The Cement of Morality: Kronstadt rears its ugly head again

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01/02/2019 by socialistfight

Kronstadt rears its ugly head again. Here is an extract from a piece on Trotsky’s Their morals and ours, essential reading for every serious revolutionary:
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 takes 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 winning 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.

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