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(en) Organise! No.60: The Bolsheviks' Pet Anarchist

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 20 May 2003 10:38:20 +0200 (CEST)


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> Victor Serge: the course is set on hope. Susan Weissman. Verso.
2001. £22. 364pp
Verso seem to want to cash in on the awakened interest in
anarchism around the world. To quote from their press release:
"A spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of anarchy ...
condemned as a ‘travelling circus’ and even a fascist threat to
democracy, the anti-globalisation protestors summon up a spirit
that has been vilified by both left and right... Victor Serge,
the subject of this timely political biography, perhaps best
articulates this revolutionary spirit. Here is a man who
genuinely deserved and relished the ‘anarchist’ label."

Fortunately the writer of the book is a little bit more
objective than the author of this puff, putting Serge’s break
with anarchism in 1913 (whether this itself is true we’ll look
at later).

Victor Serge has been popular in this country among Trotskyists
eager to adopt a ‘libertarian’ veneer in order to recruit
anarchists to their cause. This was certainly the case with
Peter Sedgwick (translator of
Serge’s superb Memoirs of a Revolutionary) and David Widgery
(both members of International Socialism/Socialist Workers Party
and both now
deceased). These held up Serge as an example of a "libertarian
Bolshevik". Indeed Widgery through his writings for both
Socialist Worker and the hippy underground papers Oz and
International Times
attempted to don this apparent mantle of Serge, himself posing
as a "libertarian Bolshevik" when in practice his devotion to
the SWP was slavish.

Serge, whose real name was Kibalchich, was born in Belgium to
two exiled Russian revolutionaries towards the end of the 19th
century. His family’s precarious existence meant that he
experienced hunger from early on, and in the course of his life
he was to have a long acquaintance with hunger: his younger
brother died at the age of 9 due to bad diet.

Moving from the ideas of the Belgian Socialist Party and
rejecting parliamentary action, he adopted the ideas of French
individualist anarchism after his expulsion from Belgium in
1908. He went further than most, supporting illegalist wing
which believed that all free individuals were justified in
turning to theft and robbery to maintain themselves.

Individualist anarchism was greatly influenced by the thinkers
Stirner and Nietzsche. In many ways it reflected the defeats and
repression suffered by anarchism and the workers movement in
Europe, a turning away from the class struggle, the social
anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin and revealed the penetration
of bourgeois ideas into the movement, even though in the main it
was made up of working class people.

Rather than looking to social action, it turned to the
individual who through thought, action and life-style would
achieve some sort of liberation. It had a disastrous effect on
the anarchist movement in France, Italy, Germany and Argentina
and, in my view, contributed to the development of the
anti-organisational wing of anarchist communism around the
Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani; this represented a frightful
synthesis between the ideas of anarchist
communism and anarchist individualism.

The extraordinary personality of Albert Libertad was one of the
architects of individualist anarchism in France. Serge became an
orator at Les Causeries Populaires- the People’s Chats- that had
been initiated by Libertad and were a series of lectures well
attended by the Parisian working class.

It has to be remembered that this form of individualist
anarchism, unlike later varieties, at least looked to the
long-term goal of an anarchist communist society. Through
vegetarianism, and indeed veganism and fruitarianism,
teetotalism, giving up of tobacco, coffee and tea, and through
regular physical education, this school of anarchism, Serge
wrote, "demanded everything of us and offered everything to us".
At this time Serge thought that "the anarchist is always illegal
- theoretically. The single word ‘anarchist’ means rebellion in
every sense". In the illegalist milieu some dodgier types even
justified prostituting their girlfriends.

Serge began to write for the paper l’anarchie (in lower case,
because capitals were hierarchical!) and unlike Lorulot, its
previous editor, who at least looked towards some anarchist
communist future, exalted illegal acts and the cult of the
individual.

>From around this magazine emerged the Bonnot Gang, who began to
rob banks, moving on to shooting down bank employees. One of the
Bonnot Gang, Garnier, justified this by writing " Why kill
workers? They are vile slaves, without whom there wouldn’t be
the bourgeois and the rich. It’s in killing such contemptible
slaves that slavery will be destroyed".

Serge, as one of the theoreticians of this movement, wrote in
l’anarchie the article "I am with the bandits" on January 1912:
"I find that their role is the beautiful role ... the bandit is
virile". The Bonnot Gang were either shot down by the police or
were to face either the guillotine or long years in prison,
which many did not survive. Serge was implicated and at the
trial broke solidarity with his co-defendants by trying to say
there was a vast difference between theorists like him and the
illegalist gun-toters, that he was accidentally involved in an
affair in which he was innocent. Yet he had been its main
cheer-leader!

Spotting Lorulot, who had rejected illegalism, in the audience
during the trial, he demanded that he too should be charged for
having mixed with and lodged illegalists, going so far as to
falsely accuse him of informing. This did not stop Serge from
getting 5 years in prison, portrayed in his excellent novel Men
In Prison. Unfortunately these strange political contortions are
glossed over in Weissman’s book that devotes about 3 or 4 pages
in this biographical work.

Following his release from jail, Serge went to Barcelona,
involving himself in the Spanish anarchist movement and the
failed uprising there in 1917 (which became the subject of
another of his fine novels Birth of Our Power). Again this part
of Serge’s life is given short shrift and I would disagree that
Serge had broken completely with anarchism in 1913, as he at
least attempted to associate with an anarchist movement looking
towards the masses and social action.

Arriving in Russia in 1919 he enthusiastically joined the
Bolsheviks. Serge’s writings of this period are shallow
justifications of the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian rule and appeals
to anarchists to join the Party.

When the Kronstadt sailors rose against the Soviet regime in
1921, Serge agonised but failed to resign from the Party. He had
attempted to become involved in mediations between the Kronstadt
sailors and the regime via the anarchists Alexander Berkman and
Emma Goldman. Serge’s ambiguous attitudes and vacillations
earned him the contempt of both the anarchists and the Bolshevik
leadership.

It could be said that the jump from individualist anarchism to
Bolshevism was a quantum leap. Yet both shared a contempt for
the masses and Serge was not the only individualist to sing the
praises of Bolshevism. Lorulot, for example, was to write in
1918 that: "in time of revolution, a measure of dictatorship is
necessary" and by 1921 was arguing for an " iron dictatorship of
the proletariat", a "dictatorship of elites over brutes". Other
individualists like Armand, Mauricius and Charles Auguste
Bontemps also spoke sympathetically of the Bolsheviks’ methods.
As Stalin began to establish his rule Serge became associated
with the Left Opposition within the Party and with its leader,
Trotsky.
It would be fair to say that whilst Serge worked with Trotsky he
never really regarded himself as a Trotskyist per se. For this
he suffered
persecution, exile in Siberia and imprisonment in dreadful
conditions. Weissman’s book, a large one, deals in the main with
this part of Serge’s life. Indeed Serge’s final years in exile
in Mexico are assigned one chapter, so that the book as a
biographical work seems oddly unbalanced.

Serge showed remarkable courage as an oppositionist, it must be
said. What is particularly valuable is the depiction of the
relationship with Trotsky. He is shown as unspeakably arrogant,
intolerant and narrow-minded, and Serge falls out with him over
many things. Yet he still remains oddly impressed with ‘The Old
Man’ in spite of his behaviour, seeing him as one of the great
figures of the Russian Revolution.

Serge at least offered some later insights in 1937-8 into the
course of the Revolution, when he admitted that the suppression
of the Kronstadt Revolt was a dreadful mistake, as was that of
the Makhno movement and that the establishment of the repressive
political police, the Cheka, was the beginning of the end.

Serge was a great writer, and his novels must be regarded as
some of the greatest works of "proletarian literature", as
indeed are his Memoirs. The realism of his works is flecked
through with great sensitivity. He saw most of his generation of
revolutionaries dead in combat, executed, or forced to commit
suicide and he remained alive through some fluke of luck. This
immense tragedy had an effect on his revolutionary morale.
Though supporters of Serge have defended his final statements,
where he seems to be accommodating himself to the Gaullist
regime in France, my opinion is that he was turning to some form
of social democracy and had lost hope in the power of the
working class to overthrow capitalism through a social
revolution.

Serge was an immensely interesting character, but the sketchy
description of key parts of his life fail to do justice to him.
This is not the definitive biography of Serge.

Sloppiness in research gives us some real howlers too. At the
risk of sounding like one late writer on anarchist history, I’d
like to point out the following. Elisee Reclus, the French
anarchist thinker, is given as Recluse (this is repeated in the
index); the Black Guard, an anarchist grouping organising in
Moscow is confused with the movement around Nestor Makhno in the
Ukraine; the great poet Yesenin is given as Yesinin, and the
French sycophant of Stalin, Vaillant-Couturier is given as
Vaillant-Couturior.

[Text taken from Organise! No.60, magazine of the Anarchist
Federation (http://www.afed.org.uk) and the Anarchist Federation Ireland.]


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