Victor Serge

What everyone should know about repression

2. The problem of illegality


I. Don’t be fooled

Without a clear perspective on this problem, knowledge of police methods and procedures would be of no practical utility.

Fetishism of legality was and still is one of the characteristic features of the class-collaboration tendency of socialism. It involves a belief in the possibility of transforming the capitalist order without entering into conflict with its privileged elements. But rather than indicating a naivety quite incompatible with the mentality of politicians, it is a sign of the corruption of the leaders. Entrenched in a society they pretend to be fighting, they recommend respecting the rules of the game. The working class can only respect bourgeois legality if it ignores the real role of the state and the deceptive nature of democracy; in short, the first principles of the class struggle.

If the worker knows that the state is a mesh of institutions designed to defend the interests of the property owners against the non-owners, that is, to maintain the exploitation of labour; that the law, always decreed by the rich against the poor, is enforced by magistrates invariably belonging to the ruling class; that the law is invariably enforced along rigorous class lines; that coercion, which begins with a quiet order from a policeman, passes via the lockup and the penitentiary, and ends with the fall of the guillotine – is the systematic exercise of legalised violence against the exploited, then the only way the worker can view legality is as a fact, whose different facets he should know about, with its different applications, traps and pitfalls (and also advantages, which should be made use of at certain points) but which should be nothing but a purely material obstacle to his class.

Is it necessary to demonstrate the anti-proletarian nature of all bourgeois legality? Perhaps. In our unequal struggle against the old world, the simplest things must be explained again and again each day. We need only mention a number of fairly well-known facts.

In every country, the workers’ movement has had to win, in over half a century of struggle, the right to associate and the right to strike. Even in France this right is still not conceded to state- employed workers nor those in industries considered to be of public utility (as if all industries aren’t), such as the railwaymen.

In the conflicts between capital and labour, the army has often intervened against labour – never against capital.

In court the defence of the poor is nothing short of impossible, because of the cost of any judicial action; in effect, a worker can neither bring a case nor defend one.

The overwhelming majority of crimes are directly caused by poverty and come into the category of attacks on property. The overwhelming majority of prison inmates are from the poor.

Up until the war, there was discriminatory suffrage in Belgium; a capitalist, a curate, an officer or a lawyer each had as many votes as two or three workers. At the time of writing an attempt is being made to re-establish discriminatory suffrage in Italy.

To respect legality such as this is to be fooled by it.

... Nonetheless, it would be equally disastrous to ignore it. The advantages for the workers’ movement are the greater the less one is fooled. The right to exist and to act legally is, for the organisations of the proletariat, something which must constantly be re-won and extended. We stress this because sometimes among good revolutionaries there emerges the diametrical opposite of fetishising legality – due to a kind of tendency to make the least political effort (it is easier to conspire than to lead mass action) they have a certain disdain for legal action.

We believe that in countries where the reaction has not yet triumphed, destroying the previous democratic constitution, the workers will have to fight to defend every inch of their legal position, and in other countries fight to regain it. In France itself, the legal status the workers’ movement enjoys must be extended, and this can only be done through struggle. The right of association and the right to strike are still denied to state employees and certain other categories of workers; the right to demonstrate is much more restricted than in the Anglo-Saxon countries; the advanced guards of workers’ defence have still not conquered the streets and gained legality as in Germany and Austria.



II. The postwar experience: don’t be taken unawares

During the war the governments of all the belligerent countries replaced democratic institutions by military dictatorship (martial law, the virtual suppression of the right to strike, prorogation or recess of parliaments, handing over all power to the generals and the court- martial regimes). The exceptional requirements of national defence gave them a plausible justification. Since the end of the war, when the red tide surging out from Russia flowed out over the whole of Europe, almost all the capitalist states – this time fighting the class war, and under threat from the workers’ movement – treated their previously sacred legislation as worth less than the paper it was written on.

The Baltic states (Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) and Poland, Roumania and Yugoslavia brought out against the working class brutal laws untainted with democratic hypocrisy. Bulgaria refined the effects of its brutal legislation with extra-legal violence. Hungary, Italy and Spain were content with abolishing, so far as the workers and peasants were concerned, any legality whatsoever. More cultivated, and better organised, Germany, without resorting to special powers, established what can be called a regime of legal-police terror. [1] The United States brutally applies its laws on “criminal unionism”, sabotage and ... espionage! Thousands of workers were arrested under an Espionage Act passed during the war against German subjects living in the USA.

The only countries left in Europe where the labour movement still enjoys the benefits of democratic legality, are Scandinavia, England, France and a few small countries. It can be said without fear of being disproved by events, that with the first really dangerous social crisis this advantage will be promptly and abruptly withdrawn. Very definite signs have appeared which demand our attention. In November 1924, the British elections took place on the basis of an anti- communist campaign, the basic evidence for which was a forged letter from Zinoviev, supposedly addressed to the British Labour Party and intercepted by the state. In France there have on several occasions been attempts to dissolve the CGT. If I am not mistaken, this dissolution even received formal approval. Briand in his time even – illegally – went so far as to militarise the railwaymen, in order to break their strike. Clemenceau’s tactics are not something belonging to the distant past – and Poincaré has shown, since the occupation of the Ruhr, an evident desire to imitate him.

Now, for a revolutionary party, being taken unawares by being outlawed means that you disappear. On the other hand, being prepared for illegality makes you certain of surviving any measures of repression. Three striking examples from recent history illustrate the truth of this.

  1. A great Communist Party which allowed itself to be taken unawares when made illegal:
    The Yugoslav CP, a mass party, which in 1920 had more than 120,000 members and 60 deputies in the Skupchina, was dissolved in 1921, in compliance with the State Defence Law. Its defeat was instant and total. It disappeared from the political scene. [2]
  2. A Communist Party which was taken only half unawares:
    The Italian Communist Party was obliged, even before Mussolini’s rise to power, to pursue what was at best a semi-legal existence, because of fascist persecution. The furious repression – with 4,000 workers arrested in the first week of 1923 – was at no point able to smash the PCI, which on the contrary was strengthened and fortified, its membership rising from 10,000 in 1923 to almost 30,000 at the beginning of 1925.
  3. A great Communist Party which was not in the least taken unawares:
    At the end of 1923, after the revolutionary events of October and the Hamburg insurrection, the German CP was dissolved by General von Seeckt. Prepared over a long period, and with flexible, illegal organisations, it was nonetheless able to continue its normal existence. The government soon had to reconsider a measure of such evident inanity. The German CP came out of illegality with its forces hardly impaired, to get over three and a half million votes in the 1924 elections.



III. The limits of legal revolutionary action

What is more, legality, in the most “advanced” capitalist democracies, has limits which the proletariat cannot respect without condemning itself to defeat. Propaganda in the army, a vital necessity, is not legally tolerated. Without the defection of at least a part of the army, there is no victorious revolution. This is a law of history. In every bourgeois army, the party of the proletariat must arouse and cultivate revolutionary traditions, possess extensive organisations, tenacious in their work, and more vigilant than the enemy. The most democratic of legal systems would not in the least tolerate action committees at the very points where they are most necessary: in the great railway junctions, the docks, the arsenals and the airports. The most democratic of legal systems does not tolerate communist propaganda in the colonies: as proof, take the persecution of the Egyptian and Indian revolutionaries by the British authorities; and also the regime of police provocation established by the French authorities in Tunisia. Finally, it need scarcely be said that international communications services must at all times be subject to investigation by the political police.

Nobody maintained the need for illegal revolutionary organisation more firmly than Lenin – in the period of the founding of the Russian Bolshevik Party and later, during the founding of the European Communist Parties. Nobody fought harder against the fetishism of legality. At the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democracy (in Brussels and London, 1903), the division between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks took shape precisely over the question of illegal organisation. The motive was the discussion of the first paragraph of the statutes. L. Martov, who for twenty years was to be the leader of Menshevism, wanted to concede membership of the party to anyone which lent it his services (under the control of the party) – that is, in reality, to the many sympathisers, especially in intellectual circles, who would try not to compromise themselves to the point of collaborating in illegal actions. Intractably, Lenin maintained that to belong to the party it was necessary “to participate in the work of one of its (illegal) organisations”. The discussion appeared to be splitting hairs. But Lenin was a thousand times right. You cannot be half or a third a revolutionary. The party of the revolution must, of course, make use of every contribution; but it cannot be content with receiving just vague, discreet, verbal, inactive sympathy from its members. Those who do not agree to risk a privileged material situation for the sake of the working class, should not be in a position to exercise real influence within it. The attitude towards illegality was for Lenin the touchstone for differentiating between real revolutionaries and ... others. [3]



IV. Private police forces

Another factor must be taken into account: the existence of private police forces outside the law and able to provide the bourgeoisie with excellent hired guns.

During the world war, the information service of Action Française was notably successful in supplying Clemenceau’s courts-martial. It is well known that Marius Plateau was at the head of AF’s private police. Meanwhile, a certain Jean Maxe, the zealous compiler and distributor of the Cahiers de l’antifrance, devoted himself to spying on the vanguard movements. [4] It is very likely that all the reactionary formations inspired by the example of the. Italian fascists have espionage and police services.

In Germany, since the official disarming of the country, the essential forces of reaction have been concentrated in extremely secretive organisations. The reaction has understood that, even in parties supported by the State, clandestinity is a precious asset. Naturally all these organisations take on the functions of virtual undercover police forces against the proletariat.

In Italy, the fascist party is not content with having the official police at its disposal. It has its own espionage and counter-espionage services. Everywhere it spreads informers, secret agents, provocateurs and police spies. And it is this mafia, police and terrorists all in one, which “suppressed” Matteotti – as it had many others.

In the United States, the participation of the private police in the conflicts between labour and capital has grown fearfully. The offices of famous private detectives provide the capitalists with discreet informers, expert provocateurs, riflemen, guards, foremen and also totally corrupt “trade union militants”. The Pinkertons, Burns and Thiels detective agencies have 100 head offices and about 10,000 branches: they supposedly employ 135,000 people. Their annual budget comes to $65 million. They have set up industrial espionage, factory-floor espionage, espionage in the workshop, the shipyards, offices, and wherever there are workers employed. They have created the prototype of the worker-informer. [5]

An analogous system, exposed by Upton Sinclair, operates in the universities and schools of the great democracy whose praises are sung by Walt Whitman ...



V. Conclusions

To sum up: the study of the workings of the Okhrana shows us that the immediate aim of the police is more to know than to repress. To know in order to repress at the appointed hour, to the extent desired – if not altogether. Faced by this wily adversary, powerful and cunning, a workers’ party lacking clandestine organisation, a party which keeps nothing hidden, is like an unarmed man, with no cover, in the sights of a well-positioned rifleman. Revolutionary work is too serious to be kept in a glasshouse. The party of the revolution must organise so as to avoid enemy vigilance as far as possible; so as to hide its most important resources absolutely; so as not – in the countries which are still democratic – to be at the mercy of a lurch to the right by the bourgeoisie or of a declaration of war [6]; so as to train our comrades in the behaviour which is demanded by these imperatives.





1. A circular from the minister, Jarres, in 1924, authorised the state forces to hound and arrest all revolutionary workers. It is a known fact that this led to the arrest of about 7,000 communists.

2. The Yugoslav CP reorganised in illegality. It now has several thousand members.

3. See V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?

4. Jean Maxe was identified by the magazine Les Humbles. He was one Jean Didier, resident in Paris (XVIIIth arrondissement). To tell the truth, his laborious compilations on the “Clartist-Judeo-Germanic-Bolshevik plot” (!) are more like cheap thrillers than serious police investigations. However, the French bourgeoisie appreciated them.

5. See S. Howard and Robert W. Dunn, The Labour Spy, in The New Republic, New York; and the novel by Upton Sinclair, 100%.

6. Henceforth in the great capitalist countries, every war will tend to turn more and more into a domestic class war. To militarise industry and place the whole nation on a war alert requires first that the revolutionary workers’ movement be crushed. I have attempted to show, in a series of articles on the coming war, that militarisation will mean a strangling of the workers’ movement as quickly as possible. Only parties, unions and organisations which have prepared for it will survive this blow. It would be wise to make a thorough investigation of these questions.


Last updated on 22.3.2004