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Gareth Jenkins


Deep differences

(June 1976)

From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1976.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Serge-Trotsky Papers: Correspondence and Other Writings between Victor Serge and Trotsky
Ed: David Cotterill
Pluto £14.95

Victor Serge was one of the very few revolutionaries to survive Stalinist persecution in Russia. He survived because his fiction and above all his account of the Bolshevik triumph in 1917, Year One of the Russian Revolution, had caused a stir in France. A vigorous campaign forced the Stalinist bureaucracy to release Serge from internal exile and in early 1936 to expel him from the Soviet Union. It was not a moment too soon. Had he remained he would undoubtedly have perished, like thousands of others, in the great purges which started later that year.

However, Serge’s problems were not over. In Belgium, where he first settled, and then in France, he was treated with suspicion by the authorities and the Stalinists continued to hound him in their press. His wife’s mental illness made their lives a misery. Politically, there were few outlets. The majority of left leaning intellectuals rallied to Stalin as the defender of the Popular Front against fascism. Criticism of the Soviet Union from a revolutionary point of view was taboo.

There remained only Leon Trotsky as a figure of any stature, a survivor, like Serge, from the heroic days of the revolution and like him an opponent of Stalinism. But Serge and Trotsky did not join in agreement and common work, despite the fact that Serge had rallied to the Left Opposition as early as 1923 and refused to capitulate when many others did go. They fell out over what line to take towards the Spanish revolutionary party, the POUM; over the significance of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921; and over the creation of the Fourth International, a new revolutionary international organisation to replace the Stalinist one.

This book tells the story of their disagreements and reproduces the relevant documents – letters and extracts from articles, some of which are published for the first time.

Who was right? David Cotterill and his fellow writers tend to accept Serge’s point of view and on the face of it Serge’s case was strong. The tiny groups adhering to Trotsky and the Fourth International were marginal to the working class and seemed to spend more time feuding with one another than directing their energies outwards. Serge felt that their sectarianism made genuine revolutionary work impossible. Better to operate with other left parties with some roots in the working class. In Spain this meant working with the POUM, a Marxist party with real influence amongst workers.

Serge came to feel that the persecution suffered by the Left Opposition was contaminating it. Intolerance to other tendencies on the left was replacing fraternal debate. Stalinist dogmatism was breeding a similar dogmatism among their Trotskyist victims. An unquestioning defence of everything that happened in revolutionary Russia while Lenin and Trotsky were at the helm was becoming a new orthodoxy to rival the Stalinist orthodoxy. Not even Trotsky, for whom Serge continued to profess the greatest admiration, was, he felt, exempt from this tendency.

Serge appears open-minded and Trotsky impervious to debate in this reading of their differences. It is easy to find evidence to back this up. There is, for instance, Trotsky’s furious personal attack over the misleading summary inserted in front of Serge’s translation of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours.

But Serge’s case is overall a weak one. It is clear that Serge concentrates on matters such as Trotsky’s style of argument and failure to acknowledge errors of fact, to avoid facing up to Trotsky’s searching political questions. Trotsky argued that the POUM’s policy of entering the Spanish Popular Front was disastrous and that its failure would ruin the Spanish Revolution’s chances of victory.

And so it proved. Serge preferred being ‘unsectarian’ but politically evasive towards the leaders of the POUM instead of reinforcing Trotsky’s unsparing analysis. The result could only be, for someone so closely connected with Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition, to sow confusion.

The same is true of Kronstadt. Either the suppression of the mutiny was necessary to avoid counter-revolution or it was not. Again Serge was evasive: to read his comments is to see him trying to have the best of both worlds.

No wonder Trotsky was so exasperated. Even Serge’s assessment of the Fourth International was unsatisfactory. He could have used his immense talents and his experience to work to overcome its sectarianism. Instead he frittered them on keeping in with centrist forces, which, though larger and more working class, stood the test of struggle less well than the Fourth International.

The book’s value is that it gives us more of Serge’s writings. Yet its implicit claim, that Serge’s criticism of Trotsky has real weight, is unsustainable.

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Last updated: 2 May 2017