Peter Sedgwick

Victor Serge and Socialism

(Autumn 1963)

Peter Sedgwick, Victor Serge and Socialism, International Socialism (1st series), No.14, Autumn 1963, pp.17-23.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Peter Sedgwick is a psychologist, specialising in problems of education and delinquency. He has recently completed translating, editing and introducing Victor Serge’s Memoirs, Oxford University Press, 42s).

VICTOR SERGE, in at least this writer’s opinion, is one of the most outstanding socialist authors who has ever lived. He did not evolve any especially memorable theoretical system, nor did he bequeath any new form of organisation to act as a ‘weapon’ for the working class struggle. There is no such ideology as Serge-ism, and there are no Serge-ites. Victor Serge made no pretence of being any kind of leader, though there were times in his life when he did fulfil a leadership-role in some particular combat, before passing on to some quite different function (such as that of witness, or perhaps of rescuer) in the next battle that came up. All the same, Serge often saw political situations more acutely and profoundly than men who were more brilliant and historically more ambitious than he. It may be said that Serge’s principal aim throughout his life was to see social reality clearly, as a preliminary to acting sanely; and it is unfortunately precisely this element of sanity, of straightforward honest perception of what is actually going on, that has been signally absent from the general run of militant socialist thinking during at least the last forty years. Serge adopted a variety of literary forms for the purpose of expressing his vision of social processes: pamphlets, poems, novels, articles, biography and memoirs. He was not equally successful, from a strictly artistic point of view, in the exercise of all of these mediums. [1] ‘Others, less engaged in combat, would perfect a style’, he admitted, `that what I had to tell, they could not tell. To each his own task.’ [2] The literary task which Victor Serge regarded as his own was simply that of speaking up for the oppressed and the exploited, whether as a journalist and pamphleteer on behalf of organized collective movements (anarchist, Bolshevik and socialist) or as a creative writer dedicated to witnessing, in loving and sensitive detail, the tragic individual destinies of particular heroes, victims and plain participants of the world revolution in our century. ‘He who speaks, he who writes is above all one who speaks on behalf of all those who have no voice.’ [3] The voiceless ones on behalf of whom Serge aspires to act as spokesman may be beggars or Bolsheviks, anarchist desperadoes or murdered Trotskyists, poets, workers or madmen. It is rather difficult to think of any figure comparable to Serge on the English politico-literary scene. In some respects, particularly in his detestation of the humbug of official politics, his patriotism (in this case Soviet patriotism), his solidarity with ‘the scum of the earth’, Serge resembles George Orwell, at least the Orwell of Homage to Catalonia and the reportage on the down-and-out world. He is like Orwell, too, in his concern to avoid cleverness and concentrate instead upon the reinstatement of primary honesty in feeling and thinking about political situations.

Another English figure of whom Victor Serge reminds one (perhaps rather curiously) is the late G.D.H. Cole. Both Cole and Serge espoused a non-sectarian socialism which is extremely difficult to categorise since it is compounded of elements in anarchism, Marxism and various intermediate strains; both stood in an essential sense for the unity of all serious socialist thinking, even when subdivided into hostile and apparently irreconcilable philosophies; and both had a persistent vision of the international character of the socialist movement, expressed fundamentally not by allegiance to this or that world-wide sect of substitutionists (whether the Second International, the Third or the various Fourths) but rather in terms of an informal ‘world order of socialists’ (Cole) or ‘invisible International’ (Serge).

At the same time it has to be emphasised that, unlike practically every socialist writer of Anglo-Saxon origin, Serge was a practising (and often professional) revolutionary, operating inside militant rank-and-file movements in four or five European countries, turning up everywhere (so far as he could) where trouble was in the offing. In an interesting passage which is one of the very few places where Victor Serge’s name is mentioned in an English-language critical context, George Orwell instances him as one of the outstanding figures in the school of Continental political writing or ‘pamphleteering’; ‘the special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle since the rise of fascism. Under this heading novels, autobiographies, books of “reportage”, sociological treatises and plain pamphlets can all be lumped together, all of them having a common origin and to a great extent the same emotional atmosphere.’ [4] Within this particular European literary tradition, simultaneously ‘documentary’ and creative, and rooted in the totalitarian experience of several nations, Serge is something of an odd fish. Literary enthusiasts and readers of the cultural weeklies normally associate this kind of literature with such names as Arthur Koestler, Franz Borkenau, Manès Sperber, or Andre Malraux, who are by and large sophisticated, involuted and throughly disillusioned authors, ex-revolutionaries in fact, whose final political position derives most of its bearings from strident anti-communism. NATO-ism or (in Malraux’s case) nationalism. Victor Serge started political writing rather earlier than most of the prominent ex-communist names; if we except his earlier anarchist and syndicalist output (which is very inaccessible), he began ‘pamphleteering’ during the heroic phase of Bolshevism (siege of Petrograd, Civil War) whereas most of the disenchanted writers became organisationally involved with communism only during its Stalinist epoch. This distinction is perhaps schematic, since there are some ex-communist writers who do not fit this analysis [5]; but many more of them do. At any rate, far from falling into the vice of world-weary, tightly-lipped rancour, Serge tends in the opposite direction, from a general level of ‘Jacobin fraternalism’ and ‘warm humaneness’ to an occasional tendency to gush in an excess of emotion, with a consequent ‘blurring of effects’ and ‘lack of discipline’. [6] Having started earlier, Serge also lasted longer as a committed revolutionary writer. By the date of the last Moscow Trials and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the ex-Stalinist literati had said goodbye to the revolution which they had only embraced in its most raddled flesh: Serge, who never had any illusions about Stalin and precious few about the totalitarian features of Lenin’s day, was writing for socialism until he died in late 1947. [7] Although by this time he had become somewhat unpolitical, with more than a hint of ‘reformism’ in his current observations on the world scene, he never repudiated Bolshevism as a historical imperative in Russian circumstances, and refused to join the chorus of unreason that linked the worst barbarities of Stalinism with the idea of revolution itself. ‘All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure’, said Orwell in his critique of Arthur Koestler. This statement is quite optimistic for a man like Orwell, who at other times took a more jaundiced view of Thermidorian reaction (in 1984 and to some extent in Animal Farm); it would have been quite a pessimistic attitude for Victor Serge to adopt, although there were times in his last and most moody years when he undoubtedly did write down words to that effect. But if we are to enquire why the work of Serge is so extraordinarily neglected and his name so thoroughly unknown among the literary public, the answer almost certainly lies not only in the unevenness of his writing and the obscurity of his final exile, but in the tenacity with which he remained unreconciled to the bourgeois order. [8]

One must seek different reasons to explain the appalling ignorance about Serge which has long prevailed in left-wing circles. Here after all is a man whom recent reviewers have termed ‘a writer of distinction’, ‘a mind of restless intelligence’ and ‘one of the very few revolutionaries who, like Rosa Luxemburg, understood that “freedom is always freedom for the man who thinks differently”,’ to quote only a few of the impressive, if rather late, testimonials that one might cite. I cannot recall the name of Victor Serge having appeared more than once (except in a puff for the forthcoming publication of his memoirs) in all the spate of anarchist, Marxist and centrist ‘re-thinking’ that has flooded the archives and the waste-paper baskets of Anglo-American socialists since around 1956. Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary contain, according to the reviewer of The Times, ‘one of the most vivid and convincing revelations of a social rebel’s mind ever written’: the Observer’s book critic remarked, ‘I know of no book which makes the tragedy of Russian Communism more painfully and movingly apparent.’ [9] And yet the only references to the Memoirs that I have ever been able to glean in English-language works crop up solely in scholarly book’s by professional Sovietological historians.

There are two groups of factors which would account for this peculiar oblivion. In the first place, Serge seems always to have been healthily suspicious of political stereotypes, even when such pigeon holing would have assisted in his own identification and the consequent perpetuation of his memory. His first pseudonym as a young anarchist journalist was Le Rétif: The Awkward Customer. He was persistently awkward, not only to the bourgeois or bureaucratic-class enemy, but also to the sundry political organisations in which he was enrolled from about 1910 onwards. He was never a particularly reliable party man – his early political record would run something as follows: family pedigree in the Russian Narodnava Volya, [10] a mongrel movement blending Marxist and terrorist stock: in Belgium, active in the Social-Democratic youth (Jeunes Gardes), member of anarchist colony (1905-8): in Paris, associate of exiled Maximalists (who again combined collectivist policies with terrorist methods), contributor to journals of insurrectionary socialism (La Guerre Sociale) and of anarchism both philosophic (Temps Nouveaux) and illegalist (L’Anarchie), all this from 1908 to 1911; five years’ imprisonment for alleged complicity in terrorist outrages (1912-17) [11]; syndicalist agitator for the CNT in Barcelona, 1917; imprisoned as a Bolshevik suspect in France, 1917-19. Throughout the rest of his career Serge continued to straddle the different camps of the political world, both by his choice of friends and in the expression of his ideas. We find him hobnobbing with the anarchists and Left Mensheviks during his early years in Petrograd, as well as with a Social-Revolutionary salon (the ‘Free Philosophical Society’) and a utopian agricultural colony or commune. When he returned to Western Europe after his spell of arrest and deportation by the GPU, and became the best-known Trotskyist publicist in France, he mixed on personally friendly terms with Belgian and French Social-Democrats and within the White Russian emigration. [12] All this is quite apart from his multifarious literary contacts, which were even less restricted by ideological considerations. The catholicity of Serge’s personal attitudes, even though merged with an open intransigence on matters of basic principle, was certainly held against him by stricter Marxists: Trotsky classed him among ‘the advocates of the anarchists’ and berated him for ‘trying to manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism and Marxism.’ [13] Actually, although Victor Serge always retained a strong sympathy for libertarian thought, his discussion of anarchism was such as to make it impossible for him ever to be quoted as a wholesale supporter of that creed, at least after 1917 or so. The cardinal vice of anarchist writing is, after all, that (even more than most of us) it assesses other ideologies in terms of their performance, and its own philosophy in terms of its principles: that is what they do, this is what we say. Serge viewed anarchism as a historical phenomenon with its own record of success and failure, not as a set of universal principles by which other movements’ successes and failures were to be measured. He earned the hostility of some anarchists by publicising Bakunin’s Confession of recantation (addressed to the Tsar during a period of incarceration) [14], and was responsible for numerous mordant observations on anarchist actuality:

‘The anarchists themselves, in the regions occupied by Nestor Makhno’s Black Army, exercised an authentic dictatorship, accompanied by confiscations, requisitions, arrests and executions. And Makhno was known as batko: little father, or chief... [15]

‘Authoritarian and intolerant temperaments have been numerous in the anarchist movement, beginning with Bakunin.’ [16]

The anarchist delegates to the Comintern ‘had a healthy revulsion from “official truths” and the trappings of power, and a passionate interest in actual life’ but were also ‘the adherents of an essentially emotional approach to theory, who were ignorant of political economy and had never faced the problem of power’ [17] – a description which all in all is remarkably apposite with respect to the anarchist movement today. The man who wrote these comment was no anarchist, though he was not an anti-anarchist either.

But it is not only Serge’s general unclassifiability that has caused him to be forgotten. The second factor operating to make Serge a stranger on the Left is the personal nature of his insight in an age of impersonal political thinking. Looking over practically any heavy-going socialist journal, above all those with a Marxist complexion, one encounters on the whole a series of rational propositions, which may form part of either a theory or a programme. The enemy is identified by his general statements.

Here are the Social-Democrats with their assent to the Parliamentary transition to socialism, here the Mensheviks with their denial of the possibility of proletarian revolution, here the Stalinists, or perhaps nowadays the Khruschevites, with their highly inaccurate assessment of the relationship between war and class struggle. This statement, this and this form the description of the way that the CND, the working class, the Labour Party or Africa will have to take if its problems are to be solved. [18] The situation in Cuba, Algeria or the Peckham CLP conforms to this or that model: the model being a specification largely deduced from more generalised laws covering the development of the colonial revolution, the role of bureaucracies in Social-Democracy, or whatever. The class of literature which has most influenced the style of socialist theorizing is the academic treatise, which is scarcely a genuine literary form at all; especially because very few socialist authors have even attempted to make their footnotes as readable as Marx did in Capital. An immense status among political people attaches to articles, or maybe monographs, which assemble knowledge, redefine categories and prove or disprove theories, generally by means of a series of globules of information emitted by the author on the basis of time that he has spent in libraries.

(There is quite a lot of this sort of thing in the earlier parts of this article.) And what is wrong with all that, one may ask: what other sort of writing could there be?

Victor Serge’s way of writing, for one thing. In Serge’s world, which one may suspect is not very far removed from the one which we actually inhabit, politics is composed not of statements but of persons. The statements these people make are of course of some importance, but they are uttered in a certain tone of voice belonging to that individual, and what is of most interest is not whether the proposition concerned is strictly true or false, but whether the attitude behind it, which has a certain relationship to the character of the person uttering it, is healthy or sick, blind or perceptive.

‘Paul Levi, a leading figure in the German Communist Party, ... told me outright that “for a Marxist, the internal contradictions of the Russian Revolution were nothing to be surprised at”; this was doubtless true, except that he was using this general truth as a screen to shut away the sight of immediate reality, which has an importance all of its own.’ [19]

‘The sight of immediate reality’ is what Serge is trying to provide all the time: the sight, that is, of particular, time-bound human reality. Think of all the arguments that have gone on around the rise of Stalin, in particular the pro’s and con’s of ‘permanent revolution’ versus ‘socialism in one country.’ How many of us, at the end of it all, know just what were the human conditions of that debate, what the political and conceptual level was of the people who were engaged in it? We look at Serge, and find out that it was not at all a matter of rational permanent-revolutionary argument losing out to fiendish organisational fiddling on the part of the bureaucracy – any more than it is in the Labour Party nowadays. What was going on was an argument conducted by a few politically sophisticated Bolsheviks among a crowd of party members most of whom were not very interested in politics; and the latter voted out of blind unpolitical loyalty to the party leadership, just as they do today. Or take the huge amount of recrimination that went on among German and Russian Marxists after the failure of the 1923 revolution in Germany. After everybody has said their piece, Ruth Fischer, Trotsky, Stalin, Brandler and all, and demonstrated the crying inadequacy of the leadership of everybody else, the question still remains unanswered: what were the German workers like at this time? Were they a really revolutionary lot, or no? And if not, why not? Serge tells you that they weren’t; it is in fact a basic feature of in his descriptions of political events that an account is always given of the actual condition and consciousness of the particular working class that is involved, be it French, Belgian, German or Russian. This should be elementary, but in fact is fairly rare in left-wing writing. To read over the files of most socialist journals, or even over many socialist memoirs and histories, is to enter a world where the workers are ever-lastingly militant and everlastingly betrayed and bamboozled by bourgeois repression and pseudo-socialist deception; if one knew the date of a general election, and nothing about the result, one could hardly ever guess with any accuracy at the outcome after looking up the socialist press of the time. In the case of the 1923 German events, Serge’s summing-up expresses his basic insight fairly neatly:

‘Trotsky is to explain the German defeat in terms of “the crisis of revolutionary leadership”, but that crisis is itself the expression of two other crises: that of popular consciousness, and that of an already bureaucratised International.’ [20]

Bureaucratisation, as part of the general problem of degeneracy in socialism, is another key issue brilliantly explored by Serge: and his achievement is once again one of keenly personal perception. As well as the human resources residing within masses at any given time, the human resources of particular leaders and political groups form an inescapable limitation upon action. At certain periods of history, when the role of ruling élites becomes inordinately exaggerated (through the exhaustion or inertia of masses, or through the rise of a totalitarian machine), the decisions of a few clearly identifiable individuals may in some crucial junctures possess fantastically ramified and magnified effects; and in such cases the fate of whole nations may be said to turn upon the psychological makeup of these leading personnel. Doubtless much larger social, historical and cultural factors would have to be invoked to explain how, in the first place, it was possible for so heavy a concentration of authority to arise, and even the more personal analysis of the individual ruling group (or single dictator) will of course be incomplete without a close consideration of the socio-cultural circumstances of the time. Nevertheless, it makes sense to distinguish between broad historical processes like the rise of capitalism in Europe, or of bureaucratic State societies in the underdeveloped world, and particular acts and decisions which may be catastrophic in their impact upon society but at the same time have quite a restricted and personal point of origin. [21] In the last chapter of the Memoirs Serge lists some of these from the present century: the extermination of the Jews, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the decision to establish the Cheka. (We could add, from our own recent past: the bombing of Hiroshima, the siting of nuclear bases upon Cuba.) It is Serge’s case that an analysis of such events leads to the reinstatement of ethics into historical determinism. If, in the initiation of such vast consequences ‘the intelligence and character of men play a supreme role’ [22], it becomes inadequate to say, for instance, of the development of a peasant economy ‘all the available alternatives fall within the framework of state capitalism and here consciousness does not enter the factors which are sovereign and decisive’. [23] A state-capitalist dictatorship in an underdeveloped territory can perfectly well decide either to follow the Bolshevik example of a hideously independent secret-police force, or to avoid it. In a remarkable number of cases such a development has hitherto been avoided, and the repression of opposition, bourgeois and working-class, has been conducted by milder methods. Decisions to house or manufacture nuclear weapons, whose implications may affect the entire future of mankind, can be (and have been) taken by quite small groups of powerful individuals on strategic or political grounds, acting under the influence of nationalist passions, economic pressure from a Great Power, or plain panic. I have no idea whether this sort of deliberation can be properly classed among the factors that are ‘sovereign and decisive’; but the way the lobbying goes will make a considerable difference to quite a lot of people, including probably you and me.

In despotic regimes, too many things depend upon the tyrant’ [24]; the same may be said, of course, of any social system, however Parliamentary, which is armed with hydrogen bombs. Because of his insistence that ‘the tyrant’ has real responsibility, Serge can take an empirical and closely focussed view of his character. Stalin is ‘traitor, gravedigger, fratricide, Thermidorian, destroyer of the party’ [25]; these are not simply charges in an indictment, but symptoms in a case-history. The sketches of Stalin’s personality given by Victor Serge in From Lenin to Stalin, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and Portrait de Staline are considerably more detached than the horrendous caricatures offered to us by Khruschev today. Serge’s own sufferings in the epoch of high Stalinism had been quite immense. His wife was mentally deranged by the atmosphere of persecution, and virtually all his relatives and friends disappeared. [26] Nevertheless, his portraits of their persecutors remain as superb human documents, without any trace of vindictiveness. A noted ex-Communist novelist once remarked to Serge’s son Vlady that the final passage of The Case of Comrade Tulayev (in which a secret-police official burns the real evidence in the case and then goes out to a march-past of Soviet youth) was an indication of pro-Stalinist tendencies: this critic missed the irony of the passage, but not its involvement. By contrast, the descriptions of totalitarian or bureaucratic leaders in most of contemporary Socialist journalism are perfunctory if they are not actually venomous. It is somewhat imagined that to describe the degeneracy of a movement is to revile or dismiss the character of its chiefs; I would except the analysis of Ben Bella contained in the last issue of this journal (Algeria, by Jean-Francois Lyotard), but not much anywhere else. (This stricture is of course by no means intended to sanction the sloppy adulation of totalitarians that appears so frequently in the Left Social-Democratic press.)

We may equally counter Serge’s general Sovietological approach to many of the current or recent appraisals in this field, Victor Serge did not, I think, ever proclaim himself as a supporter of the ‘State capitalist’ analysis of Russia; but he was convinced, at least by the time of writing his memoirs and probably well before then, that there was nothing specifically Socialist or proletarian in either the economy or the State machinery of the USSR. He speaks with scorn of the ‘Party patriotism’ which led many members of both the Left and the Right Opposition to identify themselves with the Stalinist dictatorship, either to the full extent of grovelling capitulation or in the various semi-recumbent postures of abasement which are familiar even today among reformists and bureaucratic Marxists. But Serge never made the error of supposing that an analysis of current class realities could alone supply the clue to the understanding of Russian affairs; that ‘who rules whom?’ was the only question that need be asked about a given social order; that a classification of society based on existing relations of power exhausted in advance any further discussion of that society’s potential. Until quite recently, and still to some degree even at the present time, it was somehow very difficult for Socialists to separate the notion that Russia was a class society from the particular intensity of repression and bloodshed associated with, say, the purges of 1937-8 or the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

It was easy to scoff at the cruder sort of Marxist who thought that simply because Britain was undeniably capitalist the slump must be around the corner; yet something of a similar fixation was at work in the minds of many Socialists (including myself), who have had a kind of ideological vested interest in the belief that things would turn out worse in Russia in a particular and bloody kind of way. What was round the corner in this case was the purge: the wheels of State Capitalism needing blood to oil them, and so on. I think we have all now become more cautious about this: but Victor Serge believed, even at the darkest hour of persecution, that the Soviet class system would evolve into a phase of more liberal or humane reform. [27] His confidence in this respect arose partly from a simple prognosis (of the kind that appears in the writings of Isaac Deutscher) linking economic development with libertarian progress. In a semi-anarchist pamphlet published in 1921 Serge stated that

‘prosperity and leisure are the conditions of freedom, and for education in freedom. So it is that, even if State Communism deviates from its revolutionary and progressive orientation, it will nevertheless have brought about the conditions necessary for a later evolution which will allow it to be destroyed, and a Stateless Communism, the free association of producers, established in its place.’ [28]

Frequently, too, we find in Serge a deeply-held faith in the integrity of the Russian personality: ‘the Russian man continues to live deeply, even under the heaviest constraints.’ [29] (To those who would consider this to be an irrational or mystical consideration, one might address the following question: why is it that almost everybody wonders how many Germans outside the actual ranks of the Nazi hierarchy and the Gestapo were personally corrupted by complicity in fascism, and yet almost nobody wonders how many Russians outside the NKVD and the bureaucracy were similarly corrupted by Stalinism? Unconscious racialism against the Germans no doubt supplies part of the answer: but by no means all.)

Finally, Serge’s limited optimism over Russian perspectives derives from his sense of the irrepressible character of the proletarian revolution. It would take a long time to develop this point, and I am very uncertain of it myself. Let it suffice at present to say that all great revolutions leave a heritage, even though they may be crushed by main force or transmuted by creeping reaction. No counter-revolution can simply be a restoration. (To take an instance from our own history, the ‘Restoration’ of 1660 continued the scientific and cultural revolution opened up in Cromwell’s day even while it subverted the political and economic hopes of radical Puritanism.) If this is true of bourgeois revolution it must be even more so of the revolution waged and carried through by the working class; for the proletarian revolution releases popular energy on an unprecedented scale and at a fantastic pitch. Victor Serge was convinced that, within the political and economic arrangements of the Soviet Union, nothing was now left of October 1917, but from time to time he speaks as though some evidences of the revolution are still there. When it came to the Nazi invasion of Russia, his language was very much that of a pro-Soviet (and not simply pro-Russian) patriot, and he ascribed the success of Stalinist industrialization to ‘the enormous moral capital of the Socialist revolution... the storehouse of intelligent resolute popular energy which it had built up.’ [30] Once again Victor Serge’s concern seems to be with what can all too lightly be dismissed as ‘subjective factors’, i.e. with the effects of even a long-past revolution upon culture, tradition, attitudes, wills and ideals. In our own day the work of such writers as Yevtushenko and the East European ‘revisionists’ is proof that October still lives as a mighty force in the consciousness of individuals within the Soviet bloc: and to the Russian October of almost half a century ago there has now been added the Polish and the Hungarian October of 1956. Ideas doubtless only ‘become a material force once they have gripped the masses’ (Marx), but they can simmer in creative and philosophical activity even during periods of relative mass quiescence. The cultural residue of one revolution may form part of the foundation for the next.

But it should not be imagined that Serge’s importance is only or even primarily that of a thinker and writer upon Soviet events. Much of his active life was spent within Western labour movements, sometimes during intervals of political dormancy or semi-awakening similar to our own. Whether he was in Russia or in the West he operated (at least during adulthood) upon principles of activity which are still applicable for us. He always chose to work within mass movements rather than small, ideologically pure groupings. At the same time he insisted on retaining his personal liberty to think and to act against official directives. Thus we find him in the Twenties as an anarchist sympathiser working in the Comintern and the Bolshevik Party, and in the Thirties supporting the independent Spanish Marxist party POUM against the narrower tactics of his Trotskyist collegues. [31] Isolation was for Serge a cardinal political sin, equal in gravity to its opportunist contrary: careerism. To enter a movement, even a bureaucracy, was one thing; to allow it to enter you was quite another. A man of Victor Serge’s talents could undoubtedly have secured a responsible and even lucrative career as a journalist or public figure, either as a professional Communist or as a professional anti-Communist. Suspicion of personal advancement runs as a continuing theme from Serge’s earliest writings to his last. During the period of War Communism, even as he advised all anarchists to enter the Bolshevik movement, he was careful to add: ‘While others will become officers, functionaries, judges, or sometimes privileged persons, they will continue simply to be men, free workers willing to perform stoically all the drudgery of ploughing up the old ground, but bemused neither by line phrases, nor successes, nor the lure of gainful careers ...’ [32] And in late 1946, in discussing the best-selling memoirs of the Soviet defector Kravchenko, he could remark: ‘It is simply the testimony of a fugitive who during his whole life has thought of nothing but himself ... his fundamental objective, after a short period of uncertainty, was to live better in the United States.’ [33] Kravchenko had entitled his autobiography I Chose Freedom; Serge might easily have called his own I Chose Failure. His instinct was always to swim against the stream, to hold fast on to those aspects of reality and principle that were in danger of being swamped by propaganda: in the full flood of Bolshevism he stood for Anarchy, during the Stalinist bloodbath for the Left Opposition, in the rising Cold War for the integrity of Bolshevism’s past. He stayed clear of the grand cultural circuit of name-dropping reviews, of the criticism of criticism of criticism, of that swollen, parasitical, up-to-date sub-literary world which exists at several removes from actual creative writing and which doubtless would go brightly on for a considerable length of time under its own momentum, with its own resources of second-hand allusions, even if the writing of poems, novels, stories and plays were by some devil’s miracle stopped altogether. The journals for which he wrote were in the main scruffy, inglorious and hard to find in libraries. The best that any of us could wish for ourselves is that we should be like him: only (let us hope) luckier in the times that are at our disposal. The words he used of Maxim Gorky (the Gorky of 1919, not the degenerate hack of ‘socialist realism’) will do for their author as well: ‘the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution.’ The obituary he wrote for his friend Parijanine would serve as his own epitaph:

‘He died on his pauper’s bed, in the shadow of the poverty-coloured wallpaper, alone and weary of many things but faithful, together with a few others, to a few things that are of over-riding importance.’




1. Little criticism has been published on Serge’s fiction. Philip Toynbee in his review of the Memoirs (Observer, 28 July 1963) remarked in passing that The Case of Comrade Tulayev was ‘nearly as good as Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.’ Irving Howe has written on Tulayev in the New International, January-February 1951 and somewhat more favourably in his book Politics and The Novel (English edition 1961). There is a very eulogistic notice of Serge’s novel S’il est Minuit Dans le Siècle (bracketing it with Dostoevsky) in Georges Duhamel’s chronicle of 1939 Positions Françaises (1940) and a hostile one by Ignazio Silone in Thomas Mann’s review Mass und Wert, January-February 1940, stigmatising its Bolshevik sympathies as ‘The Mass in Latin’. Otherwise there seems to be remarkably little else except in ephemeral notices.

2. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, English edition, p.263.

3. Mémoires d’un Revolutionnaire, 1951 edition, p.53 (omitted in English abridgement).

4. George Orwell on Arthur Koestler, in Critical Essays (1946). p.136.

5. The schema is an amalgamation of two well-known ideas: the ex-Communist-disenchantment thesis expressed most eloquently in Isaac Deutscher’s The Ex-Communist’s Conscience (in Heretics and Renegades, 1955) and the degeneracy-of-the-latecomer conception to he found passim in Trotsky’s later writings (‘As late as 1923, the Webbs saw no great difference between Bolshevism and Tzarism ... Now, however they have fully recognized the “democracy” of the Stalin regime’). The cases of Malraux and Ignazio Silone do not fit the schema; but the publications of the Congress for Cultural Freedom are stuffed with enough ex-Stalinists to make the thesis worth propounding.

6. The phrases in quotation are taken from Irving Howe in New International, Jan.-Feb. 1951, p.56.

7. In his article on The USSR in War (translated in New International, Nov. 1939), Trotsky had hinged the future of revolutionary Marxism on the outcome of the Second World War: ‘if the international proletariat, as a result of the experience of our entire epoch and the current new war proves incapable of becoming the master of society, this would signify the foundering of all hope for a socialist revolution, for it is impossible to expect any other more favourable conditions for it ...’ (p.329). In such a case ‘nothing else would remain except openly to recognise that the Socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society ended as a Utopia. It is self-evident that a new “minimum” programme would be required – for the defense of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society’ (p.327). Serge in his later period, recognising that revolution was not a likely consequence of the War, turned to analysing the ‘totalitarian bureaucratic society’ he felt must emerge and to evolving the ‘new minimum programme’ for the exploited masses.

8. The recent case of Howard Fast forms a startling indication of the importance of ‘safeness’ in literary popularity. Until 1956 Fast was subjected to a virtual boycott by publishers and critics in the USA. His fame was confined to CP circles there and abroad, who employed his name (a) to prove that the comrades did after all read novels (b) to prove that the comrades were not after all anti-American (‘The Other America, the America of Robeson and Fast ...’, etc.). In the last five or so years, since Fast broke with the CP, there has been a sense (accurate or not) that he has ‘passed’: his books have gone into repeated paperback editions, and an epic film has been made of his novel Spartacus. (At the same time, of course, the CP literati nowadays never mention him.) The books stay the same; only their reputation varies with politics.

9. The praise was not entirely unanimous. One prominent Sovietologist found the Memoirs ‘sloppily-written’ and their author ‘a character of unusual repulsiveness’ (Dr Ronald Hingley in the Sunday Times, 28 July 1963): ‘If there was anyone he hated, it was the working class ... he lacked or despised the story-teller’s art ... slipshod writing methods ... repugnant personality ...’ The review was headed Trotskyite Disdain. Destalinization still has to reach the counter-revolutionaries.

10. Serge was related on his father’s side to N.I. Kibalchich (1854-1881) who as well as manufacturing the bombs that blew up Czar Alexander II also functioned as a theoretician of some originality. He wrote an important article on Political Revolution and Economic Problems, attempting a synthesis of Marxism with the ideas of the Narodnaya Volya. See the discussion in Franco Venturi’s Roots of Revolution, English edition 1960, pp.679ff.

11. Serge’s imprisonment as a ‘terrorist’ or ‘anarchist bandit’, a charge of which he was wholly innocent. later furnished material for the Stalinist smear campaign against him (‘Trotskyite terrorist’ etc.). See the material in the Paris monthly Le Crapouillot, March 1937, p.71 with Serge’s reply.

12. Serge used to meet N.P. Vinaver, editor of the White publication Posliednye Novosti (see Serge’s Carnets, 1951, pp.33, 40), in 1938, for chats about Russian current events. He had also been on close terms with the brilliant monarchist poet Gumilev (Memoirs, pp.59-60).

13. Trotsky in Hue and Cry over Kronstadt (1938): 1961 SLL reprint, pp.8, 7.

14. Mentioned in Mémoires (1951 French edition). p.170.

15. In Trente Ans Après La Revolution Russe, La Revolution Prolétarienne, Nov. 1947.

16. From an excellent unpublished document on Anarchism, in the collection of essays drawn up for a Socialist discussion group, among Serge’s papers.

17. Memoirs, p.104.

18. Of course no program or perspective can be wholly descriptive; but there is a section or component of most programs and all perspective outlines which consists of empirical statements. Skill in theorizing is often taken to be a matter of assembling such statements into a sufficiently impressive format. (The finest examples of this style are probably to be found in the internal or semi-internal documents of the Trotskyist movement, and especially the emigré Trotskyist movement like the old German IKD.)

19. Memoirs, p.102.

20. p.174. In his other writings on the 1923 German events Serge is less clear on the actual state of mass consciousness; cf. Destiny of a Revolution, (1937) pp.143-4.

21. Lenin. of course, became particularly concerned in his last years with the effects of particular elite-group decisions and particular individual temperaments upon Soviet society as a whole (e.g. his letters on Georgia and the famous ‘Testament’). These observations of his stand in contrast to the generalizing sweep of his other writings (e.g. Imperialism); it is proof of the degeneracy of the Soviet State in 1922-3 that its founder should have turned to character-analysis and ‘Kremlinology’ as matters of such overwhelming importance.

22. Memoirs, p.378.

23. Alasdair Maclntyre in IS13, p.19.

24. Destiny of a Revolution, p.265.

25. From Lenin to Stalin, p.188.

26. Suzanne Leonhard (Gestohlenes Leben, 1956. p.559-565) recounts her meeting with Anita (Serge’s sister-in-law) in a labour camp, It appears that Serge’s relatives, who were all imprisoned, felt very bitterly over their lot, and (at least in Anita’s case) blamed it on Serge.

27. See the introduction to the OUP edition of the Memoirs, pp.xx-sxii.

28. Les Anarchistes et La Révolution Russe (1921), p.35.

29. In The Writer’s Conscience, Now, No.7, Nov. 1947, p.53.

30. Memoirs, p.261,

31. Serge regarded the defence of the POUM against Stalinist attack as having priority over the criticism of the POUM leadership; he also went to the extent, it appears, of justifying POUM’s entry into the Catalan government. See his letter in New International, Feb. 1939 and also Carnets, p.45.

32. Les Anarchistes, p.44-45.

33. New International, Nov.-Dec. 1950, p.370.


Last updated on 20.8.2007