September 14, 2012
Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge. Translated by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis. Foreword by Adam Hochschild. 521 pages, $17.95.
A stanza from Bertolt Brecht's poem "To Those Born Later" might have served as an epigraph for Victor Serge's memoir:
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Which had been given me on earth.
Victor Kibalchich ("Serge" was a nom de guerre) was born in 1890 to Russian revolutionary exiles, in
Like other young rebels (I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersh, for example), Serge left school early and hung about on the fringes of journalism. At 20 he began editing an anarchist newspaper in
At the end of the war Serge was transferred to
After the Reds' narrow victory, Serge worked under Zinoviev in the Communist International. The Bolsheviks knew that their hold on power was precarious and believed that the survival of the Revolution depended on successful workers' uprisings in Central and
Revolution failed everywhere, most crucially and disappointingly in
The descent of the Stalinist darkness on the
Progressively disillusioned, Serge leads for several years the twilight existence of an Oppositionist: still inside the Party, but mistrusted and mistrustful. His wife's family is persecuted, partly on his account; she goes mad, and he is left to care for their young son. He is expelled from the Party. Finally, inevitably, comes his arrest. As usual in such cases, he is presented with fantastic allegations and pressured to confess to at least some of them, for his own good and the good of the Party. Unlike most people in his position, he categorically refuses. He is exiled anyway, to a town in the Urals.
His fellow exiles (portrayed in Serge's novel Midnight in the Century, as well as in the Memoirs) are a lively bunch, though there are no jobs and hunger is incessant. Here and elsewhere in the book, Serge frequently ends a paragraph with a terse resumé of the subject's eventual fate: "Stetsky disappeared into jail in 1938." "Lominadze will kill himself around 1935; Yan Sten, classed as a 'terrorist,' will be shot around 1937." Very effectively, these individual death knells toll the death of the Revolution as well.
In the mid-1930s, Stalin was courting French intellectuals as part of his Popular Front strategy. Some of Serge's novels and essays had been published in France, so André Gide, Romain Rolland, and others succeeded in winning his release, or rather expulsion. Throughout the late '30s, first in
Two passages, one early in the Memoirs and one late, give one a sense of the man. In 1917, just released from a French prison, he arrives in
The treadmill that crushed human beings still revolved inside me. I found no happiness in awakening to life, free and privileged alone among my conscript generation, in this contented city. I felt a vague compunction at it all. Why was I there, in these cafés, on these golden sands, while so many others were bleeding in the trenches of a whole continent? Why was I excluded from the common fate? I came across deserters who were happy to be beyond the frontier, safe at last. I admitted their right to safety, but inwardly I was horrified at the idea that people could fight so fiercely for their own lives when what was at stake was the life of everyone: a limitless suffering to be endured commonly, shared and drunk to the last drop. ... I worked in print shops, went to bullfights, resumed my reading, clambered up mountains, dallied in cafés to watch Castilian, Sevillan, Andalusian, or Catalan girls at their dancing, and I felt that it would be impossible for me to live like this. All I could think of was the men at war, who kept calling to me.
Twenty-five years later, he looks back over a life of exhilarating struggle and betrayed hopes.
The only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles that tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity. This conviction has brought me, as it has brought others, to a somewhat unusual destiny. But we were, and still are, in line with the development of history, and it is now obvious that, during an entire epoch, millions of individual destinies will follow the paths along which we were the first to travel. In Europe, in Asia, in America, whole generations are in upheaval, are ... [learning] that the egoism of "every man for himself" is finished, that private enrichment is no fit aim for life, that yesterday's conservatisms lead to nothing but catastrophe, and sensing the necessity for a fresh outlook tending towards the reorganization of the world.
It was never "obvious"; and seventy years later, with plutocracy triumphant nearly everywhere, it is less obvious than ever. Still, this testimony from someone who, like few others in the twentieth century, never sacrificed either liberty or solidarity deserves profound respect.
Brecht's great poem concludes:
But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man,
Think of us
When - if - that time comes at last, few of those born earlier will be remembered with more forbearance, even love, than Victor Serge.