Review: Victor Serge's final words

Victor Serge, Notebooks 1936-1947, New York Review Books, 2019.

Victor Serge was one of the great witnesses to the revolutionary history of the first half of the twentieth century. A participant witness, since those in the thick of the action see most. Imprisoned as an anarchist in pre-1914 France, he then took part in the failed syndicalist rising of 1917 in Barcelona, and went to Russia in 1919, where he became an active Bolshevik. He reported from Germany on the abortive revolution of 1923. Returning to Russia, he was confronted with the rise of Stalin, and became a member of the Left Opposition. Exiled to the remote town of Orenburg, he was allowed to return to the West after a vigorous campaign in his support in France, just before the purges became truly murderous. When the Nazis occupied Western Europe, he managed to get to Mexico, where he died in 1947. Throughout his last years he wrote copiously; many will know his remarkable Memoirs of a Revolutionary[1] and novels such as The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

From 1936 till his death Serge also wrote regularly in his private notebooks. A few extracts from these were published, but most remained unknown. Then in 2010 a researcher discovered a pile of notebooks, apparently abandoned for ever. They were published in French[2] and have now been translated into English by Richard Greeman and Mitchell Abidor. For all lovers of Serge’s writing they are an unexpected and welcome bonus.

These 600 pages contain a wide range of material and are impossible to summarise. Right up to his death Serge shows his unflagging intellectual curiosity, and the remarkable eye for significant detail which characterises both his journalism and his fiction. There is for example a vivid description of an earthquake (pp229-30). He is clearly fascinated by both the natural environment and the culture of the new continent where he finds himself domiciled. There are perceptive if (to my mind) disappointingly conservative assessments of surrealism (“nothing but a revolt of literary cafés”) (pp308-9) and abstract painting (pp477-9).

But not surprisingly Serge constantly returns to political themes, to the recollection and reassessment of the revolutionary achievements and defeats he had lived through and the prospects for a newly emerging world.

The book is haunted by death. The Russian purges, the Spanish war followed by world war, together with the inexorable passage of time, meant that Serge was constantly receiving news of deaths. As he noted grimly: “Dead men on top of dead men” (p37). His notebooks contain dozens of obituaries, assessments of former comrades or of those who had crossed his path in an eventful life. The 1917 Revolution in Russia had been a moment of hope, drawing together many from diverse backgrounds, united by the aspiration for a better world. Failure, defeat and the triumph of reaction in various forms had driven them in different directions. Two examples may sum up a generation cast to the winds.

In the 1920s Jacques Doriot had been one of the rising stars of the French Communist Party. By the 1940s he was an active and enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. Serge, who had known Doriot in Moscow, does not resort to any lazy clichés about the equivalence of all extremisms. He does not question Doriot’s sincerity, remembering him for “modesty and firmness. A young man on whom you could rely”. (It is a comforting illusion to believe that all who go wrong were bad from the start; on the contrary, any of us can develop badly.) Serge tries to explain the historical circumstances which led to Doriot’s bizarre but not unique evolution; it was the French Communist Party’s refusal of a united front against fascism which led to the initial break (pp491-4).

There is a sharp contrast with the figure of David Riazanov, an old revolutionary and a scholar to whom we owe so much of our knowledge of the life and work of Karl Marx. Serge recalled him as a supporter of the Revolution, but already in 1921-22 debarred by the party from speaking in public because of his critical attitude. For years he was marginalised, but eventually the Stalinist machine had him put to death (pp186-89).

Death hangs over the book, including Serge’s own impending death, as his health, undermined by years of hardship and poverty, breaks down. Yet it is not a pessimistic book – on the contrary. Serge is constantly looking to the future, trying to discern the form of the post-war world and the possibility of continuing to fight for the values that had inspired his struggles over the preceding years.

Serge died in November 1947, just as the post-war world was beginning to take shape. In March the so-called “Truman doctrine” was announced, promising American political, military and economic assistance to prevent the spread of Communism. This was followed by the exclusion of Communist ministers from the governments in France and Italy, and a sharp turn to the left by the Communist Parties. But it was too soon to see how the coming quarter of a century would turn out.

Serge’s keen intellectual curiosity makes him an acute observer of the society and culture of the emerging new world. He even sees, without any great enthusiasm (“mixture of great imagination and unspeakable stupidity”), one of the very first Superman movies (p281). But Serge was a witness, not a prophet (in 1939 he had spent months arguing that there would be no world war).[3] His conclusions do not go beyond generalisations.

He insists that the aftermath of 1945 will be very different from the period at the end of the First World War – “the events of 1917-1918 can’t be repeated at the end of this war” (p454) – and as early as 1943 he sees that “the seed of the Third World War is germinating in this one” (p349).

Moreover, all Serge’s political experience was European – Spain, France, Germany, Russia. When a political discussion touches on colonial emancipation, his views tend to be rather cautious – “the emancipation of the peoples of the colonies can be the result only of close collaboration with the socially reorganized industrial countries” (p434). He cannot have realised that one of the most significant factors of the post-war world would be the rise of the so-called “Third World” and the collapse of the European colonial empires.

When his boat, bound across the Atlantic, briefly visits Algeria, he notes the “crushing poverty” of the indigenous population and comments that “the French live with these men almost without seeing them. Inhuman, this, and very dangerous” (pp52-53). But he can scarcely have foreseen that within just over twenty years the “Arabs” would have fought a bitter war and driven out their French rulers.

Yet he has a keen eye for ruling-class arrogance. Writing of the war on Japan, he notes that American hopes of an easy victory will be disappointed. They “[h]ave no idea of the energy of a very different race, terribly energetic, very poor, not at all bourgeoisified and backed into a desperate situation” (p110). For later readers the parallel with Vietnam is inescapable.

So it is difficult to imagine how Serge might have developed if he had lived another ten or twenty years. The fierce pressures of the Cold War were just beginning, and many fell victim to them. George Orwell’s decline from Homage to Catalonia to government informer is a sad reminder of just what could happen. Only a tiny minority of the left hung on to a “neither Washington nor Moscow” line.

One of the translators of the Notebooks, Mitchell Abidor, has written an article in which he argues that Serge’s Mexican years saw a “final political shift” in which “hatred of the Communists became one of his central tenets”. It is a thoughtful and balanced argument, based on months of immersion in the text of the Notebooks, and it deserves to be considered with respect. But my own view is that Serge’s position in the Notebooks remains complex and contradictory.

Certainly Serge does come to see Stalinism as the main enemy. There was a good reason for this; as he describes repeatedly, there were Stalinists in Mexico who were systematically planning to kill him (p138). The people who had murdered Trotsky just a few years earlier wanted to eradicate what remained of the Left Opposition. Meetings addressed by Serge and other anti-Stalinists were physically attacked with vicious assaults (p102).

So it is scarcely surprising that when other leftists discuss the possibility of a united front with the Communist Party (CP), Serge is sceptical. As he argues, “the CP is a totalitarian party led by agents of a foreign power: it’s not a party of the left” (p219).

Such an attitude is easy to explain in terms of Serge’s experience. Nonetheless it was misguided. In countries like France and Italy, where the Communist Parties counted their members in hundreds of thousands and their voters in millions, those mass organisations could not be written off as not part of the left. The only possible strategy for revolutionaries was systematic anti-Stalinist propaganda, combined with a united front with Communist Party members. It was a hard road, with little to show for it, at least until the Stalinist monolith began to crumble after 1956, but there was no alternative. That Serge himself recognises this is shown by a letter written to the French socialist editor René Lefeuvre in 1946 in which he insists that it is necessary to relate to Stalinist workers: “We cannot adopt a purely negative attitude to the CP. We shall get nowhere if we seem more preoccupied with criticising Stalinism than with defending the working class. The reactionary danger is still there, and in practice we shall often have to act alongside the Communists”.

Thus Serge’s position is not wholly consistent. But while it is impossible to say what his later development might have been, it is hard to imagine him becoming a reliable supporter for the Cold War anti-communists. The position, which increasingly became essential to their orthodoxy, that Lenin (and indeed Marx) led inexorably to the gulag, is quite alien to him. While accepting that Bolshevik Jacobinism “contained the seed of Stalinist totalitarianism”, he insists that “Bolshevism also contained other seeds, other possibilities of evolution” (p512).

He continues to affirm that Bolshevism had been “an astounding historic success” (p109) and believes that “there is no one left who knows what the Russian Revolution was in reality” (p365).

Serge is not always a comfortable ally for the left; he recalls facts and questions which those in search of a more simplistic narrative would prefer to forget. But he would have been an even more awkward companion for the red-baiters, for he would have rejected their most basic assumptions.

Serge had no pretensions to be a political leader, and did not offer a strategy for the left. But with other political exiles in Mexico he takes part in vigorous discussions about the way forward.

About the murderous nature of Stalinism he is in no doubt. And he is quite clear that the regime in Russia has nothing in common with the socialist values to which he had devoted his life. The future of Stalinism is a more difficult question. Sometimes the friends and enemies of Stalinism seem to converge in overestimating its strength and stability. Serge sees prospects for change. Meeting Trotsky’s grandson on a bus, he argues that “before much time has passed Russia will change greatly…we must remain faithful to her and sustain great hopes for her” (pp392-93).

Trotsky Serge sees as one of the great Marxists; he repeatedly expresses his admiration. During his years in Mexico he regularly visits Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s widow, with whom he jointly wrote a biography of Trotsky.[4] Trotskyism is a different matter. Serge had been involved in Trotsky’s earliest efforts to regroup the Left Opposition into a “Fourth International”, but he had soon broken with this.[5] He believes that “a new International can’t be founded without first having two or three real parties or groups in two or three important countries” (p170) and that Trotsky in his last years became a “sectarian” (p221). He proposed the alternative of an alliance of all left-wing currents, rejecting any idea of Leninist hegemony.

Certainly Serge’s critique is a powerful one. The history of the Fourth International, once Trotsky’s guiding intelligence was removed, became a series of splits, with each fragment claiming to be the true – and sole – heir. Whether Serge’s alternative could have succeeded is a different question. Probably sectarianism on the left was too strong, and in any case the post-war triumph of Stalinism meant that the anti-Stalinist left was crushed and isolated. It would take the upheavals of 1956 and 1968 for it to revive.

Serge notes a degree of friction in his discussions with Natalia Sedova, since she remains a member of the Fourth International (p142). Yet perhaps he sowed some seeds of doubt, since a few years later, in 1951, she broke all connection with the Fourth International.

In fact Serge seems to be pessimistic about the prospects of an independent revolutionary left. Thus he urges that socialism’s “only salvation” will be found in “rallying along with the old (moderate) socialist movements and the democratic masses” (p464) – in other words in cooperation with the reformists. This is not a simple abandonment of revolutionary politics. For Trotsky on the eve of the World War, it had seemed that capitalism had exhausted the possibilities for reform – and hence for reformism. In the revived capitalism of the post-war period reformism was able to bring about real changes in the interest of the working class. But reformist parties were also guilty of some appalling abuses. The role of the French Socialist Party (SFIO) in opposing Algerian independence was just the most blatant example. How Serge might have responded to such developments we cannot be sure. But what is true is that the small and fragmented revolutionary current that survived existed mainly by working inside reformist parties.

Serge does not have a detailed strategy for the left and it would be foolish to expect him to. But in debate with other exiles, he is scornful of those who are satisfied to continue to promote relatively small organisations: as he argues “most would be charmed to have a tiny party of thirty thousand men in Spain or France that would believe itself pure and that would be powerless” (p348). The irony is that all too many fragments of the left have been satisfied with 300, let alone 30,000.

Ultimately Serge gives us no answers, but leaves us with some very relevant questions. With the benefit of hindsight we can see where Serge was perceptive and where he was misguided. But an encounter with the critical thought and experience of a revolutionary like Serge cannot fail to be rewarding.

References

Abidor, Mitchell 2019, “Victor Serge: Indispensable Critic of Leftist Illusion”, The New York Review, 28 February. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/02/28/victor-serge-indispensable-critic-of-leftist-illusion/

Cotterill, David (ed.) 1994, The Serge-Trotsky Papers, Pluto.

Greeman, Richard 1994, “The Victor Serge Affair and the French Literary Left”, Revolutionary History, 5, 3. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol5/no3/greeman.html

Sedova, Natalia 1951, Letter of Resignation, The Militant, 15, 23, 4 June. https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedova-natalia/1951/05/09.htm

Sedova, Natalia and Victor Serge 2016, Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, Haymarket.

Serge, Victor 2003, “To René Lefeuvre”, Revolutionary History, 8, 3. https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/194x/xx/lefeuvre.html

Serge Victor 2010, Retour à l’Ouest: Chroniques (juin 1936-mai 1940), Agone.

Serge, Victor 2012a, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, New York Review Books.

Serge, Victor 2012b, Carnets 1936-1947, Agone.

[1] For the first complete English translation see Serge 2012a.

[2] Serge 2012b.

[3] Serge 2010.

[4] Sedova and Serge 2016.

[5] See Cotterill 1994.

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