Victor Serge

What everyone should know about repression

3. Simple advice to revolutionaries


The great Russian Bolsheviks choose to describe themselves as “professional revolutionaries”. It is a description perfectly suited to all real agents of social transformation. It rules out from revolutionary activity all dilettantism, amateurism, playing about and posturing; it locates the revolutionary irrevocably in the world of labour, where there is no question of “airs”, nor of finding interesting ways to fill up one’s leisure time, nor the spiritual or moral pleasure of holding “advanced” ideas. For those who do this work, their job (or profession) fills the best part of their life. They know it is a serious business and that their daily bread depends on it; they also know, with varying degrees of consciousness, that the whole social life and destiny of men depends on it too.

The job of a revolutionary requires a long apprenticeship, gaining purely technical knowledge, as well as love for the work and understanding of the cause, the means and the end. If, as often happens, he is obliged to take another job – in order to live – it is the job of being a revolutionary which fills his life, and the other job is only something secondary. The Russian Revolution was able to triumph because in twenty-five years of political activity it had formed strong teams of professional revolutionaries, trained to carry out an almost superhuman labour.

The truth of this experience must always be borne in mind by any revolutionary worthy of the name. In the present complexity of the class war, the training of a revolutionary needs years of effort, testing out, study and conscious preparation. Every worker spurred on by the desire not to be an insignificant bystander among the exploited masses, but to serve his class and live a fuller life, taking part in the fight to transform society, must endeavour to be also – so far as possible – a professional revolutionary ... And in his party, trade union or branch work, he must – and this is what concerns us today – show himself to be on his guard against police surveillance and uncover it, even when it is invisible and appears to be innocuous, as it does in periods of calm.

The following recommendations may be very useful to him in this. They are not however a complete code of the rules of clandestinity, nor even of precautions to be taken by revolutionaries. They contain no sensational recipe. They are simply basic rules. Strictly speaking, common sense should be enough to suggest them. But unfortunately, long experience teaches us that it is not out of place to spell them out.

Carelessness on the pan of revolutionaries has always been the best aid the police have.



I. Being tailed

Secret surveillance, following someone, which is the basis of all surveillance, is almost always easy to detect. Every revolutionary must regard himself as being permanently followed: on principle he should never neglect to take the necessary precautions to prevent being followed. In big towns, where there is a lot of traffic, and where there are various means of transport, successful tailing can only be due to culpable negligence on the pan of comrades.

The simplest rules are:

It is not difficult to “plant” agents in a small town; but when it becomes obvious, such surveillance loses most of its value.

Get rid of the preconceived image of the “secret policeman”. Often they are quite easily identifiable. But good “tails” can adapt to any variety of jobs. The most ordinary passer-by, the worker in overalls, the street-hawker, driver or soldier may be a policeman. Be aware that women, youth, even children may be used for following people. We know of a Russian police circular recommending the use of schoolchildren on missions the police could not carry out without being noticed.

Be on guard also against the tiresome mania for seeing an informer in every passer-by.



II. Correspondence and notes

Write down as little as possible. It’s better not to write. Don’t take notes on sensitive subjects: it’s better sometimes to forget certain things than to take them down in writing. With that in mind, practise remembering addresses and especially street numbers by mnemonics.

Notebooks. Where necessary, take notes which are intelligible only to yourself. Everyone can invent ways of abbreviating, and inverting or transposing numbers (24 for 42; 1 for g, g for 1, etc.). Give your own names to streets, squares etc: to reduce the margin of error go by association of ideas (Blackie Street will become Dark Street, Thorne will become Prickly or Spiny, etc.).<7p>

Letters. With correspondence, take into account that your mail will be opened. Say as little as possible, and endeavour to make yourself understood only by the addressee. Mention no third persons unless necessary. If it is necessary, remember that a forename is better than a surname, and that an initial – especially a common one – is better than a forename.

Change around your usual addresses.

Avoid all details (about places, work, dates, people etc).

Learn to resort, even without prior agreement, to what should always be very simple stratagems for trivialising information. Don’t say, for example: “Comrade Peter has been arrested,” but “Uncle P. has suddenly fallen ill”.

Get letters sent to you through a third person.

Seal letters well. Don’t think that wax seals are an absolute guarantee; make them very thin; the thicker ones are easier to lift off.

One good method is to sew the letter into the back of the envelope and cover the thread with an elegant wax seal.

Always remember: “Give me three lines of a man’s handwriting and I’ll see him swing.” – An axiom familiar to all police forces.



III. General conduct

- Beware of telephones. It’s the easiest thing for them to tap them.

Telephone conversations between two public phones (in cafes, call-boxes, stations) present less problems.

Don’t make appointments over the telephone except in prearranged terms.

- Get to know places well. Where necessary, study them beforehand. Remember houses, passageways, public places (stations, museums, cafes, stores) with a number of exits.

- In public places, on trains, on private visits, be aware of the possibilities of being observed and therefore pay attention to the lighting. Try to see without being seen. It’s good where you can to sit behind the light: you can see better and at the same time you’re less visible. It is not a good idea to appear at a window.



IV. Among comrades

Make it a principle that, in illegal activity, a revolutionary should know only what it is useful for him to know; and that it is often dangerous to know or to tell more.

The less is known about a job, the greater its security and its chance of success.

Be on guard against the inclination to give away confidences.

Know how to keep quiet: keeping quiet is a duty to the party, to the revolution.

Know how to forget of your own accord what you should not know.

It is a mistake, which may have serious consequences, to tell your closest friend, girlfriend or most trusty comrade a party secret which it is not indispensable for them to know. Sometimes you may be doing them wrong; because you are responsible for what you know, and it may be a heavy responsibility.

Don’t take offence or get annoyed at another comrade’s silence. This isn’t a sign of lack of confidence, but rather of fraternal esteem and of what should be a mutual consciousness of revolutionary duty.



V. In the event of arrest

At all costs keep cool. Don’t let yourself get intimidated or provoked.

Don’t reply to any question without having a defence counsel present and without previously consulting with him. If possible, he should be a party comrade. If this isn’t possible, don’t say anything without really thinking about it. In the old days all the revolutionary papers in Russia published, in large type, the constant recommendation: “Comrades, make no statements! Say nothing!”

As a matter of principle: say nothing.

Explaining yourself is dangerous; you are in the hands of professionals able to get something out of your every word. Any explanation’ gives them valuable documentation.

Lying is extremely dangerous: it is difficult to construct a story without its defects being too obvious. It is almost impossible to improvise.

Don’t try to be cleverer than them: the relationship of forces is too unequal for that.

Old jailbirds write this strong recommendation on prison walls, for the revolutionary to learn from: “Never confess!”

When you deny anything, deny it firmly.

Remember that the enemy is capable of anything. [1]

Don’t let yourself be surprised or disconcerted by the classic: “We know everything!”

This is never the case. It is a barefaced trick used by all police forces and all examining magistrates with all those under arrest.

Don’t be intimidated by the eternal threat: “You’ll pay for this!”

What you’ll pay for is a confession, or a clumsy explanation, or falling for tricks and moments of panic: but whatever the situation of the accused, a hermetically sealed defence, built up out of much silence and a few definite affirmations or denials, can only help.

Don’t believe a word of another classic ploy: “We know everything because your Comrade So and So has talked!”

Don’t believe a word of it, even if they try to prove it. With a few carefully selected clues, the enemy is capable of feigning a profound knowledge of things. Even if So and So did “tell all”, this is a further reason to be doubly circumspect.

You know nothing or as little as possible about the people they are asking about.

In confrontations, keep cool. Don’t show surprise.

Again: say nothing.

Never sign a document without having read it right through and understood it fully. If you have the slightest doubt, refuse to sign.

If the accusation is groundless – which often happens – don’t get indignant: leave it as it is rather than challenge it. Apart from this do nothing without the help of counsel, who should be a comrade.



VI. Before judges and police

Don’t give way to the inclination instilled by bourgeois idealist education to establish or re-establish “the truth”.

In the social conflict there is no truth in common between the exploited classes and the exploiters.

There is no truth – great or small – no impersonal, supreme, imperative truth which stands above the class struggle.

For the property-owning class, truth is their right: their right to exploit, plunder, legislate, imprison those who want a better future, mercilessly beat down those who spread class consciousness among the proletariat. Any lie which suits them, they call the truth. Scientific truth, say their sociologists, is the eternal nature of individual property (abolished by the soviets). Legal truth is the revolting lie of the equality of rich and poor before the law. Official truth is the impartiality of justice: the arm of one class against the rest.

Their truth is not ours.

Before the judges of the bourgeois class, the revolutionary does not have to account for his acts nor does he have to respect any so-called truth of theirs. He is forced to appear before them. He suffers violence. His only concern, here too, must be the working class. For the working class, he can speak, turn the dock into a rostrum, turn himself from the accused into the accuser. For the working class, he must also know how to keep silent. Or defend himself intelligently in order, with his freedom, to regain the possibility of action.

We owe truth only to our own comrades, our own class, our own party.

Faced with the judges and the police, do not forget that they are the servants of the rich, doing the dirtiest jobs for them.

That if they are the strongest, we are unquestionably right against them.

That they slavishly defend an iniquitous, evil order, doomed by the course of history itself.

Whereas we are working for the only noble cause of our times: the transformation of the world by the emancipation of labour.



VII. Ingenuity

The application of these few rules requires a quality every revolutionary should try to cultivate: ingenuity.

... A comrade arrives at a watched house and goes up to the fourth floor flat. He barely gets to the stairs, when three suspicious-looking characters start following him. They are going the same way. On the second floor the comrade stops, knocks at a doctor’s door and asks about surgery hours. The coppers carry on.

Followed in a Petrograd street and about to be apprehended by his pursuers, a revolutionary suddenly darts into a doorway, brandishing a back object in his hand. “Watch out – it’s a bomb!” The pursuers draw back. The man being followed disappears down a passage: the house has two exits. He gets away. His bomb was nothing but his rolled-up hat!

In a country where all communist literature is banned, a bookseller shows a customer John Rockefeller’s memoirs: How I became a millionaire. From the fourth page on, the text is by Lenin: The road of insurrection.



VIII. A supreme warning

Be on your guard against conspiracy mania, against posing, adopting airs of mystery, dramatising simple events, or “conspiratorial” attitudes. The greatest virtue in a revolutionary is simplicity, and scorn for all poses ... including “revolutionary” and especially conspiratorial poses.




1. When Igor Sazonov planted his bomb under von Plehve’s carriage (Petersburg, 1905), the minister was killed and the terrorist seriously injured. When they took him to the hospital, the wounded man was surrounded by skilled spies, who were ordered to take down every word he uttered in his delirium. As soon as Sazonov recovered consciousness, he was brutally interrogated. From prison he wrote to his comrades: “Remember that the enemy is infinitely vile!” The Okhrana even had the audacity to send false lawyers to the accused.


Last updated on 21.3.2004