July 14, 2012


Red or dead. : a review of Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (JOHN GRAY, 27 JUNE 2012, New Statesman)

"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". [...]

Though he does not put himself at the centre of this extraordinary story, the strand that links everything together is Serge himself - a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history. In moral terms, there can be no doubt that he was on a higher plane than the Bolshevik leaders.

At the same time, possibly for that very reason, Serge was consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop. Lenin and Trotsky knew that revolution is by nature a ruthlessly violent and inherently undemocratic business. Without firing squads, mass imprisonment, the use of family members as hostages (a technique pioneered by Trotsky to secure the loyalty of the Red Army in the civil war) and the routine use of torture by the Cheka, the Soviet regime would have been overthrown soon after it came to power."

Had Gorbachev realized that glasnost would unleash the Sergian insight--that the Revolution was rotten from the start--he never would have allowed it.
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Posted by at July 14, 2012 7:19 AM

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