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Henry Judd

Books in Review

Serge’s Memoirs

(September 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 5, September–October 1951, pp. 309–311.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Memoires d’un Révolutionnaire (1901–1941)
by Victor Serge
Editions du Seuil, Paris 1951. 417 pp. 600 francs.

The memoirs of Victor Serge, extracts of which have already appeared in various publications, including The New International, have been awaited with much interest. Finally, although unfortunately still only in French, the complete edition is now available, with the exception of certain pages covering his last years in Mexico. This thick volume covers the vast and amazing expanse of time – several epochs rolled into one – between Serge’s birth, of Russian parenthood, in Brussels (1901) [1] and his final place of refuge in Mexico City (1941).

Somewhere in the beginning of his memoirs, Serge describes that predominant feeling which he possessed his entire life: that of living in a world from which there was no possible escape, but struggling without cease to find the impossible. And in this impossible world, he writes, he spent his childhood listening to conversations about “... trials, executions, escapes, roads to Siberia, great ideas constantly called into question, the latest books about these ideas ...” (p. 8).

Consider for a moment the historic terrain crossed by Serge during these long years; this will give some idea of the richness and the fascination contained in this book. The growth of the international socialist movement before the First World War, together with the Russian revolutionary movement; the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements of France, Belgium, Spain, etc., the First World War itself; the Russian Revolution from its Kerenskyist phase down to the Stalinist destruction of the Left Opposition (and all other opposition); exile and isolated struggle against the Moscow Trials; the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War; the collapse of France and ultimate flight to Mexico.

And Serge, as worker, revolutionist, journalist, man-of-letters, novelist, participated in all of these, actively and convincingly! Son of a Russian Nihilist and member of the “Will-of-the-People” group, raised in the atmosphere of a rather primitive and mechanistic anarchism, he learned early to “... think, struggle, be hungry.” In Paris and Belgium, he moved in anarchist, libertarian and syndicalist circles, with a definite antipathy toward socialist and Marxist tendencies. The Russian Revolution swung him to the Bolshevik side and he engaged actively in political duties during the civil war, the NEP period, etc. He quickly became critical of events in Russia and rallied to the Trotskyist opposition. This cost him several years exile in the Russian hinterland – not under concentration camp conditions – from which he was eventually saved by a campaign abroad organized by European intellectuals. Serge was actually both a Russian revolutionist and a French- European writer and intellectual, a duality which accounts for his miraculous release by Stalin! To one or another extent, he collaborated with Trotsky and the then Trotskyist movement in exposing the Moscow Trials, although (as we shall see) his own political orientation turned in a different direction. His contacts, acquaintances, experiences, information, etc., were truly enormous and covered the entire expanse brought to life by the Russian Revolution.

Readers of The New International are already quite familiar with much of the life and record of Victor Serge. What is less known is his opinion on many of the controversial events of the Russian Revolution (Kronstadt, Makhno, etc.), as well as other political features of his life, such as his disagreements and ultimate break – rather, a partial break – with Trotsky. Since a good three-quarters of his memoirs are concerned with Russia and the Revolution, the reader will find much material on these issues. The question is, how must we evaluate them? The essence of Victor Serge makes it impossible for us to give a definite, clear or simple response to this question.

In one respect, Serge’s memoirs are easily – too easily – subject to criticism. He is not a political analyst or theoretician; nor a systematic or original thinker. His style and method are impressionistic and subjective, lacking both clarity of expression and documentation. This is no source book for historians, nor reference work for scholars concerned with the Russian Revolution! One always has the uneasy feeling that Serge’s “quotations” are either from memory, or concise summaries of his impression of a quotation or statement. There are never any references to which the sceptical or interested reader may go himself. For example, he claims that both Lenin and Trotsky signed an ultimatum addressed to the Kronstadt strikers which stated, among other things, “Surrender, or you will be machine-gunned like rabbits.” Where, how, when, etc.? The very expression seems totally unlike both men, yet Serge offers no reference, no possible way of checking the matter. Or, Lenin (p. 144) is quoted as having said to one of Serge’s friends, “This is Thermidor. But we won’t let ourselves be guillotined; we’ll make Thermidor ourselves!” The expression and its implication seem impossible. Similarly, his evaluation of the “Workers’ Opposition” doesn’t gibe with the known facts. And one may easily doubt a considerable number of other impressionistic, exaggerated, emotional and offhand statements scattered through the work.

Thus, unfortunately, the memoirs have been used by unpalatable sources which make a profession of anti-Bolshevism. But have not those who sought in Serge an authentic voice of evidence of Bolshevism’s original sins violated the spirit of his work? Absolutely. For, despite his often bitter and harsh criticisms of Russian Bolshevism, he stands solidly on the ground of the revolution itself, and evokes those special circumstances – well- known to objective people – which drove the Bolsheviks to employ ever harsher measures against their opponents. In fact, a substantial section of his work is devoted to describing the agency of the civil war, the famine, isolation, backwardness, etc., of early Russia. Serge even recognizes the meaning of the famous slogan raised during the Kronstadt episode, “Soviets without Communists.” To enforce further this fundamental position of Serge, we need but point to his support and admiration for Trotsky, his adherence to the Trotskyist opposition and his activity in its behalf. No, Serge was no anti-Bolshevik of the contemporary school. Certain confusions and contradictions in his memoirs cannot replace the clear meaning of its general line. Similarly, his often changed relations with Trotsky (in retrospect, he was certainly right as against Trotsky on many issues, such as the premature formation of the “Fourth International”), cannot be discolored by his fundamental solidarity with the man he admired most of all.

But this does not quite establish the necessary balance, since Serge’s sharp criticisms of the Bolsheviks remain. How shall we evaluate them? Today, as is well known, there exists no systematic and organized critique of the theory and practice of Russian Bolshevism, written from a Marxist and socialist standpoint. At best, there have been some suggestions, tentative remarks, half-formulated doubts, etc. But a serious work which, while rejecting the vulgarisations which are so common today, would nonetheless assess the question if there was something inherent in Russian Marxism which facilitated and aided its transmutation into Stalinism – such a work does not exist. It would be hard to imagine a more promising (and formidable) task than that of collating, synthesizing and evaluating the progressive criticisms of Bolshevism, and attempting to draw fruitful lessons from that greatest of all revolutionary experiences!

Here, aside from its own value and interest, lies perhaps the true value of Serge’s memoirs. With all his shortcomings and weaknesses, and in his own fashion, Serge has indicated possible ways of reexamining Bolshevism and the revolution. Not merely through the specific events and personalities he describes, but also through the practice and functioning of the first workers’ state and its leading party. For Serge, the human element, the individual (Man), was the weakest point of Bolshevism. His viewpoint on this question is a coming together of his early anarchist beliefs, with the ideas, the neo-humanism, of European intellectuals like André Gide. For Serge, much in the practice of Bolshevism and Leninism made it possible to corrupt and break men; not, to be sure, by the familiar methods of bourgeois society, but by the instrumentality of power. Lenin, he tells us, referred to the men of the Cheka (revolutionary state police) as made up of “sinister imbeciles”! Did the Bolsheviks overestimate the “objective factor” in history? Serge brilliantly defends Trotsky against the charge of Jesuitical morality, yet he doubts many of the concrete actions of the regime undertaken as measures of “self-preservation.” Unfortunately, he halts halfway; he does not pursue his criticism to the end, and does not offer us, in the concrete, other standards. Yet, at a time when an attitude of subservience toward these events cannot be justified by the fact that so many have completely disowned what they once accepted, in Serge’s efforts can be recognized a true and correct beginning of a reevaluation which, one day, must take place. Acceptable as a part of this task is the optimistic note on which his memoirs end where, reaffirming his belief in socialism, human justice and individual freedom, he urges us to learn from “... the passion, the experience and even the mistakes” of his now destroyed generation.

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Footnote by ETOL

1. Victor Serge was actually born in 1890.

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