Victor Serge, whose real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, was born in Brussels on December 30, 1890, of Russian parents, revolutionaries in enforced exile. His father, Leon Ivanovich Kibalchich, first an officer, then a doctor, was close to the People’s Will party (Narodnaya Volya). One of his distant relatives, Nicolas Ivanovich Kibalchich, a member of this party’s Central Committee, was hanged in 1881 after the “execution” of Tsar Alexander II. His mother, Vera Poderewski, of Polish origin, was a teacher.
He spent his childhood in Belgium and England: it was one of poverty and malnutrition (his younger brother Raoul died at the age of 9, from deprivation). He was self-taught. He began work at the age of 15, as an apprentice photographer (10 francs a months, 10 hours’ work a day), then as photographer, designer, clerk, and typographer, having learnt the job in the anarchist printing works (strongly influenced by Kropotkin, Serge would always remain faithful to the libertarian “rejection of careerism”); he was a journalist, translator, member of the Jeune Garde socialist youth of Ixelles (Brussels) which he soon decided was reformist, then of the Brussels Revolutionary Group. He contributed, under various pseudonyms – the best know being Le Rétif (“The Restless One”) – to the anarchist press (Le Révolté, Le Communiste etc in Brussels; Les Temps Nouveaux, La Guerre Sociale, Le Libertaire, Les Réfractaires, etc in Paris), and was involved in the demonstrations and trials of the time. In Paris, towards the end of 1908, he was active in the extreme tendency of anarchism, with the individualists (the tendencies of Stirner, Ibsen etc). He first wrote for, then became the main force (from July 1911 to January 1912) on the weekly L’anarchie. He organised public talks and discussions. Wrongly accused in the “Bonnot gang” trial (the case of the tragic bandits’), he was arrested in January 1912, tried in February 1913, and sentenced to 5 years jail, to be served in full, and 5 years deportation for refusing to name the outlaws’ whose activities and theories he did not share. The record of the trial proceedings and account of witnesses at the time show him in a good light.
Freed in 1917, he worked as a typographer in Barcelona, was a member of the CNT, a friend of Salvador Segui (who was the inspiration for the character of Dario in The Birth of our Power), and a contributor to Solidaridad Obrera and Tierra y Libertad (in which he published his first article signed Victor Serge). In July 1917, he took part in the popular insurrection in Barcelona. It failed. In 1918, he volunteered for service in Russia; he was arrested in Paris (because of the ban on his staying there), placed in a concentration camp (Précigné in Sarthe) under the Clemenceau government, and exchanged in January 1919 as a Bolshevik hostage for an officer of the French military mission held in Russia. He reached Petrograd in February. A member of the Russian Communist Party, he worked with Zinoviev on the Executive of the Communist International, first in Petrograd, then in Moscow, and later in Berlin and Vienna. In charge of the French edition of International Correspondence, he worked as a journalist for L’Internationale Communiste and L’Humanité in Paris, Le Monde (Henri Barbusse), Clarté, La Lutte de Classes, Bulletin Communiste (Paris), La Vie Ouvrière (Paris), etc, and as a translator of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Vera Figner, E. Varga etc. He took part in the preparation of the communist insurrection in Germany in 1923. In the same year, he joined the Left Opposition. He returned to Moscow in 1925, then to Leningrad, carrying out various literary jobs, and engaged in the struggle in the party. He was imprisoned and expelled in 1928, then released. His translations, essays and novels were being published in France. Again arbitrarily arrested byte GPU in March.1933, he was imprisoned and sentenced without a trial or defence to 3 years’ exile in Orenburg, in the Urals. His wife, suffering from mental trouble as a result of much persecution, could not be looked after. In April 1936 he was deported from the USSR, deprived, along with his family, of Soviet nationality, his personal effects and all his manuscripts, still without legal cause being given! His “freedom” was obtained basically thanks to repeated requests and demonstrations by Belgian and French writers (especially Henry Poulaille, Magdeleine Marx-Paz, Jacques Mesnil, Marcel Martinet, Albert Ayguesparse, Charles Plisnier, etc), trade union activists (Alfred Rosmer, Pierre Monatte etc) and journals – La Revolution Prolétarienne, L’Ecole émancipée, Les Humbles, Le Combat marxiste (run by Lucien Laurat), Masses (edited by René Lefeuvre, the publisher of the Spartacus series and of Rosa Luxemburg), etc. The intervention attributed to some Stalinists (Aragon, Jean-Richard Bloch) or fellow-travellers (Romain Rolland, André Malraux) have never really been confirmed: there is still doubt about this (see our expanded edition of Littérature et Revolution, Paris, 1979).
At first denied residence in France, he was accepted in Belgium without restriction . . . He continued his work as a writer and journalist (for La Wallonie, of Liege; La Revolution prolétarienne, Le Peuple, Le Populaire etc in Paris) and as an activist (on the “Committee for an inquiry into the Moscow Trials and the defence of freedom of opinion within the Revolution” and on the “Committee for the defence of the Spanish revolution”). In April 1936 he had at once made contact with Trotsky, who through the intermediary of A.J. Muste (the delegate of the Committee for the IVth International formed in the United States) proposed he be co-opted onto this committee. He agreed. In January 1937, he attended the International Conference of the IVth International in Amsterdam, and took up the defence of the POUM there together with the Belgian Georges Vereeken and the Dutchman H. Sneevliet. From then on the differences were to grow. He joined the POUM, wrote in its organ La Batalla, defending to the hilt his friend Andres Nin (whom he had met in the USSR in 1921 and with whom he was in the Joint Opposition). He took his distance from the small Trotskyist groups (which he considered sectarian and unfair) and broke publicly with Trotsky in 1939, reckoning that “esteem and admiration for a great man are not incompatible with critical thinking about his work, his ideas, his actions”. Due to his independence and clearsightedness, he was to be the object of attacks arising from bad faith, including lying insinuations..
He left Paris in June 1940, reached Marseilles and sailed from there in March 1941 – on the same ship as André Breton and Claude Levi-Strauss – for Mexico (on a visa granted by President Cardenas hiniself), via Martinique (where he was detained in a camp for a month), Ciudad Trujillo and Havana. He reached Mexico in September 1941, and was immediately the object of violent articles, threats (to his life) from local and refugee Stalinists ... As well as he could, in the face of the boycott, he carried on his activity as a journalist and writer, an active Marxist and an international socialist. He contributed to the English, American and South American press. He again knew poverty, malnutrition, illness, police surveillance, slander and isolation. He died on November 17, 1947 (the possibility of deliberate poisoning cannot be ruled out, according to a Mexican minister of the time), faithful to the end to “socialism with a human face”. There is nothing in his papers, writings or activity to justify the hypothesis put forward by some historians out of ignorance or bad faith, that he in any way reneged or went over to right-wing movements. Far from being a renegade, Serge never ceased to be an intransigent revolutionary.
In spite of various attempts, he has still not been “rehabilitated” as a Soviet citizen, Bolshevik party member and revolutionary writer. His manuscripts (the release of which was authorised in 1936 by the censor’s office, the Glavlit) and his papers have still not been returned to his family – after 40 years ...
Victor Serge – systematically passed over in silence or slandered – is undoubtedly the clear-sighted, courageous forerunner of today’s dissidents, having vigorously, stringently denounced the Trials and the camps – Stalin’s as well as Franco’s and Hitler’s – 30 and 40 years before Solzhenitsyn and the rest.
His work, never moralistic or abstract, is that of a man who was always willingly and deeply involved in the great struggles of his times. Of our times. As Jean Duvignaud quite rightly wrote, “he is the heretic of a period of orthodoxy”.
Last updated on 5.8.2005