By Martyn Hudson
Sacha Ismail raises some issues in his response to my brief introduction to Serge (Letters, Solidarity 219). I will be raising the issue of Kronstadt in a future piece but will briefly respond to some issues now.
The Reiss affair is significant not only in the manner of his death but also because Ignace Reiss exemplified the best aspects of a Bolshevik party as it was being destroyed by Stalinism. Suzi Weissman is currently completing a long article on the Zborowski/Etienne affair and this will look in detail at Sneevliet and Serge.
To describe Sneevliet as a quasi-Trotskyist is rather unfair. He was a member of the Left Opposition and after opposing Trotsky on a number of issues left the camp of the Fourth International — specifically on the question of the POUM.
I agree with Sacha on the question of the POUM. The problem lies in the fact that much of Serge’s work is neglected within Trotskyism because he got it wrong on some questions. It means that his debate with Trotsky on Kronstadt, for example, is neglected as is his early work on the nature of the Soviet Union — because Serge is perceived as a “moralist” or a renegade.
Elsa Poretsky, Reiss’s wife, sums up an attitude to Serge that is still current on the left: “Serge’s natural curiosity had made him keep seeing all kinds of people, Party members, ex-Party members, former anarchists, every kind of oppositionist, until the day he was arrested in Leningrad in 1933. Some considered this showed courage, others irresponsibility. It was probably a bit of both, but carrying on as he did exposed others as well as himself to danger. More baffling still was the fact that Serge had managed to come out of the Soviet Union in 1936. We continued to have doubts about him,” (Poretsky, Our Own People).
The whiff of capitulation and betrayal stayed with Serge. It was asked, why was he released? There were grounds to be doubtful of him at the time, particularly in the atmosphere of paranoia in the European opposition outside of the USSR. There is no reason to be doubtful now, as he provides an unparalleled glimpse into the “midnight of the century” — the early life of the Left Opposition, his writings on Germany, his discussion of Kronstadt, his early insights into a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the USSR.
Equally, any current analysis of Serge has also to take on board Trotsky’s arrogant disdain and highhandedness when dealing with his erstwhile allies, including Serge. His inability to understand and effectively fight against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy, imprisoned as he was with analogies with the French revolution, with Thermidor and Bonapartism, led to a less clearsighted analysis of the Soviet social formation than Serge. The Serge who was talking to oppositionists in the camps, people who were desperately trying to think through their thwarted revolution.
Certainly one of the key things that Serge wanted to do was to argue that there were breaks and continuities between Bolshevism and Stalinism.
In understanding the October revolution as a huge step forward for the working class, and seeing many of its measures as a commune state fighting for its life, I also totally accept that Stalinism was born of Leninism and October and that the whole idea of a Stalinist counter-revolution is misplaced. The rise of the Cheka, the death penalty, the ordering of arbitrary massacres, Kronstadt, the elimination of political plurality and Soviet legality, labour dictatorship, all point to the affinity between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin rather than the reverse. And one must remember that the later dispossession of the kulaks, forcible collectivisation and so on were understood at the time as the adoption of the Left Opposition’s programme by Stalin and led many oppositionists to capitulate to the already consolidated bureaucracy.
Remembering Serge reminds us that the tradition of the Trotskyist Left Opposition, with all of its heroism and insight, was not as pristine as we might think. Stalinism was born of the workers’ movement, and reading Serge alerts us always to the danger of it in our midst.