Victor Serge: the untamed revolutionary

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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."

George Paizis has helped translate into English the most complete edition of Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which was originally translated by Peter Sedgwick in 1963. The new edition is available from Bookmarks.