Victor Serge: On the borders of victory and defeat

 Victor Serge (left), Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo, and André Breton

By Doug Enaa Greene

January 18, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, reposted from Red Wedge with the author's permission — In 1941, reflecting on his own life, which spanned several revolutions, exile, and prison, Victor Serge commented:
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. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity. [1]

For Victor Serge, there was no life possible that could be separated from a commitment to the revolutionary struggle. And his life-spanned the first World War to the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, the rise of Stalin and the cataclysm of World War II. Serge lived through the heights of revolutionary triumph to the darkness of what he termed “the midnight of the century.” That commitment ranged from involvement in anarchism, syndicalism, Bolshevism, Trotskyism and what is best described as socialist humanism. Serge's revolutionary career saw him take up such varied roles as organizer, journalist, theoretician, militant, soldier, translator, a prisoner under at least five different regimes, secret agent, and a historian.

Serge, while always desiring a world beyond capitalism, was also an independent thinker with his own dissident style of Marxism that allowed him to critically record the experience of his generation. His writing was done in a number of works, historical, autobiographical and theoretical. In these works, Serge sought to honestly and faithfully, although not without criticism, tell the story of those who fought for revolution with both their successes and their failures, and perhaps most importantly to understand via a rigorous use of the Marxist method.

Serge was also a talented novelist. He wrote seven surviving novels, and he conceived of his fictional works as a revolutionary project that would break with the bourgeois novel and render the discontinuities and rupture of social conventions which are characteristic of revolutions. In Serge's novels there are no unique characters, but rather crowds and collectives in motion, who are filled with dynamism and caught up in the hurricane of events which are described with brutal realism and touching honesty. His fiction wound up being a masterpiece which showcased the complexity, reality and the purpose of struggle and revolution in both victory and defeat. I. Life Victor Serge (Kibalchich) was born in 1891 in Belgium to exiled Russian revolutionaries. Serge grew up in extreme poverty, suffering hunger and losing a younger brother at an early age. Serge’s father passed on his revolutionary beliefs to his son. Serge, who had no formal education, entered the workforce during his fifteenth year, laboring for ten hours or more. During his adolescence, Serge befriended a group of young rebels. Serge describes his friends as “lean young wolves, full of pride and thought: dangerous types. We had a certain fear of becoming careerists, as we considered many of our elders to be who had made some show of being revolutionary, and afterwards…” [2] Suffice to say, Serge and his radical friends were not inclined toward the gradualist methods that were taking hold in the mainstream socialist parties.

Initially, Serge did join the Belgian Socialist Youth. Serge had a different view of socialism than the party though. He believed that “socialism gave a meaning to life, and that was: struggle.” [3] This revolutionary edge put him in conflict with the party as he said of the conflict with the leadership: “we had satisfied ourselves with a Socialism of battle, and it was the great age of reformism.” [4] Serge later left the party, when its leader Vandervelde advocated and justified the brutal Belgian annexation of the Congo. Following his departure from the socialist party, Serge became an active anarchist of an individualistic variety who advocated illegalism and banditry. Serge said of bandits that he was with them because they “demonstrate their determination to live.” [5] Following these convictions, Serge moved to France and became a supporter of the infamous Bonnot gang, who were a group of anarchists involved in bank robberies and shootouts. Serge was arrested in France in 1911 for a connection to a shoot-out. However, Serge was not involved in the shootout, but he was a journalist who was “singled out as the intellectual author of the Bonnot band’s crimes.” [6] Serge was sentenced to a prison term that lasted from 1913 to 1917, where he reflected on his worldview. Serge turned from his anarchist individualist philosophy, believing that the Bonnot gang “was like a collective suicide.” [7] Serge’s imprisonment coincided with the outbreak of World War One. To Serge, the behavior of socialist parties and syndicalists supporting the war “was incomprehensible to us. Did they then believe nothing of what they preached yesterday?” [8] Serge was caught up in the despair that had gripped many revolutionaries with the outbreak of the war. Serge was released from jail in early 1917 and was told to leave France by the authorities. Following his release from prison, Serge made his way to Spain where he became involved with the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, the largest union in the country. Serge’s involvement with the CNT marked a definite change in his thinking. He said in a letter to a friend: "I feel myself capable of working with all those who, animated by the same desire for a better life, clearer and more intelligent, advance towards their future, even by different roads than mine and even if they give our common goal in reality different names that I don’t know." [9]

In Spain, revolution was in the air, mixed with the intense exploitation of the proletariat and fired by the energies of the Russian Revolution. The CNT made an abortive attempt to stage a revolutionary uprising in July 1917, that Serge partook in. However, by now Serge was transfixed by Bolshevism, which came to power in November, and he desired to reach Russia to be a part of the great event.

Serge fled Spain and reentered France, only to be imprisoned as a “Bolshevik suspect” until 1919. Serge and other political prisoners were eventually exchanged for other French prisoners then being held in Russia. At this time, the impoverished Soviet Republic was locked in a desperate civil war with foreign and internal counterrevolutionaries, where no quarter was given. For Serge, there was no doubt which side he was on. As he said, "I would support the Bolsheviks because they were doing what was necessary tenaciously, doggedly, with magnificent ardour and a calculated passion; I would be with them because they alone were carrying this out, taking all responsibilities on themselves, all the initiatives, and were demonstrating an astonishing strength of spirit." [10] He joined the Communist Party, fought in the Red Army during the defense of Petrograd in 1919 and became a translator for the Communist International. During this time, Serge wrote a series of works directed at his fellow anarchists to explain to them the essence of Bolshevism and convince them to adopt the new ideas unleashed in 1917. Serge condemned anarchists who could not revise their ideas “from a sense of tradition, from routine, from inertia ... from a sad lack of sense of reality, there are some who return to the notions of yesteryear and confine themselves to repeating them.” [11] These revolutionaries let history pass them by.

Serge accepted the consequences of his choice, knowing what revolutionaries had to do to win. He said, “We must have no fear of stepping off the established paths which seemed so certain-and which led us to fateful dead-ends.” [12] This is necessary because “life only rewards those who have succeeded. To survive and to conquer are the greatest virtues.” [13] Serge saw that the Bolsheviks passed the test, since they were guided by a will for revolution and were supported by the masses. They didn't have some pure theory all locked up, but were willing to act upon it. The Bolsheviks took the leap into the unknown. Serge admonished his fellow anarchists to see that “this is how the revolution is. It is a fact. It is not how we dreamed of it, nor what we wanted it to be. Here it is. Are you with it-or against it? The question is posed in this brutal fashion.” [14] Serge was with it.

Despite Serge's seemingly absolutist position, he urged anarchists who joined communist parties to “preserve the spirit of liberty, which will give them a greater critical spirit and a clearer awareness of their long term goals.” [15] Although he would defend the red terror and the revolution, there was ambivalence in his writings on it. He could see the clear necessity for terror and violence, but also the potential for abuses and authoritarianism. For instance, Serge condemned what he saw as the excesses of the secret police, Cheka, and helped to rescue several anarchists condemned to be shot. He initially defended the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921 by the Bolsheviks, but would later change his mind on this.

Serge's critical defense of the Bolshevik revolution was motivated by what he deemed as the double duty of a revolutionary, which he outlined as follows:
I am guided by a rule that I believe to be indispensable for whoever wishes to serve the revolution: the rule of double duty ... Whether it be victorious or defeated, growing or falling back, preoccupying the vanguards of the working class or lying dormant in the spirits of the masses, revolution is everywhere today; its defects are above all ours. It must therefore be defended at one and the same time against its external and internal enemies, in other words, against the seeds of destruction that it bears within itself. The latter task is a very great one. In order to accomplish it, so it seems, we risk giving weapons to reaction and discouraging the indecisive; let us admit it; I maintain that the opposite risk, of inadvertently stuffing our heads with rubbish and creating a revolutionary conformity that is as conventional and dishonest as any other, is far more serious ... Let us adopt the active solution, the only one that is worthy of the proletariat, of looking truth in the face.  [16]
Following the conclusion of the Russian Civil War, Serge went abroad to work as a journalist and agent for the Comintern. Part of his reason for moving abroad was because he was dismayed by what he saw as the authoritarian elements which had come to the surface in Russia and at the exhaustion of the revolutionary energies of the working class. Serge believed that the only salvation for Russia lay in the success of a revolution in Europe. Serge was in Germany in the 1923 during the occupation of the Ruhr which caused a severe economic crisis marked by hyper-inflation and the impoverishment of millions. He was witness to the abortive Communist uprising in late 1923, which was the last major effort of the Comintern to spark revolution in Europe. Serge's own journalism during this time captures the lost hopes of this decisive historical moment. The Comintern's bungling of the German Revolution would contribute to his growing criticisms of the international communist movement and the developing regime in Russia.

Serge spent the following two years stationed in Vienna, isolated from events in Russia. While there, he met many Communists who were in exile such as the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs and the Sardinian Antonio Gramsci, the latter is movingly described in Serge's memoirs. Following his return to the USSR in 1925, Serge allied with the Left Opposition led by the former commissar of war, Leon Trotsky which was opposed to the Party leadership led by Joseph Stalin. For Serge, the Left Opposition remained the last chance to rescue the Russian Revolution from bureaucratic degeneration and to revive its democratic, internationalist and emancipatory spirit. Serge was not a central leader of the Opposition, but he worked tirelessly to promote it through both writing and activism. The Left Opposition was defeated within the Communist Party in 1927 and two years later, Trotsky would be exiled abroad. Serge remained at liberty though, still able to write and speak at Party meetings. In 1928, Serge was himself expelled from the Communist Party after publishing a scathing criticism of the Comintern's policy in China which had led to disaster in 1927. One noteworthy aspect of these articles is that Serge praised Mao Zedong saying, "I have read much on the Chinese Revolution. But I have found no piece of Communist thinking of better quality than that of this young unknown militant Mao Zedong. He advances striking formulae that irresistibly call to mind those of Lenin in 1917-18 ... If the leaders of the Chinese Revolution were inspired by so clear a concept of the class struggle, complete victory would be possible. Alas!" [17] Following Serge's expulsion from the Party, he was arrested and spent several weeks being interrogated. This imprisonment nearly caused him to die of a heart or stomach ailment. After this brush with death, along with his isolation from the Communist Party and active political involvement, Serge decided to devote whatever time remained to him to writing in order to preserve the memory, the ideals, and the experience of his comrades and the revolutionary masses. "If I chance to survive, I must be quick and finish the books I have begun; I must write, write ..." [18] Although I will have more to say on the contents of Serge's writing later, I do want to say that he produced more than twenty books ranging from novels, histories, autobiography, poems and political works.

Serge lived a precarious existence in Leningrad for the next five years feverishly writing and working as a translator until he was arrested once more and sent into exile in the desolate city of Orenberg near the Ural Mountains, along with other members of defeated Party Oppositions. While there, he was denied work and nearly starved to death. Serge's international reputation as a writer helped to ensure his release after an international campaign was launched on his behalf in France. [19]

Serge and his family managed to leave the USSR in April 1936, although several of his manuscripts were confiscated by NKVD and they have never been recovered. Serge was able to secure residence in Belgium and later in France where he resumed political activity on behalf of the Trotskyist Opposition by writing several works on the nature of the USSR and exposing the Moscow Trial frame-ups.

Although Serge would remain opposed to Stalin and what transpired under his rule, he did not think that the excesses and crimes that occurred were inherent in the original ideas and practices of Bolshevism. As he said:
It is often said that "the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning". Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse — and which he may have carried in him since his birth — is that very sensible? [20]
Although Serge held Trotsky in the highest esteem, he believed that the Fourth International could not serve as a vehicle for socialist renewal. To Serge, the Trotskyists were sectarian, dogmatic and narrow. Serge was willing to collaborate with others who were not orthodox Bolshevik or did not share Trotsky's views on the USSR. Serge also supported the POUM, a revolutionary Marxist organization fighting in the Spanish Civil War, which Trotsky condemned. The two men fell out in 1938 and never reconciled before Trotsky's murder in 1940. The outbreak of the Second World War threatened Serge's precarious existence. Following the German invasion of France, Serge managed to make his way to the unoccupied zone of Vichy, and thanks to the efforts of friends in the United States, he was able to receive an exit visa and leave France for the New World. In early 1941, Serge and his family managed to reach safety in Mexico. Ironically, he arrived only a few months after the death of Trotsky. Yet he achieved a posthumous reconciliation, of a sort, with the ex-Commissar of War by collaborating with Trotsky's widow on a biography of the co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Red Army. Serge's final years in Mexico were spent in terrible poverty, he suffered recurrent health problems and was embroiled in the politics of small exiled socialist groups. During this time, Serge wrote two of his most famous works such as Memoirs of a Revolutionary and the Case of Comrade Tulayev. Yet these were done for the desk drawer since Serge was unable to find a publisher.

Serge's political views were evolving by the time of his death of a heart attack in 1947. Although he maintained a positive assessment of the Russian Revolution, he was drawn to theories of totalitarianism propagated by leftist renegades. He seemed to believe that Stalinism was invincible everywhere and could be found in the partisan movements of occupied Europe and the national liberation movements in the colonial world. He also maintained that traditional capitalism had changed and that the state was no longer a repressive apparatus consisting of armed bodies of men. Serge argued that socialism needed to purge itself of ideas of working class hegemony and dictatorship while renewing itself on a democratic, libertarian and humanistic basis in order to be a representative of the great masses. [21] While arguably, Serge was moving in a rightward direction at the time of his death, he never quite took the same leap into the reactionary anticommunist camp like turncoats such as Sidney Hook, James Burnham or Albert Camus. And he maintained an impassioned defense of the original ideals of the Bolsheviks in one work written shortly before his death, Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution.  And in one of his last novels, The Long Dusk, one of the characters, an older socialist reflects on his decades as a militant. I believe that these words can serve as an appropriate epitaph for him:
Our mistakes were honorable. And even from a point of view less absurdly exalted, we were not so wrong. There is more falsification of ideas now than real confusion, and it is our own discoveries that are falsified. I feel humiliated only for the people who despair because we have been defeated. What is more natural and inevitable than to be beaten, to fail a hundred times, a thousand times, before succeeding? How many times does a child fall before he learns to walk? ... Others would have succeeded at a later date, can we doubt it? - The main thing is to have strong nerves, everything depends on that. And lucidity. [22]
II. The Witness [23] In addition to living a long and active life as a political militant, Victor Serge was also a prolific novelist, writing at least nine works (of which seven survive). These novels cover everything from his experience in prison, the Spanish Revolution of 1917, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, life in exile, the Soviet Purges, the Spanish Civil War and the Fall of France in World War II. Conveyed in his works, there is resistance, suffering, hope, optimism and despair which are brought to life by way of vivid characters and moving prose. Serge wrote his novels to tell the truth of the revolutionary experience and to preserve the memory of those he struggled alongside and the ideals which they had fought for. To Serge writing was "a means of expressing for people what most of them live without being able to express, as a means of communion, as a testimony about the vast life that flows through us whose essential aspects we must try to fix for the benefit of those who will come after us." [24] These novels are a fictional project which aims to break with the mold of the bourgeois novel by dispensing with the idea of a central hero. In Serge's novels there is no singular “I,” rather there is a “we.” The “we” is a collective hero, that is not any unique character, but crowds and masses in motion. These masses are filled with vitality and caught up in the volcano of events.

Serge's novels can roughly be divided into two trilogies or sequences, one of victory — Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, Conquered City — and the other of defeat — Midnight in the Century, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, The Long Dusk and The Unforgiving Years. In both cycles, the defeat and victory remain in an uneasy balance. Serge's characters go through capitalist prisons and onward to triumphant revolution and hard-fought civil war, only to be followed by new prisons, purges and exile with budding resistance and hope to be found at the end. Through it all, there is the constant of the revolutionary ideal which is embodied by the “we” of militant, workers, peasants, intellectuals and soldiers that manages to endure despite utter despair and hopelessness.  The ideas which the “we” clings to does not die, but falls to a seemingly barren earth and sinks deep into the soil and blossoms once more with the coming spring and revolutionary eruptions.

Serge's view of history, according to his translator Richard Greeman, was that it doesn't move in a straight line. [25] There is no simple march 'ever onward to victory.' We are not guaranteed socialism as surely as the morning sun. History moves in spirals, zig-zags and waves. In the knots of history there are revolutions which serve as Gordian knots to unravel society's contradictions when the masses come onto the stage. Countless generations before us have lived and struggled without ever having glimpsed their dreams. Yet there have been moments, Events, when a revolution bursts through to reveal the power of humanity that can reshape the world according to its will. And even in defeat and wreckage, those hopes and vision remain. Once having come out of the bottle, the secret of revolution cannot be put back again: capital's reign is not eternal despite everything they claim, the reign of the market or despotism is not the end of history. If revolution happened once, it can happen again. And despite its failures, others will take up our banner and succeed where we have failed. For even in the darkest and most hopeless moments, there is always space to be created for a radical act - history remains pregnant with events, surprises and Gordian knots to be cut.

And I believe that nothing better captures Serge's vision of the power of revolution in its actuality and for the echoes it carries across the sands of history, than the following passage from the novel Birth of Our Power, which describes the abortive Spanish anarchist revolution of 1917. And these are the words I would like to leave you with:
Very likely Dario, at the end of all this trouble we will be shot. I have doubts about today and about ourselves. You would laugh, Dario, if I told you this aloud. You would say, stretching out your great, shaggy, brotherly, strong hands: “Me, I feel able to win all the way. All the way.” That is how we all feel, immortal, right up to the moment when we feel nothing anymore. And life goes on after our little drop of water has flowed back into the ocean. In this sense my confidence is as one with yours. Tomorrow is great. We will not have prepared this conquest in vain. This city will be taken, if not by our hands, at least by others like ours, but stronger. Stronger perhaps by having been better hardened, thanks to our very weakness. If we are beaten, other men, infinitely different from us, infinitely like us, will walk, on a similar evening, in ten years, in twenty years (how long is really without importance) down this rambla, meditating on the same victory. Perhaps they will think about our blood. Even now I think I see them and I am thinking about their blood, which will flow too. But they will win the city. [26]
Endnotes 1. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 439. I have relied mainly on Serge's Memoirs and Suzi Weissman's biography for information on Serge's life and times. See also Susan Weissman, SusanVictor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (New York: Verso Books, 2001). 2. Serge 2012, 13. 3. Ibid. 14. 4. Ibid. 15. 5. Victor Serge, “The Bandits,” Marxists Internet Archive, 6. Weissman, 2001, 18. 7. Serge 2012, 40. 8. Ibid. 56. 9. Victor Serge, “I have lost the sectarian intransigence of the past. Letter to Emile Armand,” Marxists Internet Archive. 10. Serge 2012, 89. 11. Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921 (New York: Haymarket Books, 2011), 121. 12. Ibid. 121-2. 13. Ibid. 125. 14. Ibid. 133. 15. Ibid. 117. For an elaboration of Serge’s view of Leninism as libertarian, see Susan Weissman, ed., Ideas of Victor Serge: A Life as a Work of Art (Glasgow: Critique Books, 1997), 135-159. 16. Victor Serge, Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution, edited by Al Richardson (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2004),  111. 17. See “The Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution” in Victor Serge: The Century of the Unexpected, Essays on Revolution and Counterrevolution. Edited by Al Richardson. (London: Socialist Platform, 1994), 89. 18. Serge 2012, ix. 19. See Richard Greeman, “The Victor Serge Affair and the French Literary Left,” 20. Quoted in Serge 2012, xxx. 21. See Victor Serge, “Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947,” New Left Review 82 (July-August 2013): 30-62. 22. Victor Serge, The Long Dusk (New York : The Dial Press,1946), 318. 23. In developing my analysis in this section I am indebted to the following works: Bill Marshall, Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent (Providence: Berg Publishers, 1992); Richard Greeman, “Victor Serge and the Persistence of the Socialist Ideal,” The Massachusetts Review22. 3 (Autumn, 1981): 553-568; Richard Greeman, “Victor Serge and the Novel of Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. 24. Serge 2012, 304. 25. This paragraph draws heavily on Greeman 1981, 567. 26. Victor Serge, Birth of Our Power (London: Writers and Readers, 1970), 74.[Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge, and is the author of a forthcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.]