted, there was no shift from a fundamentally emancipatory regime to one that was essentially repressive. The totalitarian virus did not enter the Soviet state when Stalin took power. It was there right from the start, when Lenin and Trotsky were still in charge.

Fearlessly criticising the Soviet leaders and joining forces with the Workers’ Opposition to combat them, Serge never surrendered his
independence of mind and spirit. A part of the charm of this vivid and absorbing memoir is the gusto with which he recounts a life that was, by any standards, jam-packed with excitement: his dangerous early encounter with the Bonnot Gang, a sodality of radical individualists who went to their deaths in shoot-outs or by the guillotine with slogans such as “Damn the masters, damn the slaves and damn me!”; the years of prison and solitary confinement that followed for Serge; the hatred of the telephone he developed when, as a senior Soviet official living in the Hotel Astoria, it brought him “at every hour the voices of panic-stricken women who spoke of arrests, imminent executions and injustice”; his expulsion from the party, arrest as the ring-leader of a Trotskyite conspiracy and eventual expulsion from the Soviet Union; the life of hardship and surveillance by Soviet agents that followed; his flight from Nazi-controlled France to Mexico via Havana, where he found “ a sensual
delight feeding on electricity – this after our pitifully dark European cities . . . the heady sensation of being in a free country”.

Somehow, along the way, Serge also produced several interesting novels, including The Case of Comrade Tulayev, perhaps the best fictional recreation of Stalin’s purges. His health weakened by years of struggle and poverty, he died of a heart attack in Mexico City in November 1947. Some have speculated that he may have been poisoned by Stalin’s agents. Given that the Soviet security apparatus was murdering politically active émigrés in many countries from the 1920s onwards – Trotsky was only the most well known of those who were killed in this way – the idea is by no means fantastic.

Though he does not put himself at the centre of this extraordinary story, the strand that links everything together is Serge himself – a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history. In moral terms, there can be no doubt that he was on a higher plane than the Bolshevik leaders.

At the same time, possibly for that very reason, Serge was consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop. Lenin and Trotsky knew that revolution is by nature a ruthlessly violent and inherently undemocratic business. Without firing squads, mass imprisonment, the use of family members as hostages (a technique pioneered by Trotsky to secure the loyalty of the Red Army in the civil war) and the routine use of torture by the Cheka, the Soviet regime would have been overthrown soon after it came to power.

As Serge admits, the Kronstadt massacre was unavoidable if the revolution was to continue. In Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he tells us: “After many hesitations, and with unutterable anguish, my Communist friends and I finally declared ourselves on the side of the Party.” He goes on to record how the party newspapers celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune even as the repression of the workers continued. “Meanwhile the muffled thunder of the guns over Kronstadt kept shaking the windows.”

He says less about other and larger Soviet massacres. Though he acknowledges that they “knew that in European Russia alone there were at least fifty centres of peasant insurrection”, he hardly mentions the less well-known but far bloodier crushing of the Tambov peasant rebellion of 1920-21, which the Red Army suppressed by torching entire villages and using poison gas to kill off peasants who fled into the forests.

Serge’s anguish at Soviet repression was undoubtedly genuine but when he writes that shooting captured Kronstadt rebels months after the rising had been quashed was “a senseless and criminal agony”, he shows that he did not grasp the most important fact about the Bolshevik Revolution, which is that it was a version of total war.

There was very little popular support in Russia – then or later – for the Bolsheviks or their programme. Against a background of mounting insurrection, they could avoid de­-feat only by continuously increasing the scale of repression. That is why Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was the head of the Cheka at the time, had the rebels shot and Lenin later ordered that refractory peasants should be executed by public hanging.

Totalitarian repression was not a regrettable departure from the high ideals of socialist philosophy – an unfortunate error of judgement on the part of the Bolshevik leaders. They had no alternative. Mass terror was a condition of their survival. In many ways an admirable human being, Serge refused to face the inexorable logic of revolution, summarised so clearly by Lenin in his celebrated dictum, “Who/whom?”: kill or be killed.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” was recently published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)