Sunday, September 26, 2004

Victor Serge

I came across this short essay by Victor Serge today (in my opinion a moral collossus of the early 20th century socialist movement) called 'Flame on the Snow'. I recommend it to all. It's a description of some Bolshevik militia in the snows of winter 1920/1921. I found it highly poignant as I read it. It seems to encapsulate so many of the contradictions of Bolshevism and the nature of the situation that the revolutionaries found themselves in, in the first few years of the revolution - one both of great hope and great tragedy.

Serge was a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution, and indeed went over to Russia to assist in 1919. He was present in Russia as the early hopes of the revolutionaries were gradually worn away and the nightmare of Stalinism began to set in. He joined the Left opposition in Russia against Stalin (along with Trotsky) and only narrowly escaped the purges. Later Serge became highly critical (and I think quite rightly) of Trotsky - and in particular the rather ruthless moral consequentialism he expounded. But he never lost faith in the possibility of socialism and never went back on his support of and praise for the ideals and hopes of the 1917 revolution. The site I link to has an excelent quote which perhaps sums up Serge's thoughts about Bolshevism and Stalinism:

“It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”

Good stuff. The essay 'Flame on the Snow' expresses quite effectively I think both the horror and the hopes of post-revolutionary Russia at a time when the Bolsheviks were attempting to fight off the Whites and foreign interventionist armies. We are given a sense of the ideals which drive the revolutionaries and also, very honestly, of the conditions which seem to be dirtying and soiling those ideals - the brutalising horror of life and death struggle in the snows of winter.

Serge seems to express doubts, perhaps about the revolution (both his and those of the militia) - 'Return. Tire. The rifle weighs. It is necessary. It is necessary. It is necessary. We will make the new life. ' - It is 'necessary' Serge seems to repeat to himself. Is Serge here trying to convey a sense of doubt here - a mental struggle to convince himself to go on in the face of all the hardships and all the moral complexities and ambiguities the revolutionaries must deal with? In the headquaters there is a portrait - 'Karl Marx, framed with red ribbons. The ribbons are bleached; the portrait loses its colour.' This draining away of colour expresses some of the draining away of hope - the degeneration of the revolution, perhaps. In addition, we have a striking description of a 'dying factory' which suggests the wider hardships that Russia faces -

'And the immense dead factory, scrap in the walkways, rusted benches, formidable squatted machines, oiled, inactive, the halls with windows whose panes have been broken. There will remain soon only the metal casings drawn up on the ruins of a city ... The immense dead factory, thirty thousand workers in 1914, four and a half thousand present today. Others: dead, returned to the ground, they died the best, or soldiers.'

The industrial base of the country is being ground away - the proletariat, the basis of the revolution is shrinking - and more than this we get a sense of the enormous loss of human life - Bolshevik soldiers dying in the vicious civil war. On top of this Serge is not afraid to show us a list of those executed by the Cheka - they list the names, ages and crimes of the convicted. Here we get a sense perhaps of a loss of moral certainty - the inevitable dirtying of hands as the revolutionaries attempt to retain their grip in the face of overwhelming odds and violent opposition. Serge's own reaction to this brutality is one I think of resigned confusion - what can be done? Is this necessary? Serge I think has ambiguous feelings here. He may argue that in extreme situations measures such as these were unavoidable (and indeed at the time the Whites were massacring far greater numbers and these people remained anonymous - no public posting of the names and crimes of those Reds killed) but is clearly rather horrified by it. The tone of the essay suggests that he is stuggling to retain hope amidst the horror of what he sees around him.

The hope Serge struggles to keep hold of is articulated I think, quite movingly, in the last lines -

'Consciousness that the present hardly exists; and that it is necessary to give everything, at this hour, to the future so that there may be a present. Consciousness that all of us are nothing if we are not with our class, its humanity rising. Consciousness that work ahead does not have limits, that it requires a million arm and brains, that it is the only justification of our lives. Consciousness that a world collapses and that you can live only while giving yourself to the world which waits to be born.'

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