Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (NYRB 2012) left me with the strong urge to write. Indeed among its strongest implicit lessons is that writing is a moral and political task. In the final, hurried chapter Serge defines “intellectual work” as “understanding and expression” (437)—the clarity and force of this makes me think it must be a well-worn line drawn from some classic author unknown to me. It’s an excellent, if capacious, definition. Here, in any case, are some extremely disorganized reactions to this extraordinary book.
Serge tells his own story from when he was a boy in Belgium in the pre-war years, up to his arrival in Mexico from Vichy. His memory is almost incredibly prodigious. How can he recount all these things, all these names, with such confidence? Doubtless he make some mistakes, but perhaps we can say this is what you get when you combine a novelist’s eye for detail and character with the time to think that prison can give a person, and with the necessity, born of political chaos and danger, of carrying everything in your head. And in any case, especially once the narrative arrives in Russia, there is a clear work of memory or witness going on. Serge has known many extraordinary people, almost all of them on one loosing side or another. The Old Bolsheviks he knew, in particular, were actively erased from history. Not even history will be safe if we loose (or, rather, if they win). Indeed.
I picked this book up almost by chance. The milieu of Serge’s early life, French-language radical and anarchist, is one I know a little. And it is a compelling read. Serge’s family background—Russian and very political—profoundly shaped his engagement with French and Belgian milieu, of course, but the language of pure revolt, the instinct, the vital necessity of revolt, this is all familiar. And it seems to me that Serge never gives up certain aspects of this early world. For instance an almost biological approach to revolutionary possibility matched with a capacious and idealistic humanism. And he seems to have been an unusually acute participant-observer of the revolutionary years in Russia. I hedge here only because I feel myself radically unequipped to pass judgment on his judgments.
The central question, for Serge at least, in writing about 1917-20 is, what went wrong? His answer, at bottom, is simple: the Cheka. Serge recognized the political realities of the civil war, the necessity for rapid, summary justice in certain cases. In places he suggests that the Cheka had from very early on de facto independence, was essentially uncheckable by the political authorities, even when they sought to do so. Thus when the central committee decides to end capital punishment for political crimes, the Checka ‘liquidates their stock’ just before the new policy comes into effect, and this without repercussion. This interacts with other explanations, of course. Serge suggests for instance that if the Red Army had taken Warsaw in 1920 (126ff), then the domestic situation might have been quite different. But other conjunctural and psychological explanations for the Bolshevik choice for Terror are also offered. My own preference is usually for institutional or meso-level explanations for this sort of thing.
In any case, life and death, critical intelligence and fatal necessity, are at war everywhere in the Memoire (and these are basically 19th century categories). For instance there is the (to me) surprising question of suicide, which returns at many points in the narrative. Does a Bolshevik have the right to take her or his own life? Does this not belong to the party? Is it not for the Party to decide when your usefulness has ceased? And then during the discussion the Moscow trials, we get the chilling line: “In any case, it was not a matter of persuasion: it was, fundamentally, a matter of murder” (394). But can this be entirely right? What about the spectacle of it all? Without claiming to understand better than Serge, it is nonetheless possible to say that, writing in 1940, the Terror of the late 1930s did not make sense to him (although perhaps it is only to me that it does not make sense?). It could not be explained in the way that some earlier episodes of terror could be. Even much of the systemic violence of these years, the destructive, criminal, inefficiencies of agricultural collectivization, this can be rationally understood on the basis of the relative powers and incentives of the various actors. How Stalin’s bureaucracy could fool itself at the expense of the peasant makes sense. But the Terror? Perhaps not. Interestingly, one line of analysis that he does not seem to pursue is the pathological-Stalin line. Neither the Terror nor anything else is laid entirely at Stalin’s door.
The critical intelligence, the free individual, has political prediction as one great and dangerous task. Many of Serge’s predictions seemed uncannily accurate. Almost untrustworthily so. Indeed some lines are very remarkable for being written in the early 1940s. For instance, “the most atrocious and tragic crime of our age: the extermination by the Nazis of the Jews of occupied Europe. Nothing at the present can measure the political, social, and psychological consequences of this crime. Even the idea of the human, acquired over thousands of years of civilization, has been put in question” (444). Also from late in the book, I was surprised to see a reference to Walter Benjamin’s suicide (and that he is described as a “poet” (427). In any case, the point for me is that Serge’s clairvoyance has very little or nothing at all to do with any reading of Marx he has done. Of course this vocabulary is important for him, and he is perfectly capable of class analysis when it is useful, but his background is anarchist and his politics are left-Bolshevik. And here I’m thinking less of the—in themselves very interesting—remarks at the end of the book, for instance the struggle with pessimistic conclusions about the value, never mind utility, of critical intelligence, but of the actual substance of his life as he recounts it.
This is the kind of book I want others to read and think about. I’m not sure that I would assign it to undergraduates—although perhaps it would be possible to excise a really useful 15 pages from it on the early Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. Serge as a character is on the one hand appealing—intelligent, human, strong-willed in the best possible way. And on the other hand, one wonders. I had to consult the notes before I realized that he’d had three wives—this is how little a part they play in the narrative. At least one is also from, as it were, radical stock, but it’s still difficult to read about the in-laws being made to suffer for the sins of the son-in-law. Serge’s son is a much more fully-drawn character than anyone else in the narrative, certainly than the various wives. But this moral problem—the commitment to uncompromising truth versus the obligation to family—is not something Serge is willing to entertain. Nor indeed could he possibly have done for very long in his own life without wavering much more than he did. Nor are all of his political formulations ones it would be easy to accept today, for instance he is very, it seems to me oddly, aware of who looks Jewish.
Finally, a missed connection, unusual for someone like Serge who seems to have met practically every consequential person in his vicinity. For me one of the only really sour notes in the text was near the end, when he arrives in Martinique and finds “childlike Negroes” who are a “people...still in their infancy” and so unlikely to overthrow the “diluted form of slavery” that Serge quite rightly recognizes there (430). Serge knew André Breton quite well, and stayed with him in Marseilles waiting to get across the Atlantic. Breton does not seem to have been on the boat that took Serge to Martinique (unless I misremember). But Breton came to Martinique in the same period, and there seems to have wandered into a bookshop run by Aimé Césaire and his circle, where he picked up Tropiques and, looking through this locally-printed journal, declared it excellent. This was an important encounter because useful for Césaire and others. I wonder if Serge came into the same bookshop? The margins of empire and the gutters of war indeed.