Victor Serge, page 1
SUSAN WEISSMAN is a Professor of Politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. She is an award-winning broadcast journalist, sits on the editorial boards of Critique and Against the Current, and is the editor of Victor Serge: Russia Twenty Years After and The Ideas of Victor Serge.
This updated paperback edition first published by Verso 2013
First published by Verso 2001
© Susan Weissman 2001, 2013
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
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Verso is the imprint of New Left Books
eBook ISBN: 978-1-78168-050-6
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress
To the memory of Roberto Naduris
whose bright smile is on every
page of this book,
to Eli and Natalia,
and to the memory of my parents,
Perle and Maurice Weissman
About the Author
List of illustrations
Preface to the Paperback eBook edition
Part I In the orbit of revolution
1 In the service of the Revolution: 1917–21
2 Blockaded in Berlin; neutralized in Vienna; and into the Soviet fray
3 Back in the USSR – the Left Opposition struggles 1926–28
4 Stalinization 1928–33: the bureaucratic counter-revolution, solitary struggles in precarious freedom
5 Orenburg 1933–36, interrogation and deportation: digging the graves of the Revolution
Part II Another exile and two more: the final years
6 Out of Russia, cornered in Europe
7 From Paris to Marseilles, Marseilles to Mexico: the long, last journey from nightmare to refuge
8 From Mexico, whither the USSR, the world?
List of illustrations
1 Victor Serge in the early 1920s
2 Serge, Vlady and Liuba following his release from prison, 1928
3 Anita Russakova, Serge’s sister-in-law
4 Serge’s uncle Nikolai Kibalchich, executed for his role in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II
5 The house at 33 Cavalry Street, Orenburg, where Serge and Vlady spent three years in exile. Painting by Vlady
6 Vlady’s sketch of Serge in Orenburg, signed V.V. Serge, Orenburg, 20 March 1936. Vlady was sixteen at the time
7 Serge’s NKVD file from Orenburg
8 Boris Mikhailovich Eltsin, leading Left Oppositionist and former chairman of the Soviet in Ekaterinburg, who was in Orenburg with Serge. Painting by Vlady
9 Vlady’s sketch of a memorial to Stalin’s victims
10 Receipt from the Department of Censorship, dated 29 October 1934 for Les Hommes perdus, Serge’s confiscated novel about pre-war France
11 Serge and Vlady, about 1936
12 Liuba, Jeannine, Serge and Vlady, Brussels, 1936 [Jeannine Kibalchich]
13 Liuba with Jeannine, France [Jeannine Kibalchich]
14 Safe conduct for Victor Serge and his party, issued by the French government, 1940. Note that Serge’s nationality is given as ‘indeterminate’
15 Laurette Séjourné [Jeannine Kibalchich]
16 Sketches of Serge in Marseilles, 1940, by Vlady
17 Charles Wolff, Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret and André Breton, standing in front of Villa Air-Bel, spring 1941 [Chambon Foundation]
18 Varian Fry standing in the pond at the Villa Air-Bel, watched by Victor Serge and André Breton (standing), Laurette Séjourné, and Jean Gemahling (with a stick). Vlady has his back to the camera. November 1940 [Chambon Foundation]
19 Victor Serge, probably on board the Presidente Trujillo sailing from Martinique to Santo Domingo [Chambon Foundation]
20 Victor Serge in Mexico, 1944
21 Laurette Séjourné in Mexico [Jeannine Kibalchich]
22 Leon Trotsky, Coyoacán, Mexico, 1940 [photograph A.H. Buchman]
23 Victor Serge in Mexico. Photo scratched, perhaps in anger?
24 Serge’s Mexican identity card
25 ‘My father’s hand, Mexico, 1947’, sketch by Vlady
26 Jeannine Kibalchich Russakova in 1982 [Jeannine Kibalchich]
27 Vlady and Irina Gogua, Moscow, 1989; their first reunion in fifty-seven years [photograph Susan Weissman]
This book aims to bring back to life the extraordinary commitment and hope of one of the great writer-thinker-activists of the twentieth century. Victor Serge is remembered for the intellectual richness and moral insight he brought to our understanding of the significant historical struggles of our time, as well as for the principled revolutionary life he exemplified. The journalist Daniel Singer wrote that ‘Victor Serge devoted his life and brilliant pen to the revolution which for him knew no frontiers. An anarchist turned Bolshevik, he was unorthodox by nature, often a heretic but never a renegade.’1 Serge lived in the maelstrom of the first half of the twentieth century, but his ideas are germane to current debates in our post-Soviet, post-Cold War world. His contribution is especially attractive today because Serge never compromised his commitment to the creation of a society that defends human freedom, enhances human dignity and improves the human condition. He belongs to our future.
Some readers may wonder how, more than a decade into the twenty-first century, the work of this almost forgotten revolutionary could have contemporary relevance. As the last century drew to a close, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with its demise the colossal battle of ideas it had provoked nearly disappeared from public discourse. How could the ideas and struggles that Serge represented, emerging from the titanic debates over the Russian Revolution and the society to which it gave birth, continue to resonate?
In fact, interest in Serge’s work experienced a stunning revival just as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, and is today in virtual renaissance – his books are being published or re-published in many languages.2 With the end of Stalinism, the victors of the Cold War have proclaimed there is no alternative to Western-style capitalist democracy, even as inequalities have continued to deepen, everyday life and culture have been crassly commercialized, and democracy has been hollowed out. In response, a new generation has taken to the streets demanding a better world, and what is more, insisting that it is possible. As one sorts through the intellectual and political disputes of the disastrous Soviet experience, one is struck by the voice and testimony of Victor Serge. His works address the paramount and still unresolved issues of the day, as if he were speaking directly to this generation. Serge worried about how human beings could secure liberty, autonomy and dignity, and he belonged to a revolutionary generation that sought to create a society sufficient to realize these goals. They failed, but Serge spent the rest of his life elucidating the attempt, analysing the defeat and seeking better ways to the same ends. For that reason his life and work merits republication, analysis, interpretation and, above all, rescue.
The new editions of Victor Serge’s writings have been well received by leading contemporary intellectuals who recognize Serge as an important figure for the present. The American historian Walter Lacqueur finds the present Serge revival well deserved. ‘Serge’s political recollections are very important because they reflect so well the mood of this lost generation [the small group of revolutionaries who were survivors of World War I]. His writings will find readers now because they help grant an understanding of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and its impact on militants and intellectuals’ from what Lacqueur calls ‘a world of yesterday almost as distant from subsequent generations as the Napoleonic wars’.3 No longer invisible, Serge’s articles and books speak for themselves, and as Lacqueur concludes, ‘we would be poorer without them’.
So contemporary a writer as Antonio Negri has appreciated the power of Serge’s contribution, commenting that Serge ‘joyfully, ironically and light-heartedly strove to build the world soviet republic … never gave up hope, despite betrayal and defeat, prison and exile … [and was] a member of that race of giants, a gargantuan in the fight for freedom and collective happiness’. Adam Hochschild calls Serge one of the ‘unsung heroes of a corrupt century’, and Mike Davis considers Serge the ‘Revolution’s most ardent lover and indestructible conscience’.
Readers needn’t share Serge’s views, nor the optimism that he retained despite the defeats he witnessed and lived through, though it is hard not to be impressed, as Christopher Hitchens wrote, ‘by the difference that may be made by an intransigent individual’.4 Serge stands as a persistent reminder of the political decay of the twentieth century’s great revolution. He believed the revolution’s death was self-inflicted by the reactionary tyranny it let loose on itself, a process Serge relentlessly strove to understand. For the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Serge ‘permitted himself a very dangerous luxury – to be ashamed by the inhuman face of his beloved revolution, and he was punished for it’. Serge’s shame and punishment were for his insistent hope and attention to the irrepressible vitality of individual human nature. As Yevtushenko wrote,
In 1968 when I was preparing for a poetry reading in Mexico, my Mexican friends loaned me Victor Serge’s typewriter. My fingers almost froze as each touch of the keyboard woke up so many ghosts of the past … This is … a unique man, Victor Serge … one of the first fighters for socialism with a human face forty years before the Prague Spring was trumped into mud by Brezhnev’s tanks.5
Between 1919 and 1936 Serge lived mostly in the Soviet Union, his ‘homeland’, though as with his son Vlady, it could be argued that ‘revolution’ was his home. But Serge’s perceptions differed in important ways from those of his Soviet comrades. He came to the Soviet Union from Western Europe, where he was raised in the Russian anarcho-populist exile community, and was connected to anarchist, syndicalist, artistic and literary circles, and he continued to associate with non-Party artists and writers in revolutionary Russia. He did not spend his entire political life in the Bolshevik Party, nor did he share the ‘Party patriotism’ of many of his comrades. Serge’s critical sensibilities were a product of his experiences as both an outsider and an insider, a Russian raised in Western Europe with experience across a broad spectrum of leftist thought and practice. He was with the Bolsheviks because they managed actually to function as revolutionaries at a time of revolution. He shared their democratic goals and was critical of their authoritarian practices.
For Serge, democracy was a defining component of socialism: he didn’t think of it as an ‘accessory of the revolutionary process’ but as integral to it, indeed at the heart of the socialist project. The workers in Tsarist Russia created soviets, or councils – profoundly democratic organizational forms whose existence marked the health of a revolutionary process. These institutions were key to the success of the revolution and the transition, and were to be the governing institutions of socialist society. Revolutionaries like Serge from around the globe understood the power of soviets and saw in them ‘the realization of our deepest hopes’ for a libertarian, democratic, truly tolerant and egalitarian form without the ‘hypocrisy and flabbiness of bourgeois democracies’.6 Yet these organs of genuine democratic control from below did not survive the measures forced by the dire conditions of the besieged revolution in the civil war. It is also fair to say that the Bolshevik leadership had an underdeveloped commitment to them. Serge called for the revitalization of the soviets in substance, not just form.
The conditions that left the Bolsheviks isolated in power as well as in the world led to their developing party power rather than soviet power. Not long after Lenin died, Stalin came to power and killed what remained of any hope for soviet socialist democracy. Serge’s critique of this process of political degeneration was at the core of his activities and his writings, and that critique made Serge suspect in some quarters, misunderstood and maligned in others. Social democrats and anarchists distanced themselves from him, as did the apologists for Stalinism. Although Serge had stood with Trotsky and the Left Opposition since 1923, and was the best-known Trotskyist among circles of intellectuals in the West, he was criticized by Trotsky and Trotskyists in the late 1930s for his differences over political issues and organizational practices. Though Serge argued with Trotsky from within the anti-Stalinist left, and was an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist, his perceptions also put him at odds with his co-thinkers in the West, causing him much grief and isolating him from the very movement – the Left Opposition – that he had devoted so many years to and at such risk.
Reading through the record of these debates, arguments and accusations gives us a sense of the desperate atmosphere of the time as well as the anguish Serge felt as he witnessed Stalin’s campaign of assassinations that stretched from Moscow to Madrid. The small group of Trotskyist exiles in Western Europe were free to work and free to meet, yet there were agents in their midst, assassins marking their movements, and bitter denunciations and infighting among the increasingly isolated sectors of this far left opposition. Pressed into Stalin’s intelligence service were accomplished members of the creative intelligentsia, poets, writers, psychoanalysts and anthropologists, making anyone and everyone suspect, even Serge. Though Serge was now out of the USSR, he wasn’t free from Stalin’s reach, and life in exile was very difficult. He was in constant peril, vilified in the Communist Party press, suspected at times by his own comrades, caring for his sick wife, campaigning to refute the fantastic charges of the Moscow Trials, writing and translating, and always broke.
Misinformation, deliberate distortions and outright lies about what was happening in the Soviet Union were pervasive in the West. Concrete information was very hard to obtain, especially about those who opposed Stalin’s rule back in the USSR. For this reason we ransack Serge’s novels for information about how the Oppositionists coped, and read between the lines of the messages passed among them. The form may be fiction, but Serge was a revolutionary witness who regularly and conscientiously recorded his memories. His testimony and ideas are not simply a time capsule from the front lines of history: his writings give us a real sense of the human and political dramas unfolding in those year
It may seem surprising that Stalin concentrated such fury and zeal in hunting down the rather small number of Trotskyists and oppositionists who challenged his rule in organizations and far left journals in the West in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The mighty effort to extinguish the small flames of defiance seems disproportionate in view of such enormous tasks at hand as preparing for war. Yet Marxist critics like Trotsky and Serge were not just a thorn in Stalin’s side, but a moral reproach to his rule. Better to silence them, to prevent their voices from finding large audiences. Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940. Serge survived and continued to wage the battle of the pen, his thinking now directed toward analysing the features of the postwar period. Looking forward from the defeats inflicted by Stalinism, which threatened the ideas of socialism itself, and by Fascism, which had deeply damaged the working-class movement, Serge called for a renewal of socialism if it were to remain relevant.
Reviewing the issues that preoccupied Serge in these dark years yields much to reclaim for the present day, even though the context of his time is radically different from the present we inhabit. Serge was writing during World War II and in the immediate postwar period, before the Cold War began in earnest. He was deeply troubled by what he saw – efficient bureaucratic machines with collectivist tendencies that completely choked democratic participation from below.7 His writings about these developments reflect a world that is long gone. Yet the tendencies he noted and the questions he asked are surely relevant. Serge indeed proved prescient: if an historically conscious democratic collectivism did not successfully challenge the totalitarian collectivism of Stalinism and fascism, it would mean the end of socialism on a world scale for a whole era.
Serge held that the assumptions derived from the days of the Russian Revolution were no longer adequate. Writing in 1945, he observed that everything – science, production, social movements and intellectual currents – had changed. History permitted apparent stability only to religious dogmas. An intellectual rearmament was necessary, and for that a creative investigatory effort was required. As Serge noted, ‘the poverty of traditional socialism coincides in reality with the immense revolutionary crisis of the modern world that puts unavoidably on the order of the day for all of humanity – independently of the action of socialism – the problem of a social reorganization oriented toward the rational and the just’.8 Serge couldn’t emphasize strongly enough that the socialist movement had to break free from its fossilized thinking, and that the terrible new conditions demanded a fresh approach – dialectical thought combined with political action, a form of active humanism. Serge was fully justified in warning that continued adherence to the old patterns and formulas would bear grave consequences for the socialist movement. Sadly, he was proved right.