Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3
The Last Years of Victor Serge, 1941–1947
IT was a miracle that Victor Serge was able to leave the Soviet Union in 1936: he was only spared from being condemned by the GPU to the common grave of the opposition by a matter of months. From that time forward his life and mine have been closely interlinked.
When he arrived in Brussels, the Spanish Civil War had already broken out, and I left Barcelona to go and welcome him. A man of some perception, he immediately told me to be on my guard against the dangers which lay in wait for our independent anti-Stalinist party: ‘If Stalin has decided to intervene in Spain at the same time as he is liquidating the opposition in Russia, he will not tolerate an opposition like yours abroad.’
I listened to him sceptically, as I had faith in the independent spirit of the Spanish people.
On his initiative we did the rounds of the leaders of the Second International. They told us straight that in their eyes, our struggle was a factional dispute, and they would prefer not to get involved.
‘The spirit of the Popular Front and Non-Intervention is blinding them.’ Such was Victor Serge’s assessment after this interview. Shaking his head sadly, he added: ‘You’ll have to fight on two fronts – against the Fascists and against the Stalinists. The latter will be the most dangerous. You will be alone, or almost alone.’
I asked him to accept the post of advisor on the daily paper that I edited in Barcelona. That is how some texts on world Communism and Soviet intervention in Spain that I published during a congress were drafted by him.  (I mention this here for the first time.)
A few weeks later, Andrés Nin and I learned that the Stalinists were preparing to destroy us. When we were arrested by the GPU (our trial was to be the first ‘Show Trial’ abroad), Serge showed himself to be our fiercest and most conscientious defender. He contributed greatly to saving me and my companions, except for Nin, who was tortured and murdered in Madrid. In return, I was one of those who helped Serge to survive. It could be said that we each devoted ourselves to the life of the other. Moreover, we were united by the strongest of bonds – solidarity.
For Serge and I and for some 20,000 Europeans (mainly Spanish Republicans) Mexico was the land of exile par excellence. Here Victor Serge began to feel really free; in my company he even became jolly and laughed. But it seldom lasted, and it did not take long for his expression to become sombre once again. For hours he would say little, and the few words that he spoke were tinged with a certain bitterness and sadness.
He was accustomed to think a great deal about others and little about himself, so the drama of others tortured him. He carried within him the self-devouring tragedy of the Russian Revolution and the faces of all the great revolutionaries who had disappeared or been exterminated, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler, the tragedy of the conquered and betrayed people of Spain, for whom over a million dead clamoured for justice, and the misery of a France and a Belgium occupied by the Nazis …
The peoples of Russia, Spain, Belgium and France were dear to his heart – he had struggled and suffered with them. Like all thinkers and those who have lived with intensity, he liked retreat and solitude. However, I felt that it was not good for him to be left alone. During the first two years of our stay in Mexico, we shared the same flat. We each occupied one bedroom whilst sharing the dining room. Our adversaries claimed that we were in the pay of each of the capitalist powers in turn. Isolated, uncompromising, at the mercy of various currents, we had to struggle without respite to survive.
General Lázaro Cardeñas , President of Mexico, had generously offered us refuge, but had also offered it to our enemies. We, the independent revolutionaries, amounted to only a handful of people deprived of means and influence. Our enemies, on the other hand, were numerous, rich and powerful. Communist agents of all nationalities swarmed like flies in Mexico, but it was difficult to distinguish between the ordinary political militant and the GPU agent.
The Mexican Communist Party controlled by these agents could count on few adherents – scarcely 2,000. Nevertheless, it dominated the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), one of the pillars of the regime, thanks to Lombardo Toledano , a union leader in the country and continent. He also dominated the Workers’ University, which was funded by the state. Lastly, the Mexican Communist Party had reliable agents at their disposal in almost all government departments and nearly all the daily papers.
The Communist agents knew perfectly well that Serge would not remain silent and inactive in Mexico. Two letters of introduction had preceded his arrival. A year before, at the time of Trotsky’s assassination, I had published his Portrait of Stalin through a small publishing house that had been set up with much goodwill, but little money. The business failed, but the book remained.
Half a dozen members of the rich French expatriate community offered me several thousand pesos to set up a new publishing house. Serge had just arrived from Santo Domingo when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. I telegrammed him: ‘Prepare us an article immediately.’ Within a month he had written a powerful book, Hitler versus Stalin. He foresaw all sorts of disasters for the Soviet Union. He announced that masses of peasants would receive the Germans with open arms, but that Hitler would eventually collapse. The book was criticised as being very mistaken, despite the fact that after the war it was shown that he had, for the most part, been correct. This work precipitated the ruin of the new publishing house.
We understood the psychology of our adversaries quite well. If we were afraid, or if we stayed on the defensive, we would be lost. We had, on the contrary, to conceal our weakness and lack of resources behind a bold façade.
We organised a lecture by Serge in the huge Palace of Fine Art, a pompous marble edifice dating from the time of Porfirio Díaz.  The Mexican writer who should have chaired the meeting did not turn up. So Serge and I found ourselves alone on the platform as the Communists stormed in. Fortunately, the audience reacted and threw them out. The Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalists and left Socialists who had experienced the Communists during the Civil War sided with us. A large part of the Jewish community – above all the Socialists of Russian and Polish origin – did so too, as did almost all the independent Socialists from Western Europe, of whom a large number had distanced themselves from the Communists after the German-Soviet pact.
However, we had no Mexican support. This magnificent, complex and picturesque country, where death is the object of a cult as nowhere else, lived out its own post-revolutionary problems under the banner of nationalism which did not really glorify nationalism, but was touchy about it. This tradition expected expatriate communities of foreigners to get on with exploiting the local riches, and not to get mixed up in politics. What did all these Stalinists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, Bundists  and Socialists of left and right want? Why had they come to rekindle their quarrels on Mexican soil? So Mexican public opinion did not understand us – for them we were, at most, just a curious spectacle.
Between 1942 and 1944 our lives were threatened a good few times. On several occasions, for weeks and sometimes months, we had to go into hiding. Our assassination was being openly prepared. Mine was even announced in the columns of a local paper which supported Lombardo Toledano. We sent an open letter to the President of the Republic, who also received two other messages, one from the USA signed by more than 200 intellectuals, politicians and trade unionists, some of them very well known, and the other signed by a dozen British MPs and journalists. These insisted that he took measures to protect our threatened lives.
We made these and other documents public in a pamphlet entitled The GPU Prepares a New Crime and signed by Victor Serge, Marceau Pivert , Gustav Regler  and myself. (Marceau Pivert, an honest and dynamic Socialist condemned by Vichy, lived by giving French lessons before he founded the French Latin American Institute with Paul Rivet ; Gustav Regler, a writer from the Saarland and a Communist commissar in the International Brigades, had just broken with the Communists.)
Victor Serge drafted a Joint Declaration, which was the introduction to the pamphlet. Among other things he wrote:
The order of the all-powerful General Secretary [Stalin] is this: to profit from the rightful popularity that the Red Army’s heroism has won the Soviet Union and the wartime alliance with the democracies in order to discredit us, stifle our voice and do away with us.
He also said:
We do not agree, and never will agree, that enslaved peoples should be confused with their tyrants. We are, and we remain, shoulder to shoulder with the German people, the Italian people, the Spanish people, the French people and the Russian people, against the totalitarian regimes and in the service of all oppressed peoples. Such has always been the rule of our life.
And again further on:
We base our confidence in the future on the destruction and collapse of the totalitarian states and on the birth of a new Europe out of the present struggles, where at last the word ‘democracy’ will take on its real meaning for all the peoples who have been sacrificed, for all minorities and for all men. We want to participate in the construction of a Socialism restored to its dignity and real aims, which can only be through an organisation of free men. We want honest and clear ideas within a healthy workers’ movement invigorated by fraternal competition and free debate. From the heart of threatened democracy, of Socialism and the workers’ movement, above all we defend freedom of opinion and the human dignity of the militant, the rights of minorities and a critical spirit. We fight relentlessly, and we will not cease to fight, against controlled thought, the cult of the leader, passive obedience and the despicable ploys of parties subject to blind discipline, as well as the systematic use of lies, slander and assassinations. In this fight through which we have gone (something which we will never forget), we remember the countless individuals shot in the back in Russia, the Spanish fighters stabbed in the back, the beheaded revolutionaries of Germany, and the prisoners in the concentration camps of Dachau and the Solovietski Islands.
This declaration, which deserves to be quoted in full, is dated April 1942.
But Moscow had given the order to shut us up, and the campaign against us did not let up. When, in April 1943, we learned that Stalin had shot Alter and Erlich  – the two leaders of Jewish-Polish Socialism who had fled Hitlerism and taken refuge in the Soviet Union – we organised a protest meeting at the Iberian-Mexican Cultural Centre. (This centre had been set up by a number of Spanish refugees, and I had been appointed Chairman of its Cultural Commission.)
Before I had even opened the meeting, 200 armed Communists arrived in lorries and attacked the premises. I made sure that Victor Serge was got to safety, and then we defended ourselves. Our adversaries suffered a dozen slightly injured, whilst two of us, my friend Enrique Gironella  and myself, were seriously hurt.
Not only did we have to struggle against the campaign of lies and the danger of ‘physical termination’, but also against an almost complete absence of money. At the time of the struggle against the Opposition, Stalin had given the savage order: ‘Attack through the stomach.’ His Mexican agents strove hard to apply this to us. Though Mexico was indisputably a free country, our enemies possessed very powerful means of pressure and corruption.
As its ambassador to Mexico, the Kremlin had sent a man who was intelligent, dynamic, elegant, talented, still young and with a certain charm – Konstantin Umansky.  (He was to die in a mysterious aviation accident in Mexico in 1943.) Before this he had run the Press Agency, TASS, and he enjoyed the confidence of Beria, Manuilsky and Vyshinsky.  He belonged to the most orthodox of the Stalinist schools. Numerous experienced staff surrounded him. While Umansky hosted costly receptions, moved in high society, and won the favour of the public, his collaborators, mainly GPU agents, worked their men into the government and the press. For us, on the other hand, one platform after another was closed to us.
At this point, I think it is worthwhile to recount a personal experience. I ran the international political section of a weekly magazine that was indisputably independent, and Victor Serge wrote important articles for it. The editor was a good friend of ours. One day he was summoned by the Interior Minister, Miguel Alemán, a future President of the Republic , who told him:
The ambassadors of the Soviet Union and Great Britain are pressing for our government to withdraw all platforms for Serge and Gorkin. They are said to be enemies of the Allied cause, and they are accused of being agents of Hitler. We know that this is not true, but how can we resist such pressure? It appears that Moscow has lodged a complaint with London and Washington to this end, but that Washington has refused to intervene. We are an independent government, but we do not want to make trouble for ourselves.
Victor Serge was dedicated to his work, and he wrote without rest or respite. He hardly ever left his apartment, and when he did he took many precautions. He received few guests, and whenever the bell rang he looked at the visitor through the spyhole before he opened the door. He typed out his articles in closely packed lines on cheap copy paper, and with hardly any errors. He was sure of himself, his ideas and his conclusions, his memories and his style. In his Memoirs he recalled how he had decided to become a writer in 1928 after leaving prison after a serious illness: ‘I felt quite sure of myself in the business of writing.’ In Mexico he was more confident of himself than ever. Solitude and momentary misunderstandings had little effect on him.
I believe that the most mature and dense part of his work was written in Mexico. All the same, in his Carnets , he uttered this complaint:
It is terribly difficult to create in a void without the slightest support, without the least ambience … at the age of 50 writing just for the desk drawer, facing an unknown future which does not exclude the possibility that the dictatorships will last longer than the rest of my life …
His drawers were stuffed with manuscripts, but, for the moment, the publishing world was closed to him.
Serge began to ask himself whether his name might be an obstacle to the publication of his books. Might it not be better to hide behind a pseudonym? Of course, the obstacle was not just his name, but the content of his writings and his eyewitness accounts, which were disturbing in the circumstances because, from the other side of the world, he revealed a clear vision of the future. Only one of his books found a publisher – in Canada. Les Derniers Temps  was a novel inspired by the defeat of France and the start of the resistance. In my opinion, it is an excellent book, and the first of its kind. It went unnoticed, and very few people in France have ever read it. Next he composed his Memoirs. I read the manuscript line by line and told him with the brotherly sincerity of an old friend:
This is a magnificent document, one of the documents of this half century. But it is very dense and excessively laconic through the adoption of this telegraphic style. Such rich and varied material demands and merits development into a series.
He smiled, sceptical and bitter: ‘To what end? Who would publish me? And anyway I’m busy. Other books are waiting.’ He was busy … did he not realise that his end was near?
As for The Case of Comrade Tulayev , it is for me the best novel that has been written on the purges and the Stalinist show trials, as well as being Serge’s masterpiece. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is perhaps more descriptive in the technical material sense such as psychology, and is easier to read. But Serge’s novel has a power that is more real or, if you like, more realist. Koestler imagines his own agony, as well as that of his characters. Serge lived the former, and was like the latter. He produced characters of flesh and blood like those in his other novel, Midnight in the Century, the terrible realism of which we were unable to comprehend when it appeared.
His last novel, Les Années sans Pardon , is still unpublished. The work is made up of four parts that seem to have no link to one another. The first part unfolds in Paris before the war, and it looks towards the future, the second involves helping in the defence of Leningrad when besieged by the Nazis, the third retraces the collapse of Nazism seen from the viewpoint of a small provincial town, and the fourth is set in Mexico and tells of the death of an individual pursued by the NKVD. In Les Derniers Temps, another victim of the Soviet secret services suffers death, this time aboard ship. Are not these tragic characters a little like Victor himself sensing approaching death, and haunted by his fate? No doubt. Locked away at home or walking in the street, awake or asleep, he had a foreboding of a violent end, which haunted him without respite throughout his last years.
Victor Serge worked without rest because ‘he was busy’. Certainly he was worried about leaving his work unfinished, but also because, temporarily, work helped him to chase away from his soul the idea of death. In our conversations I avoided touching upon this subject, and tried instead to communicate my optimism, and to make him laugh. In his Carnets, which were not meant for publication, but which deserved to be and were published by René Juillard, could be found reflections of his preoccupations and innermost anxieties. ‘The most tragic thing about death’, he confided, ‘the thing most unacceptable to the mind, is the complete disappearance of a greatness of spirit, fashioned by experience, intellectual processes, knowledge and comprehension that is to a large extent incommunicable.’
Serge did not limit his activity to writing. He read – in half a dozen languages – anything of interest that fell into his hands, books, magazines, reports, newspapers … He followed both the daily turn of events and the currents of living thought. He was well informed about everything. At the same time, he kept up an abundant correspondence. He never wrote a pointless or merely polite letter, but each one of his missives had some real content, and bore the stamp of his innermost thoughts. He had nothing but contempt for standard expressions, commonplaces and ‘fossilised dogmas’.
We had a premonition that the end of the war – above all in Europe – was at hand. We had founded the International Socialist Commission and the monthly magazine Mundo under the banner of Socialism and freedom. We organised frequent meetings and debates. The driving force behind this magazine was my friend Gironella. I took on the job of Secretary of the International Commission, but the living thought, the creative urge, came principally from Serge. For him the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ had lost all real significance. In the future there would no longer be any room for little groups and cliques, but only for large democratic formations capable of understanding and acting in the face of new needs and new problems. To the fossilised dogmatists who believed that a European revolution was inevitable at the end of the war, he replied:
A dark age is opening up before Europe and the world. The best revolutionaries have been destroyed by past defeats and the war. Time will have to elapse before new cadres are formed. The old Socialist programmes and routines have been superseded, and must be renewed. Stalinism, victorious thanks to the unconditional support and concessions made by the Allies, will be more dangerous than ever. If we want to save Europe we have to start by bringing together all free democratic forces in order simply to practice the art of not dying away.
This realistic language got little response.
In October 1944 he was already talking of ‘Permanent War’. He foresaw a long period of uninterrupted warfare of apparent local conflicts but with global significance: ‘Deep down, it will be a complex global civil war.’ He noted in his Carnets:
The end of the war against Nazism is approaching, but one can clearly see the conflict emerging between the Soviet economy and the other systems. No solution is visible for the question of Asia. To believe in total victories would be puerile.
He saw postwar Europe in a confused situation:
I am inclined to think that the fate of Europe will only be able to be decided when Stalinist totalitarianism has been restricted or destroyed by new conflicts that will necessarily arise. The victorious imposition of Stalinist hegemony over the greater part of Europe and Asia heralds a Third World War.
Serge passed away just when we needed him most.
The year of 1947 was devoted almost entirely to preparing for our return to France. Mine was to precede his by a few months. We had great projects relating to the problems of European unification, to the defence of human freedom and culture, and to the need to modernise Socialism:
Its only hope of life and victory is in its intransigence vis-à-vis Stalinist totalitarianism by upholding a belief in democracy and humanism (excluding controlled thought), and in relation to capitalist conservatism, to fight for the re-establishment of traditional democratic freedoms made revolutionary once again.
However, I saw him growing old and tired. He was not yet 56 years old. His doctor, a friend to whom he was deeply attached, told me bluntly one day, ‘he’s doomed’, and, reading astonishment in my eyes, he explained, ‘his heart.’
About 10 o’clock in the evening on 17 November 1947, I left Victor Serge in a street in the town centre. He gave me a warm handshake. He was going to see his son Vlady. All of a sudden, he had an uncomfortable feeling and felt faint. He hailed a taxi and sat in the back of the car. He never had time to give the address – he just died. The driver took the corpse of the unknown man to a police station. We found him there shortly after midnight. In a bare shabby room with grey walls, he was laid out on an old operating table, wearing a threadbare suit and a worker’s shirt, with holes in his shoes. A cloth bandage covered the mouth that all the tyrannies of the century had not been able to shut. One might have thought that he was a vagabond who had been taken in out of charity. In fact, had he not been an eternal vagabond of life in search of the ideal? His face still bore the stamp of bitter irony, an expression of protest – the last protest of Victor Serge who had, all his life, stood up against injustice.
His body was taken to the main parlour of the undertakers. We chose a fine coffin for him, and surrounded him with flowers. Victor Serge certainly deserved that. But even when we had clubbed together, we still did not have enough to pay for his burial.
I was given the responsibility of filling in the form before the burial. When it came to the heading ‘Nationality’, I wrote ‘Stateless’. Which he was. The undertaker got annoyed – he would not allow him to be buried if he did not have a nationality. How could you bury a man without a country? I called Vlady over: ‘If your father had to choose a nationality, which one would he have taken?’ ‘Spanish nationality’, he replied without hesitating.
So the Russian-Belgian writer Victor Serge was laid to rest in the French cemetery in Mexico City as a Spanish subject.
1. Gorkin was editor of La Batalla, the paper of the POUM. It is uncertain to which conference he is referring.
2. General Lázaro Cardeñas (1895–1970), President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, gave asylum to Trotsky, as well as to many who fled Spain after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
3. Vicente Lombardo Toledano (1893–1968), leader of the Mexican Confederation of Workers, played a major part in the slander campaign against Trotsky and other anti-Stalinist exiles in Mexico.
4. Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), President of Mexico from 1877 to 1911, provided a period of stability to the country at the cost of dictatorship.
5. The General Union of Jewish Workers in Russia, Lithuania and Poland, usually known as the Bund, was founded in Vilna in 1897. Cf. Clive Gilbert, A Revolution in Jewish Life: The History of the Jewish Workers Bund, Jewish Socialist Group, London 1987.
6. Marceau Pivert (1895–1958) was the leader of the left wing of the French Socialist party, the SFIO, and left it to set up his own Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan (PSOP) in 1937. He fled to Mexico during the Second World War.
7. Gustav Regler (1898– ) was a German novelist and former political commissar attached to the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, who broke with Stalinism in 1939.
8. Paul Rivet (1876–1958) was Director of the Musée de l’Homme and founder of the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuals AntiFascistes.
9. Victor Alter (1890–1942) and Henryk Erlich (1882–1942) were leaders of the Bund murdered by the Soviet NKVD in December 1942. Cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 4, Winter 1988–89, pp. 41–2.
10. Enrigue Adrober Pascual, known as Gironella (1908–1968), a leader of the POUM, was Commissar for Transport in the Council of the Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia in 1936.
11. Konstantin Alexandrovich Umansky (1902–1945) was Soviet Ambassador to Mexico, and then to the USA.
12. Lavrenti Beria (1899–1953), the head of the NKVD, Dmitri Z. Manuilsky (1883–1952), the former Secretary of the Communist International, and Andrei Vyshinsky (1883–1954), an ex-Menshevik who was the state prosecutor during the Moscow Trials, were all notorious Stalinists. It has recently been revealed that Vyshinsky processed the order for the arrest of Lenin on the instructions of the Provisional Government in 1917.
13. Miguel Alemán (1902–1983) successfully managed the presidential campaign of Manila Avila Camacho in 1940, and was rewarded with the powerful position of Minister of the Interior. His own rule as President later on (1946–1952) was noted for its corruption.
14. First French publication by Juillard in 1951, and republished in 1985. An English translation does exist, but it has not yet found a publisher.
15. Translated as The Long Dusk, New Dial Press, New York 1946.
16. First published in English in 1962, and republished by Pluto Press and Bookmarks in 1992.
17. Published by Maspéro, Paris, 1971. No English translation has yet appeared.
Updated by ETOL: 22.9.2011