Victor Serge – posted 6/15/2013
For a trending twitter culture drenched in celebrity worship what could be of less interest than the story of an obscure European revolutionary who died a penniless exile in Mexico over 60 years ago. The story of Victor Serge is anything but known.
I happened on Serge’s book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, many years ago and have long thought it was one of the greatest books I ever read. There has been a bit of a Serge renaissance in the last decade or so. I have seen essays on Serge written by Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and Adam Hochschild.
Susan Weissman, a professor of politics at St. Mary’s College in Moraga California, wrote a biography of Serge in 2001 which came out in paperbook this year. It provides the important service of giving a comprehensive history of Serge’s incredible life. It is difficult to capsulize Serge’s life. I will defer to Peter Sedgwick who was his translator:
“Victor Serge, who was born in 1890 and died in 1947 was an anarchist, a Bolshevik, a Trotskyist, a revisionist Marxist, and, on his own confession, a “personalist”. Belgian by birth and upbringing, French by adoption and in literary expression, Russian by parentage and later by citizenship, he eventually became stateless and was put down as a Spanish national for purposes of his funeral documents. He was a journalist. a poet, a pamphleteer, a historian, an agitator, and a novelist. Usually he was several of these things at once; there were few times in his life when he did not combine at least two or three nationalities, ideologies and professional callings.”
Serge had a long honorable history as a revolutionary. He was always in opposition to ruling powers, first to capitalism and then later to Stalinism. He did have a period when he was aligned with the Bolsheviks but it did not last. He had a sometimes shaky alliance with Trotsky. Serge opposed Stalin from early on. He was expelled from the Bolshevik Party and arrested in 1929. He was later deported to Orenberg in Central Asia and was allowed to leave the Soviet Union after protests led by Andre Gide and Romain Rolland. Barely escaping the Nazis when they invaded France, he made his way to Mexico where he lived his remaining days, writing as an anti-Stalinist leftist. He did not live to see either his Memoirs or his novels achieve publication before he died.
About his early life, Serge wrote that he acquired bitter experience of the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt be hungry.” He wrote:
“I think that if anyone had asked me at the age of twelve, “What is life?” (and I often asked it of myself), I would have replied “I do not know but I can see that it means “Thou shall think, thou shall struggle, thou shall be hungry.”
Serge describes watching his younger brother Raoul die of hunger. Hunger was an ongoing issue in Serge’s life. Hardship defined his circumstances and his writings did not ever bring in much money. He had four stints in prison along with several political exiles.
There is a passage in his Memoirs which captures his outlook on his early life:
“…a pamphlet by Peter Kropotkin spoke to me at that time in a language of unprecedented clarity. I have not looked at it since, and at least thirty years have elapsed since then, but its message remains close to my heart. “What do you want to be?” the anarchist asked young people in the middle of their studies. “Lawyers, to invoke the law of the rich, which is unjust by definition? Doctors, to tend the rich and prescribe good food, fresh air and rest to the consumptives of the slums? Architects, to house the landlords in comfort? Look around you and then examine your conscience. Do you not understand that your duty is quite different: to ally yourselves with the exploited and to work for the destruction of an intolerable system?”.
It is tempting simply to offer a collection of quotes from Serge’s work because he wrote so beautifully. What always has impressed me about Serge was his vantage point as a participant in the revolutionary movement, especially in the Soviet Union. He was a boots on the ground activist. Serge’s Memoirs contain dead-on thumbnail sketches of many of the leading left-wing personalities of the 20th century including Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and Lukacs. His views were shaped by extensive personal experience with the people he wrote about. Serge offers a perspective on Stalin that helps to explain his rise as well as the crimes which defined him and his sick rule. Serge’s unique experience allowed a first hand view of the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution.
As a writer, Serge never sacrificed or subordinated artistic truth to any political party. He remained a revolutionary socialist committed to the values of democracy and free expression. He was critical of the Bolshevik handling of Kronstadt as well as Lenin’s use of the Cheka. He opposed the practice of secret hearings for those in political opposition rather than public tribunals. He also opposed the death penalty. Later he influenced Trotsky to oppose formation of a one party state rather than allowing a broader range of socialist parties to operate openly.
When Stalin started consolidating power, Serge allied with the Left Opposition and Trotsky. Weissman described Serge’s years of opposition to Stalin and the huge price Serge paid. She showed how the world of oppositionists was closed in until there was no room left for any opposition to function. Then, and even worse, Stalin’s terror and purges further decimated a revolutionary generation. Serge wrote:
“All of my party, all of it, has been shot or murdered and so I am alone, a curiously disturbing figure.”
Through his arrest and internal deportation to Orenberg, Serge came to see firsthand the evolution of the totalitarian system that replaced socialism. Weissman wrote:
“Serge’s experience in the Lubianka, followed by three years of deportation in Orenberg, helped him understand how the great trials were orchestrated, how confessions were fabricated and how the accused were ‘ripened’ by ten years of persecution, demonization, solitary confinement and torture until they were ready to sign the baseless documents. The charges against Serge, like others, were based on false testimony.”
As I mentioned, Serge could not get his books published. Being in opposition to both the bourgeois press and the Stalinist press greatly reduced publishing options. The Stalinist press, in particular, made him the subject of slander campaigns. Considering that Serge was trying to support himself by writing, this was no small matter since writing was almost his only way to make a living. What is amazing is that under the most dire of circumstances, Serge wrote voluminously. There were a number of novels including The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Conquered City, Men in Prison, and Birth of our Power.
Weissman wrote that George Orwell wanted to get Serge’s Memoirs published but Serge was so poor he only had one copy of the Memoirs and he was reluctant to part with it out of fear it would not get to Orwell and it would be lost.
In his Memoirs, Serge elucidates three points which he wrote took precedence over any tactical considerations. He wrote this in Moscow on February 1, 1933. I think it is a good summary of lessons learned by Serge during his political experience.
” I. Defense of man. Respect for man. Man must be given his rights, his security, his value. Without these, there is no Socialism. Without these, all is false, bankrupt, and spoiled. I mean: man whoever he is , be he the meanest of men – “class enemy”, son or grandson of a bourgeois, I do not care. It must never be forgotten that a human being is a human being. Everyday, everywhere, before my very eyes this is being forgotten, and it is the most revolting and anti-Socialist thing that could happen…
II. Defense of the truth. Man and the masses have a right to the truth. I will not consent either to the systematic falsification of history or to the suppression of all serious news from the Press (which is confined to a purely agitational role). I hold truth to be a precondition of intellectual and moral health. To speak of truth is to speak of honesty. Both are the right of men.
III. Defense of Thought. No real intellectual inquiry is permitted in any sphere. Everything is reduced to a casuistry nourished on quotations.. Fear of heresy, based on self-interest, leads to dogmatism and bigotry of a peculiarly paralyzing kind. I hold that Socialism cannot develop in the intellectual sense except by the rivalry, scrutiny and struggle of ideas; that we should fear not error, which is mended in time by life itself, but rather stagnation and reaction; that respect for man implies his right to know everything and his freedom to think. It is not against freedom of thought and against man that Socialism can triumph, but on the contrary, through freedom of thought, and by improving man’s condition.”
So what is the relevance of Serge’s life and experience to our time? I will offer a couple thoughts. The word “revolutionary” has been sullied by a litany of bad examples. A first word association might be “power-hungry” or “meglomaniacal”. This is so far from the noble example of a Serge. He lived a passionate life devoted to the ideals of socialism, free expression and democracy. He was clear-headed, tenacious, modest, honest, and a master writer. In truth he was as much artist as revolutionary. For people on the left, his example is an inspiration and an example of life-long creativity and self-expression. He set an ethical example that is worthy of emulation.
Either the Memoirs or Weissman’s biography are a good introduction to Serge. My personal preference remains the Memoirs. It is a fascinating read and window into the Russian revolution. Serge remains largely unacknowledged as a writer and he deserves a far wider readership than he has achieved to date.