Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Submitted by cathy n on 14 January, 2019 - 1:51 Author: Paul Hampton

At last, seventy years after its first publication in French and half a century after the first abridged English translation, we have the Victor Serge’s fantastic Memoirs of a Revolutionary in full. Around one-eighth of the 1963 edition was trimmed by nearly two hundred cuts under duress from the publishers. This new unexpurgated edition has been restored by George Paizis and annotated by Richard Greeman. It deserves to be read by today’s generation of socialists, activists and trade unionists.

Who was Victor Serge?

Victor Serge (1890–1947) was an anarchist who rallied to the Russian revolution. He was a libertarian Bolshevik, an internationalist fluent in five languages and later an oppositionist against Stalin. He died an unrepentant revolutionary in Mexico. As he put it in these Memoirs (2012: 326): “I remain and shall remain, whatever it may cost me, an avowed and unequivocal dissident, whom only force can silence.”

He was born Victor Kibalchich to Russian populist exiles in Belgium. He was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising in Barcelona. He left for Russia but was detained for a year in a French concentration camp. Serge arrived in St. Petersburg early in 1919 and joined the Bolsheviks, working for Communist International press service.

Serge was a Trotskyist Oppositionist against Stalinism from the beginning. He was expelled from the Communist Party and arrested in 1929. During this time he would complete three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history - Year One of the Russian Revolution. Serge was arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933. He was only allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and writers.

Serge narrowly missed being killed in Stalin’s Moscow show trials, but in exile he wrote a searing critique of the regime, called Russia Twenty Years After. He supported the POUM during the Spanish civil war and broke with Trotsky at that time. Living in France at the outbreak of the Second World War, he escaped to Mexico, where he died.

Serge’s achievement

Serge wrote Memoirs of a Revolutionary “for the desk drawer”, but it would have been a travesty had the book gone unpublished. It is a wonderful, highly personal account by a witness and a participant to some of the most important events of the early twentieth century: the civil war in Russia, the Kronstadt mutiny, the early Communist International, Germany 1923, the Chinese revolution 1927, the rise of Stalinism, the Spanish civil war and the Second World War.

Serge’s early anarchism is sometimes ignored by the Trotskyist left, but it was essential to his formation and the ideas he held to throughout his life. He wrote in the Memoirs (2012: 23) that “anarchism swept us away completely because it both demanded everything of us and offered us everything”. He and his comrades were “lean young wolves, full of pride and thought: dangerous types”, rebels who had a “certain fear of becoming careerists”. They wanted to be “outsiders” on the “fringe of society” and (cut from 1963 edition; 2012: 38) with “an intense desire to live differently at all costs”. Serge (2012: 29) confessed that he was attracted by “the partisan warriors of Paris, that sub-proletariat of déclassé, ‘emancipated’ men, dreaming of freedom and dignity and constantly on the verge of imprisonment”.

Serge never regreted his involvement with the anarchist group that led to his imprisonment. He bore his incarceration with fortitude, despite catching TB. He wrote in a passage slightly abridged in the earlier edition (2012: 44): “Some very simple rules will suffice for that end: physical and intellectual discipline, exercise (absolutely necessary for the man in a cell), walks for meditation (I did my six miles around the cell every day), intellectual work, and recourse to that exaltation, or slight spiritual tipsiness, which is furnished by great works of poetry. Altogether, I spent around fifteen months in solitary confinement, in various conditions, some of them hellish.”

The Memoirs paint a bleak portrait of life in Russia at the height of the civil war, when it looked like all might be lost. Serge offers no eulogy or prettification of conditions. He confessed (2012: 93, 97-98) that he would have died of hunger “without the sordid manipulations of the black market” and highlighted some mocking graffiti: “Lenin and Trotsky - dried fish and shitty bread”. He lamented the “Commissarocracy” that had grown up, the demise of the democratic Soviets, the lack of freedom and reserved particular ire in retrospect for the Cheka.

Serge’s involvement and subsequent comments about the Kronstadt mutiny in 1921 have attracted particular interest over the years. In contrast with what he wrote at the time of the mutiny, in his Memoirs twenty years later he was quick to prick the mystifications of the Bolsheviks about the revolt. By the end of his life (2012: 147-8) he regarded the Kronstadt programme as the “renewal of the revolution”, which had broken out in solidarity with strikes in Petrograd and was led by authentic Communists. Serge (2012: 152) regarded the suppression of the mutiny by the Soviet government as a “ghastly fratricide”. He quoted Lenin as saying: "This is Thermidor. But we shall not let ourselves be guillotined. We shall make a Thermidor ourselves."

However Serge sided with the party at the time and still justified the suppression of the revolt in the Memoirs. He wrote (2012: 150-51): “If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian.” In one of his last articles before his death, Thirty Years After (July-August 1947), Serge repeated many criticisms of the Bolshevik handling of Kronstadt. Nevertheless he concluded (1996: 313): “If in this situation, the Bolsheviks had let go the reins of power, who would have taken their place? Wasn’t it their duty to hold on? In fact they were right to hold on.”

Serge’s gift for languages and international contacts meant he was gainfully employed by the early Communist International. He was on the editorial staff of Inprekorr, the press agency of the Comintern Executive, which published copious material, intended for the labour press of the whole world, in three languages, German, English, and French. He wrote that during his time in Germany (2012: 189): “At my office at the Rote Fahne, I was successively Siegfried and Gottlieb; in town I was Dr Albert; on my papers Viktor Klein; and, in my journeys to Russia, Alexei Berlovsky, a former Russian prisoner of war in Germany. Victor Serge datelined his articles (which were reprinted as far away as China) from Kiev, a city to which, as it happened, I had never been.”

Serge (2012: 207) summed up the self-sacrificing mentality of such cadres: “None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the party’s need; we had just enough to live on without any real material discomfort, and we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.”

Serge was in Germany in 1923 during the aborted KPD insurrection. Although the Great Coalition government was extremely weak and Communists formed regional workers government in Saxony and Thuringia, they lacked both the arms and the mass support necessary to carry through the seizure of power. Serge’s book, Witness to the German Revolution (2000) flayed the SPD for the “wretchedness of weak-willed socialism... with “weak shoulders and fumbling hands”, quoting Jaures’ remark about the “formidable powerlessness of German social democracy”. He also lamented the failure of the KPD to strike the blow they had been holding back, to trigger off action or “Losschlagen”.

Serge witnessed first-hand the rise and consolidation of Stalinism over the bones of the genuine revolutionaries. The Memoirs include the memorable line (2012: 323) by the Romanian writer Panaït Istrati about the descent from a workers’ state to Stalinism. On being told that “one can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, he exclaimed, “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?” He wrote about Stalin’s failure in China, where the young Chinese Communists were told to ally with the nationalist Guomindang, with Stalin famously boasting that the Comintern would squeeze Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek “like a lemon and then be rid of him”. Serge (2012: 253) referred to the terrible massacre of the Communists by the Guomindang in 1927: “It would have been enough to send the Shanghai Committee a telegram: “defend yourselves if you have to” and the Chinese Revolution would not have been beheaded.”

Serge’s articles on China were the ostensible reason given for his expulsion from the ruling party and imprisonment. He referred (2012: 283) to the years 1928-33 as constituting “five years of resistance waged by a solitary man... against the relentless, overwhelming pressure of a totalitarian system”. Suffering from an excruciating intestinal occlusion, he had a life-changing reflection (2012: 303) that “I had laboured, striven, and schooled myself titanically, without producing anything valuable or lasting. I told myself, ‘If I chance to survive, I must be quick and finish the books I have begun: I must write, write’… that is how I became a writer”.

Serge was arrested and sent to the GPU’s Lubianka prison, where, (2012: 336) “in absolute secrecy, with no communication with any person whatsoever, with no reading matter whatsoever, with no paper, not even one sheet, with no occupation of any kind, with no open-air exercise in the yard, I spent about eighty days…” At best he believed he would be sent to the secret Isolator of Yaroslav and kept in solitary confinement, or at worst, he’d be shot.

Instead in 1933 he was condemned to three years deportation and sent to internal exile to Orenburg near Kazakhstan. He and his family endured hunger, harsh winters of -42°C, hot summers of 40°C, boils and scarlet fever. The Memoirs contain moving descriptions of fellow inmates, who “incarnated an epoch” and who most probably had perished by the time he wrote his book.

Serge was lucky to avoid the show trials. He wrote (2012: 365): “Contrary to all our predictions, I did not disappear but returned home. This was due to the stubborn battle that was raging around my name in France. Militants and intellectuals were demanding that either I be released or my deportation be justified.” Although he managed to leave the USSR, he lived in penury in Belgium and France, with the Communist press organising a campaign of slander against him. He would find refuge in Mexico, though still hounded by the Stalinists, where he would die from a heart attack.

Pen portraits

Perhaps the outstanding feature of the Memoirs is Serge’s ability to capture individuals with pithy phrases. His biographer Susan Weissman (Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, 2001; 92) paid tribute to his “eye for penetrating detail, his descriptive depth, and his ability to sum up a figure’s character through a physical description”.

Serge (2012: 119-20) is fulsome with his praise for Lenin. He wrote that Lenin still occupied a small apartment in the Kremlin “built for a palace servant”. In a recent winter he, like everyone else, “had had no heating”. When he went to the barber’s, “he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him”. Lenin was “neither a great orator nor a first-rate lecturer”. He employed “no rhetoric and sought no demagogical effects”. Rather he was “a man of a basic simplicity, talking to you honestly with the sole purpose of convincing you, appealing exclusively to your judgment, to facts and sheer necessity”.

Serge (2012: 161) recounted the way Lenin motivated the New Economic Policy: “He was warm, friendly, genial, talking as simply as he could; it was as if he was determined to emphasise with every gesture that the head of the Soviet government and the Russian Communist Party was still just another comrade — the leading one, of course, through his acknowledged intellectual and moral authority, but no more than this, and one who would never become just another statesman or just another dictator.” While some of the speeches were going on “he would come down from the platform and sit on the steps, near the shorthand reporters, with his note-pad on his knee. From this position he would interrupt now and then with a little caustic comment that made everybody laugh, and a mischievous smile would light up his face”. Serge recounted seeing him several times “coming away from the Congress, wearing his cap and jacket, quite alone, walking along at a smart pace with the old cathedrals of the Kremlin on either side of him”. He saw him “batter Bela Kun with a speech of merciless invective, genial as ever, his face bursting with health and good spirits”.

Serge (2012: 164-5) was more ambivalent about Trotsky, his admiration tempered by concerns about his voluntarism. Of Trotsky, he said that “no one ever wore a great destiny with more style. He was forty-one and at the apex of power, popularity and fame — leader of the Petrograd masses in two revolutions; creator of the Red Army, which (as Lenin had said to Gorky) he had literally ‘conjured out of nothing’; personally the victor of several decisive battles, at Sviazhsk, Kazan, and Pulkovo; the acknowledged organiser of victory in the Civil War”. Trotsky “outshone Lenin through his great oratorical talent, through his organising ability, first with the army, then on the railways, and by his brilliant gifts as a theoretician”. However Trotsky’s attitude was “less homely than Lenin’s, with something authoritarian about it”. Critical Communists had “much admiration for him, but no real love. His sternness, his insistence on punctuality in work and battle, the inflexible, correctness of his demeanour in a period of general slackness, all imparted a certain demagogic malice to the insidious attacks that were made against him”. In retrospect, Trotsky’s prescribed political solutions struck Serge “as proceeding from a character that was basically dictatorial”.

Serge was generous in his support for Trotsky during the fight against Stalinism. He wrote (2012: 272-3, 256): “The Old Man... vigilant, majestic, his hair standing nearly white on his head, his complexion sickly, he exhaled a fierce, caged energy... Beyond the lucidity of his economic and political judgment, beyond the vigour of his style, this firmness at a time of moral erosion made of Trotsky an exemplary man whose very existence, even if he were gagged, gave people confidence in humanity.” He recalled how after one opposition meeting, he and Trotsky approached a cabman to go home. Serge bargained for the fare, because they had little money. “The cabman, a bearded peasant straight out of old Russia, leaned down and said: ‘For you, the fare is nothing. Get inside, comrade. You are Trotsky, aren’t you?’ The cap was not enough of a disguise for the man of the Revolution. The Old Man had a slight smile of amusement: ‘Don’t tell anyone that this happened. Everybody knows that cabmen belong to the petty bourgeoisie, whose favour can only discredit us’.”
Serge’s final verdict on (2012: 406) on Trotsky was characteristically generous: “I understand his inflexibility: he was, after all, the last survivor of a generation of giants”.

Serge was generous about others he knew and admired. His description (2012: 218-19) of Gramsci was particularly evocative:
“Antonio Gramsci was living in Vienna, an industrious and Bohemian exile, late to bed and late to rise, working with the illegal Committee of the Italian Communist Party. His head was heavy, his brow high and broad, his lips thin; the whole carried on a puny, square-shouldered, weak-chested, humpbacked body. There was grace in the movement of his fine, lanky hands. Gramsci fitted awkwardly into the humdrum of daily existence, losing his way at night in familiar streets, taking the wrong train, indifferent to the comfort of his lodgings and the quality of his meals – but intellectually, he was absolutely alive. Trained intuitively in the dialectic, quick to uncover falsehood and transfix it with the sing of irony, he viewed the world with an exceptional clarity... When the crisis in Russia began to worsen, Gramsci did not want to be broken in the process, so he had himself sent back to Italy by his Party: he, who was identifiable at the first glance because of his deformity and his great forehead... Our years of darkness were his stubborn years of resistance.”

Serge’s feelings extended to those with whom he did not always agree. Thus he described Bukharin (2012: 159): “His mind was effervescent, always alert and active, but rigorously disciplined... His usual expression was jovial; even when he was silent the look in his eye, sharpened by a humorous twinkle, was so lively that he always seemed to be just about to come out with some witticism or other. The manner in which he spoke of others savoured of a good-natured cynicism...what he enjoyed was just thinking... He was bitingly contemptuous of the trade union and parliamentary politicians of the West.”

Karl Radek was “thin, monkey-like, sardonic and droll, hitched up his oversize trousers (which were always slipping down over his hips)...” But he was also “a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm... realistic to the point of cruelty... just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes.” Similarly, Riazanov was “stout, strong-featured, beard and moustache thick and white, attentive eyes, Olympian forehead, ironic utterance...”, while Rosmer “incarnated the qualities of vigilance, discretion, silence and dedication”.

John Reed “was tall, forceful, and matter-of-fact, with a cool idealism and a lively intelligence tinged by humour”. Returning home from the remarkable trip to Baku in 1920, Reed “took a great bite out of a watermelon he had bought in a picturesque Daghestan market. As a result he died, from typhoid”. Jacques Sadoul was “a Paris lawyer, an army captain, an information-officer in Russia on behalf of Albert Thomas, a member of the Comintern Executive, a flatterer of Lenin and Trotsky, a great charmer, a splendid raconteur, a sybarite, and a cool careerist to boot”. Serge loved “his lively, mocking intelligence, his epicurean nonchalance, his political adroitness”. He held Georg Lukács in the “greatest esteem... a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness”.

He was generous about young Trotskyists with whom he disagreed in the mid 1930s and who perished at the hands of the Stalinists. Erwin Wolf had “all the pugnacious confidence of youth. Tall forehead, fine features, the rigidity of the young theoretician, a mind that was single-track, schematic, and keen”. Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov was “young, energetic, of a temperament at once gentle and resolute, he had lived a hellish life. From his father he inherited an eager intelligence, and absolute faith in revolution, and the utilitarian, intolerant political mentality of the Bolshevik generation that was now disappearing”. He was “overworked, penniless, anxious for his father, he passed his whole life in that labyrinth”.

However Serge did not particularly admire many of those he came into contact with. He argued (2012: 122) that “outside Russia and perhaps Bulgaria, there were no real communists anywhere in the world... The bulk of these men were symptomatic of obsolete movements... sniffing out the direction of the prevailing wind”.

Serge reserved special venom for Zinoviev, even where their work coincided in the Comintern and later briefly with the opposition. His early impression (2012: 84, 158, 207) of Zinoviev was “clean-shaven, pale, his face a little puffy, he felt absolutely at home on the pinnacle of power... all the same there was also the impression of flabbiness, almost a lurking irresolution, emanating from his whole personality”. Zinoviev was “simply a demagogue, a populariser of ideas worked out by Lenin” and was “Lenin’s biggest mistake”. Serge (2012: 270) recounted an exchange between Zinoviev and Trotsky, on slips of paper passed from hand to hand. Zinoviev: “Leon Davidovich, the hour has come when we should have the courage to capitulate...” Trotsky: “If that kind of courage were enough, the revolution would have been won all over the world by now...”

Serge’s other great bête noir was the Hungarian Communist Bela Kun. Serge (2012: 164) told how Kun had negotiated the surrender of the remnants of the White army during the civil war. To the former monarchist officers he promised “an amnesty and the right to resume civilian work; later he ordered them to be massacred. Thousands of war prisoners were thus treacherously exterminated, in the name of ‘purging the country’”. Serge (2012: 164) wrote in a passage omitted from the 1963 edition: “I encountered several witnesses who were horrified by these massacres by means of which a revolutionary of weak character and shaky intellect had stupidly tried to pose as a ‘man of steel’.” Serge (2012: 220) later described Kun as “a remarkably odious figure. He was the incarnation of intellectual inadequacy, uncertainty of will, and authoritarian corruption”.

Lesser figures were not immune from the potency of his pen. The Dutch communist Wijnkoop was “dark-bearded and long-jawed, apparently aggressive, but destined as it turned out for a career of limitless servility”. Russian Communist Lozovsky had “an always flexible spine [that] assured his longevity”. The editorial staff of Inprekorr was of “outstanding mediocrity”. Julius Alpari, who led it, was “a bloated, artful, and well-informed individual, whose sole conception of his role was already that of a functionary discreetly heading, even through illegality, for an undisturbed career”. Another, Franz Dahlem, “never asked himself a question if the slightest vital interest but only carried out, all punctiliously, every instruction and directive he received. This was the Communist NCO type, neither a blockhead nor a thinker: obedient only”.

German Communist Heinrich Brandler was “the humpbacked bricklayer with malice in his eyes”. Another German Communist Heinz Neumann was “a young rogue who argues like a cynic. He has an infant prodigy’s capacity for absorbing knowledge, a sense of history, merciless views on his elders, and a love for a theoretical working class beside which the actual working class is only highly imperfect human material”. The Russian novelist and Lenin’s friend Maxim Gorky in his later years as a servant of Stalinism “wrote vile articles, merciless and full of sophistry, justifying the worst trials on the grounds of Soviet humanism!” Literature was dying and “he said nothing… reduced to an algebraic cipher of himself.”

Serge was able to describe the revolutionaries of the era in three-dimensions, to identify their failings and foibles as well as their virtues – thus making them more real. It is as if he decorated the period in violent technicolour, whilst many others painted it grey.


What assessment should be made of Serge’s contribution? Serge (2012: 439) gave himself credit “for having seen clearly in a number of important situations”. On many of the great struggles of the day – the 1917 revolution, the defence of the Russian workers state, the fight against Stalinism, the Chinese revolution and the fight against fascism – Serge was on the right side. He admitted (2012: 383) he was wrong and Trotsky was right about the popular front – although he did not reassess his stance towards the POUM during the Spanish revolution.

Serge was not a Marxist who broke new theoretical ground, either in the application of Marxism to new situations or who innovated new concepts to deepen Marxist explanations of reality. He admitted (2012: 28) that as a young anarchist, his eyes “stubbornly refused to stay open over political economy”. Serge claimed (2012: 326) to have been the first to define the Soviet state as “totalitarian” in 1921, a claim backed by his biographer Susan Weissman (2001: 48). His commitment to working class democracy and his opposition to Stalinism were consistent, whatever the particular characterisation he applied to the USSR. Until the mid-1930s he believed Russia was still a workers’ state that could be reformed; after his release he saw it as a new form of class society.

The Memoirs appear dated in some respects. As Sedgewick (2012: xxxvii) points out in his introduction, Serge’s references to colonial nationalist movements “are nearly always distant or disparaging”. There is a hint of homophobia (2012: 101) in his comments about “an atmosphere of a decomposing Bohemianism, entangling its homosexuals and exotics with our militants”, while he also (2012: 241) disparaged Kollontai’s “oversimplified theory of free love”. His wives do not appear much in the book and apart from Alexandra Bronstein, few women revolutionaries are discussed.

The most serious limitation with Serge, at least in the final years after his release from Russia, is his attitude towards building Marxist parties and the Fourth International. On 18 March 1939 he wrote to Trotsky: “One must abandon the idea of Bolshevist-Leninist hegemony in the left-wing workers’ movement and create an international alliance, which would reflect the real ideological tendencies of the most advanced sections of the working class” (Weissman 2001: 232). In the Memoirs, Serge (2012: 406) described the Fourth International as a “feeble and sectarian movement”, adding that “the very idea of starting an International at the moment when all international Socialist organisations were dying, when reaction was in full flood, and without support of any kind, seemed quite senseless to me”. The best of the Trotskyists had of course worked within other workers’ organisations, held debates openly in their press and advocated the united front. What Serge missed was that to render such matters strategic and coherent, an organised party both internationally and nationally is absolutely irreplaceable.

Serge (2012: 407-08) was mistaken when he wrote of Trotskyists that “in the hearts of the persecuted I encountered the same attitudes as in their persecutors”. Whatever the machinations within small groups of Trotskyists in the 1930s and 1940s, the scale was in no way comparable to the ideological perversion and physical liquidation carried out by the Stalinists. Serge was more accurate when he came to the conclusion that Trotskyism simultaneously contained two opposed lines of significance: “resistance to totalitarianism” and the “defence of doctrinal orthodoxy”. The former was essential and while the latter was important, it would become dogmatism in changed circumstances, when post-Trotsky Trotskyists would stick to the letter of Trotsky, instead of applying his method to new realities. It is ironic that Serge has long been promoted by the British SWP and its forerunners, who have failed to exhibit any of his libertarianism nor his willingness to engage with democratic debate, either more widely with other Marxists or even within their own shrivelled organisation.

Victor Serge remains an important figure in the Marxist tradition. He died unbowed by the terrible experience of defeat that our movement inflicted by Stalinism and to his immense credit, he spoke out against Stalinism with great courage at the height of its power. He gave no succour to cold war liberalism either. His ecumenical leftism meant he listened and learned from other tendencies within the working class, including anarchists and social democrats. His lifetime of activity, his writing and his integrity make him one of the great working class revolutionaries of his age.

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