Victor Serge was a very good writer as well as an interesting historical figure. This short book collects pieces written in the 1920s (when he was a Bolshevik) after studying the archives of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. He’s best looking at the practical details of what the political police do. Cue discussions of secret codes, informers and social network analysis carried out with pen and ink. The book’s an evocation of the Russian revolutionary tradition which gives it a certain amount of derring-do: see the advice on ‘ingenuity’. ‘A comrade arrives at a watched house and goes up to the fourth floor flat. He barely gets to the stairs, when three suspicious-looking characters start following him. They are going the same way. On the second floor the comrade stops, knocks at a doctor’s door and asks about surgery hours. The coppers carry on.’ (p57) His advice about arrest sounds like personal experience: ‘As a matter of principle: say nothing. Explaining yourself is dangerous; you are in the hands of professionals able to get something out of your every word. Any “explanation” gives them valuable documentation. Lying is extremely dangerous: it is difficult to construct a story without its defects being too obvious. It is almost impossible to improvise. Don’t try to be cleverer than them: the relationship of forces is too unequal for that. Old jailbirds write this strong recommendation on prison walls, for the revolutionary to learn from: “Never confess!”’ (p55)
The ‘how history works’ parts have aged less well. There’s plenty of ‘history is on our side’ optimism, the kind of thing you could say in the 1920s, trusting that world war one was the inevitable final agony of capitalism. And yet, to be fair, who could disagree with: ‘there is no force in the world which can hold back the revolutionary tide when it rises’ (pVIII, emphasis added: there’s the rub). One of Serge’s arguments is that there’s only so much the law can achieve:
‘They would manage, for example, to “liquidate” the Riga Social-Democratic organisation. Seventy would be taken prisoner, beheading the movement in the area. Imagine for one moment what total “liquidation” means. No-one escaped. And then?
‘For a start, the imprisonment of the seventy did not go unnoticed. Each of the members was in contact with at least ten people. Seven hundred people, at least, were suddenly faced with the brutal fact of the seizure of honest, brave people, whose only crime was to strive for the common good … The trial, the sentences, the private dramas involved, brought about an explosion of interest and support for the revolutionaries. If even one of them was able to make his impassioned voice heard from the dock, it could be said with certainty that the organisation, at the sound of this voice, would rise again from the ashes. It was only a question of time.’ (p37-8)
Might we not also say that there’s only so much the revolutionaries can do on their own? Confidence is a weapon, sure. But I’m not sure that over-confidence (because you think that history has chosen you, or that good intentions guarantee results) helps.
Serge defines his subject: ‘to study the main instrument of all reaction and all repression, that is, the apparatus for strangling all healthy revolt known as the police.’ (pVII) We live in (somewhat) different times now. Capitalism doesn’t only rely on the police.* A ‘common sense’ is actively pushed every day to make revolt unthinkable.
Serge himself fell victim to the dictatorship built on the idea that only the Party could liberate the proletariat. Yet he managed to escape both physically and ideologically. He might get less stick from anarchists had he ‘come back’ to the movement rather than trying to make his own libertarian socialism! It doesn’t help that Serge is often used by Leninists as as alibi for their good intentions. But the man himself is worth reading not to simply cheer or sneer at. It’s possible to read history like a teacher marking a quiz, ticking off ‘correct answers’. But probably not as productive as asking questions. If this was a mistake, how did it come to happen? How could it be done differently? It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself what mistakes you might have made, too.
How to reach a free society is still subject to discussion and experiment (and opposition!) This book is a starting point if you want to think about how political repression works (and also how it breaks down). The text is available from the Marxists Internet Archive (https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1926/repression/index.htm).
* If you’re interested in recent disclosures about British political policing, see https://policespiesoutoflives.org.uk/pitchfordinquiry/, http://undercoverresearch.net/ and http://campaignopposingpolicesurveillance.com/
Our friends at Past Tense have a new pamphlet: Alice Wheeldon: framed by spycops for resisting World War 1. A 1917 conspiracy against anti-war socialists from Derby £1.50 from http://past-tense.org.uk