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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


André Giacometti

Revolutionary at Large


From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Memoirs of a Revolutionary
Victor Serge
translated and edited by Peter Sedgwick
Oxford University Press, 1963, 426 pp., 42s.

The publication of Victor Serge’s autobiography at the present time is a public service. Never have people like him been more needed, and never have they seemed as scarce. Fortunately, some write and leave books.

Victor Serge, born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, is one of the most important witnesses of the European revolutionary movement in the period between the two world wars, and his autobiography, hitherto unavailable in English, is an essential contribution to the ‘dossier’ of this period. Serge, son of an exiled Russian revolutionary, was born in Brussels in 1890, lived in Belgium and France and spent his youth in the anarchist movement. In October 1917 he was working with the syndicalist trade unions in Barcelona; by 1919, he had made his way to Petrograd, where he immediately took up service as a propagandist and functionary of the Third International. In 1922, he went on mission to Germany and Austria, then returned to Russia in 1926 where he joined the Left Opposition and witnessed the beginning of the purges. He was imprisoned himself, deported to Siberia, saved from execution by his French connections, then released and allowed to return to Belgium in 1936. He arrived in France soon afterwards, witnessed the Popular Front, the Spanish Civil War and the defeat of the Spanish revolution, deeply involved in all these events, fighting at the same time against the Moscow Trials, the assassination campaign of the GPU against oppositionists (Ignace Reiss, Andres Nin, Marc Rein, Kurt Landau, Rudolf Klement, Walter Krivitsky – the best known among many). When France collapsed before the German army, he fled south and succeeded in escaping to Mexico in 1941, in the company of a small band of revolutionary socialists of various origins (Gustav Regler, Marceau Pivert, Julian Gorkin and others). He died in Mexico in 1947, still fighting; ‘his upturned shoes had holes in them, his suit was threadbare, his shirt coarse. Really he might have been some vagabond or other picked up from the streets. Victor Serge’s face was stiffened in an expression of ironic protest and, by means of a bandage of cloth, the State had at last closed his mouth.’

Victor Serge wrote a great deal. His novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev is, without doubt, the best novel on the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist purges, although less well known than Darkness at Noon. Another novel translated into English, The Long Dusk, is a record of how revolutionary refugees in Southern France were attempting to escape from the Gestapo and various other political police. Among his other writings, Russia Twenty Years After, From Lenin to Stalin, and various fragments published in radical reviews (mostly The New International and Politics) are alone available in English. All of these are relevant today, but none so much as his Memoirs, which are particularly important in the context of the deep changes the Communist movement is undergoing at present.

The ideological and political breakdown of the Stalinist system has led not only to the rehabilitation of people, but also to the rehabilitation of facts. There is wide acceptance in Communist circles of notions which were dangerous heresies in Serge’s time: that Stalin not only made mistakes, but also committed crimes; that the world Communist movement need not necessarily be directed from a single centre: that more than one form of artistic and literary expression is compatible with a commitment to socialism: that the Bolshevik old guard were not paid agents of foreign capitalist powers and that the Moscow Trials were a frame-up. In Serge’s time people were murdered all over the world for asserting these same things, which today are admitted by official spokesmen for Communist governments. Is there a victory for truth and justice in this? If so, why does it so often leave a bitter taste? Working with Communists in certain situations – nuclear disarmament, trade unions – one has occasion to see a Communist rise to speak on one subject or another, in the smooth, well-behaved fashion that most of them have today, and irresistibly other thoughts crowd in on the mind: here is a man who accepted Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin as unflinchingly as he accepted any of Stalin’s crimes, and as unquestionably as he will accept other crimes tomorrow. He has understood nothing. He is no more destalinized than Globke and Oberlander are denazified. This is altogether too easy. Clearly, the lesson has not sunk in. The lesson has not been assimilated because the ‘errors’ of the Stalin period are not a mere matter for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation of people, and of facts, is useless when it is not coupled with an understanding of the pattern which produced the ‘errors’, and with an altogether different approach to politics. Hearing a Communist talk about Stalin and the great purges today, one is rather reminded of the repentant Nazi who regrets the uncritical acceptance of Hitler by his party because Hitler made the mistake that lost the war.

If a certain view of politics is not destroyed, nothing has really changed. To drive this lesson home, a discussion of ideas and of theoretical differences is not enough: it is necessary to produce object lessons, that is, the facts of the period and, more important perhaps, the feeling and the flavour of these facts, and the nature of the personalities that made them. Only then does the overall pattern and the explanation emerge. Serge’s autobiography does all of this. It is largely a record of what actually happened in Russia and in the European Communist movement in the 1920’s tnd 1930’s, and of the way in which it happened. In this sense, it is a testimony, like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, or Alfred Rosmer’s Moscou sous Lenine (still not translated into English), or John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and it says more about different approaches to the problems of socialism and of revolution than any number of theses and programmes. Not that theses and programmes did not mean anything to Serge. He was an intensely political person, and there is hardly any issue that is central to socialism that does not come up in his memoirs. His libertarian and syndicalist background made him particularly sensitive to the dangers of bureaucratic degeneration within the revolutionary movement, and issues such as workers’ control, the unavoidable and the avoidable factors in the degeneration of revolutions, pluralism of tendencies in the labour movement, are continuously present in his writing. His approach to these problems, and his description on how they were regarded in the revolutionary movement of his time, provide a welcome standard of comparison between the Stalinists of all tendencies of today and the revolutionaries of yesterday and of tomorrow. By these standards, the counterfeit article becomes easily recognizable.

Dolores Ibarruri, the leader and figurehead of the Spanish Communist Party, has just published her own memoirs entitled (guess what?): Memoirs of A Revolutionary, where she repeats the slanders against the POUM and the anarchists which were used as a political cover for the assassination of Nin, Berneri and others. There is no better example of a literary confrontation between lie and truth, degradation and integrity, than in these two books, issued accidentally at the same time under the same title.

Serge was incapable of cynicism, whether born from pessimism and despair or from smug conceit. His description of the ‘soggy left’ of his time, paralysed as today by lack of intelligence and courage, makes instructive reading, although there is very little polemic, just confrontation with the facts.

Brecht, another sensitive and intelligent man, wrote a poem in 1938 called To the Coming Generations. It is a moving testimony by a man who stood in the Stalinist camp when Serge was fighting against the crimes later denounced by Khrushchev. Brecht, who ‘slept among murderers’, wrote:

’You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking
Think –
When you speak of our weaknesses –
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.’

and also

’... when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow-men
Do not judge us
Too harshly.’
This is a misdirected appeal. The only people qualified to judge were Serge and his companions. They are all dead now, Stalin the butcher, Brecht the apologist, Serge the witness, and the many thousand victims. But this fact cannot obscure that other fact, that these were right and these others were wrong, that this inescapable contradiction is still true today and will still be true tomorrow.

Although Serge had every reason to, he did not ‘judge too harshly’. He was a man who sought to understand before he sought to condemn, and his description of people always shows compassion, rarely tinged with contempt. He had qualities of which there is a great dearth in the radical left of today: compassion, sanity, a sense of humour, optimism. He did not move like an enemy agent in the midst of ordinary humanity: to him, to be a revolutionary meant to participate in every aspect of the life of ordinary people, and he never allowed himself to forget that this is where socialism must come from if it is to come at all. There is a paradox here, perhaps only an apparent paradox, that this man, who was a genuine professional revolutionary, should have been least deformed in his personality by his ‘profession’. Perhaps the real revolutionaries do not conform to some of the ideas of what constitutes ‘Bolshevik hardness’? A comforting thought.

Peter Sedgwick deserves our thanks for an intelligent, informed and readable translation. The footnotes, providing extensive information on persons mentioned by Serge, and extremely useful, now that many of the actors are forgotten. I cannot resist indulging in the small pleasures of the critic by pointing out the one small mistake I found: Marceau Pivert (p.339) was never expelled from the SFIO after he rejoined it after the war. He was still a member of the SFIO when he died in the night of June 2 to 3, 1958, some 3 months before the founding of the Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA). However, Sedgwick is right in substance. On May 28, 1958, Pivert wrote in his last article: ‘The traitor Mollet must be unmasked within the Party. It is no longer possible to coexist with a man who has chosen to serve so cynically the bourgeois class, preparing its military dictatorship, whilst at the same time officially representing a working class party.’

The book also includes a bibliography of Serge’s writings, an index of names and many illustrations, most of which are not generally known.

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