le rétif: the secret life of victor serge

by Ernie Haberkern

In the early 1960s when I joined the socialist movement I was attracted to the “Third Camp” anti-Stalinist tendency in the American movement. One of the first books I read was Memoirs of a Revolutionary which had recently been translated into English by Peter Sedgwick. The author was Victor Serge a widely respected victim of Stalin’s purges, one of the few who survived to tell the tale. He also had a reputation as a “libertarian” among those on the American left who saw in the American IWW and the French Syndicalists the representatives of the “anti-authoritarian” tendency in the movement.

In describing the political situation in the early twenties in Russia Serge in Memoirs makes the following remarkable statement.

“… as long as the economic system remained intolerable for nine-tenths or so of the population, there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, whether in the Soviets or elsewhere. … we knew that the Party had been invaded by careerist, adventurist and mercenary elements who came over in swarms to the side that had the power. Within the Party the sole remedy to this evil had to be, and in fact was, the discreet dictatorship of the old, honest, and incorruptible members, in other words the Old Guard.” (Serge, Memoirs 188-119)

Here was a “libertarian” defending one-party rule using the standard stalinist rhetoric! And when the work was first published in French fifteen years had passed since Trotsky repudiated this argument in The Revolution Betrayed. (Trotsky, p. 96.) It didn’t make any sense. A few years later Professor Richard Greeman reviewed this book and a number of others by and about Serge for the American socialist journal New Politics. I wrote in a letter asking Greeman how he explained this and other quotes from Serge’s work. Greeman’s reply was, to paraphrase, “you think that’s bad you ought to look at the collection called Le Rétif”. (New Politics, p. 171 )

I picked up a copy of the book and the mystery was solved.

The real politics of Victor Serge are muted in his best known works—the only ones which have been translated into English— because they were written for an audience that considered itself Marxist, actively supported the Socialist and Communist Parties, and was heavily involved in the trade union movement at all levels. Serge was an anarchist. He was philosophically an anti-Marxist, contemptuous of political parties, and considered trade unions, even trade unions run by his anarchist comrades, at best, a waste of time. To state these positions openly in the late 30s and 40s—the period of his greatest political influence—would have cost him his audience.

But, from 1909 until 1914, Serge wrote extensively for the anarchist press. In fact, during this time he was one of the main editors as well as a principal contributor to the weekly, l’anarchie. In these pages, and those of other “libertarian” journals of the day, his political point of view, his “libertarian” communism, appears in all its glory. These writings were long buried in the archives, but in 1991 an anthology of Serge’s writings from this period consisting of some 30 articles from l’anarchie, along with a handful of others which appeared in Le Communiste, Le Révolté and Les Réfractaires was published. The title of the book is Le Rétif. This was Serge’s pen name and it means a horse or mule that refuses to be broken. These articles have never appeared in English. It is hard to see why anyone would want to translate them since the result would be to tarnish the reputation of the author.

One of the articles, entitled l’ouvriérisme, which can be translated “workerism” but more accurately in today’s jargon “class-reductionism,” sums up “libertarianism” as well as anything.

“The anarchists are not workerists. To them it is puerile to place on a pedestal the workers whose despicable apathy is probably more responsible for the universally miserable state of things than the rapacity of the privileged. …

“We are not sympathizers of the workers anymore than we are of their masters. They are just as ignorant and apathetic, their physical and moral decay more pitiful. It is the slaves who create the masters, the people the governments, the workers the employers—it is the weak, the stupid, the degenerates who create this swamp of a society and force us to swim in it!

“They don’t know how to behave any other way. They don’t know any other way to live. Only the elite minority made up of those healthy individuals with minds cleared of rubbish and with burning energy can lead humanity towards happiness by their superior lives…

“And what has to be done is to support this minority of anarchists against brutalization by the bourgeoisie, the workers, and the workerists.

“So, let us go among the plebeians, sowing at random the seed of revolt. And the minority in which there still remains some strength, they will come to us, swelling the ranks of the lovers of life and the fighters for life. … As for the others—the majority—they will spend their life in routine, servility, and stupidity—but what do we care?” (Serge, Le Rétif, pp. 105-106.)

Serge, for his audience, does not even have to draw the conclusion that electoral politics is nothing but currying favor with the ignorant rabble. But he did have to address himself to the appeal of militant unionism since a significant segment of the anarchist movement was attracted to it. Especially since anarchists, or people claiming to be anarchists, were a dominant force in the French union movement. In an article entitled “Our Antisyndicalism,” (Serge, Le Rétif, p.107) Serge uses the same argument from the inferiority of the masses, especially the working class, to demonstrate that unions are as much a dead end as electoral politics. The pressure of the ignorant mass will inevitably turn the unions into conservative defenders of a privileged caste.

So what does the enlightened anarchist elite do if electoral politics and trade unionism are rejected. How does it demonstrate its superiority? Well, there is journalism, of course. But, to what end? To inflame the masses? Impossible! The masses are sheep. To recruit other anarchists? And what do they do? There is, after all, a limited market for libertarian journals.

Several of Serge’s comrades on the editorial board of l’anarchie solved this problem in the fashion that was traditional among individualist anarchists in the waning years of the nineteenth century and the beginning years of the twentieth. They staged a series of holdups. In the course of one, and this too was part of the ritual, they shot and killed a cashier.

Serge, by all accounts, took no part in the action and was not aware of what his comrades were doing. Personally, he claimed to have been appalled by what had happened. Nevertheless, he jumped to the defense of his comrades. They were men. They had rebelled against this soul-destroying society.

“The bandit is a man. We have seen some workers’ demonstrations dispersed by the cops with a kick! And for some workers the bosses loud voice suffices! …

“But then there are the bandits! A few separate themselves from the crowd, determined not to waste the precious hours of their lives in servitude. They choose to fight. And, without mincing words, they go and take the money that confers power. They dare. They attack. Often they pay for it. In any event, they are alive.” (Serge, Le Rétif, p.164.)

Unlike the pitiful, ignorant, apathetic prolo who got shot.

Serge was convicted as an accomplice after the fact and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. But he continued to write as if the bandit were the only real revolutionary.

“You have to understand! You finally have to realize that we are the barbarian vanguard in present day society; that we have no respect for virtue, morality, honesty; that we are outside law and rules. You oppress us, you persecute us, you hunt us down. Always the rebels find themselves faced with the sad choice: submit, that is give up their freedom and enter the wretched troop of the exploited or take up the fight with the entire social organism.” (Serge, Le Rétif, p. 184.)

Throughout his life Serge continued this pattern. His model rebel was not the political or trade union leader, the working-class organizer, but the man of action. And he considers the bandit, the criminal, whether motivated by anarchist ideals or not, the archetype of the man of action who refuses to be broken. And he continued to emphasize that it was the common herd and its slavish values that was the enemy even more than the oppressor. Serge himself, we note, was not such a man of action but only their literary apologist and champion.

But the bandit was not the only example of the man of action who was above the law and flaunted his contempt for the rules of society. (Serge constantly and deliberately refers to his enemy as “society,” not the capitalist class, not the bourgeoisie, not even “the state.”) The Third French Republic throughout its life faced the constant threat of a military dictator, a new Bonaparte. All classes of “society” contemplated the possibility with anxiety—tinged with hope. Serge took up this threat in an article titled “Waiting for the Dictator.”

“A dictator is necessary. They all need an adventurer without scruples and without principle who will dominate them completely with his arrogant cynicism. These bourgeois deserve a man who will come and violate their laws, their rights, their principles; these workers deserve a renegade who will suddenly appear to crush them under iron decrees; these rhetoricians of the Revolution deserve an audacious despot who will do away with their freedom of speech.

“They deserve him because they need him. One needs a Bandit by Law daring enough to proclaim from above his contempt for the law!

“Whether he comes or not makes no difference to us. We are above it all. …” (Serge, Le Rétif, p. 184.)

I defy anyone familiar with the history of the early fascist movement to read Le Rétif without feeling a shudder up the back of the neck.

The reader may be asking at this point; are these quotes typical of Serge? Are they taken out of context, perhaps? For anyone who can read French, even a little, I suggest a simple experiment. Get a copy of Le Rétif from the library. Toss the book on the floor so it opens to a random page. Pick up the book, close your eyes, and point. When you open your eyes you will see a passage that sounds pretty much like the ones quoted above. That is because there is nothing else in this collection. What else could there be? Comments on trade union struggles and government crises? Pantomimes to distract the sheep! When Serge does mention a real world event other than the exploits of anarchist bandits (his word not mine) it is simply to provide a lead-in to one of his discursions on his three themes; the gullibility of the masses, the duplicity of their leaders, and the anarchist elite’s contempt for both.

2. Bolshevik “Authoritarianism”

But wasn’t Serge a sympathetic critic of the Bolsheviks, like Rosa Luxemburg? Wasn’t he sensitive because of his “libertarian” background to the Bolsheviks’ “authoritarian” and anti-democratic tendencies. That, after all, is how he portrays himself. Now, it would take far too much space to do it here but it has been demonstrated elsewhere that anarchism is a thoroughly anti-democratic ideology and proudly so. (Draper, Karl Marx.) In any case, even the few quotes given above should give pause to anyone who thinks that Serge’s “libertarianism” would lead him to criticize the Bolsheviks from a democratic perspective.

But there is a more fundamental problem. In order to judge the validity of Serge’s criticism of the Bolsheviks don’t we have to ask: what did Serge know about the Bolsheviks? The answer to that question is—absolutely nothing.

It so happens that the crucial years in the formation of the party that led the revolution were the very years—1909 to 1914—that Serge was writing for the anarchist press. It was in these years that the political factions within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party hardened and their internal quarrels culminated in a final split. You will find no mention of the Bolsheviks in Serge’s articles of the time and it is unlikely that he had ever heard of them. If he had he would have not been interested. It was in these years that Lenin successfully won the overwhelming support of the organized working class in the legal trade union movement inside Russia. The final act in this drama was Lenin’s splitting of the social-democratic delegation in the Duma, the Russian parliament, into left and right factions over the question of support for the massive strike wave that began in 1910 which the Social Democratic leadership had opposed. Why would someone with Serge’s politics care about such “bourgeois” shenanigans?

When 1917 came Lenin had a working class base. The only other prominent emigré on the left who played any role in the Russian revolution at all was Trotsky. He had nothing but a faction of independents floating in mid-air and had no choice but to merge with the Bolsheviks. Not even the most rabid academic anti-Leninist denies that Lenin won a majority in the Soviets in 1917 by an open, democratic, political appeal to those Victor Serge had called “prolos.”[1]

3. Victor Serge and “Bolshevism”

Serge, now out of prison, was living in Spain when the Russian Revolution overthrew not only Czarism but capitalism. As it did the rest of the international left, the news affected him like a rejuvenating electric charge. Like practically everybody else on the left he knew next to nothing about Lenin or the Bolsheviks or what they stood for. Like everybody else on the left he saw in this upheaval the revolution he wanted. The Bolsheviks were men! Men of action. Not politicians or trade union bureaucrats. They had dared and fought and won while everybody else talked.

But didn’t Serge discover what “Bolshevism” was really all about when he arrived in Russia itself? No. By the time Serge arrived in revolutionary Russia in 1919 the Bolshevik party, like all the prewar parties and factions, had dissolved. All parties and tendencies during the civil war were split between those who supported the revolution and those who chose counterrevolution. The Communist Party was composed of all those who chose the revolution. And all who joined it brought their own politics with them when they joined. There were no loyalty oaths. No one was forced to renounce their past or their old programs. But the old programmatic differences were pretty much irrelevant anyway by 1919. Everything was subordinated to winning the war. Not to mention keeping the population of the country from starving to death. And by 1919 the overwhelming majority of Communist Party members were people who had never been part of the prewar movement. They knew as much about the “Bolshevism” of 1909-1914 as Serge did.

What was more important was that the civil war destroyed the organized working class that had been the base of Bolshevism. Trotsky later pointed out that the old, prewar trade union and party militants were inevitably absorbed into the military and civilian administration of the country. But there was more to it than that. The economic devastation caused by civil war and the international blockade of the country effectively destroyed the working class as a class. Paul Avrich points out that in Petrograd the industrial proletariat had fallen from 300,000 to 100,000 by 1920. And most of those left could only live by selling what they stole from the factories they worked in. ( Avrich, p. 24, 26. But the entire chapter on “The Crisis of War Communism” has to be read to appreciate the situation the regime faced.)

In short, the Communist Party had really become, by the time Serge arrived on the scene in 1919, a bizarre simulacrum of his prewar fantasies. The Party had become that energetic, enlightened moral elite fighting the good fight while the majority of the population was reduced to the most elemental and brutal struggle simply to find enough to eat. Imperialist war, civil war, and imperialist intervention had produced the kind of nightmare in reality that Serge had dreamed about in his anarchist writings. It never occurred to him that this “Bolshevism” he found was a product of the defeat of the revolution on a European wide scale. He never realized that this “Bolshevism” was what was left after Lenin’s old party had disappeared and the working class that produced it had been destroyed.

For a Marxist, the decay of the revolution and the victory of the counterrevolution were inevitable in such a situation. With the organized working class of 1914 reduced to prolos, those who had led the revolution could only be destroyed, driven into opposition and exile, or corrupted. But Serge had never been a Marxist. For him the decay of the Communist Party was nothing more than the moral decay of the moral elite. In one of his earliest discussions of “Bolshevism” he puts it very clearly.

“The formation of a Jacobin Party and the exclusivity of the dictatorship do not therefore appear to be inevitable; and everything henceforth depends on the ideas which inspire it [the party], on the men who carry out these ideas, and on the reality of control by the masses. …” (Serge, The Anarchists…, p. 107.)

What is being described here is “Stalinism with a human face.” How can one talk about “the reality of control by the masses” in a one-party state? One can argue that the presence of factions within the one party and the relatively free debate and contest for power within the one party provides a substitute for contending parties. And these contending factions in the middle 20s really did provide such an ersatz democracy. But the charade ends on the day when one faction decides to appeal to the masses over the head of the one party. That is what Trotsky’s opposition in 1923 threatened. And then all the old revolutionaries, “Marxist” or “Libertarian,” had to choose which side they were on.

It was in reference to this crisis, that Serge wrote the passage in Memoirs quoted above. He was only repeating his old arguments about the political incompetence of the prolos.

Of course, Serge was not the only one making such arguments in 1921. Former Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were making similar ones. But, as Marxists, they were abandoning their former principles. Le Rétif was not. When Serge made what he called the slow transition from anarchism to Marxism he did not abandon the notion that the incorruptible elite was the sole guardian of political virtue. What he abandoned was the anarchist rejection, at least in theory, of state power as a possible tool of the virtuous elite. Of course, the elite faced the possibility of corruption by state power. But for Serge this exercise of state power came to be seen as an almost saintly decision by the elite to risk their own souls for the good of suffering humanity. It never occurred to Serge’s anarchist mind that democratic control could prevent such corruption. Anarchists in general and Le Rétif in particular had always denied that democracy could ever be anything more than a sham. The prolos simply didn’t have it in them to rule; they would always be duped. Everything depended on the moral strength of the “Old Guard,” which was just another incarnation of the anarchist band. Serge’s transition from anarchism to pseudo-Marxism was made easier because under the pressure of civil war and famine the Communist Party itself had shelved the Marxist view of the state and its relation to democracy and working class power. Communists defended their one-party rule, conceived as either a temporary aberration or an inevitable stage in the transition to communism, with a new ideological invention called the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” It is clear that none of the participants in this debate knew what Marx had meant by it. (Draper, Dictatorship.) It sounded “hard” and seemed to justify a one party dictatorship which denied to a majority democratic rights. Serge’s discussion of this slogan contains some of the most wooden-headed and openly anti-democratic formulations.

“From the day when working-class militants of any tendency, leading the masses, overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie, then even if they are libertarians they will immediately have to organize supplies for the great cities, internal and external defense against the counter-revolution, in short, all the complex mechanisms of modern society. And they cannot rely on the consciousness, the goodwill or determination of those they have to deal with; for the masses who will follow them or surround them will be warped by the old regime, relatively uncultivated, often unaware, torn by feelings and instincts inherited from the past.” (Serge, The Anarchists … p. 92.)

Like Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev (and unlike Lenin) Serge insisted that this dictatorship, which he defines explicitly as the dictatorship of the conscious minority over the majority—not only of the population at large but of the working-class itself, is not simply a result of the peculiar situation in Russia. It is nothing more nor less than a law governing all revolutions. Serge points to Cromwell’s army and the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety as examples of this “law.” (Ibid.)

Serge goes so far as to use the terror of 1918-19 as proof that the Bolsheviks have adopted the anarchist position. After all, he argues, isn’t this just the application of the anarchist’s individual terrorism on a mass scale. (Serge, The Anarchists … p.96.) The suppression of the Constituent Assembly by the soviet power is also used for the same purpose. The soviets, like the prewar anarchists, have nothing but contempt for sham parliaments. Both the terror and the dismissal of the assembly are, of course, the result of the “iron laws” of revolution not the fortuitous circumstances of this particular revolution in this particular country.

Serge’s description of the Communist Party in the period of War Communism is brilliantly done. In his account of the siege of Petrograd, his account of The Year One of the Revolution and his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he not only describes the process of decay but, as a necessary part of that, what the Communist Party had really been like at the height of the civil war. This portrait not only condemns by contrast the Stalinism that followed but also shames the bourgeois detractors of the revolution.

But there are problems with Serge’s account. In the first place, it is an account from the inside. Serge went to work in 1920 for the Communist International as a translator and propagandist. His closest associates were Maxim Litvinov and Gregory Zinoviev. This was the foreign office of the revolution. These were the ambassadors of the revolution. And like all diplomats and ambassadors they were apologists for the regime. At one point Serge describes the Zinoviev opposition to which he belonged.

“Formed by functionaries who had been the first to apply the methods of constraint and corruption in the party, it was in large measure a coterie turned out of power, fighting to regain it and thereupon brought around to raising the great questions of principle.” (Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, pp. 118-119.)

Serge was himself one of these functionaries. He was not associated with either of the opposition groups that surfaced in 1920—The Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. Of course, he had just arrived on the scene and it is quite understandable that he would not want to get involved immediately in a factional dispute he only half understood. But he didn’t rally to Trotsky’s side in 1923 either. He claims, in his Memoirs Of a Revolutionary to have sympathized with the opposition but remained a loyal functionary. (Serge, Memoirs …, p.190.) He says he read and agreed with Trotsky’s Lessons of October and The New Course but then:

“… went on endlessly printing our news-sheets, with the same insipid, nauseating condemnations of what we knew to be true.” (Serge, Memoirs …, p.191.)

It was only when his boss Zinoviev went into (or, rather, was shoved into) opposition that Serge made an open break. And Serge’s description of Zinoviev’s role in the early 20s, both internationally as boss of the Comintern and internally as boss of Leningrad is, if anything, understated. Zinoviev was, after all, one of the main figures in the campaign of defamation against Trotsky in 1923.

This is not to accuse Serge of direct complicity in these campaigns—there is no evidence of that—nor to take anything away from the enormous courage and integrity he displayed in his subsequent career as an oppositionist. But it does raise a question of what Serge could have understood by “Bolshevism.” The “Bolshevism” he knew as Zinoviev’s collaborator in 1919-22, let alone the “Bolshevism” of 1923-1926, bore little resemblance to Lenin’s working class party of 1909-1917.

The point of this response to Susan Weissman’s book is not to denigrate a brave man whose works deserve to be read. But to blank out the troubling aspects of his political views is hagiography not history. Even more important is the relation of these politics to our current situation. The politics of the “militant minority” that have dominated the left in the developed countries since the late 1960s have left us as isolated from the mass movements of the working classes as we have ever been. It is a tradition that needs to be critically re-examined not glossed over.


Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.:New York, 1974.

Bonnel, Victoria E. Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900B1914. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983.

Draper, Hal. The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin. Monthly Review Press:New York, 1987.

Draper, Hal. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4 ch. 5,6. Monthly Review Press:New York, 1991.

New Politics (Second Series). Volume IV, Number 3, New Politics Association: Brooklyn, NY.

Serge, Victor. Le Rétif:Articles parus dans “l’anarchie” 1909-1912. Librairie Monnier:Paris, 1991. ed. & intro. by Yves Pagès.

Serge, Victor. Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Oxford University Press: London, Oxford, New York, 1975. ed. & tr. by Peter Sedgewick.

Serge, Victor. “The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution” in Revolution in Danger. Redwords:London, 1997. Trans. Ian Birchall.

Serge, Victor. Russia Twenty Years After, Humanities Press:Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1996.

Swain, Geoffrey. Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labour Movement, 1906-1914. The Macmillan Press Ltd.:London and Basingstoke, 1983.

[1]. This history is too complicated to detail here. There are two very good academic books on the subject, one by Victoria E. Bonnell, the other by Geoffrey Swain. Both authors are card-carrying Lenin-bashers but the story they tell gives the lie to the standard myths about “Bolshevism.”