Victor Serge: ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ and other gems

January 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm (history, libertarianism, literature, Marxism, publications, socialism)

From Richard Greeman
Subject: Victor Serge

Dear Friends,

Interesting news for fans of Victor Serge, the Franco-Russian novelist
and revolutionary (1890-1947).

• In Mexico, a trove of Serge’s Notebooks has recently come to light
and are now published in France, beautifully edited, by Agone in
Marseille, 65 years after Serge’s death.

• Meanwhile, in the US, the first complete English translation of
Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary: 1905-1941 was published last year
by NY Review of Books Classics. Peter Sedgwick’s original translation,
cut by 1/8 in the 1963 Oxford edition from which all others were
copied, has now been restored by George Paisis. In addition to
Sedgwick’s Introduction and a Foreword by Adam Hochschild, the NYRB
Classics edition includes a Glossary, which I prepared to help readers
cope with all those Russian names. Unfortunately, my Postface, “Victor
Serge’s Political Testament” was omitted by mistake. I attach it
below.

• Finally, for those who live in the NY area, I will be hosting a
class on Serge at the Brecht Forum this Spring and Fall, starting with
public lectures on Feb. 2 and 9 co-sponsored by NYRB Classics and
Haymarket Books.

Victor Serge’s Political Testament

‘What would Victor Serge’s political position be if he were alive
today ?’ During the 60-odd years since Serge’s untimely death, this
question – a priori unanswerable — has been asked (and answered) many
times — on occasion, as we shall see, by self-interested politicos
and pundits. The consensus among these postmortem prophets is that
this hypothetical posthumous Serge would have moved Right, along with
ex-Communists like Arthur Koestler and the ‘N.Y. Intellectuals’ around
the Partisan Review. It is of course, impossible to prove otherwise,
but the fact remains that throughout the Cold War neither the
CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom nor any other conservative
anti-Communist group ever attempted to exploit Serge’s writings, which
continued to speak far too revolutionary a language and remained
largely out of print. Nonetheless, the spectre of an undead Right-wing
Serge continues to haunt the critics, and there are reasons why.

To begin with, in January 1948, a month after Serge’s death, that
great confabulator André Malraux launched macabre press campaign
claiming Serge as a death-bed convert to Gaullism. The sad fact is
that six days before he died, Serge had sent a grossly flattering
personal letter to Malraux, begging the support of de Gaulle’s once
and future Minister of Culture (and Gallimard editor) to publish his
novel Les Derniers temps in France. Desperate to leave the political
isolation and (fatally) unhealthy altitude of Mexico for Paris, Serge
indulged in an uncharacteristic ruse de guerre, feigning sympathy for
Malraux’s ‘political position’ — according to Vlady, at his urging.
Serge’s ruse backfired. His letter and the news of his death reached
Paris simultaneously, and Malraux seized the moment by printing
selected excerpts and leaking them to C.L. Sulzberger, who published
them in the N.Y. Times — thus recruiting Serge’s fresh corpse into
the ranks of the Western anti-Communist crusade.

Aside from this letter, there is zero evidence in Serge’s writings,
published and unpublished, of sympathy for Gaullism or Western
anti-Communism — quite the contrary. In 1946, Serge sharply
criticized his comrade René Lefeuvre, editor of the far-left review
Masses, for publishing an attack on the USSR by an American
anti-Communist: «If the Soviet regime is to be criticised, » wrote
Serge, « let it be from a socialist and working class point of view.
If we must let American voices be heard, let them be those of sincere
democrats and friends of peace, and not chauvinistic demagogues; let
them be those of the workers who will succeed one day, we hope, in
organising themselves into an independent party. » A few months later,
Serge followed up : « I understand that the Stalinist danger alarms
you. But it must not make us lose sight of our overall view. We must
not play into the hands of an anti-Communist bloc […] 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. »

To complicate matters even further, in the course of a fraternal
discussion with Leon Trotsky over Kronstadt and the Cheka in 1938, the
‘Old Man’ unjustly (on the basis of an article he hadn’t read),
portrayed Serge as abandoning Marxism along with Stalinism and
drifting to the Right. Nonetheless Serge, despite political
differences of which the reader of these Memoirs is aware, continued
to defend Trotsky to his death, helped expose Trotsky’s murderer, and
collaborated with Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, on The Life and
Death of Leon Trotsky. Yet generations of Trotskyists have reflexively
handed down Trotsky’s caricature of Serge as a ‘bridge from revolution
to reaction’ — an accusation apparently confirmed by the ‘Gaullism’
charge.

More recently Serge’s posthumous rightward drift has been alleged on
the basis of his guilt-by-association with erstwhile U.S. leftists and
socialists who subsequently moved Right. (Of course Serge’s main
political associations were in Europe, a fact this argument ignores).
One recalls that in Mexico Serge lived by his pen (like Marx in exile
who wrote for Greeley’s N.Y. Herald Tribune) writing news articles in
English for the Social-Democratic press (the staunchly anti-Communist
Call and New Leader) as well as think-pieces for the Partisan Review
(whose editors had supported his struggles to survive in Vichy France
and Mexico). Many of these ‘N.Y. Intellectuals’ did indeed move
rightward, beginning with James Burnham in the 1940s. Thus Serge, it
is argued, ‘would have’ moved Right too. Yet, not long before he died,
Serge vigorously attacked Burnham, writing: “The paradox that he has
developed, doubtless out of love for a provocative theory, is as false
as it is dangerous. Under a thousand insipid forms it is to be found
in the Press and the literature of this age of preparation for the
Third World War. The reactionaries have an obvious interest in
confounding Stalinist totalitarianism – exterminator of the
Bolsheviks – with Bolshevism itself; their aim is to strake at the
working class, at Socialism, at Marxism, even at Liberalism…”

All this would be just a sad footnote were it not that the posthumous
image of a right-wing Serge, based on the old ‘Gaullism’ and ‘NY
Intellectualism’ arguments, was still being agitated as late as 2010.
To lay this ghost once and for all, let us quote Serge’s last
significant political statement, generally considered his ‘political
testament.’

‘Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution’ was dated August 1947 and
published in Paris by La Révolution proletarianne in November 1947,
the month of his death. There Serge writes: “A feeble logic —
pointing an accusing finger at the dark spectacle of the Stalinist
Soviet Union — deduces from this the bankruptcy of Bolshevism, hence
that of Marxism, hence that of Socialism […] Aren’t you forgetting the
other bankruptcies? Where was Christianity during the recent social
catastrophes? What happened to Liberalism? What did Conservatism –
enlightened or reactionary– produce? Did it not give us Mussolini,
Hitler, Salazar, and Franco? If it was a question of honestly weighing
the many failures of different ideologies, we would have our work cut
out for us for a long time. And it is far from over …”

As far as capitalism is concerned, Serge concluded: “There is no
longer any doubt that the era of stable, growing, relatively pacific
capitalism came to an end with the First World War. The Marxist
revolutionaries who announced the opening of a global revolutionary
era—and said that if socialism did not establish itself in at least
the great European powers, another period of barbarism and a “cycle of
wars of war and revolution” (as Lenin put it, quoting Engels) would
follow — were right. The conservatives, the evolutionists, and the
reformists who chose to believe in the future bourgeois Europe
carefully cut into pieces at Versailles, then replastered at Locarno,
and fed with phrases dug up at the League of Nations — are today
remembered as statesmen of blind policies….

The Marxist revolutionaries of the Bolshevik school awaited and worked
toward the social transformation of Europe and the world by an
awakening of the working masses and by the rational and equitable
reorganization of a new society. They expected to continue working
toward the time when men would take control over their own destinies.
There they made a mistake — they were beaten. Instead, the
transformation of the world is taking place amidst a terrible
confusion of institutions, movements and beliefs without the hoped-for
clarity of vision, without a sense of renewed humanism, and in a way
that now imperils all the values and hopes of men. Nevertheless the
general trends are still those defined by the socialists of 1917–20
toward the collectivization and the planification of economies, the
internationalization of the world, the emancipation of oppressed and
colonized peoples, and the formation of mass-based democracies of a
new kind. The alternative was also foreseen by the socialists:
barbarism and war, war and barbarism — a monster with two heads.

As Peter Sedgwick put it in 1963: ‘Whatever else they may be, these
are not the words of a man of the Right, or of any variety of
ex-revolutionary penitent.’

Richard Greeman

4 Comments

  1. Southpawpunch said,

    I used to know a lot about Serge. I bought all the books and even considered this very book to be my all time ‘best book’. It’s years since I read it.

    I now think of Serge as a necessary tool for later communists. Those who remain firm Trotskyists without necessary seeking to defend the occasionally indefensible Trotsky.

    Those who want to say they remain rock-hard in their Bolshevism, whilst tearing their hair out at the completely bourgeois understanding now of the same by fellow ‘revolutionaries’. (e.g. call in the cops to investigate a rape complaint in an ostensibly revolutionary party, and especially when the alleged victim doesn’t want that – what are the SWP ‘left’ critics thinking of? I wish I could remember the name of that fine comrade, in a pre-war E European Communist Party, whose husband was murdered by their party and who refused to go to the cops even when they found out and tortured her to try and get her to make a complaint.) Maybe Serge is link back to that time when communism mattered, revolutions could be made and the collective nous of the Left wasn’t so fundamentally abraded by all those years of defeat.

    Serge, in my experience, was adopted by those of us who needed a totem to deal with the sometime correct criticisms of those Left Communists and anarchists about the Bolsheviks. We could say ‘it wasn’t all like that, comrade, there were nuances. Serge…’. Gramsci was adopted by those moving rightward, making whatever they wanted to from his notebooks in code.

    I suspect that neither Gramsci or Serge deserve such a place, but I give my thanks to Serge for doubtless using his name in vain many times. I’m sure not a few Cabinet ministers, well-known journalists and the like fondly remember Gramsci for the same reason.

  2. daggi said,

    Also, “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” has just been reissued in German translation by the (originally trade-union run) Büchergilde Gutenberg book club, and also for non-members by their publishing house Edition Büchergilde.

    https://www.buechergilde.de/detailansicht/items/die-grosse-ernuechterung_165457.html

    http://www.buchhandel.de/webapi1/TitelSuche.asp?Func=Search&Caller=22940&isbn=978-3-86406-013-7

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    However that 1970s Oxford paperback with the Dmitri Moor Volunteer! poster cover will always be a treasured possession even if the text was truncated (and unlike the Deutscher Trotsky paperbacks I saved up my pocket money to buy at the same time it hasn’t yet fallen to pieces).

    And the new edition really has a piss-poor cover – thousands of striking revolutionary images to choose from and they go for some impressionistic landscape that could adorn he cover of pretty much any pretentious early twentieth century novel on the shelves of the London Review Bookshop.

  4. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    And wasn’t he Belgo- rather than Franco-Russian (although Belgo-anything doesn’t have quite the same ring).

    And having just checked he spent roughly 19 years in Belgium, 13 years in France, 18 years in Russia and 7 years in Mexico as well as a few months in Spain.

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