Victor Serge; Memoirs of a Revolutionary



The End Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary

by Guy Patrick Cunningham

I STILL REMEMBER ZUCOTTI PARK in the fall of 2011. I was struck by the way the encampment seemed both very abstract — an open-ended protest without a conventional list of goals — and mundanely practical, as people dealt with distributing food, resolving noise complaints, and deciding on sleeping arrangements. Despite its flaws, the protests were a compelling metaphor for the fact that some measure of utopianism — not only the desire but the need to create a better world — is necessary to achieve real political progress or reform. Progressivism in all its variations is ultimately an idealistic project because it involves pushing history forward — sometimes gradually, sometimes all in a rush, but always forward. I first understood that by reading Victor Serge. And as a result, I couldn’t help thinking about him through my entire visit to the original Occupy protest.

Born Victor Kibalchich to Russian political exiles living in Brussels, he joined almost every major left-wing struggle of the early 20th century, from the French anarchist movement to the Bolsheviks’ revolution in Russia. (Kibalchich adopted the name “Serge” during World War I.) He eventually became one of the earliest and most vocal internal critics of Stalin. After being exiled from the USSR, he even joined the French Resistance during World War II. After his break with the Soviet regime, Serge helped pioneer the idea of an independent left unbeholden to the Communist Party — inspired at least in part by his reflexive, anarchist distaste for orthodoxy.

As the scholar Todd Gitlin, a key student leader during the 1960s, recently observed, “Anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century.” This continues today: anarchists were particularly prominent among the early organizers for the Occupy movement. For this reason, Serge serves as a bridge between the revolutionary communities of the early 20th century and the diffuse, non-hierarchical protest movements that emerged after World War II. It’s fitting that the first unabridged US edition of his seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary was released May 1, 2012, the same day Occupy attempted to reinvigorate itself with a large-scale protest in New York City. While Serge certainly wasn’t the “original Occupier,” he did help create the intellectual space out of which Occupy — and, more importantly, Occupy’s offshoots — was born.

Part of what makes the Memoirs in particular so fascinating is the way it surveys Serge’s time as a political revolutionary. Indeed, very little time is spent discussing his literary career, and even less on his wives, children, and private life. He lived on his own from the age of 13, and before finding politics drifted on the edges of society with other wayward youths. “We needed a principle,” he explains, “a way of life.” He eventually met the Belgian anarchist theorist Emile Chapelier, who offered one. Anarchism not only gave Serge a cause, it gave him an identity: “Libertarian individualism gave us a hold on the most intense reality: ourselves.” It also gave him purpose. As he explains, “[A]narchism demanded, before anything else, harmony between deeds and words.” He didn’t merely espouse anarchist doctrine, he lived it: moving to Paris, keeping to the margins of society (he even lived in the proverbial garret above an inn), founding an anarchist study circle called La Libre Recherche (Free Inquiry) and editing the journal L’Anarchie, which was founded by anarchist philosopher Albert Libertad, another early influence.

At L’Anarchie, Serge became an important intellectual leader in the French anarchist community. This brought him into contact, and conflict, with the more violent elements in the movement. Chief among these was the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect that turned to what Serge calls “illegalism” in order to fund their activities. Serge abhorred their criminality, complaining, “I saw the whole of the movement […] dragged into the scum of society by madness.” Nevertheless, he refused to cooperate in a 1912 police investigation of the gang, citing police misconduct and a general disapproval of the French government. As a result of this intransigence, Serge found himself under arrest, even though he was not involved in the Bonnot Gang’s activities and had never even met Jules Bonnot himself. As he explains, “I was only there because of my categorical refusal to talk; that is, to become an informer.” This kind of absolute antiauthoritarianism, a refusal to accept the legitimacy of institutions he deemed corrupt, remained a cornerstone of his beliefs throughout the rest of his life and is a key leitmotif in the Memoirs.

After his release, Serge moved through Europe, working with other anarchists to foment revolution across the continent. After a failed 1917 uprising in Spain, he made his way back to France, only to end up imprisoned again later that year during a crackdown on political agitators. There, he met Russian radicals, who told him about the revolution happening in their country and introduced Serge to Bolshevism. Inspired, he allowed the French government to exile him to Russia, reaching the communist stronghold of Petrograd in 1919. Frustration with the ineffectiveness of the disorganized Russian anarchists led Serge to join the Communist Party, explaining at the time, “the Bolsheviks are the ones who dared. And that’s all that counts.”

Yet Serge’s alliance with the Bolsheviks didn’t — and in retrospect couldn’t — last. As early as 1920, he was warning, “Power exerts on those who exercise it a pernicious influence.” In his view, all of a movement’s actions needed to reflect its highest ideals; anything less risked changing its character. Though he supported the use of force during the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War that followed, Serge criticized tactics he saw as excessive. He particularly objected to the creation of the secret police, or Cheka (a forerunner of the KGB), and in the Memoirs declares, “[T]he formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads.”

The Chekist mentality encouraged the use of force early and often against “enemies” of the Communist Party and based social control on the use of force by the state. The rise of the Cheka coincided with a period of centralization in both the Soviet government and the Party itself. This resulted in a stifling political orthodoxy. As Serge explains in the Memoirs, “I hold truth to be a precondition of physical and moral health […] [R]espect for man implies his right to know everything and his freedom to think.” With the Soviet Union’s descent into dictatorship complete, following the rise of Stalin, Serge didn’t merely walk away from the Party; he became one of its fiercest and most articulate detractors. On February 1, 1933, he wrote an open letter to the French intellectual community, declaring the USSR a “totalitarian state.” This is reputed to be the first time this term was ever applied to the Soviet Union. The letter (reproduced in the Memoirs) was circulated in Western Europe shortly after his arrest that March, making him one of the USSR’s first public dissidents.

To the extent that Serge is remembered today, it’s largely due to this stand. His early and vocal opposition to Stalin is the reason Susan Sontag anointed him “one of the most compelling of twentieth century ethical and literary heroes.” It’s also the major reason figures ranging from George Orwell to Dwight Macdonald to André Gide openly admired him. But if Serge were merely a very brave man who stood up to a tyrant at a time when many others did not, his work would only matter to historians. His best work endures, though, because he is an idiosyncratic thinker, synthesizing elements from political traditions that seem separate if not downright contradictory: communism, anarchism, and humanism. Though his thinking predates the strictly nonviolent resistance efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and is the poorer for it, his intellectual honesty, moral directness, and idealism make him a compelling and timely figure.

Ironically, for a self-identified man of action, Serge’s beliefs are best reflected in his literary output. One could even say that the form of Serge’s Memoirs in particular expresses his politics just as explicitly as its content. Throughout the Memoirs, he weaves small portraits of associates and fellow revolutionaries, some famous — like Leon Trotsky, Walter Benjamin, György Lukács, or Emma Goldman — but most not. In effect, he hands much of his Memoirs over to the lives of others. It is the story of a man told through his community and the story of a community told through a man. He spends a lot of time recounting the lives of activists who died young. As he explains, “[H]e who speaks, he who writes is essentially someone speaking for all those who are voiceless.” He is telling others’ stories because they cannot. Serge’s use of these “short lives” serves as both a literary device and a political statement; as he puts it, “I view human personality as a supreme value, only integrated in society and in history.” Unusually for a memoirist, he also favors the pronoun we over the more traditional I.

He calls himself a “personalist,” to distinguish himself from a traditional humanist. “Personalism” essentially combines the radical libertarian belief in the importance of the individual with the communist belief in the importance of the entire community, refusing to see either as mutually exclusive. To Serge, all the left-wing groups with which he worked were part of the same struggle against oppression. He manages to become the very rarest of political species: a man dedicated to utopian ideals who is nonetheless skeptical of utopianism itself. Serge’s distrust of movements — even well-intentioned ones — led him places that others on the left found only later.

On its face, a conclusion that Serge drew could even be seen in a conservative light:

Lenin’s “proletarian Jacobinism,” with its detachment and discipline both in thought and action, grafted upon the preexisting temperament of activists molded by the old regime, that is the struggle against despotism. I am quite convinced that a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result.

After all, the sentiment wouldn’t be all that out of place in the writings of Edmund Burke. And like Burke, Serge is ever sensitive to the risks of political violence. As he wrote in 1919, from the midst of war-torn Petrograd, “Revolution implies violence. All violence is dictatorial.” In order to succeed, the Party needed to nurture men who were talented at violent struggle — but the result was that the Party ended up stocked with leaders with authoritarian temperaments. But this insight doesn’t lead Serge to move rightward. Instead, he becomes Burke’s mirror image, sharing superficial similarities with the British conservative icon while becoming his complete opposite. He believed radicals needed to be aware of violence’s tyrannical power, and careful in its application. But he never accepts that violence automatically invalidates revolutionary struggle. Serge never foreswore revolution — indeed, he continued to revere the Russian Revolution, considering it a noble cause “betrayed” by Stalin. Instead, he came to believe revolutionary movements needed to hold themselves to an exacting standard, never adopting any approach at odds with their own goals. In this way, a writer skeptical of utopia adopted the purist utopianism imaginable: the utopianism of deeds. As he puts it in the Memoirs, “[T]he end, far from justifying the means, commands its own means.”

After this realization, Serge didn’t just break from Stalinism; he distanced himself from orthodox Marxism altogether, concluding, “I cannot help considering as a positive disaster the fact that a Marxist orthodoxy should, in a great country in the throes of social transformation, have taken over the apparatus of power.” He even points to “party patriotism” as a major reason Stalin’s purges were so successful — many were unwilling to oppose him openly because they didn’t want to side against the Party itself. But while it is Bolshevism in particular Serge is criticizing, it is ultimately orthodoxy itself he views as the main problem. This is particularly evident when he recounts the horror he caused in fellow Bolsheviks by expressing his belief that “One can leave a Party!” Many of his compatriots simply didn’t agree that was possible. They loved the Party itself, viewing it as one with the cause for which it was supposed to be fighting. Serge, however, judged the Party through more unsentimental — and therefore, paradoxically, more idealistic — eyes. He expected it to act justly; if it wouldn’t, its stated program didn’t matter. By taking such a strong stand against blind party loyalty, Serge set the stage for the unaligned radical movements that sprung up after World War II.

Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement.

In a sense, idealism plays the role in political life that a conscience plays in moral life: it puts into relief what is right and wrong (or, if you prefer, desirable and undesirable) as opposed to what is simply possible or not possible. But Serge also pushes against the politics of self-expression. Politics can easily become a kind of identity, something that gives shape and meaning to one’s life. It’s nice to feel “right” and to be around others who will reinforce that feeling. The risk, of course, is that a movement centered around its members’ feeling of “rightness” will quickly become insular — after all, engaging the wider world means disagreement and carries the risk of being proved wrong by events. Serge isn’t interested in being “on the right side of history.” He wants to improve people’s lives. As a result, his unsentimental utopianism serves as a rebuke not only to those infatuated with violence for its own sake, but to self-referential radical movements too involved in internal debates to engage the outside world. And he offers an even more compelling warning to “pragmatists” who allow themselves to get so caught up in the political process that they (we) risk letting the promise of some undefined compromise get in the way of real change.

For me, the two most intriguing post-Occupy offshoots are Occupy Sandy, a volunteer effort to help hurricane victims organized in part by Occupy veterans, and the Rolling Jubilee, a private debt-relief effort. Both are fairly apolitical, practical enterprises. By focusing on smaller, more accessible projects, activists are able to reach out to the kind of people who would never join an Occupy encampment, as well as keep the “means” of the group squarely in line with their “end.” The Rolling Jubilee is particularly intriguing because it both extends some relief to debtors victimized by an unregulated financial system and introduces people to the abstract ideas put forth by more ambitious — and therefore more less immediately accessible — Occupy descendants like Strike the Debt, who are looking to spark a bigger, system-wide conversation.

That wider conversation is the ultimate, long-term test of Occupy and all its descendants. It will take more small efforts like the Rolling Jubilee and a lot of organizing by a range of people along a broad political spectrum. It will also require an extraordinary effort to stay focused on the problem at hand, instead of turning toward insular concerns — the way some Occupy veterans allowed themselves to get distracted fighting Trinity Church in Manhattan in a dust-up over logistics that had nothing to do with debt, the financial industry, or the “99 percent.” Serge provides a way of looking at politics — an effort to balance idealism and realism, abstract ideals and concrete human lives — that speaks to the challenges faced by those who want a conversation about the private debt crisis to take place. For that reason, I find myself returning to him more and more. And hoping others will do the same.



Victor Serge: the untamed revolutionary

By George Paizis

Victor Serge was an anarchist who rallied to the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism. He later fought against both Stalinism and fascism to keep the real revolutionary tradition alive. Here George Paizis looks at Serge’s extraordinary life and the lessons its offers for us today

Victor Serge (1880-1947) was one of the most important revolutionary writers of the last century. When he died, he left behind a body of books and articles, novels and poems that responded to nearly 50 years of activity and involvement in key moments of the socialist movement. Yet he was largely ignored by the British left till Peter Sedgwick translated his Memoirs of a Revolutionary in 1963. Now a new and finally unabridged edition of his Memoirs provides an opportunity to introduce Serge to a new generation of socialists, to test the relevance of his writings.

Serge was always an outsider. Born in Belgium he was the son of impoverished anti-Tsarist Russian exiles. From the age of 15 he lived alone, refused all formal education and became a printer. He spent two years in an anarchist colony in the forests of northern France, where he met the cream of contemporary terrorists and theorists. In Paris, as editor of the paper l’Anarchie, his pen-name was le rétif, the awkward, the stubborn. But he was critical of the self-destructive and isolationist tendencies of many of his comrades, like the “illegalists”, who he described as suffering from a collective suicide wish. Yet in 1912 he was given five years hard labour for terrorist activities related to the Bonnot “Gang Affair”, when a group of illegalists took on the might of the French state. Serge was actually found guilty of refusing to provide information to the police.

When he left prison in 1917 he took part in the workers’ uprising in Barcelona that failed. He fled back to France but was interned as a Bolshevik suspect for a year before being allowed to travel to revolutionary Russia. He arrived in January 1919, joined the Bolsheviks and took part in the defence of Petrograd from the armies of the counter-revolution. This is the subject of his remarkable novel Conquered City and the collected essays Revolution in Danger. He ran the Third International’s publications and translation services, working with all the main leaders of the Russian and the international workers’ movement. He provides sharp portraits of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, but also portraits of militants he met on a barricade or in the heat of struggle. He was also the Bolsheviks’ go-between with Russia and international anarchists and often interceded with the Soviet authorities on behalf of dissidents, especially for those who fell foul of the secret police, the Cheka.

“During this summer of 1921 I formed, among the comrades from abroad, a number of lasting and even life-long friendships…. I gravitated towards people of a free spirit, those who were fired by a desire to serve the revolution without closing their eyes. Already an ‘official truth’ was growing up, which seemed to me the most disastrous thing imaginable.”

After a failed attempt to set up a rural commune, the International sent him to Germany, where he witnessed the German Communist Party’s (KPD) and the International’s preparations for and the failure of the 1923 uprising. The articles of Serge from this time, collected in Witness to the German Revolution, describe the effect on the workers and their families of an economic crisis – the famous hyper-inflation and poverty that daily posed the question of survival for the masses.

Historic opportunity

Serge witnessed the reformist parties becoming more treacherous as their power diminished, and the polarisation of politics between the rise of fascism and the failure of the KPD to capitalise on the historic opportunities they were offered. When the KPD called for a general strike, it was met with blank incomprehension. Who was to blame for this monumental failure? Serge showed his critical insight: the International was too bureaucratic and top-down with the result that the party was not able to relate to the working class.

With the failure of the German Revolution and the death of Lenin the party bureaucrats grabbed control of the Russian Communist Party and the old Bolsheviks struggled to resist. The leader and figurehead of the opposition and main target of vilification was Leon Trotsky. Serge left Vienna and sped to join the struggle for the soul of the revolution. Discussion, not to speak of opposition, was stifled. Votes were formalities, forced through by the newly created majority – the Lenin levy, 250,000 new recruits to the party who owed everything to the party apparatus. Poets, worker militants and intellectuals were committing suicide from despair. The other side of repression was corruption. By the winter of 1927 the Left Oppositionists were expelled from the Communist Party and their dilemma then became whether to stay out or capitulate in order to get back in.

In 1928 Serge was imprisoned and then released, his family persecuted, and his friends sacked from their jobs and prevented from making a living or receiving any benefits. This was the time of the Five Year Plan when the government embarked on a programme of massive industrialisation and the expropriation of small landowners: “At the height of the world economic crisis foodstuffs were exported at the lowest possible price to build up gold reserves, and the whole of Russia starved.” The human sacrifice and cost of fulfilling the Plan meant that the level of violence and repression had to be continually increased and dissent crushed. Opposition became an individual affair without a middle road – either recantation or persecution. To describe this period of rampant bureaucratic power, he coined the word “totalitarianism”.

Near-death experience

Then a near-death experience changed the course of Serge’s life. Up to that time, his life and writing had been determined by the demands of history, but he thought he had written nothing of lasting artistic value about these unforgettable times. “If I chance to survive, I must be quick and finish the books I have begun: I must write, write… I thought of what I would write, and mentally sketched the plan of a series of documentary novels about these unforgettable times.” “Documentary novels” because historical and journalistic work had limitations: “It does not allow enough scope for showing men as they really live, dismantling their inner workings and penetrating deep into their souls.” The purpose of this writing would be “as a means of expressing to men what most of them live inwardly without being able to express, as a means of communion, a testimony to the vast flow of life through us, whose essential aspects we must try to fix for the benefit of those who will come after us”. This could only be achieved by literary works, whose form was dictated by the conditions under which he was working: “I had to construct them in detached fragments which could each be separately completed and sent abroad post-haste; which could, if absolutely necessary, be published as they were, incomplete.”

To make a living, he worked on translations and sent what work he could abroad. He was sent to internal exile with his young son to a gulag in Orenburg near Kazakhstan in 1933. His describes the years of exile as a time of hunger, writing and isolation from his family in Russia and friends in Europe. In spite of police interference with his mail, the manuscripts sent to his friends won him a reputation which made it possible for his friends to mount a campaign for his release. They finally succeeded in the spring of 1936 and he fled to France. The murderous Moscow Trials began that summer. Had he still been in the USSR he would have perished.

There followed a decade which he was to describe as “the midnight of the century” with fascists in power in Germany and Italy and the left dominated by Stalinism. They spread false rumours and accusations to the police about him. He was boycotted by social democrats and found it impossible to make a living by writing, so he turned to proofreading. Friends and family in Russia disappeared; comrades in Europe were assassinated by the Stalinist agents. Trotsky was tricked by a Russian agent into breaking political and personal relations with him. Following a protest against one of the Moscow Trials, his Soviet passport was withdrawn and he became stateless. The other great issue was the Spanish Civil War and the mortal grip of the Stalinists on its course. Serge’s close friend, the leader of the Poum, Andrés Nin, was murdered. The chief of police who made enquiries had to resign; the judge who initiated the investigation had to flee. “The victims of kidnapping, assassination or the firing squad, the revolutionaries in jail, all were unendingly denounced as ‘Trotskyists, spies, agents of Franco-Hitler-Mussolini, enemies of the people’.”

When the war came, Serge went south, denied help or refuge on the way by many well-heeled left intellectuals till he ended up in Marseille, as did many European intellectuals. With help, he obtained passage on a ship to the Americas but had difficulty in finding a country willing to receive him, until he finally succeeded in settling in Mexico with his son Vlady. He arrived some months after the assassination of Trotsky in 1940: “Yes, this is just the hour for the Old Man to die, the blackest hour for the working classes: just as their keenest hour saw his highest ascendancy.”

The legacy of Trotsky

He remained friends with Trotsky’s widow and together they wrote The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky. In Mexico, he spent the last years of his life writing his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, as well as articles and his most famous novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev. This was loosely based on the killing of Sergei Kirov. The fragmented yet panoramic narrative explores how the killing of a senior Soviet politician is used by the state mechanism to eliminate its enemies at the same time as to resolve its own internal conflicts. The novel ends with the subterranean rumbling of repressed resentment among the workers below and a false sense of security about the future in those above.

Serge died in poverty, with holes in his shoes: “Early on, I learnt from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him.”



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