By Paul Hampton
Martyn Hudson (Solidarity 220) goes much further than Serge did in claiming continuity between the regime established after the 1917 workers’ revolution and Stalinism.
Serge answered those who argued that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning” by stating that “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?” But Serge’s “germs” are for Martyn a full-blown infection, if not the stench of gangrene.
Martyn argues that some civil war practices of the first workers’ state “all point to the affinity between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin rather than the reverse”. He states that “Stalinism was born of the workers’ movement”. I think he is utterly wrong about this, conflating the movement of class forces with biography and chronology. And Martyn has misrepresented Serge’s views.
Suzi Weissman states that “Serge did not see Stalinism as the natural outgrowth of Leninism, but rather as the corruption of it”. In his last essay, ‘Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution’ (1947), Serge wrote of certain characteristics of Bolshevism that “gave it an innate superiority over its rival parties”, including its Marxism, commitment to working class hegemony, internationalism and unity of thought and action. Serge defended the suppression of Kronstadt and drew a positive balance on the first 10 years of the regime. Serge was at pains to point out the contrast before and after 1927 — for example between Lenin’s prisons and Stalin’s mass forced labour camps.
Serge described the Stalinist takeover as a “coup de force” and as a break with the post-1917 regime. He dubbed as “reactionaries” those who confused “Stalinist totalitarianism — exterminator of the Bolsheviks — with Bolshevism itself” and specifically emphasised the “favourable historical circumstances” which led to the rise of Stalinism. Serge did criticise some mistakes of Bolsheviks. His comments deserve discussion on their merits (though, for the record, I think his points were limited). But the weight of his critique was still on the river of blood between Bolshevism and Stalinism, not on continuity.
Martyn contrasts Serge’s “early insights into a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the USSR” with Trotsky’s view that it remained a degenerated workers’ state. But Serge’s book Destiny of a Revolution (1937) shared Trotsky’s analysis and was a companion volume to his Revolution Betrayed, which Serge translated. By the time of his death in 1947, Serge would talk of exploitation in the USSR and of a “bureaucratic police state” and “bureaucratic totalitarianism with collectivist leanings”, though he was imprecise about whether the bureaucracy was a new class or a caste.
Trotsky’s own prognosis in the final year of his life pointed towards a new class society if the USSR survived the war, but he was killed in 1940. Weissman’s excellent biography suggests Serge’s view was inspired by among others Trotsky and the dissident Trotskyist Max Shachtman. Serge’s comments are worthy of note, but they were not well-developed. Nor were they, on their own, the basis of a more adequate account of Stalinism. For that, Trotsky and Shachtman’s group remain the key referents.
Serge is undoubtedly part of our tradition. But Martyn would do better to inform readers of what Serge actually wrote, rather than attribute views to Serge that he did not appear to hold.