Review of Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (New York Review of Books, 2008)
Richard Greeman’s translation of Serge’s final novel is yet another blow struck against Stalinist despotism and for the recovery of an authentic socialist tradition from the ‘midnight in the century’ of totalitarianism.
This project is part of what Vasily Grossman called the ‘radiant dossier’ that would emerge from the debris of NKVD archives that one day would be opened. Its so fitting that the experience of working-class defeat documented in Serge’s novel comes to us in this historical moment when the vestiges of Stalinism (or what Serge calls the ‘ruling psychoses’ of dictatorship) and liberatory socialism are still in confrontation on the British left.
Serge was imprisoned for his anarchist activities in Belgium; was involved in the abortive Spanish revolution; made his way to Russia and fought for the Bolsheviks; became a Comintern agent in Germany; joined the Left Opposition; was imprisoned and exiled by Stalin and then, surviving those experiences, finally made it to Mexico after the collapse of France to the Nazis.
His individualistic and idiosyncratic understanding of socialism aside, he was a hugely important witness to the destruction of the individual conscience by despotism and was one of the first generation to understand that the USSR was a new form of society — a form of bureaucratic collectivism.
Recent work by Suzie Weissman and by the translator of this novel, Richard Greeman, havs pointed to the unparalleled significance of Serge – not only for where he was situated geographically and historically – at Kronstadt, in the camps, in the frenzy of revolution, with Trotsky and Natalya Sedova in Mexico – but also because his conscience and his spirit were so untainted by despotism and he remained till the end of his life full of hope for the future.
As he wrote in his memoirs at the end of his life: “I have undergone a little over 10 years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing. On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and the future than ever before.”
His novels documented a series of revolutions from Birth of our Power (Spain) to Conquered City (Red Petrograd), but they also developed the idea of the counter-revolution of the soul that he saw developing with the embryonic emergence of stalinism. He was opposed to the formation of the Cheka and to the banning of parties under Bolshevism. He took part in the suppression of Kronstadt, but also argued that it was one of the worst consequences of the revolution and could have been avoided. On this he was taken to task by Trotsky later; but it is clear, particularly with the work by Ida Mett and Paul Avrich on Kronstadt, that the uncritical acceptance of the Trotskyist Left Opposition of the validity of the suppression was a step too far – addressing “error through terror” as Serge would have it.
It was the clearsighted recognition from within the camps of the nature of Stalinism (through debates with imprisoned left communists, workers and left oppositionists) that led to many of his disagreements with ortho-Trotskyism after his release; but it was also clear, as Natalya Sedova recognised after Trotsky’s death, that Serge was correct in his third camp assessment of the USSR, long before significant events like the invasion of Finland.
His two major novels on stalinism — The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Midnight in the Century — are perhaps the two most significant fictional understandings of totalitarianism, matched only by the later work of Vasily Grossman himself in Life and Fate and by outside observers such as Orwell, with whom he has many affinities.
Only through the resurrection of our massacred dead can we finally overcome the legacies of Stalinism and particularly to overcome the kinds of fatal infections leading to the politics of hatred and terror – “The end justifies the means, what a swindle. No end can be achieved by anything but appropriate means. If we trample on the man of today, will we do anything worthwhile for the man of tomorrow? And what will we do to ourselves?”
There has been some controversy over Serge’s political development and it is why his later novels such as Unforgiving Years are so important to the socialist movement now. What is striking about this recently translated text is its tone of darkness – out of all of his novels, as Greeman writes, it is “the most bitter, the most cerebral, and the most poetic”. It is constructed around four sections and each section is based on the experiences of two operatives, Daria and D. The first is based around the defection of a lifelong communist to the left oppositionist camp and immediately it becomes clear that this fictional case study has a resonance with the history of both Walter Krivitsky and Ignace Reiss.
The second part is based within Leningrad during the advance of the Nazis, and documents both the siege and the role of ordinary workers in surviving and hoping.
The third section is set in Nazi Germany during its experience of annihilation and tells of the experience of a dissident Soviet agent uncovering the horror of that victory/defeat for ordinary people.
The final section witnesses the escape of the central ch”new world” of Mexico where the physical Europe of totalitarianism is left behind in a way that its ideological legacy and heritage is not – importantly Serge notes that “it is surely fugitives, rather than conquerors, who led the way to new worlds”.
It was as a fugitive that Serge died in the end, like his mentor Trotsky, and it is as fugitives from Stalinism that Daria and D come to understand the inner workings of authoritarianism.
The understanding of the disortions of Stalinism and what it does to its operatives is a key to the book – “D believed in secrets, ciphers, stratagems, silence, masks, and in playing the game impeccably”. Until he had to flee as all liberated minds had to in the “midnight”.
The novel wavers on the brink of despair, but only because paradoxically for a socialist humanist, many of its themes work on biological, geological and evolutionary analogies in highly abstract ways – making this a truly great piece of art as well as a political document. Still within the horrors of the Lubyanka there is hope and an unsullied revolutionary tradition which will survive the slanders and the massacres.
“Capital of Torture! The microphotography labs, the special training schools, the dungeons of the secret prison vibrating with the subway trains, the cryptography departments, the central Power. The place of execution, a solidly reinforced cellar no doubt, thoroughly hosed down, rationalized, into which so many men have descended, suddenly realizing the annihilation of everything: faith, reason, life’s work, life... the red flags... The red flags, the first raw shoots of socialist humanism that no amount of dust, filth, and blood could besmirch entirely”.
An exile, a political exile and an exile in the realm of ideas and literature, Serge was a constant outsider. Having intervened in so many revolutions, he is paradoxically our best internal critic of the kinds of germs which can lead to dictatorship. As an exile and as a critic he never, however, abdicated hope and a commitment to the socialist future.
“What border”, as he says in this truly great book, “would not dissolve before the mere presence of a superior humanity.” And only in that unsullied onslaught against the border of the earth and those divide our consciences against one another can Serge’s legacy be understood.