Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, Edited by the International Bolshevik Tendency with a new introduction and a selection of materials, London and Toronto, 1998, pp218, £5
AS several contributors to this volume point out, the relevance of Victor Serge has not ceased with the collapse of bureaucratic state Socialism and the prevailing free market orthodoxy of the Western world in the 1990s. His unique political itinerary and almost equally unique status as a survivor of Stalinist repression in the 1930s produce a voice which offers a way through the events from 1917 to 1947. Both committed to the Bolshevik tradition and profoundly questioning of it, Serge cannot be conveniently consigned to the dustbin of history by political orthodoxies of either left or right, because his clear-sightedness echoes down the years to reconnect us with the century’s formative struggles.
In this respect, the most valuable element of this volume is the translation of Serge’s final assessment of those events, ‘Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution’, written in 1947, a few months before his death in Mexico. In this piece, he steadfastly refuses to link Leninism and Stalinism via any kind of historical fatalism. Emphasising the physical elimination of the original Bolsheviks who might otherwise be there to contradict ‘a shabby logic’ which, ‘pointing to the grim spectacle of Stalinist Russia, proclaims the bankruptcy of Bolshevism, therefore of Marxism, therefore of Socialism’ (p239), he insists on the Bolsheviks’ credentials in 1917 as a responsive mass party rather than a conspiratorial clique, and as the only alternative to a right-wing military dictatorship. The decay of the new regime was a product of external events (in particular the Polish aggression of 1920 led by Pilsudski, and the failure of the revolution in Germany) and of internal errors (the excessive power of the Cheka, and the violent suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, disagreement over which marks the relationship between Serge and Trotsky in the 1930s). Nevertheless: ‘Neither the authoritarianism nor the intolerance of the Bolsheviks (and of most of their opponents) allow us to question their Socialist mentality, or the gains of the first 10 years of the Revolution.’ (p255) As for Stalinism as the successor of Leninism, Serge pithily remarks, ‘one does not carry on a movement by massacring it’ (p254).
In an excellent discussion of the nature of Serge’s commitment to the Bolsheviks, Philip Spencer points out, crucially, that Serge was drawn to Leninism in 1917 from a libertarian position, and took it at its word. Indeed, Spencer’s oxymoronic formulation, ‘libertarian Leninism’, is used to describe the specificity of Lenin’s thought in that year (for example, in State and Revolution), the internal democracy of the Bolshevik party, and the way in which Serge could admonish his former Anarchist comrades as he emphasised the combination of the maximisation of political debate and of effective unity in action. It was the party that later shifted, not Serge. The opposition to Stalinism would later be characterised either by a defence of doctrinal orthodoxy which retained authoritarian tendencies, or by the invocation of the democratic ideals expressed at the beginning of the revolution. Serge obviously chose the latter. As Alan Wald points out in his useful discussion of Serge’s writings published in the USA in the 1940s, Serge was absorbed by this need for ‘a Leninist explanation of the deterioration of Leninism into Stalinism’ (p116), even and especially as in the period immediately after 1945 he saw Stalinism as the principal enemy.
Spencer’s article is located in section three of this collection, on Serge’s ‘political ideas and praxis’. Some pieces in the volume are republications and restatements of previous pioneering work on Serge, such as that undertaken by Richard Greeman on the novels, and by the late Peter Sedgwick on Socialism. One section is devoted to testimonials: John Eden’s piece traces the detective work that has gone on in recent years to unearth Serge’s writings confiscated at the Soviet border in 1936; Wilebaldo Solano, formerly of the POUM, reminds us of Serge’s commitment to Spanish workers’ struggles. The most extraordinary piece here is quite unpolitical, the memoir by Serge’s daughter Jeannine (born 1935) of her life with her father in Mexican exile.
Another section, on Serge’s literary works, includes valuable rapprochements with Russian and Soviet literature by Neal Cornwell, and an extended discussion by Ian Birchall of Serge’s attitudes towards the Proletkult. The relevance to contemporary challenges to the literary canon by women and ethnic groups is noted; moreover, Birchall points out that this was a mass movement, one which again raises interesting distinctions between Serge and Trotsky, this time on culture. Like Trotsky, Serge was eloquent about the tradition of bourgeois culture: ‘The proletariat must grasp that the endless process of becoming is made of past, present and future.’ (p96) However, Serge had more time for the Proletkult than Trotsky, who awaited a future, truly human culture. Birchall here develops an interesting distinction between ‘culture’ (corresponding to an era of class society, or to the future Communist society), and ‘cultural practice’ (corresponding to the Proletkult’s activities before it was appropriated by Stalinism).
This volume joins a series of publications and activities in the 1990s (including, of course, the Autumn 1994 issue of Revolutionary History) which, following the centenary events of 1990-91, have helped to ensure and encourage the presence of Serge in current debates. It is to be greatly welcomed. It is a pity, therefore, that the quality of the contributions is marred by bad and inconsistent proof-reading (including misspellings of ‘Sedgwick’), and by uneven referencing. Philip Spencer’s piece, for example, contains numerous interesting quotations from Serge, but no footnotes are provided.