Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge - review
“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”.