Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3

Ernest Rogers

Serge, Poretsky, Etienne: A Paris Hotel, 1937

CROMWELL was reputed to have advised the artist portraying him not to flatter him, but to paint him warts and all. I assume that Victor Serge would not have wanted anything less.

Critical remarks were made of Serge’s character. Isaac Deutscher said:

He was one of Trotsky’s early adherents, a gifted and generous, though politically ingenuous, man of letters. The worst that might have been said of him was that he had a foible for vainglorious chatter, and that was a grave fault in a member of an organisation which had to guard its secrets from the GPU. (I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, London 1963, pp. 391–2)

But the clearest justification for a critical attitude came from Elizabeth Poretsky. After she and Henk Sneevliet had attended the funeral in Switzerland of her husband, Ignace Reiss, who had been assassinated by the NKVD, they stopped in Paris en route to Amsterdam. Sneevliet told her that she had a visitor. She did not want to see anyone. In came Serge. Poretsky said:

To our dismay, he was not alone. With him was a young man I had never seen before … Sneevliet took Serge outside, and I heard him storm at him for having been indiscreet enough to bring another person … The young man introduced himself as Trudman, a friend of Serge and Sedov, Trotsky’s son. His real name was Mark Zborovsky, known to the Trotskyists as Etienne.

When Sneevliet and Serge re-entered the room, Serge was visibly embarrassed, and Sneevliet looked white and shaken … When the visitors had gone, Sneevliet did not try to hide his fury at Serge for having brought Etienne along … The fact that he had passed onto Etienne the highly confidential word that I was in Paris, and worse, had brought Etienne with him to the hotel, gave Sneevliet a shock that never wore off. After this incident, he understood why I had said Serge was the last person I wanted to see. (E. Poretsky, Our Own People, London 1969, pp. 244–5)

She continued:

Serge published an account of his meeting with me in the hotel in Paris quite different from the one I have given. But Serge was not a professional conspirator, he was essentially a writer. ‘Poets and novelists are not political beings’, he himself wrote, ‘because they are not essentially rational … The artist … is always delving for his raw material in the subconscious … If the novelist’s characters are truly alive … they might eventually take their author by surprise.’ This insight no doubt accounts for his version of events. (Poretsky, p. 246, citing V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London 1963, p. 265)

In view of the fact that this Etienne, so recklessly introduced by Serge to Poretsky and her whereabouts, was a Stalinist agent connected with the murder of her husband and an attempt to kill her and her child with a box of poisoned chocolates, her conclusion as to Serge’s character is … restrained!

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011