Dec/Jan 2012

Road Warrior

Victor Serge's revolutionary life speaks to a new generation

Scott McLemee

Victor Serge (1890–1947) was a Russian revolutionary born in Belgium who wrote in French and died in Mexico. His parents had fled from their native Russia to Western Europe in the 1880s during the wave of repression that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II by bomb-throwing radicals. “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings,” Serge wrote of his childhood, “there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged. The conversations of grown-ups dealt with trials, executions, escapes, and Siberian highways, with great ideas incessantly argued over, and with the latest books about these ideas.”

From his parents Serge inherited the ardor of the Russian intelligentsia and the capacity to endure poverty. He also acquired the cosmopolitanism that comes from knowing when to run for your life. It was sufficient preparation for a career of singular intensity amid constant distraction.

His output as a writer, for example, included fiction and poetry, historical studies and political analyses, and essays in literary criticism and self-examination. Its range and quality would be impressive even from an author leading a settled existence, which Serge rarely did. The odd moments when he was not in transit came about in part because the authorities had decided to keep him in one place for a while because of his political affiliations.

The tight links among Serge’s traits—his intellectual seriousness, the drive to literary expression, an intransigent radicalism not quite separable from restiveness in the face of routine corruption and dishonesty—are especially evident in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, now available for the first time in a complete English translation.

Serge wrote it during the final years of his short life, at a time when most of his friends and comrades were dead, seldom by natural causes. It is, of course, elegiac, often enough; but melancholy is hardly the dominant note. (Nor is anger, though it would take some doing to pursue a career as a revolutionary without plenty of anger.) His moods and the perspectives are, for want of a better word, dialectical. People, ideas, movements—all of them move and change and negate themselves. Serge himself was an anarchist who became a Bolshevik and then synthesized both tendencies in a critique of Stalinism that got him thrown in prison and very nearly killed.

“For my part,” Serge writes at one point in his memoirs,

I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written twenty books. I own nothing. On several occasions the mass circulation press has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great number as to make you dizzy. And to think that it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.

More than anger, and maybe more than dialectics, being a revolutionary à la Serge requires this capacity to plunge into the abyss and come back out again.

• • •

In his twenties, Serge went to prison in France as an accomplice to armed robbery. Actually, he had only been an ideological accomplice. He belonged to the same anarchist milieu as a group that became known as the Bonnot Gang, and he refused to denounce them in public despite his serious misgivings about their approach to expropriating the bourgeoisie. Still, he was sentenced to five years, and the reader knows it was hell because Serge could not bring himself to write so much as a paragraph about it.

Upon release in 1917, he moved to Spain to take part in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising that didn’t quite come off. The defects of the anarchist project were becoming more apparent all the time, while the news coming out of Russia suggested that the revolutionaries there were doing a better job of it. And so Serge began the long trek to the land of his parents’ birth, reaching Petrograd in early 1919—just in time to join the Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, as it fought off the White troops. In short order, he joined the Bolshevik party and, given his facility with languages, was assigned to work on the staff of the Communist International—the general staff of the world revolution.

Click to enlarge

Victor Serge in Mexico, 1944.

It was by no means pure grandiosity to speak of revolution on a world scale, since mass uprisings were under way in numerous countries. Regimes were toppling, or at least starting to wobble noticeably. Every so often, a surge of profound and resolute discontent will sweep across whole continents—driven by the conviction that the old order has exhausted its possibilities and must be cleared away so that something new might emerge. It happened in 1848 and 1917, then again in 1968 and (with less geographical scope but plenty of impact) 1989.

Each time, the wave of upheavals lasted for a year or two, with aftershocks that then continued for a while. I am writing this in late 2011, and will say that however risky extrapolation from these examples may be, it’s damned hard to avoid.

• • •

When Serge shifted from anarchism to Bolshevism in 1919, he was twenty-eight years old. The seeming forward march of the world revolution cut right across the middle of his life: It so happened that he would only live for another twenty-eight years. The balance of his days demanded a constant reckoning with that commitment, and with the fate of the revolution itself.

Some of the effort was political. Serge was active in the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky. He paid for this allegiance with another term as a political prisoner—first in solitary confinement and then as a deportee to Kazakhstan. He was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1936, just before the first of the Moscow show trials, which no doubt would have claimed Serge as a casualty. After his departure, he joined the thin and fractious ranks of the anti-Stalinist Left. He remained an activist at heart, even when opportunities for action grew scarce, and their potential impact steadily diminished.

He was more effective with pen in hand. But after a brief period of resurgent interest in Serge’s writing during the late 1930s, his appeal was limited to fairly narrow circles, at least in the Anglophone world. His anti-Stalinist writings were powerful, but never very useful for the cold-war effort—colored as they were by mourning for the lost promise of the old Bolsheviks rather than total condemnation of the revolutionary imperative. (The next best thing in that regard is cynical resignation, which Serge did begin to feel but also struggled to resist.)

The one exception to the general neglect that’s befallen Serge is the appreciation for his novels, which has grown over time. But it is only a partial exception, and of quite recent vintage. The turning point, at least for American readers, can be dated to 2004, when the New York Review Books Classics series gave its imprimatur to The Case of Comrade Tulayev with a paperback reprint. The edition was doubly consecrated: It carried an introductory essay by Susan Sontag. Two more novels by Serge have appeared as NYRB paperbacks in the meantime, and it has made his name among litterateurs who don’t know their Trotsky from their Tukhachevsky.

The habit in such cases is to speak of a “revival.” The word would be completely inappropriate here, since Serge had precious little reputation among American readers of fiction in the first place. And the prime exhibit on that score would be Comrade Tulayev, a grand novel inspired by the Moscow Trials. It has been available in English since 1950, but nonetheless remained practically unknown to the public familiar with Arthur Koestler’s dystopian anticommunist classic, Darkness at Noon.

That’s a shame, since the power of imaginative sympathy in Serge’s writing is far deeper than in Koestler’s. Serge can recognize the range of experience and responses that make up the texture of life in even the most nightmarishly repressive system. But Koestler’s roman à thèse loomed over it. The reason is not hard to see, since the book proved much easier to assimilate to the familiar ideological codes (“Soviets . . . totalitarian . . . bad”). And so the weaker book had the wider renown.

But the recovery of Serge’s fiction also passed through its moment of assimilation. In her essay, Sontag presented him to readers as “one of the most compelling of twentieth- century ethical and literary heroes.” He is certainly that. But the word “political” is conspicuous in its absence, and the omission is surely not by chance. For this is the condition of Serge’s acceptance as an honored figure in the vital center of post-cold-war culture. The author’s commitment to the abolition of class society is no longer threatening, but neither is it to be taken seriously in appreciating his work. It is a biographical detail: interesting or embarrassing, but of tertiary importance either way. Serge the Marxist disappears beneath the wings of Serge the angel.

• • •

The new edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionary as an NYRB paperback marks the first time the complete text has been available in English—the culmination of a long struggle to make Serge part of the conversation among people who take their political bearings from his thinking. As Serge wrote the book in the 1940s, excerpts from it were serialized in Politics, Dwight Macdonald’s journal of independent radicalism, which also published Simone Weil and Georges Bataille. By the early 1960s, Peter Sedgwick (a brilliant and sui generis figure associated with the British group International Socialism) translated Memoirs in its entirety for Oxford University Press—only to have the publisher insist on an abridgement, for budgetary reasons.

The new edition restores the passages Sedgwick had to cut fifty years ago. The original manuscript submitted to Oxford was not among Sedgwick’s papers when he died, and so the restored passages have been rendered into English by George Paizis.

For radicals of Macdonald’s or Sedgwick’s generation, an encounter with Memoirs of a Revolutionary was inseparable from coming to terms with the problem of just when and how the revolution went irremediably wrong. I will admit to reading it for the first time with that very question in mind, and to being surprised at how nuanced—or, to be more Bolshie about it, indecisive—Serge was about answering. The repression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 was clearly a turning point by his reckoning. But he also recognizes that once a social theory is “taken over [by] the apparatus of power,” its potential to galvanize dissent begins giving way to the rationalizing of authority. At the same time, the entire book is a tribute to the men and women he knew who tried to keep that critical spirit alive as party members, while throwing themselves fully into the hard and dangerous work of defending the revolution.

Doctrinal rigor, in short, is not Serge’s strong suit—which has everything to do with why the book remains so vital. The portraits and anecdotes stick with you longer than the arguments. Serge is particularly good at capturing the bewilderment of people trying to adapt to circumstances they neither accept nor fully yet understand. His sketch of a typical evening among the Leningrad Writers’ Union members in the late 1920s is an example:

Our social tea-gatherings were divided into two parts. From eight to ten at night conversation was conventional and directly inspired by the newspaper editorials: official admiration, official enthusiasm, etc. Between ten and midnight, after a few glasses of vodka had been drunk, a kind of hysteria surfaced, and conversations—now diametrically at odds—were sometimes punctuated by fits of anger or weeping. Face to face, no more official-speak, but instead an alert critical intelligence, a tragic sorrow, a Soviet patriotism coming from souls being flayed alive.

By one account, Oxford University Press demanded that Sedgwick cut his translation by 20 percent. I went through the NYRB edition with the old one line for line, wondering what revelations were in store. The cuts range from a few words to blocks of two or three paragraphs. In a few cases, they count as improvements—removing repetitions, or the occasional brief comment or reference that seems unrelated to the paragraph at hand. The restored material includes biographical sketches of minor figures, and narrative or reflective passages that are good to have back. But my main impression from examining Sedgwick’s choices was that he had been quite judicious in carrying out a very disagreeable task.

On rereading, the most striking thing about Memoirs of a Revolutionary is how uninterested in himself Serge is.

The memoir has lately become a genre devoted to narrating the secret history of personal identity—preferably through confession, with the author’s shame, or at least embarrassment, as the evidence of truth—so much so that it seems difficult to imagine it doing anything else. None of that applies in this case. The first person serves to give access to others, since the memoirist’s identity comes only from having passed through the same places and events as they have.

“It is hard for me,” Serge writes,

to disentangle my own person from the social processes, the ideas and activities in which it has shared, which matter more than it does and which give it value. . . . Nevertheless, no one should read into these words any yearning for self-effacement: I am sure that one must be oneself, simply and fully, neither abdicating responsibility nor wishing to diminish others. To sum up, nothing of us is truly our own unless it be our sincere desire to share in the common life of mankind

This is an ethos, but it implies a politics. In the final pages of his memoirs, Serge admits that pessimism has come to tempt him. If anyone had the right to capitulate to it, he did. But he resisted, and the book itself is an act of solidarity with both the dead and the unborn. This is a good moment to have it available again, and to take his spirit back into the streets.

Scott McLemee contributes to the Intellectual Affairs column for the website Inside Higher Ed.


July 25, 2014
3:17 am

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