The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge

I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism.  History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior.  From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism.  It’s not a pretty picture.  In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia.  One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith.  It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”

Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published.  These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end.  A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists.  As a result he was treated “gently.”  He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation.  The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg.  The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived.  They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU.  Serge recalls,

I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”

The maidservants story was hardly unique.  Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves.  Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps.  Serge describes many other such scenes.  Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:

One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.

Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger.  One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion.  I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist.  I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.

My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off.  He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter.  They left him lying there, bloody but full.

At the rationing office a poster announced:  “Grandparents have no right to food cards.”  All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.

These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union.  Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope.  He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time.  Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20’s and 30’s.  The western intellectuals averted their eyes.  Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!”  A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean.  Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.

and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,

As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance.  I feel as though there were a book inflation.

This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it.  Serge knew better.  He wrote,

All legal means of expression were now closed to us.  From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.

In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere).  The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look.  Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look.  Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal.  After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished.  It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time.  Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.

If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet.  Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man.  We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood.  That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind.  In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now.  The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.

It would be very risky to forget about Communism.  It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.


Victor Serge
Victor Serge


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

9 thoughts on “The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge”

  1. An important part of the attraction of Marx to Western intellectuals I think was his brilliance, especially in the Communist Manifesto. For intellectuals brilliance is more attractive than common sense. It is a form of entertainment. This was also a big part of the attraction of Freud in my opinion.

  2. I think you’re right. Marx was also lucky in happening along at the right time. Read the accounts of the worker’s riots in England in the 1830’s, and you’ll see that the most important elements of “Marxism” – the class struggle, the proletarian revolution, the end of exploitation in classless societies, etc., were all old hat by the time he wrote Capital. Marx and Engels crystallized it all into an official “scientific” dogma, serving the same purpose as the authors of the Bible did for Christianity.

  3. Read Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliff and you will definitely get a whiff of the kind of class consciousness Marx wrote about. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.” Almost all of history has been characterized by domination, however, not class struggle. Marx was wrong about that. The class of agricultural workers who grew the food that fed society — the vast majority of the population, 80-to-90 percent — were trapped in servitude with no way out. It is in connection with this reality that the special significance of Christianity comes in, at least as I see it: For those who had faith Jesus offered a way out, not only for them selves, — a meaningful life now and something heavenly when they die — but for their descendants who would one day inherit a better world, a world free of servitude, of conquest and exploitation. It would be a radically new order of things, of liberty and justice for all, of equality under the law — and, mysteriously, it would also be a day when the dead shall walk again upon the surface of the earth. Figure that one out. Of course this is only part of the Christian story, at best one half, and I do not claim to know the rest.

    P.S. I bought The Righteous Mind on your recommendation. There is some good stuff in it, a lot from other writers with whom I was already familiar, but some good stuff of his own too I admit. I thought the presentation was awfully dumbed down though. The vocabulary and sentence structure especially. Where was the brilliance? (joke) So I confess I skimmed.

    Anyway, from the above you might conclude that Marx plagiarized Christianity and the Old Testament prophets. It was this erzatz quality that explains, or helps explain, I think, its appeal to “the masses” and to good-hearted liberals of the Roosevelt era.

  4. Certainly faith in Jesus appeared to offer the peasants a way out. The problem with Christianity has never been that it doesn’t offer a way out, but that it isn’t true. As a result, as Marx correctly pointed out, it has been a highly effective tool for insuring that an exploited peasantry was also a docile one throughout history. The great French atheist cleric Jean Meslier understood this in the early 18th century, and apologized to his flock for it in his “Testament” after his death. An outstanding new translation has been published recently.

    I admire Haidt because, IMHO, he has described more clearly what “morality” actually is than any other published author; the manifestation of evolved behavioral traits moderated by culture. Many others, from Darwin on down, have understood as well, but did not probe as deeply as Haidt into the fundamental nature of the phenomena, as basically emotional responses justified “rationally” after the fact, etc. This view of morality excludes the possibility that Good and Evil exist as objects, or things in themselves, although there are many who continue chasing that butterfly, whether of an atheist or religious bent. It seems to me that failure to understand that fact has been historically disastrous, and particularly so in the 20th century with the emergence of the first two great secular religions, Communism and Nazism.

    Certainly one of the most “charming” features of Marxism was its whole-hearted embrace by “good-hearted liberals” at precisely the time when Stalin’s mass murders were reaching the climax of their ferocity. The fact does not inspire confidence in the intelligence of our species.

  5. “The problem with Christianity has never been that it doesn’t offer a way out, but that it isn’t true.”

    Then you think it is merely a coincidence that the areas of the world which have replaced conquest and servitude with political and economic freedom for the masses of ordinary people are coterminous with what used to be called Western Christendom? If there is a causal relationship between the two, then in what sense do you say that Christianity “wasn’t true?”

  6. Political and economic freedom for the masses was often won in the teeth of bitter opposition from organized Christianity. Some of its greatest proponents in the U.S., such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, etc., were deists, as were Voltaire and many of the French philosophes who provided an ideological basis for those freedoms. Some of the greatest Christian apologists, such as Chateaubriand, de Maistre, etc., were also the greatest defenders of autocratic monarchy. They recognized themselves as such, and were also recognized as such by their democratic enemies. Thus, the proposition that, because political and economic freedom are coterminous with what used to be called Western Christendom, therefore Christianity is “true,” is illogical. At best, one might try to make the case that, of the major religions extant in the world during the emergence of political and economic freedoms, Christianity was the least inimical to their spread. This argument, dubious in itself, can hardly be counted as a proof that Christianity is true.
    My reasons for rejecting Christianity and other forms of belief in supernatural beings may be found in the work of Jean Meslier, as well as in those of the “New Atheists,” such as Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., flawed as their books may be for other reasons, reinforced by works by Bart Ehrman, such as “Jesus Interrupted” and “Misquoting Jesus,” that point out the many contradictions in the Bible, as well as the literally hundreds of thousands of discrepancies between the various early manuscripts. In short, I reject Christianity and other religions for many reasons. Among others, they do not provide reasonable explanations for the shrinking realm of things we don’t yet understand, in that they only propose the existence of things that are more complex, i.e. super beings, to explain things that are less complex, such as the existence of life and the universe. They propose the existence of a super being who is, by all accounts, deeply concerned about the beliefs and behavior of us humans, and yet doesn’t just step out of the clouds, make his existence perfectly obvious to all, and simply explain what it is he wants, and so on.
    I am well aware of the many arguments that Christians and other religious believers have in answer to all these objections. I consider none of them reasonable, or even plausible.

  7. It’s interesting that one of the first of Stalin’s victims among the old Bolsheviks, Adolf Joffe, whom, like many others, including his own wife, he drove to suicide, as well as one of the last, Michael Borodin, who was finally swallowed by the Gulag in 1949, and died two years later, were both prominent Bolshevik envoys to China in the 20’s. Serge’s work includes some interesting details about Joffe, and his daughter, Nadezhda, who, with the rest of his family, also became Stalin’s victims, has left a very interesting autobiography (“Back in Time: My Life, My Fate, My Epoch”). Nadezhda, though arrested three times and exiled to Siberia, somehow survived, as did her four children, and lived on to the age of 93, having witnessed both the Bolshevik rise to power as a child, and the final collapse of Communism.

  8. You write, “Political and economic freedom for the masses was often won in the teeth of bitter opposition from organized Christianity. Some of its greatest proponents in the U.S., such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, etc., were deists, . .”

    Yes, of course, I agree with everything you say. So I guess that must mean my conception of “true” here is a pragmatic one: the real content of an idea lies in its consequences, or, alternatively, the truth is what works, over the long term. . . I’m a big fan of William James, especially his essay”The Will to Believe.” I also know a guy, Lubos Motl, who has described himself as a Christian atheist. I have no problem with that description.

    So let me just point out that political and economic freedom are major themes of the Bible, which, as far as I am aware, is not true of any other major (or even minor) religious tradition. I do not consider myself to be a Christian I think you should know. Maybe some kind of post-Christian secular Jew. I don’t think religious faith is essential to change the world anymore though I think a basic understanding of the content of the faith of those who did change it is. That’s something that is badly lacking in our society today, especially among our educated elites, part of their general ignorance of history.

    For your entertainment here are a couple examples of what I mean:

  9. Wow! If I’m ever in need of some hard core Biblical exegisis, now I know who to turn to. As an atheist with a limited knowledge of Middle Eastern history, I, too find the Bible a fascinating book. I will always be grateful to the Gideons for putting one in every hotel room. It’s often rescued me from boredom while I was on the road.

    As regards the state of Israel, I agree with the conclusion of the paper at your first link that the Jews must be willing to make peace based on reasonable territorial compromises in the West Bank (but certainly not concerning that part of Israel within the 1967 borders.) However, I also think that Jewish attitudes are not the problem. There would be peace in the Middle East tomorrow if Israel’s enemies conceded her right to exist. The problem is that they don’t, and the whole idea of a Middle East “peace process” will remain absurd until they do.

    My attitude towards Israel is pragmatic rather than Bible-based. They have always had the misfortune to be a perfect outgroup, and therefore a target of persecution wherever they went. I think Harry Truman, who may not have been brilliant, but was a very competent President with a great deal of common sense and an unusual ability to see things as they were rather than as he wanted them to be, understood this at some level. He therefore supported an independent Jewish state for more or less the same reasons I do. Given their long history of persecution culminating in the horrific massacres of the 20th century, perpetrated not just by the Nazis, but in Russia and several other eastern European countries as well before the Nazis ever came to power, they needed to have a place of sanctuary where they would have at least a fighting chance of defending themselves. Given their long association with the land of Israel, their expulsion from many Arab and other Moslem countries where they had lived for hundreds of years before Israel became a state, and the fact that the Moslems were only in Israel to begin with by virtue of a successful military aggression, I find the notion that the existence of a Jewish state is not “just” by any reasonable definition of the term absurd.

    I often read Lubos’ blog, and also have no problem with his description of himself as a “Christian atheist.”

    You’re certainly right when you say that a basic understanding of the “content of the faith” is sadly lacking among modern intellectuals. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to change in the U.S., where the principle of separation of church and state has been interpreted to mean that religion can’t be studied in the public schools, even in a comparative sense. Given the level of polarization on the subject here, it would probably be next to impossible to implement in a practical sense in any case.

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