Victor Serge’s 1940 polemic against Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours (1938)


26/06/2015 by socialistfight

Victor Serge

By Gerry Downing 26/6/2015

A previously unpublished manuscript by Victor Serge, written in 1940 polemicising against Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours, has just appeared. The translator, Mitchell Abidor, explains its content in his introduction:

“It demonstrates his distance from what was left of Bolshevism as well as his critique of the dogmatism of Trotsky and Trotskyism. His admission that the germs of Stalinism can be found in even the Bolshevism of the heroic period is a key element in understanding both the Soviet Union and Serge’s development”.

In other words it is an anti-communist tract that falsely equates Stalinism with Bolshevism and Trotskyism and condemns both before the altar of Anarchist petty-bourgeois individualistic liberalism.

Before we begin the political and ideological evaluation of his text let us first pay tribute to the great revolutionary lion that was Victor Serge. As the Wikipedia entry tell us:

“Victor Serge (1890 – 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death. He is best remembered for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary and series of seven ‘witness-novels’ chronicling the lives of revolutionaries of the first half of the 20th Century.”

He suffered persecution and prison terms at the hands of the Belgian and French state before 1917 as an anarchist. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1919, criticised the treatment and some of the tactics used against the Kronstadt sailors in 1921but supported the taking of the Peter and Paul fortress, was sympathetic to both and later supported the Left Opposition. But he remained an anarchist ideologically, though supporting some of the actions of the Bolsheviks which proved successful in the end. Wiki tells us:

“As a libertarian socialist, Serge protested against the Red Terror organized by Felix Dzerzhinsky and the Cheka. Serge also criticized the New Economic Policy, believing that it was counter-revolutionary, though in 1923 he admitted that it had resulted in improved conditions compared to war communism.”

He suffered two periods of imprisonment under Stalin. As with Trotsky and all other oppositionists (and also later in the 1950s under Mao) not only the individual would be arrested, imprisoned and often executed but also all family and friends would suffer a like fate, totally against the law in both Russia and China, of course. As Wiki tells us:
He left the country safely (in 1936 following an international campaign for him – GD), along with his wife and children, but their relatives were not so fortunate: Anita Russakova (sister-in-law – GD) spent 25 years in a gulag (and was eventually able to give her version of events after 1989), while Serge’s sister, his mother-in-law and two of his brothers-in-law all died in prison.

He joined Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov in France but differences remained, expertly aggravated by Mark Zborowski, “Etienne,” the GPU agent at the head of the French Trotskyist movement. When he wrote this tract Germany had invaded France, and Wiki tells us:

“Serge, together with his son, Vlady Kibalchich, and his partner, Laurette Séjourné, managed to escape to the Unoccupied Zone in the South. Serge, Vlady and Laurette spent the winter of 1940–41 at the Villa Air Bel in La Pomme (Marseille) (fr), which they shared with Varian Fry, of the American Rescue Committee, the Surrealist André Breton and his family, Daniel Bénédite, Mary Jayne Gold and others. With both the Gestapo and the GPU on his trail, Serge was desperate to leave France, but as an undocumented Russian with a Communist past, he faced the nightmare of what Trotsky famously called ‘A world without a visa’.”

The cement of morality

Let us first look at what he was critiquing. The essay is justly seen as Trotsky’s best defence of communist morality against the hypocrisy of Judaeo-Christian mortality and its offsprings bourgeois and Stalinist morality (in so far as the latter has any morality at all). It had a great influence on my own personal ideological development and I have heard others like Bill Hunter testify to the same experience. Once you have read and fully understood this text you are ideologically a communist. I have just reread it for the umpteenth time and again learned a great deal more from it. Of course you must progress from there and discover how to put the principles into practice, an immense task today but surely achievable. This is how Trotsky emphases the importance of this ideological struggle in his great piece:

“Bourgeois evolutionism halts impotently at the threshold of historical society because it does not wish to acknowledge the driving force in the evolution of social forms: the class struggle. Morality is one of the ideological functions in this struggle. The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality. The mixing of this cement constitutes the profession of the petty-bourgeois theoreticians, and moralists. They dabble in all colours of the rainbow but in the final instance remain apostles of slavery and submission.”

And Trotsky asserts the central importance of getting this matter of morality right for the proletarian revolutionist:

“Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character. The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit which retains the tradition of thousands of years is the first duty of a proletarian revolutionist.

How does Victor Serge fare in this ideological struggle? Very badly as we shall see. His conversion to Bolshevism in 1919 was empirical and by the 1940 essay he had reverted back to his anarchist roots. The Editors of the Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, in “Quatrième Internationale,” had this to say about him in April 1939:

“Certain of our comrades ask us what Victor Serge’s relations are with the IVth International. We are forced to answer that they are adversarial. Since arriving overseas, Victor Serge has not ceased to agitate; his attitude can only be defined as one of “agitation”. On not one single question has he exposed a clear, well-defined position, either as a proposal or a refutation. On the contrary, he has at all times supported those who have left the IVth International in whatever direction, right or left. He abruptly announced his membership in POUM in a letter, while having made no attempt to respond to our criticism of POUM as a centrist organization that was playing a sad role. Victor Serge flirted with the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists despite the treasonous role they played in the Spanish Revolution. Behind the scenes he supported the pitiful hero of “left” trade unionism Sneevliet, while all the while having decided not to openly defend the policies of Dutch opportunism. At the same time, Victor Serge on several occasions repeated that his divergences with us were only of a “secondary” character. To the question openly posed as to why in this case he collaborated, not with the IVth international, but with its worst enemies, Victor Serge was not able to give an answer. All of this has removed all logic from his personal “politics” and has transformed it into a series of personal schemes, if not intrigues… And neither the Russian Section nor the IVth International as a whole take the least responsibility for the politics of Victor Serge.”

Serge’s ideological and political agnosticism

The central feature of the article is its ideological and political agnosticism in the face of definite, clear-cut positions taken by Trotsky, whose ideology is coherent and consistent; the integrated world outlook that is revolutionary Marxism. Victor Serge is repelled by his “domineering tone of Bolshevik speech of the great years, along with its echoes of the imperious and uncompromising style of Karl Marx the polemicist.” Trotsky’s certainty is “unjustified” because, says Serge:

“The truth is never fixed, it is constantly in the process of becoming and no absolute border sets it apart from error, and the assurance of those Marxists who fail to see this is quickly transformed into smugness. The feeling of possessing the truth goes hand in hand with a certain contempt for man, of the other man, in any case, he who errs and doesn’t know how to think since he is ignorant of the truth and even allows himself to resist it. This sentiment implies a denial of freedom, freedom being, on the intellectual level, the right of others to think differently, the right to be wrong. The germ of an entire totalitarian mentality can be found in this intolerance.”

Victor Serge was no theoretician, he acknowledged himself, but sometimes even the most ‘practical’ of people are obliged to make a theoretical justification of what they are about to say. What follows from this attack on the ‘truth’ by Serge is that Trotsky was a very nasty and sectarian man in attacking the POUM, the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Spain, the ultra-lefts in Holland, etc. If he was nicer to people, understood the limitations of truth a bit better like Victor himself he would not have ended up with so many enemies and so few friends (Serge did not fare much better, we might observe, despite the attentions of the Surrealist André Breton). We get the same criticisms ourselves from those who fail to see the ridiculousness of the Thruthers of 9/11 and 7/7 and now think old Uncle Joe Stalin got a very bad press indeed from those who should have upheld his integrity against his detractors a bit better.

But ‘the truth’ comrades, how do we deal with this bugger if it is constantly changing so much so that we can never arrive at any determination at all? How do we sort the truth from the lies? It is well known that all the functionaries in the Stalinised Comintern, and the leaders of all Communist parties internationally after they were ‘Bolshevised’ by Zinoviev from 1924 were chosen for their low theoretical abilities and their ability to lie convincingly in parroting the ever changing line from the Kremlin. “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” as someone once said, and the lies from the Kremlin were legion.

The first thing to say about truth is that it is concrete. It is not the sum totals of abstractions. Material reality is never made up of abstractions. That is a fundamental law of Marxist dialects. And it is in the abstractions that Victor Serge gets lost. In the Russian Revolution there was no room for abstract sentimentality. The Tsar and all his family were shot by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg because if they were liberated by the Whites they would become a rallying point for reaction and perhaps hundreds of thousands would die because of that. The Bolsheviks dealt severely with the sailors’ leaders at Kronstadt because they were the rallying point for a possible invasion by the White armies from Finland which would have overthrown the revolution. Revolutionary violence is entirely justified, the slave has a right to use cunning and violence to free himself or herself. The violence of the slave owner is reactionary and illegitimate for all serious revolutionists.

Victor Serge and the POUM

Victor Serge became a member of the POUM and here defends it against Trotsky’s strictures. Trotsky broke relations with the POUM and Andrés Nin, its leader, because of a thing so minor in his estimation it goes in brackets here:

“But in Spain he refused to follow some of Trotsky’s advice (on the entry of the left communists into the socialist Party and on not joining the Popular Front). A break ensued.”

But these were the two issues on which Nin lost the possibility of leading and winning the Spanish Revolution. He refused to enter the very left wing Socialist Party youth movement (remember Largo Caballero was far to the left of the Spanish Stalinists then) and instead fused with the right communists Bukharinites of Joaquín Maurín, he lost the possibility of wining the most class conscious revolutionary youth. The Stalinist, with guns and money from the USSR, won them instead. A concrete mistake of monumental proportions. Worse was to follow. Instead of seeking to deepen the revolution in Catalonia by defending the collectivised land and factories and appealing to the anarchists ranks and youth Nin entered the Popular Front government, the Generalitat in Barcelona, assisting in resorting capitalist property relations shattered by the revolutionary upsurge of 1936 that denied Franco’s fascists control of a vast section of Spain by storming barracks under murderous hails of bullets.

But Serge defends these leaders even after the May Days in Barcelona itself when the Guarda de Assalto led by counter-revolutionary Stalinism attacked the Telephone Exchange and the workers responded to them so heroically on the barricades. But Serge protests, there were anarchists and anarchists:

“Trotsky’s criticisms are addressed at anarchists tout court. A simple concern for reality should have led him to distinguish within the Spanish revolution between anarchists and anarchists. Berneri and Barberi (murdered by the Stalinists during the May Days – GD) should not be confused with the ministers of the CNT-FAI. Is this not obvious?”

Generalidat in Barcelona

But it was the anarchists of the Friends of Durruti who came closest politically to revolutionary Trotskyism by demanding a ‘revolutionary Junta’ to conduct the war after May Days (a workers’ state) and not relying on the bourgeois Stalinist-dominated Generalidat, by then the backbone of capitalism in Spain. And their logic was the same as Serge’s. We cannot condone revolution because this will alienate the ‘democratic imperialist’ like France and the UK, who might send us aid like fascist Germany and Italy were sending to Franco. What effect a real revolutionary Bolshevik party would have had on the anarchist ranks and youth we can only speculate. The POUM had no influence whatsoever.

The truth is concrete about the course set by the POUM but it was all Trotsky’s fault, according to Serge. He should have ignore the class treachery because, “the sole result of Trotsky’s intransigence was, on the eve of the revolution, to bring about a break between himself and the only party in Spain capable of being in any way inspired by his ideas.”

But no passage reveals the outlook of Serge more that his bitter complaint on the way that Trotsky evaluated Andrés Nin:

“Years later I was saddened to see Leon Trotsky, who knew better than anyone Andre Nin’s absolute devotion to the working class, denounce his as a traitor (objectively, alas) only to posthumously recognize his revolutionary probity (subjective, no doubt). The error of this way of reasoning is obvious. To start with there’s a lack of discernment. Disdain of the psychological fact, disdain of the moral fact which is also an objective reality of primary importance. Contempt for different convictions. Contempt of the man who thinks differently.”

The notion of a well-intentioned man destroying a revolution because he was a political opportunist is beyond Serge. This is bourgeois morality at its worst. How can we deal with people who mean well but get it so badly wrong (because they have not read and assimilated Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours perhaps)? We must fight them politically, we inflict political blows on them and try to make them see the error of their ways. If their responsibility as leaders is great and the consequences of their errors of the loss of a revolution we are uncompromising in our critique of them. Trotsky got it just right on Nin, as we noted in Socialist Fight 19:

“After Nin’s death, Trotsky described him as “an old and incorruptible revolutionary.” The members of the POUM, Trotsky said, “fought heroically on all fronts against the Fascists in Spain.” But in joining the Popular Front, participating in the Popular Front government of Catalonia and refusing to call for the workers to take power in Catalonia in May 1937, Nin had committed a betrayal that proved fatal not only to himself but to the Spanish revolution.” [6]

But Serge cannot make the difference between admiration for personal courage and devotion to the revolution and political errors of such magnitude that they cost a revolution. Of course one can never separate the political and the personal totally in struggle but when the struggle finished with the Stalinist murder of Nin and Trotsky can no longer hope to change his political orientation he is free to give him his attribution as a courageous revolutionary. Victor Serge merits this attribution also for his revolutionary courage but not the political agnosticism he demanded from Trotsky and from Trotskyism because he recognised Nin in himself.

Lastly perhaps the greatest lie is the equation of Bolshevism and Trotskyism with Stalinism that Serge makes and which a large part of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours refutes so ably. The whole story of the Zombie that is Stalinism appearing once more from the grave via the good efforts of Grover Furr, Yuri Emelianov and left Stalinism is a product of the low level of the class struggle internationally and the consequent ideological and theoretical backwardness of the middle class intellectuals which we could expect to attract to Trotskyism in a period of an upswing. This will be the subject of a further essay. Suffice to say for now that, despite their best intentions, Victor Serge and the anarchists assisted and assist this ghoulish project despite their best intentions to the contrary. And that is surely dialectical.

The Victor Serge Manuscript from 1940:

Victor Serge 1940
Unpublished Manuscript on Their Morals and Ours

Translated: for 2015 by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2004.
Translator’s note: This 1940 manuscript, which we thank the great Victor Serge scholar Richard Greeman for providing us, and which has never before been published in any language, is an essential text in the Serge canon. It demonstrates his distance from what was left of Bolshevism as well as his critique of the dogmatism of Trotsky and Trotskyism. His admission that the germs of Stalinism can be found in even the Bolshevism of the heroic period is a key element in understanding both the Soviet Union and Serge’s development. Of especial interest, as well, are his nuanced comments about the European social democratic parties, a bugaboo of the revolutionary left but which Serge finds to have played and continue to play a valuable role. The illegible sections of the manuscript, as Greeman has pointed out to me, are testimony to Serge’s poverty: he couldn’t afford new ribbons for his typewriter.
The need for this critique recently struck me while translating Leon Trotsky’s remarkable essay Their Morals and Ours. There are surely no other contemporary documents that better express the soul of Bolshevism, by which I mean, of course, the Bolshevism of its great years and also, as we will see, the Bolshevism of its decadence which, while courageously opposing Stalinism, the doctrine of the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution, nevertheless bears its mark. And there is absolutely no doubt that no one will ever write anything comparable on this subject, for the great Russians of the three revolutions of 1905, 1917, and 1927 are dead, and we know all too well what kind of death that was. Trotsky remains the last representative of a great historical event and of the type which was both its product and its highest achievement. The modern world owes these men a great deal; the future will owe them even more. Which is even more reason not to blindly imitate them and to try to discover to precisely what extent the socialism that is on the march owes them its approval.
One is immediately struck by the tone of Trotsky’s book, though not by what is peculiar to it, that is his incisive and clear style, but rather by the domineering tone of Bolshevik speech of the great years, along with its echoes of the imperious and uncompromising style of Karl Marx the polemicist. And this is something of great importance, for this tone is essentially one of intolerance. With every line, with every word it implies the claim to the monopoly of truth, or to speak more accurately, the sentiment of possessing the truth. That this sentiment is born of an assurance that is often useful in combat is undeniable. But that this assurance is at bottom unjustifiable is also undeniable. The truth is never fixed, it is constantly in the process of becoming and no absolute border sets it apart from error, and the assurance of those Marxists who fail to see this is quickly transformed into smugness. The feeling of possessing the truth goes hand in hand with a certain contempt for man, of the other man, in any case, he who errs and doesn’t know how to think since he is ignorant of the truth and even allows himself to resist it. This sentiment implies a denial of freedom, freedom being, on the intellectual level, the right of others to think differently, the right to be wrong. The germ of an entire totalitarian mentality can be found in this intolerance.
Trotsky confounds under the same rubric and with the same contempt democrats, liberals, idealists, anarchists, socialists, left socialists (the “centrists”), right communists, and even left communists (“Trotskyists”) who offer any objections to what he thinks. Through purely mechanical reasoning he considers that they constitute a united front “against the Fourth International.” The existence of the latter is, however, still only a problem, but even if it were already a reality this way of viewing it would still be surprising because of its disdain for the facts. The anarchist Berneri (and quite a few of his political friends), the Menshevik Rein-Abramovich, the POUM militants Andres Nin, Kurt Landau, Arenillas, Mena and so many others) are dead, along with hundreds of thousands of poor Spanish buggers crushed under the weight of international reaction. Along with Rykov and Bukharin, the right communists in Russia [rest of the sentence illegible]. To say after all this that only the Fourth International “suffers the pressure of international reaction” is truly a bit of swagger. But we can see how this swagger has become possible: however weak it might still be – and this means however far from real political existence it might be – the Fourth International alone is the bearer of revolutionary truth. And so… etc, etc.
Another denial of the facts: psychology exists. The criticism of Bolshevism, whether it emanates from bourgeois liberalism, from the idealism of progressive intellectuals, from anarchism, from socialism, from opposition communism, varies essentially in its motives and aspirations. Not to see this means deliberately neglecting a fact of primordial importance. It means closing one’s eyes to man as he really is, who cannot be reduced with impunity to a political common denominator. [1] Thought doesn’t differ in its essence from action. Trotsky rightly reminds us that the means of action are indifferent in themselves, their justification being found in the end pursued. “A rifle shot is indifferent in itself: firing on a rabid dog who threatens a child is a good act; to shoot to kill or to cause harm is a crime.” Everyone agrees about this. But why view the critique of ideas or historical facts differently? A reactionary historian, if he invokes the Kronstadt drama of 1921 to discredit the idea of revolution, is committing a completely different act psychologically and socially than that of the anarchist militant who invokes the same drama to defend his concept of revolution. But I see the worst sophism of Bolshevik intolerance (which long precedes Stalinism) showing its head here: that of the objective opposed to the subjective. Subjectively, that is, in their convictions, these two men are different; objectively, that is, in the reality of facts, they are both doing the same thing. We all know the song: subjectively, dear comrades of the Opposition, the Inquisitors told us in 1928, you are certainly convinced revolutionaries. But objectively, by discrediting the leader of the party, you are playing the game of the class enemy, of fascism, of intervention . … Years later I was saddened to see Leon Trotsky, who knew better than anyone Andre Nin’s absolute devotion to the working class, denounce his as a traitor (objectively, alas) only to posthumously recognize his revolutionary probity (subjective, no doubt). The error of this way of reasoning is obvious. To start with there’s a lack of discernment. Disdain of the psychological fact, disdain of the moral fact which is also an objective reality of primary importance. Contempt for different convictions. Contempt of the man who thinks differently.
This systematic and disdainful disregard of the convictions of others is the source of exaggerated judgments, unjust and hence as clumsy politically as they are contrary to revolutionary morality.
The Moscow Trials have made horrifically clear the frightful intellectual and moral poverty of many progressive intellectuals and several great professional consciences. When the men of the Russian Revolution were insulted before being turned over to the executioner we were able to sound the depths of incomprehension, cowardice, stupidity and corruption. Those who lived through this will never forget it. And those great Western and American intellectuals who spent years blessing – not without profit – the massacre of communists by the Thermidorians will not soon succeed in washing their hands clean. (I recall the nausea we felt in a little town in the Urals when we read in the Soviet newspapers than Messieurs Malraux, Jean Richard Bloch, Jean Guéhenno, Francis Jourdain, and Romain Rolland publicly approved the execution of Kirov’s killers. Some one hundred and thirty innocents had just been executed. The executions and approbation had only just begun.) Given this, can we make an absolute criterion of one’s attitude towards the Moscow Trials? The English socialists of the ILP, for example, were disoriented at first, and many intellectuals of good faith were disoriented along with them. In the first place, for Westerners the events in themselves were inconceivable. The differences in mentality and social conditions were too great and didn’t allow a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American to penetrate what was called “the mystery of confessions on command.” Attachment to the myths of the Russian Revolution obscured their judgment, and this is something that must be understood. Did this not pervert our judgment for many long years? We denounced the Thermidorian threat in Russia while retreating step by step before the bureaucracy of “our party,” which persecuted us without yet daring to assassinate us. The first faked trials based on false confessions were those of 1930-31 against the technicians of the “Industrial Party Affair” and that of the old socialists (the so-called affair of the “Menshevik Center”) at the time of the execution without trial of forty-eight saboteurs involved in meat supply. Most Opposition Communists, and along with them the Opposition Bulletin, published overseas by Trotsky, fell into this bloody trap and, at the time of the extermination of Lenin’s companions, admired the government’s theses for the same reasons that originally blinded many western intellectuals and socialists.
It’s not my intention to defend reformism here: it had its great epochs. Didn’t it succeed in decreasing the working day from ten or eleven hours to eight? Didn’t it give the working class a new self-awareness, though often, it is true, stained with a bourgeois spirit? On the other hand, after the war its errors were frightful. In Germany, in Austria, and in Italy, when the moment for socialist revolution arrived, it deliberately missed all the opportunities history offered it. It will be twenty years or more before we can know all the dreadful consequences for humanity of this failure. If fascism today dominates half of Europe, if Stalinism has succeed in killing the Russian Revolution, if the West moves closer every day to the most horrific war imaginable, it’s because in 1918 German social democracy thought only of saving the bankrupt capitalist order; because in 1919 there was a Noske in that party to kill Karl and Rosa and along with them some 15,000 revolutionary proletarians; because in 1919-20 the Italian socialists renounced the seizure of power for fear of a blockade… The Austrian socialists were much less responsible, for they were placed in an extremely disadvantageous historical and geographic situation and fought when it was too late, when all they could do was save their honour, I mean their dignity as the vanquished (which counts). The errors of its current policies are clear enough, especially in Spain, where the reformists, rather than assisting the working class in seizing all its opportunities – and they were immense – they allowed themselves to be led to defeat by the conservatives and the Stalinists. But in extenuation of the Spanish socialists it must be said that the decisive element in all this was the Stalinist intervention. They knew to take up arms in Asturias in 1934, showing that they had learned the lesson of Germany. Largo Caballero considered forming a worker-union government, and the pressure of the Soviet ambassador, Rosenberg – likely executed in Moscow since then – dissuaded him. [2] All of this said, working-class reformism seems to me to be too grand a thing to be subject to summary judgments and even less to vehement condemnations in the form of insults. The Comintern, when it was a still a revolutionary force, singularly abused this method, which bore no fruit. On the contrary, it must be recognized that since the vertical fall of Stalinism into falsehood and blood the old reformist socialism has demonstrated a moral stability far greater than that of the Communist parties, and that the socialist sprit of the masses has taken refuge there. It maintains its traditions and effectives everywhere. In Germany we saw more than a million unemployed vote alternatively for Communists and Nazis; in the Sarre and in Austria Communist functionaries went over to Nazism. At the same time, the social democrats have remained faithful to themselves. Through all the ups and downs of the last twenty years the mentality of the socialist workers has remained extremely stable: communist criticisms haven’t made a dent in it, and defeats and catastrophes have barely shaken them. As a result, it must be said that it corresponds to the nature of important strata of the working class. For my part, since my return to the West I have become convinced that the old communist manner of proceeding that consisted in claiming to rescue “the masses” from the pernicious influence of “the corrupt reformist leaders, “agents of the bourgeoisie” rested on false premises. The reformist masses remain remarkably faithful to their leaders, despite the campaigns mounted against the latter, especially when these are campaigns of insults, because these leaders represent them perfectly, and in most cases are sincere men of conviction.
What can be done under these conditions to create a sharper and more militant, a less bourgeoisified socialist consciousness? First, we must take reality into account, psychological reality as well as the others. We must renounce hateful methods of polemic and strive to convince, and in order to do this, make ourselves understood. In his Socialist Idea Henri de Man is absolutely correct when he writes that, “In Europe no passage from reformism to socialist revolution is possible if its starting point isn’t the reformist workers’ movement as it is historically and in reality, and if it isn’t connected to the internal transformation of motives implicit in this movement. In any case, it’s only under these conditions that this passage can bring along all of the workers.” [3] In writing that the reformist socialists “are only distinguishable from the GPU by the fact that for the moment they aren’t spilling blood” Trotsky falls into so false an exaggeration that there is no need to refute it (should I specify that it is a question of the Belgian socialists, i.e., the socialists of a small country where the respect for human life wasn’t even compromised by the war?) and speaks precisely the language that is needed to completely lose the audience of socialist workers.
He treats with the same sectarian vehemence the international socialist left (ILP, POUM, PSOP, The London Bureau, Fenner Brockway, Marceau Pivert, Gorkin) and his comrades of yesterday, the comrades in struggle of the darkest hours of his life: Sneevliet (of the Dutch PSR) and the Belgian Verecken. “Centrists, centrists!” “If centrists don’t generally rise to the level of impressive crimes it’s only because they remain forever in the political background. They are, in a way, the pickpockets of history.” Here is a perfect example of an insulting sophism based in intolerance! Because the left socialists, the only ones in the socialist movement rising up against the reformist traditions, have never, at any time in the history of the worker’s movement, committed a crime, it is asserted that being capable of anything, it is fortunate that they are only brave enough to steal wallets! And this argument is found in a book on morality! Should there not be some morality in a polemic between socialists? His terrible – and often unfortunate – Bolshevik polemicist verve in this case carries Trotsky beyond his own ideas. For shortly after having written these lines he made friendly political advances towards one of the most influential leaders of the revolutionary left. Would it not be wiser and more in conformity with Marxism, which above all is awareness of social reality, to admit that these men and these parties have a mission to fulfil in the workers’ movement and to grant them the esteem they unquestionably deserve, being at the head of a combat that grows daily more difficult? The discussion would be made considerably easier, and discussion remains one of the methods by which thought progresses.
But it’s in the particular case of POUM that Trotsky’s imperious intolerance most contributed to undoing his influence. Most of the founders of the Worker’s Party for Marxist Unification of Spain were long familiar with Trotsky’s thought, Maurin and Nin having belonged to the Communist International since 1920-21. Several of them shared his general views. Andres Nin had supported him in Russia during the Opposition’s decisive fight. But in Spain he refused to follow some of Trotsky’s advice (on the entry of the left communists into the socialist Party and on not joining the Popular Front). A break ensued. Was it necessary that a moral break follow the political one? Trotsky denounced Nin’s conduct as “treason” (in the objective meaning of the word, as we saw above). His words had a long life. The Stalinists would take them up after having assassinated Nin, who they, too, accused of treason, but because of his friendship for Trotsky. Bitter and tragically vehement criticisms rained down on the POUM, who the Fourth International accused of “sabotaging the Spanish Revolution.” All of this calls for a preliminary remark: how can one have the pretension to lead from afar, from Norway or Mexico (at another time one would have said Moscow), a worker’s party engaged in a revolutionary storm where no question is theoretical, for it must at every moment confront the reality of men and events? A serious international organization, i.e., one disposing of a certain number of thoughtful militants and of a certain influence, and to which this party would itself belong, would certainly have the right and the duty to advise it, on condition that it assist it. But the minuscule groupings of the Fourth International could do almost nothing for the POUM, with which it had neither organizational ties nor a common language. The sole result of Trotsky’s intransigence was, on the eve of the revolution, to bring about a break between himself and the only party in Spain capable of being in any way inspired by his ideas.
I won’t examine POUM’s policies here. I willingly admit that the comrades of POUM at times erred, though in general they seem to me to have demonstrated marvellous clear-sightedness and great courage. But they themselves knew they weren’t infallible. The militants of the Fourth International who never cease bitterly criticizing them didn’t commit any serious errors during the Spanish revolution because they were non-existent there. I remember meeting poor Rudolph Klement on a Brussels street, who announced, smilingly reticently, that “we’re going to found our own party in Spain.” The enterprise didn’t get very far, succeeding only in causing a few deaths. If need be I’m willing to admit that the POUM didn’t possess Trotsky’s revolutionary experience and his vast theoretical knowledge. What’s unfortunate is that experience is often not able to be communicated and that theoretical knowledge, when it’s a matter of the educating of masses in movement, is often unassimilable. It’s possible that Trotsky was right on all points concerning the strategy and tactics to be followed during the Spanish revolution, but the fact is that the Spanish workers, even those workers battle-hardened in political struggles, understood nothing of his algebra and weren’t interested in understanding any of it once he wounded their just feeling of revolutionary dignity. Lenin, upon his arrival in Russia in 1917, didn’t even consider leading the revolution (and he was on en situ) and limited himself to issuing this watchword: “Propaganda! Propaganda!” As we can see, the root of all evil is always the same: the disdain of anyone who thinks differently, the feeling of owning the absolute truth that renders one inflexible, that leads to a desperate attempt to force convictions and reality, and ends up losing contact with reality. An excess of voluntarism. Sectarianism.
In the case of POUM, moreover, it was necessary to take into account several important facts that justified a useful critical review of the past. The POUM, made up of former communists, could no longer accept either the polemical or the organizational methods (notably infiltration) compromised by Bolshevism’s decadence, and which its founders had stood up against as Oppositionists within the Comintern. Finally, its actions and its very existence were conditioned by the existence of large anarchist organizations endowed with a powerful revolutionary dynamic and profoundly hostile to Marxism. If one wanted to consider the possibility of a Spanish revolution one had to take the Spanish workers as they really were into account, and the reality was that the immense majority of the Spanish workers remained attached to the anarchist tradition, one that was confused and poor in ideas, but ardent and rich in sentiments and memories, since it dates to the period of Bakunin. It was also the case that the errors of the Communist International at its very beginnings – the errors of Lenin and Trotsky – had dug an abyss between the Spanish anarchists and Marxists that was impossible to fill. In 1920 the CNT had sent Pestaña to Russia and joined the Third International. But Pestaña found almost all the Russian anarchists in prison. The Central Committee from that point forward hypocritically refused the anarchists the right to exist, responding by saying that it only imprisoned those who attempted to combat the Soviet regime weapon in hand – which would have been necessary – and that it didn’t prohibit propaganda. But in reality it locked everyone up.
The persecution of the anarchists in the Russian Revolution, which began quite early, in late 1918 or early 1919, and was determined not by the need for internal defence – as had been the case on April 12, 1918 in the disarming of the anarchist Black Guard in Moscow – but rather as part of an increasingly systematic policy of intolerance, would prevent the formation at the other end of Europe of a revolutionary party embracing those of the libertarian tradition, and twenty years later would even prevent sincere collaboration between the revolutionaries of POUM and those of the CNT. Marxist thought was, and often still is, hateful in the eyes of many Spanish workers, who are incapable of distinguishing between Stalinism and Bolshevism due to their lack of historical understanding and method. Certain errors have long-lasting historical effects. In giving an example of intransigent moderation in polemics, in loyalty in organizational methods, and absolute devotion in combat, POUM did much to repair vis-à-vis the anarchists the errors committed by the Bolshevik Central Committee of 1919-1923.
When he denounces the hypocrisy of conventional morality, the (bourgeois) class spirit of church and university morality, and that of intellectual circles; when he hunts down in its lair the mediocrity of liberal idealism; when he maintains that the class struggle weighs more- much more – than human sentiment; when he legitimizes the rigors of the civil war, Trotsky is right and strikingly so, and it is comforting to hear again the voice of the intrepid militants of the Russian Revolution. But these questions, which are not only moral ones, but rather embrace all of action and thought, have aspect aside from that of the class struggle: they are posed within the working class and its organizations. They are posed in relation to socialism, both as a goal and as an action. And Trotsky seems to ignore this fact.
We won’t take up here the vain discussion of whether the ends justify the means. Who wants the end wants the means, it being understood that every end requires the appropriate means. It is obvious that in order to build a vast totalitarian prison one must employ means other than those needed to build a workers’ democracy. No one thinks of writing with a revolver or firing with a pen. But is it possible to consider founding a republic of free workers by establishing the Cheka, I mean an extraordinary commission judging in secret based on case files, outside of any control other than that of the government, accused it doesn’t see, who have no right to defence and can be executed in the shadows? Like work tools, shouldn’t institutions be adapted to the ends pursued?
One doesn’t make, one won’t make a socialist revolution by picking reaction’s old methods out of the mud, where they lay during periods of social decomposition. During civil wars, in power, during discussions, in organizing, revolutionaries and socialists must rigorously forbid themselves certain behaviour that in some regards is effective and at times even easy, under pain of ceasing to be socialists and revolutionaries. All of the old methods of social struggle aren’t good, since they all don’t lead to our goal. We are only the strongest if we attain a higher degree of consciousness than our adversaries, if we are the firmest, the most clear-sighted, the most energetic and the most humane. In reality these four terms are inseparable: they form a whole.
Ever since Stalin succeeded in establishing without a violent counter-revolution a totalitarian regime infinitely stifling and cruel, the working-class world has been asking itself the how and why of the affair: the need to review the history of the Russian Revolution from a critical point of view imposes itself. Such a study is one of the primary conditions for any progress in socialist consciousness. What is striking is not that that after ten years the counter-revolution carried the day within the proletarian revolution, and that after twenty years it would arrive at the monstrous results we are witnessing. It’s that in order to triumph, from 1923 – the date of the first defeat inflicted on the Trotskyist Opposition – until 1928 – the date of that Opposition’s definitive defeat – and then until 1936 – the date of the beginning of the massacres of the Old Bolsheviks – Stalin and the bureaucratic leadership were able to put to use the gears of power that were forged before their arrival in power, to make use of the not [illegible] functioning, but by gradually falsifying it through legal ideas, the mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to finally cast the latter aside and establish a bloody dictatorship over the proletariat. Given all this, how can we not ask if the Bolshevik regime didn’t have several weaknesses, several foundational or functional vices that facilitated the bureaucratic usurpation? The question cannot not be posed.
Trotsky doesn’t want to pose it. He proceeds from the idea of an ideal Bolshevik, with no flaws or faults and whose history until 1923, that is, until the moment when Trotsky himself, along with Preobrazhensky and forty-six old militants, realized that the regime that in reality was suffering from an extremely serious illness, remained irreproachable and unassailable. This is certainly not a scientific (Marxist) or indeed any kind of point of view that can be maintained today. And yet Trotsky so passionately rejects any attempt at a critical examination of the most important historical facts that he is even able to write that “The Pharisees of all orders only return so obstinately to the subject of Kronstadt and Makhno” because reaction is emerging victorious throughout the world! Insult cannot replace argument, especially when it is accompanied by such a distortion of the facts, for Trotsky cannot be ignorant of the fact that the drama of Kronstadt has disturbed the consciousness of a large section of the working class movement since 1921! Nor can he be ignorant of the fact that many voices rose up within the Bolshevik Party in the middle of the revolution to denounce abuses, to ask anxious questions, and to advocate new solutions. Do I have to remind him of the discussions that arose in the party in 1918 about the functioning and even the very principle of the Cheka? Do I have to remind him of Riazanov’s brave interventions against the death penalty at the Pan-Russian Executive? The criticism of the bureaucratization of the party and the state by the Worker’s Opposition in 1919? The discussions about War Communism and the NEP? The Central Committee generally didn’t have to stifle these voices, for they were those of revolutionaries too concerned for the safety of the revolution to not step aside and remain quiet when the circumstances demanded it. In times of revolution the militant must always sacrifice the secondary to the essential, criticism to unity.
Neglecting the essential notion of double duty in regard to the workers movement, to socialism, and the revolution means descending into a truly schematic and banal absurdity. The reality of the workers movement, of socialism, of the revolution is complex and contradictory, in no way comparable to a building of one sole block. Rather it puts us in mind of a river whose water in some places is pure, in others polluted, and which carries everything along in its hurried course: flotsam, jetsam, poison, and precious seeds. Six years ago, in Russia, I wrote: “A revolution is not a homogenous, unique process comparable to a waterfall. It’s rather the sum total of a multitude of varied movements, among which are those that are good and those that are harmful; are revolutionaries in the true meaning of the word and reactionaries; are the healthy and the unhealthy. This is why revolutionary conformism is an impossibility, and from this flows double duty. I don’t mean by this that a pseudo-revolutionary conformism can’t attempt to impose itself, but that it would be in contradiction with the profound nature of the workers’ revolution and would only succeed in imposing itself to the detriment of the collective. One must always and simultaneously defend the most generous, the most elevated interests of the movement, stand firm against the principal enemy, and defend the movement from within against its own maladies, against the polluting of organizations, against dumbing-down, against petty interests, our own errors, and our own failings… Precisely because it had within it prodigious energy, because it intelligently harnessed and guided that of the masses on the march, Bolshevism, despite its unity of thought and discipline, was always prey to contradictory tendencies. While some of them opened the way to history’s most beautiful futures, others clearly led it to its destruction…It must be said: the seeds of death it bore within itself were always visible.
1. Trotsky’s criticisms are addressed at anarchists tout court. A simple concern for reality should have led him to distinguish within the Spanish revolution between anarchists and anarchists. Berneri and Barberi should not be confused with the ministers of the CNT-FAI. Is this not obvious?
2. – Translator’s note: there is nothing corresponding to footnote 2 in the existing manuscript.
3. Didn’t Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin announce often enough the decomposition of the Third International, that “political corpse!” But the Communist International succumbed to an extremely fast-acting gangrene.


One thought on “Victor Serge’s 1940 polemic against Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours (1938)

  1. holtian2014 says:

    I am also a former member of the WRP, though one who fortunately got out before all the shit hit the fan. Just a word to suggest that, whilst of interest, your writing is at times marred and consequently lessened in its impact by some serious technical and grammatical errors. In some instances rendering the meaning unintelligable, and therefore easily dismissed: not necessarily as Marxist gobbledegook, it’s the great man’s writing that came into that category, but as semi literate and therefore unworthy of serious theoretical consideration.


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