Tim Nelson: Trotsky and Serge

Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge are two of the most outstanding Marxist figures of the twentieth century. Trotsky was the leader of the St Petersburg Soviet in 1905 and 1917, the organiser of the 1917 October Revolution, and the founder of the Red Army. Serge, originally an anarchist, joined the Communist Party during the siege of Petrograd in 1919, and worked for the Comintern in Russia and abroad.

Both opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution, and, as a result, both died in exile. Trotsky was assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents, Serge died penniless and isolated. Both, in their different ways, have contributed as much as anybody to our understanding of the nature of the working class movement, and of revolution in particular.

They spent several years in collaboration, in resisting the bureaucracy as members of the Left Opposition in Russia, and then subsequently when both were exiled. However, during their period in exile from the Soviet Union, Trotsky and Serge found themselves in increasing disagreement, both on the tasks of the present, and the analysis of the past. These disagreements reflected a deeper division between those on the anti-Stalinist left, and would become of profound significance for the future development of the revolutionary socialist movement.

Victor Serge has always been a problematic figure for the left. Too Bolshevik for the anarchists, too anarchist for the Bolsheviks, he never attempted either to take a leading political position in the movement, or to develop an all-encompassing political doctrine. A writer first, his best works were those that sought to observe, understand and explain the movement, and the individuals who comprised it. He described his approach as his “double duty” – he would defend the movement unconditionally from its outside enemies, while being unrelentingly critical of those within, who, consciously or unconsciously, might wreck it.

It has been, for many years, commonplace for Trotskyists to dismiss Serge’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks and his arguments with Trotsky, and to put them down to a shift to the right on Serge’s part, or a step back to his anarchist, libertarian idealism. This view has been aided by misinterpretations of his arguments by Trotsky and his followers, and has meant that the valuable contribution Serge’s arguments could have played in avoiding a repeat of the mistakes of the past has never been fully appreciated.

It would be entirely incorrect to dismiss or play down the role Trotsky has played in the development of Marxist theory and practice, a role Serge always recognised. However, there were profound mistakes in approach and analysis in his later works which, when adopted uncritically by socialists, have led to some deep-rooted problems that still remain today.


The main debate within the opposition after the success of the bureaucratic coup centred on the question of at one point the revolution began to degenerate. This was not simply an abstract discussion about dates, as it led to fundamental questions as to the nature of revolutionary organisation, the role of the state, and democracy in the socialist movement.

Trotsky was exiled from the USSR in 1929, and spent the rest of his life abroad. Serge, on the other hand, remained in Russia until 1936, as part of the marginalised and oppressed Russian opposition, among whom this debate was the fiercest. Some argued that while some of the kernels of the problems may have been present earlier, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution could be traced to around 1923, when the bureaucracy began to strangle democracy in the party and seize control of the state. Others, Serge included, traced the degeneration of the revolution back to the early stages of the civil war in 1919, when the Bolsheviks used increasingly autocratic methods to defeat the reaction and remain in power. For these comrades, serious mistakes had been made from the beginning of the revolution. After the initial libertarian period of 1917, the Bolsheviks, Trotsky included, set about establishing an increasingly authoritarian state. While many of these actions could be excused as necessities in the context of the civil war, they laid the groundwork for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

For the opposition inside Russia this was an important debate. If the degeneration of the revolution was traced only to the actual event of the Stalinist coup, then not only could previous events which had caused many on the left to view the Communists as authoritarian – the establishment of a one-party state, the creation of a secret police force, the suppression of the Kronstadt Uprising – be excused or explained away, but also the politics and strategy of the opposition would be fundamentally different.

For those who did not acknowledge the earlier degeneration of the revolution, the problem was one of leadership. A bureaucratic caste had taken over the Communist Party and the workers’ state. All that was needed was a removal of this caste and the re-establishment of democracy within the Communist Party, and the revolution would be saved. For Serge and others, the bureaucratic state needed to be overthrown, and within the Russian opposition they argued for mass working class activity such as strikes to achieve this. This faction was probably a majority in the opposition within Russia, while remaining a minority within the Trotskyist movement abroad, of whom of course Trotsky himself was the most outstanding member.

Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union and its degeneration was dominant among oppositionists abroad. He argued that the USSR was a deformed workers’ state. Due to the isolation brought about as a result of the failure of the revolution to spread internationally, most notably in Germany in 1923, a bureaucratic caste led by Stalin was able to seize power, first over the Communist Party, then over the Russian state. Trotsky and his followers adamantly refused to countenance the idea that the authoritarianism of the bureaucracy had its roots in the earlier measures taken by the Bolsheviks, measures in which Trotsky had often taken a leading role.

While not denying that many of the actions of the Communist Party had been regrettable, even authoritarian in many respects, Trotsky argued that they were largely necessary in the waging of the civil war, and that in revolutions such measures were needed. They were fundamentally different to the essentially counter-revolutionary actions of the Stalinists. Furthermore, in condemning the actions of the Bolsheviks before 1923, Serge and others were lining up alongside the bourgeois critics of the revolution, who argued that the seeds of Stalinism had been sown by the Bolsheviks in order to discredit revolutionary politics. While the workers’ state may have been deformed by bureaucratism, it retained its proletarian character. In this respect, revolutionary activity was not necessarily needed to overthrow the bureaucracy – the state could be reformed.

It would be these fundamental differences that would inform all the debates between Serge and Trotsky in the 1930s, and lead to an eventual break between the two.


It is worth looking at some specific issues which Victor Serge highlighted from before 1923, which for him illustrated the degeneration of the revolution. It should be noted that, throughout this period and long after, Serge remained an avid defender, and member, of the Communist Party. For him, the defeat of the Russian Revolution by the forces of reaction and imperialism would have been an unmitigated disaster for the working class. There was no doubt in his mind that the revolution must be defended at all costs, and that the Communist Party was the only force capable of achieving this. This did not mean, however, that Serge was blind to the problems within the party. In this respect Serge was continuing in his “dual role” – defending the revolution from threats both on the outside and within.

Serge, a child of Russian migrants to France, arrived in Russia in 1919. One of the first newspapers he read had a lead article by Zinoviev entitled ‘The Monopoly of Power’, which announced that the Communist Party would be the sole power in the Soviet state. This was at the height of the civil war. The White armies, along with troops from several foreign countries including Germany, Britain, Japan, the US and Czechoslovakia, had waged an assault on the Soviet government with the aim of overturning the revolution.

The working class, such as it was in a semi-feudal country such as Russia, was on its knees, and whereas in the early days of the revolution in 1917 workers’ committees and soviets had governed, these roles were increasingly carried out by Communist Party officials. The Red Army, formed and led by Trotsky, was forced to resort to increasingly repressive measures to win the war, including the forced requisition of grain from the peasantry in order to feed the army in the cities. War Communism was instituted – a strict command economy backed by force, with the banning of internal trade and the nationalisation of all resources necessary to keep the state alive.

The state, dominated by the Communist Party and backed by the Red Army, and increasingly populated by bureaucrats, had become far and away the dominant force in Russia. This was not the workers’ state of 1917, or the state envisaged by Lenin in The State and Revolution, but an authoritarian state, dominated by one party, desperate to hold on to power in order to defeat the reaction and defend the revolution.

Serge’s background in revolutionary politics had been libertarian. He had been actively involved in anarchist groups in France and Spain. It may therefore seem surprising that he joined the Communist Party at this time. However, as has been noted above, he recognised that the Communist Party was the only force capable of defending the revolution, and therefore must be supported. He would, despite this, continue to see his role as one of alleviating any excesses within the revolution, and to criticise, though often privately, authoritarian aspects emerging within the Communist Party.

Between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures, culminating in 1921 in the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt. Throughout this period Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army, and was party to many of the decisions which Serge would later criticise. For Serge, one of the biggest mistakes of the Soviet government was the establishment of the secret police force, the Cheka. The Cheka was aimed to ensure the suppression of counter-revolution behind the Red Army’s lines, and was empowered with the right to hold secret trials and executions. For Serge, this was a gross error, as he believed that in the minority of cases in which there was actual counter-revolutionary activity, trial and punishment could and should be open to public scrutiny. Also, in the vast majority of cases, the Cheka were not suppressing counter-revolutionaries, but those who opposed the Communist Party. Opposition to the Communists became synonymous with counter-revolution.

Furthermore, Serge believed that the Cheka in many areas was simply out of control, with no scrutiny from either what remained of Soviet democratic bodies, or from the Bolshevik leadership, and was committing excesses way beyond the most brutal forms of revolutionary justice. When it came to the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, these problems with the secret police took on terrible proportions. Serge used his role in the Soviet state to work as an interlocutor between dissidents in the revolutionary movement and the state leadership, gaining the release of many who had been wrongly arrested by the Cheka.

The debate between Serge and Trotsky during their period of exile can, in some respects, be explained by the different positions they were in during the civil war. Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army and a leading member of the Soviet state. Serge was a rank and file member of the Communist Party and supporter of the state, but critical of both, who never lost his links with dissident and libertarian revolutionaries. Unsurprisingly, their differences came to a head over the issue of the 1921 Kronstadt revolt – what its nature was, and what its suppression indicated about the nature of the Bolshevik regime.

By 1921, the civil war was largely over, with the Reds victorious, but the revolution was critically weakened. The working class had been decimated – many killed, with many more returning to the land to avoid starvation. Despite the war being over, War Communism continued – forced requisitions of grain, the execution of speculators and black marketeers – and the Cheka remained unrestrained. The stifling measures of War Communism, instituted to combat the dangers of famine, were now contributing to it. Peasant revolts against Bolshevik rule were growing, and in February 1921 strikes broke out in Petrograd.

Serge was an eyewitness to these events. He argued that while many of the strikes adopted anti-Bolshevik slogans, and were being organised by Menshevik sympathisers among others, they were directly the result of the lack of food; this was proven by how they were easily resolved by the delivery of food to discontented workers.

The issue escalated when sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, which had been at the heart of the revolution in 1917, mutinied in support of the strikes. The Kronstadt mutineers adopted a programme of demands which, among other things, called for an end to War Communism, and a restoration of democracy in the revolution. Serge wrote vividly about the state’s reaction to this revolt. Originally, party publications claimed that Kronstadt had been seized by the Whites. For Serge, the use of the party’s press to lie both to the class and to the party in this manner was unforgivable. The revolt was suppressed violently, and the Cheka continued to execute prisoners weeks after its suppression.

The Kronstadt rebellion, for Serge, was a dark event in Bolshevism’s history. While he acknowledged the dangers of rebellion at the time, and did not dismiss the possibility that it could open the way for reaction, he still maintained that the manner in which the uprising was suppressed revealed fundamental problems with the Bolsheviks’ rule at this time. Trotsky, on the other hand, insisted that the revolt was fundamentally reactionary in character, and those who criticised its suppression were lining up with bourgeois critics of the revolution. Trotsky argued that the class make-up of the Kronstadt sailors had changed since the 1917 revolution, and was increasingly peasant and petty bourgeois. The revolt, with its demands for an end to War Communism, represented the interests of the peasantry and the middle classes, not the proletariat. Also, whether intentionally or not, a revolt at this time against the Bolsheviks could only benefit reaction. The mutiny’s stated politics may have seemed democratic, or even revolutionary, but it was essentially reactionary.

Serge riposted that the mutiny had begun in solidarity with the strike wave in Petrograd, so to claim that it did not represent the interests of workers was plainly incorrect. He also pointed out that much of the rebels’ demands were met very quickly after the event, with the abolition of War Communism and the establishment of the New Economic Policy, so to dismiss their demands as being in the interests of the petty bourgeoisie to justify their suppression was disingenuous. Instead, Serge viewed the suppression of the revolt as a desperate act of the Bolsheviks with the aim of holding on to power.

Here is not the place to review in detail the arguments and counter-arguments regarding Kronstadt. The aim is to investigate what this debate represents in the differences between Trotsky and Serge. To Serge, the methods used against the Kronstadt rebels paved the road to authoritarianism. He agreed that the rebellion, whatever its intentions, could have opened the door to reaction, but this did not justify the nature of the repression. In this, Serge differed from other critics, including anarchists and reformist socialists, who pointed to Kronstadt and other examples of Bolshevik repression in order to discredit the role of the Bolsheviks in the revolution. He, and many other rank and file members of the Communist Party, recognised that in 1921 for the revolution to succeed the Bolsheviks had to retain power, at least until the revolution spread internationally. However, this did not excuse the Bolsheviks from criticism, nor did it justify every one of their actions.

Trotsky did not distinguish between those such as Serge who remained loyal to the revolution, and for whom any criticism of the Bolsheviks stemmed from an attempt to understand and explain how the revolution of 1917 degenerated into dictatorship, and those who sought to discredit the revolution as a whole. In ‘Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt’ Trotsky advanced the argument, cited above, that the rebellion was reactionary. He suggested that all those who disagreed with this were part of the same camp – their aim was to discredit Bolshevism, their outlook was essentially bourgeois.

It is here that we reach the significance of the debate. For Trotsky, no distinction could be made between liberals, anarchists, reformists, or even communists who questioned the Bolshevik acts of oppression before the Stalinist coup. No distinction can be made between workers and sailors who rose against the Bolsheviks to oppose starvation and the White reactionaries. This outlook was the road to sectarianism. All those who questioned the Bolsheviks’ record were essentially in the camp of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Serge responded that while people from very different political positions may criticise the Bolsheviks, they were coming from fundamentally different standpoints. He recognised that there were many anti-authoritarians who were still essentially revolutionary. To lump them in with the liberals based purely on their unwillingness to accept the more extreme aspects of the Red Terror was absurd. Furthermore, Serge worried that, despite Trotsky having led a heroic struggle against authoritarianism and dogmatism in the USSR, his rigid stance and refusal to recognise the mistakes of the Communist Party was translating into a deeply sectarian attitude among his followers.


The question of when the revolution in Russia degenerated is inextricably linked to the question of democracy inside the Communist Party. Many on both right and left argue that the Bolsheviks had always been authoritarian in character. They point to Lenin’s insistence on “centralism” in the Bolshevik Party, and his argument that the working class needed a “vanguard”. However, despite the Bolsheviks at times needing a command structure and an authoritative Central Committee due to the intensity of Tsarist oppression, the Bolsheviks were in essence a democratic organisation.

In the revolutionary period of 1905, Lenin and others argued for an opening up of the party’s structures. A similar process occurred in 1917. The ultra-democratic and libertarian nature of the soviets and workers’ committees had an organic relationship with the Bolshevik Party – the party called for “all power to the Soviets”, because its membership was very much of the class. The Bolsheviks elected their leadership, debated every line and policy, and had the freedom to form oppositional factions. Similarly, within the soviets, there was a spirit of cooperation between the Bolsheviks and others outside their party.

However, after the soviets seized power in October 1917, this changed drastically. In 1918, the remnants of the Tsarist regime launched a counter-revolution. Every major capitalist country either backed the reaction, or actually invaded Russia. The revolution was under siege. A brutal civil war began, during which the working class, which was the Bolsheviks’ base and was already suffering after three years of world war, was decimated. The libertarian spirit in the class brought about by the 1917 revolution came to an end, as in order to win the war, the Bolsheviks employed increasingly authoritarian methods. Added to this, as the democratic structures of the working class collapsed, Communist officials took their place. The bureaucracy began to take control.

Mirroring this, the previously open, democratic internal culture of the Bolshevik party gave way to an increasingly bureaucratic, top-down structure. Debate was curtailed, factions were banned. This process did not begin as Trotsky was being sidelined, but much earlier, when he was arguably the most influential party leader after Lenin. There were many factions, before they were banned, which challenged the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Communist Party: the Workers’ Opposition, the Decembrists, and others. Trotsky opposed all of these. Serge’s relationship with the democratic opposition, inside and outside the party, was far from consistent either. He supported many of the measures which later he would recognise as authoritarian. However, Serge argued that such measures, even if they could be justified in the context of the civil war, were still ultimately undemocratic.

The purpose of outlining this shift away from party democracy, and Trotsky’s support for it, is that it had a distinct impact on Trotsky’s view of party organisation. Previous to the revolution, Trotsky had argued against Lenin’s model of the party, fearing that the centralised party structure, with its powerful Central Committee and emphasis on professional revolutionaries, would lead to substitutionism and a lack of democracy. However, by 1917, after the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks had become a mass party, with grassroots democratic structures based upon the revolutionary working class. Furthermore, it was the only major party which was openly calling for the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a workers’ state. Trotsky threw his lot in with the Bolsheviks and his Mezhrayonka organisation merged with them.

As outlined above, the Bolshevik Party followed an increasingly undemocratic trajectory after 1917. Many Communists, including Trotsky, began to conflate the temporary measures that Lenin supported to keep the Bolsheviks in power with the essence of “Leninism” itself. The emphasis on centralisation and professional revolutionaries in Lenin’s earlier works was interpreted, particularly by Trotsky’s opponents Zinoviev and Stalin, as justification for a top-down party structure and increasing bureaucratisation.

Although by 1923 Trotsky began to rethink his attitude to many of these issues, and began to argue for the opening up of party democracy and an end to the ban on factions, he retained an often top-down version of Bolshevism. The organisations he and his followers founded outside of Russia in the 1930s often differed little from the Stalinist parties when it came to structure, with the exception that they usually allowed factions, and tended to be very small.


After Serge was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1936 he joined Trotsky’s new organisation, the Fourth International. After the catastrophic failure of the Stalinist Communist Party to halt the victory of fascism in Germany, Trotsky resolved that the Communist parties could not be reformed, and set about forming new parties. These tended to be small, isolated organisations, with few roots in the working class. Serge became active in France, and was aghast at what he viewed as the French section of the Fourth International’s sectarianism. He wrote about how pages of articles were written debating minor points of theory with other revolutionaries, while little was produced for the consumption of the working class.

Much of this was a result of the argument about the nature of the Soviet Union and at what point it degenerated. This was an important question, and the very nature of the question meant that it was not surprising that the debate was strained. However, for Serge, this was a grave error. He thought it essential that Trotsky’s followers unite with all those revolutionaries who rejected Stalinism. It was not enough only to work with those who they believed had the “correct” (Trotsky’s) opinion on the nature of the Soviet Union. They had to work with anarchists, libertarian socialists and anti-Stalinist Marxists of all kinds, if possible in one organisation, in order to build an alternative revolutionary party to the Stalinised Communist parties which dominated most of the far left in Europe.

This, for Trotsky, was incorrect. He argued that the Fourth International was the true inheritor of the Bolshevik tradition. The important thing was the continuation of the theory and practice of the only revolutionary party which had successfully seized power. To unite with those who disagreed on fundamental questions would be to dilute and compromise on revolutionary politics.

Much of Trotsky’s analysis came from his incorrect analysis of the social and economic situation at the time. Trotsky believed that capitalism had entered its final crisis; he believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy, being just a ruling clique over existing working class institutions, was inherently unstable and would collapse. He argued that the working class would very quickly move towards a revolutionary movement. In such a period there was no time, or need, for the careful building of united organisations which occurred before the First World War. While the majority of the politicised working class looked either to the Stalinist Communist parties or the social democratic parties, they would move rapidly away from them towards a new revolutionary leadership, and it was the role of the Fourth International to provide that leadership. A pluralistic organisation uniting all anti-Stalinist revolutionaries such as Serge envisaged would be a recipe for indecisiveness and vacillation, in a period when the working class needed clear revolutionary leadership. The most important example of these differences was over the question of the Spanish Revolution and the POUM.


The Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) was a mass socialist party in Catalonia. Built by the Trotskyist Communist Left, which joined with the Workers Peasants Bloc, it had 70,000 members at its height during the civil war in Spain in 1936. It was capable of forming its own militia to fight the fascists, and was rooted in the workers’ councils and revolutionary unions. The POUM supported the Popular Front, a tactic argued for by the Stalinists, where the social democratic and Communist organisations worked alongside anti-fascist bourgeois parties.

Trotsky correctly classified the POUM as a centrist organisation, in that it had stated revolutionary politics, and included many Marxists in its membership and leadership, but it also included reformists, and fudged the issue of revolution and reform. Ultimately, due to the vacillations produced by this unstable formulation, it fell on the side of reformism.

Trotsky’s followers in Spain, rather than participating in this mass anti-Stalinist socialist organisation (a rare occurrence in Spain at this time), instead formed the Bolshevik-Leninists, a tiny Fourth Internationalist organisation with virtually no influence over events or roots in the working class. Furthermore, Trotsky argued that in fact the POUM was the main block to successful revolution in Spain. Centrist organisations, he argued, while they contain many revolutionaries and may employ radical revolutionary rhetoric, remain essentially reformist. They hold back the struggle and tail the bourgeoisie.

Serge recognised many of Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM, but for him the Fourth International’s stance was a disastrous example of the sectarianism which had taken over the organisation. His argument was that to abstain from a mass organisation like the POUM was to absent yourself from the struggle as a whole, which was essentially what the Bolshevik-Leninists had done. Much better to work within the POUM, and pull it in a radical direction. The Fourth International was not only absenting itself from a genuinely mass workers’ party; it was attempting to dictate strategy to that party from the outside. The International’s analysis might be absolutely correct, but that mattered little if it was completely isolated.

In relation to the POUM, Serge was once again exercising his “double duty”, pledging solidarity and support to it, and defending it against attacks from the right, while at the same time criticising it when he disagreed. However, to Trotsky this was yet another sign of Serge’s centrism. He accused Serge of wanting to “manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism, and Marxism”. This was far from the case. However, Serge did aim to ensure the greatest level of unity in action between revolutionaries and always fought against divisions within the movement. He saw the increasing sectarianism of the Trotskyists as a block to building a genuinely democratic and united revolutionary party. Serge argued for a broad party uniting all the anti-Stalinist left, which was democratic and open with a collective, elected leadership. So long as the Fourth International continued to see itself as the new “World Party of Bolshevism”, and all other revolutionaries as renegades and reactionaries, it would be doomed to the sectarian wilderness.


Despite any criticisms of Trotsky expressed here, he was still far and away one of the most outstanding contributors to Marxist theory and practice. Even during the 1930s when, in my opinion, he was making serious mistakes with regard to revolutionary organisation, he was also developing a theory of what fascism was, and how to combat it – arguably his most valuable contribution to Marxist theory.

However, one of the problems with such towering figures is that their ideas cease to be just that – ideas – and become dogma. Trotsky was president of the St Petersburg Soviet, planned the October insurrection, founded the Red Army and led it to victory against the Whites, he opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution, theorised fascism and left us an invaluable guide on how to fight it – but one thing he never achieved was the building of a revolutionary party. Previous to joining the Bolshevik party in 1917, he was largely isolated with a few followers; he was capable of intervening in the movement to some degree, particularly through his writing, but limited by the lack of a proper organisation. By 1917, at the height of the revolutionary movement, his organisation, Mezhrayonka, had around 4,000 members. When it was founded, the Fourth International boasted only 7,000 members worldwide.

The sectarianism which became common in the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s has been a recurring theme throughout our history. Trotskyism to many has become synonymous with splits, isolation and hostile factions. Trotskyists have not only continued to be hostile to other strains of revolutionary thought, but are arguably even worse-behaved towards each other.

Serge developed an antidote to this. That is not to say he provided all the solutions to the problems, but his ideas can give us an insight into what has gone wrong, and provide us with some clues about how to put it right.

The Trotskyist left in Britain is currently in a state of crisis. It is failing to relate to the wider movement in any effective or meaningful way. The splits, the inability for different factions to work together, the isolation and the dogmatism have all driven us to breaking point. There is a real thirst among those of us who consider ourselves Trotskyists, among other revolutionaries and within the left as a whole for unity and new perspectives and methods of organising which will take us beyond the mistakes of the past. We need to seize on this mood and build a real revolutionary movement.