Victor Serge: The Worst of the Anarchists
Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: A Political Biography
London: Verso, 2013; 368pp; ISBN 978-1844678877
Victor Serge (1890-1947) is experiencing something of a revival. This is understandable, given the power of Serge's prose and the events and people he wrote about. A complete translation of his Memoirs of a Revolutionary was published in 2012, while collections of his earliest pro-Bolshevik writings (Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921) and discussions with Trotsky (The Serge-Trotsky Papers) appeared in 1997 and 1994 respectively. Now the paperback version of Susan Weissman's much praised biography of Serge has appeared.
Although a very well researched book, Weissman's biography does come across as an extended commentary on Serge's own Memoirs. This is its fundamental problem--Serge is self-serving and unreliable. Thus his later conclusion that the revolution dealt itself 'a self-inflicted death in 1918 with the establishment of the Cheka' (quoted, Serge p 7) is at odds with his comment that the 'success of a revolution requires the implacable severity of a Dzerhinsky', its ruthless head (Danger p 69). Similarly, claims that for Serge, Kronstadt was important because 'the Party had lied; a barrier had been broken' (Serge p 46) do not address his comments about 'the strenuous calumnies put out by the Communist Party' against Makhno (Memoirs p 143) nor that he distorted its programme to defend the regime (Papers p 18).
Ironically, Weissman refutes her own claims that 'Serge always saw democracy as an integral component of socialist development' and that it was the 'Stalinist scourge [which] nearly eradicated the notion that socialism is full democracy' by showing not only that 'full democracy' was eliminated under Lenin but also that the Opposition did not aim to re-introduce it (Serge pp 19, xvii).
She proclaims Serge 'a Left Opposition with an anarchist past' and fails to mention the differences between his politics and, say, Kropotkin's. This reflects a general ignorance of anarchism. She proclaims that Marxists have the advantage over anarchists because of their 'understanding of class, of individuals consciously acting in collectivities in the process of history'. As if this were not the revolutionary anarchist position since Bakunin! So if Serge came to 'see anarchism as a dead end as early as 1913' because of the individualistic antics of the Bonnot gang (Serge pp 4, 21, 19) then most anarchists had come to the same conclusion ... in the 1880s by repeating the ideas of Bakunin. (1) At least Serge admitted that most anarchists had 'advocated for many years class warfare' (Danger p 96)--although he did not mention his own rejection of this position.
Marxists, apparently, think 'freedom is indistinguishable from institutions of popular democracy, usually in the form of councils' while anarchists 'are wary of democratic institutions--even workers' councils--and tend to describe freedom in less concrete terms' (Serge p 13). That...