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Henry Judd

Books in Review

Unique Novel

(November 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 6, November–December 1951, pp. 367–369.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Secret et Violence
by Georges C. Glaser
Editions Correa, Paris, France; 690 francs, 420 pages.

The confession of the repentant Stalinist has become almost as familiar to the Western world as that other brand of confession in the Eastern world. The strong similarities between the two schools has always testified to their common origin. But this novel of Georges C. Glaser – which has created a considerable stir in France – has nothing in common with the political confessions we know. Glaser, German-born but now a French citizen, practises the art of metal craftsmanship at Paris where he has his own atelier. This lengthy novel may be assumed to be the autobiographic account of his life, deepened by his reflections on its meaning and enriched by his amazing experiences. It is, indeed, the first account of the life of a Communist militant, as seen from inwards and experienced from still deeper sources. As such, it is so infinitely superior to the pitiable accounts we have hitherto had that it belongs in a category of its own and must be considered as unique of its kind.

The novel’s hero, Valtin (we do not know if the choice of name is an ironic commentary on the notorious author of Out of the Night) is born “into the Kingdom of Misery” of an industrial suburb of a small German city. The large family is ruled by the brutal hand of the father, prototype of the frustrated German petty-bourgeois so effectively organized by the Nazis. It is Germany after the First World War, the familiar period of inflation, occupation, despair. The young Valtin flees his home and becomes a wanderer, a tramp among the hundreds of thousands of unemployed and lumpen who formed a veritable society of vagabondage at the time. Violence, police, authority, prison – all become familiar to the adolescent boy who, simultaneously, feels himself set apart from his fellow vagabonds, reflective, restless, introverted. He passes through a series of youth and correction homes, always revolting, always opposing. His contact with the famous and utopian Naturfreunde youth movement of the 20’s leads him to the Communist youth and party. He becomes fixed within this milieu. The atmosphere of the Stalinist movement of the 1930’s is brilliantly recreated, the madness of the “Third Period” is seen from within, with its devastating effect upon the personality of the party membership. Street brawls with Nazis and police, preparation of an endless series of adventures, fantastic political proposals – all is described inwardly, as it touches the life of a militant. Valtin’s life is a disorder and chaos; he is never normally employed and has no trade or profession. There is no evidence of any contact with the comparatively stable labor movement of the epoch, represented by the older Social Democratic workers and their trade unions. The feverish and hungry soul of Valtin, and thousands of German Valtins, found a natural home in the party at that time; it could hardly have been otherwise.

Hitler takes power and smashes the party. A new form of madness seizes the leadership which, simultaneously, demands a greater loyalty and subordination than ever to carry out its projects. Acts of despair follow one another. Valtin kills a Nazi and is forced to flee the country. In the Saar, then awaiting the results of the plebiscite which returned it to Germany, he joins in his last effort to work with the party. It is a period of degradation and humiliation. He begins to write, in an effort to concretize his inner and outward experiences. A party functionary informs him, “It is just simply unbearable for anyone to write and show a group of men who struggle without having any ties to the leadership; better a cell which is attached to the leadership even if it is inactive.” Not without much pain and torment, Valtin’s dependence upon the party begins to dissolve; he must struggle to resume and recreate his personality. He leaves for France and Paris.

The next, and most extensive phase of the novel, deals with his discovery of and integration into French life, the life of the French worker, in particular. He finds a profession, becomes a skilled worker. His first contact with a normal proletarian life, the discovery of what it means to produce and work, are movingly described. The French workers, even though supporting the party, have a way of behaving and reacting he has never known. One of them tells him, “Our first law is freedom. You say, ‘Long live the Republic,’ that’s O.K. You shout, ‘Shit on the Republic,’ that’s O.K. too!” Valtin begins to feel himself part of this world, but the war brings an end to this possible harmonious evolution. Now a French naturalized citizen, for he has seen the steady disintegration of his fellow political refugees who sink steadily into the type of Stalinist personality most desirable for GPU activities, Valtin is mobilized for the front.

Then follows five years of life as a soldier, a prisoner of war and transportation into Germany to war in the war industries. Valtin, German-born, must conceal his identity during this period; death at the hands of the Gestapo would be inevitable. It is impossible to describe in detail this period, upon which the novel concludes. Valtin eventually finds himself working in the very suburb where he had been born. Amidst his fellow prisoners from France, Russian slave workers from the East, the Gestapo agents who guard the factory, former communist German workers, now broken – amidst this incredible mixture of human life – Valtin continues that most difficult of all tasks, the findings of his own human personality. His true identity on the point of discovery, he flees his camp and awaits, with other hunted Germans, the war’s end. The allied troops arrive, but Germany and Europe are ruined; it is too late. Valtin, at least, can now return to France, but his friends who have heard the Stalinist slogan of “kill the Boche”? They emerge from their cave in the earth. “They were looking toward the West and toward the East; toward the North and toward the South. They were awaiting a Saviour.”

Despite its conclusion on this pessimistic, if accurate, note of the end of the Europe hitherto known to us, this novel of Glaser is filled with quite another spirit. To convey either the interest or scope of the period it covers would be impossible; we can only hope for its early translation into English. Viewed superficially, we have here a picture of one of history’s most tragic epochs: the decline of the labor and socialist movement, bringing with it the decline and breakup of Europe itself. More important, we have the story of the disruption and demoralization of the revolutionary personality, leading to its final destruction by Stalinism. But still further, in the struggle of Valtin to emerge from his dark night of totalitarian political horror, the author suggests to us a concept of the ethic of work and labor, the autonomous personality of the producer, “the creator, the peaceful seeker after truth.” As a critic has suggested, Glaser is urging us to accept once again those roots which originally attached socialism to the moral belief of the producer, the ethics of work. How does Valtin rebuild his world? His rediscovery is scattered throughout the book, at first unconsciously, later with understanding. It is through the concrete, through his search after the most simple of human gestures, the simplest things produced. The taste of bread, wine, the act of producing work in his shop by means of the tools at hand, the revisiting of old places seen before, but in a different light – all this leads Valtin to the humanization of the socialist and revolutionary beliefs he held, and continues to hold. In this sense, of course, he has much kinship with his Italian brother, Pietro Spina, created by Silone.

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