Preserving the spark of revolution

May 10, 2011

Scott McLemee reviews two new books introducing today's readers to Victor Serge.

THE NOVELS, poems, memoirs and other writings of Victor Serge (1890-1947) are among the finest works of literature inspired by the October Revolution that brought the working class to power in Russia in 1917.

But young radicals often have only a vague sense of him--and sometimes not even that. The appearance of two collections of his work in Haymarket editions is a welcome development. It's never too late for activists to discover Serge, but when you do, it feels like a revelation.

I say this with all due humility--remembering my own youthful vagueness at hearing his name mentioned, about 20 years ago, by a revolutionary socialist in her 60s who had joined the movement as a high school student during the Depression. She referred in passing to Serge's masterpiece, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and was appalled to find that I had never read it. (Actually I hadn't even heard of it.)

And she was right to be disappointed. It is the great novel about the Moscow Trials--that culminating moment of Stalin's counterrevolution, when he destroyed the few remaining Bolshevik leaders and unleashed a wave of terror against ordinary Soviet citizens.

Red Army soldiers on the march in Russia in 1920
Red Army soldiers on the march in Russia in 1920

Yet it has somehow fallen into the shadow, as it were, of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, which is in every respect a slighter novel.

With hindsight, thought, it is perfectly understandable that Serge's insightful and moving book would remain so little known during the Cold War. His horror at the Soviet police state came from an understanding that it was the negation of Marxism, not its fulfillment. This perspective was acceptable in neither Washington nor Moscow.

Even at "the midnight of the century"--to borrow the title of another great novel by Serge, about Trotskyist prisoners in the gulag system--Serge remained convinced that the fight for socialism was a struggle for human emancipation.

Koestler's Darkness at Noon offers readers taste of refined despair. Serge invites them to huddle around a spark--to keep it burning, come what may.

BOLSHEVIKS ARE made, not born--though Serge comes pretty close to being an exception to that rule. Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, as he was called at birth, grew up in dire poverty. But he had a rich revolutionary inheritance.

His parents belonged to the generation of intellectuals who threw themselves into the Narodnik cause, which saw the communal traditions of the Russian peasantry as the basis for the better society that could emerge once the oppressive power of the aristocracy was thrown off.

In 1881, a wing of the movement killed Czar Alexander II with a bomb. The government launched a campaign of repression against even mildly liberal reformists, and many revolutionaries fled the country.

And so Victor was born in Belgium. He learned to read from his parents' collection of revolutionary literature, and continued his self-education during his adolescence while working for a photographer, and then in the printing trade. Moving to Paris, he began to write for the anarchist press. He published articles in defense of the Bonnot gang--a group that challenged bourgeois society by robbing its banks.

This landed him in prison for five years, which did not exactly dampen his revolutionary ardor. After being released in 1917, he took part in an anarchist uprising in Barcelona. When that failed, he found inspiration in the news coming from Russia that year. He undertook the arduous trek to join the struggle there--which was still underway when he reached Petrograd in 1919.

This brings us to the threshold of a decisive moment in Serge's development. He arrived as an anarchist. But his thinking began to change as he joined the fight against the Whites--a counterrevolutionary army trying to restore the Russian aristocrats and capitalists to power, with the help of military force from abroad.

Revolution in Danger contains three texts that Serge wrote in 1919-21. The first two are personal narratives of daily life in Petrograd (one of the bastions of the revolutionary workers' movement) as White forces seemed on the verge of capturing it.

Without hesitation, Serge joined the struggle to defend the city. And so began his profound rethinking of the relationship between revolution and organization. He became a Bolshevik. The final item in the collection is a pamphlet addressed to anarchists, arguing for why they should support the Marxists.

At the same time, he was highly conscious of the dangers emerging within the revolution itself. Workers in Petrograd who want to defend the revolution join the Red Army and die in combat. The Bolsheviks take stern measures to discourage the opportunism of black marketeers and White sympathizers--but opportunists are already finding their way into the revolutionary party itself. By 1920, Serge can already see some of the trends that Lenin would be denouncing before his death in 1924.

Witness to the German Revolution gathers news reports and analytical pieces that Serge published in 1922-23. He vividly conveys the agonizing situation of workers beat down by inflation and unemployment--as politicians (including the reformist Social Democrats) undertake their shady maneuvers. Meanwhile a new force is taking to the streets: the fascists.

The crisis approaches a showdown between the far left and the ruling class. And the victory of workers' revolution in Germany (a highly industrialized country) would have decisively shifted the course of development in the USSR. Instead, catastrophic errors by the German Communists derailed the movement--to the advantage of Hitler's small but growing party.

This was a disastrous moment, with consequences taking decades to reveal. It cannot be put down to the inexperience of a young Marxist party. By that point, the German Communists had extensive experience of both revolutionary openings and tactical blunders.

But its decisions were guided by the mistaken (indeed, increasingly counterrevolutionary) leadership of the Third International, influenced by Stalin and Zinoviev.

Serge wrote his articles from Germany on behalf of the International's press agency. He reported to Zinoviev--a figure he later called "Lenin's biggest mistake." Witness to the German Revolution is a fascinating account of a fateful moment in time. But a socialist reading it now would do well to study Leon Trotsky's short, incisive work "Lessons of October" (1924) for another perspective on the questions of revolutionary leadership that Serge was not prepared to address.

ARGUABLY, SERGE produced his most important work only after thinking through the events and experiences recorded in these two volumes. In 1928, he had a brush with death from illness. He made a vow, if he survived, to dedicate his life to using all of his literary powers to expressing what he had learned from two decades of revolutionary experience.

That pledge coincided with the final defeat of Trotsky's Left Opposition. Serge's novels and historical writings represented a heroic effort to defy the bureaucracy's incessant falsifications of the past. He soon found himself in prison again.

Thanks to an international campaign by prominent writers, including Andre Gide, he was allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1936--just months before Stalin launched a series of show trials that would undoubtedly have led to Serge's execution.

The two volumes from Haymarket are shorter than the ambitious books Serge produced after 1928, and they give only hints of the powers of observation and synthesis revealed in his fiction. (The experiences narrated in Revolution in Danger would later inspire his novel Conquered City.) But they can both be recommended as excellent introductions to Serge.

His articles--like the work of John Reed, his American friend--let us follow revolutionary events as they unfold, as seen through the eyes of an exceptionally alert journalist. But they have another interest as well.

Marx once wrote that "revolutionary ideas become a material force when they grip the masses." Serge is sensitive to the shifts in mood and outlook among people that take place during social upheaval. Such transformations, while very rapid, are also very deep.

With Serge, you feel that. And he had the talent, as well as the courage, to record the changes within himself that happened along the way.

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