Witness

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 Brussels because “my parents, in quest of their daily bread and of good libraries, were commuting between London (the British Museum), Paris, Switzerland, and Belgium.” His upbringing insured that he would be a rebel and outsider from early youth: “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged. The conversations of grown-ups dealt with trials, executions, escapes, and Siberian highways, with great ideas incessantly argued over, and with the latest books about those ideas.” It was a hard life; his eight-year-old brother starved to death.

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 twenty he began editing an anarchist newspaper in Paris. When a group of anarchist acquaintances staged a robbery and were caught, Serge was arrested, framed, and sentenced to five years of solitary confinement. On his release he traveled to Barcelona, where an unsuccessful anarchist uprising was in preparation, after which he was again arrested. Serge’s early chapters on the pre–World War I European ultra-left milieu and French and Spanish prison camps are, like the rest of the book, wonderfully vivid, but they also have a charm and occasional lightness that the later chapters, more sublime but shadowed by the darkness of the Russian years, lack.

At the end of the war Serge was transferred to France and, along with some other political prisoners, sent to newly revolutionary Russia in exchange for captured French military officers. He arrived in 1919, during the Civil War. With the monarchist and aristocratic officer corps—supplied and reinforced by the British, French, and American governments—attacking on several fronts and the peasantry torn between promises of land and residual loyalties to the old regime and the church, the Bolsheviks’ survival was in grave doubt. Serge threw himself into the battle for Petrograd, for several months on the verge of being conquered by White (i.e., counter-revolutionary) forces. Besides helping organize the defense of the city (an experience depicted in one of his several superb novels, Conquered City), he acted as a liaison to European parties and publications and also took charge of the archives of the Tsarist secret police, which lent extra authority and keenness of perception to his subsequent analysis of the role of police repression in the history of Bolshevism.

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 Western Europe. There was plenty of working-class discontent in those countries, and the Russians brought the leadership of foreign revolutionary movements to Moscow for encouragement and advice. Serge was squarely in the middle of this intense activity, both in Moscow and in Berlin, where he worked in the Communist underground. His magnanimous but unsparing portraits of the European revolutionary leadership and intelligentsia, including Gramsci, Lukacs, Souvarine, and Andres Nin, as well as old Bolsheviks such as Trotsky and Radek and Russian writers like Gorky and Yesenin, are a large and unforgettable part of the Memoirs.

Revolution failed everywhere, most crucially and disappointingly in Germany. The Soviet Union was isolated—encircled—and the results were catastrophic: a desperate obsession among the leadership with party unity, internal security, and rapid military and economic (in practice, heavy-industrial) development. And by the late 1920s, ten years after the Revolution, the leadership was…Stalin.

The descent of the Stalinist darkness on the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement has been described many times, but rarely, perhaps never, with such intimate knowledge and moral discrimination as in Serge’s memoirs and novels. Serge the novelist is as lyrical as Pasternak, as shrewd as Koestler, as humane as Silone. The Case of Comrade Tulayev—written, like most of Serge’s novels, at odd moments, with only remote prospects of publication—is one of the best novels about Stalinism, and indeed one of the best political novels of the twentieth century. The murder of a Communist Party official, in reality a random act of street violence, metastasizes in the imagination of the secret police into an elaborate treasonous conspiracy. Figures of every stature, lofty, middling, and insignificant, all innocent and most of them fervently loyal, are swept into the investigation’s maw, while the investigators and their bureaucratic superiors are, without exception, of a chilling mediocrity and cynicism. There is even a scene with Stalin himself, which manages the extraordinary—but for Serge, characteristic—feat of rendering the dictator’s ordinary, even impressive, qualities without lessening our horror.

Progressively disillusioned, Serge led the twilight existence of an Oppositionist for several years—still inside the party, but mistrusted and mistrustful. His wife’s family was persecuted, partly on his account. After she went mad, he was left to care for their young son. A little later he was expelled from the party. Finally, inevitably, came his arrest. As usual in such cases, he was 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 refused. He was 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) were a lively bunch, though there were no jobs and hunger was incessant. In the section about this period, as elsewhere in the book, Serge frequently ends a paragraph with a terse résumé 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. Living first in Belgium, then in France, closely watched by the government, slandered by the Communists, admired by a few free spirits like George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, Serge tried throughout the late ’30s simultaneously to defend what the Revolution had started out to be and to criticize what it had become. When France fell to the Nazis, his life was in danger. So dangerous a radical naturally could not be admitted to the United States, so he spent his last years in Mexico, impoverished and isolated, writing his marvelous final novel, Unforgiving Years, and this imperishable memoir.

Two passages, one early in the Memoirs and one late, give us a sense of the man. In 1917, just released from a French prison, he arrives in Barcelona.

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.

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.... 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

With forbearance.

When—if—that time comes at last, few of those born earlier will be remembered with more forbearance, even love, than Victor Serge.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 
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George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His most recent books are Slouching Toward Utopia and How To Be Depressed.

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