THE IDEAS OF VICTOR SERGE: a Life as a Work of Art
Edited by Susan Weissman
SECTION 1: TESTIMONIALS
Jeannine Kibalchich : My Father
Vlady Kibalchich : His Life as a Work of Art
John Eden : The Search for Victor Serge
Wilebaldo Solano : Our POUM Comrade
SECTION 2: LITERARY CRITICISM
Richard Greeman : The Novel of the Revolution
Neal Cornwell : The Russian Novels
Ian Birchall : Proletarian Culture
Alan Wald : Victor Serge and the New York Anti-Stalinist Left
SECTION 3: THE POLITICAL IDEAS AND PRAXIS OF VICTOR SERGE
Luc Nemeth : On Anarchism
Phil Spencer : On the Leninist Tradition
Guy Desolre : On Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International
Peter Sedgewick : On Socialism
Susan Weissman : On Stalinism
SECTION 4: SERGE'S WRITINGS
John Manson : The Carnets
Victor Serge : Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution
This Critique book began as both a celebration of Victor Serge's life and a critical look into his thought, one hundred years after his birth. Not surprisingly for one from the defeated side, material on Serge has been meager, such that nearly every article or introduction written about him begins by lamenting how neglected he has been, despite his enormous literary and political legacy. Every writer once again outlines the sketch of Serge's biography in case the reader has never encountered this profoundly poetic participant in the century's most significant struggles. History is unkind to the losing side in momentous battles. This is nowhere more true than in the former Soviet Union, where the vanquished were not only buried but erased. Like the famous photograph in which Trotsky is airbrushed off the platform with Lenin, the writings of Trotsky, Serge and others of the Left Opposition were largely unknown and considered dangerous until recently.
Victor Serge (1890-1947) is perhaps unique within the tradition of Russian revolutionaries whose lives were shaped by the particularities of the development of the Russian revolution. Serge, to begin with, didn't see his homeland until he was a twenty-eight year old seasoned revolutionary anarcho-Bolshevik. His experience included participation in the failed Spanish insurrection of 1917 and two prison terms lasting nearly seven years. Serge stands out in a tradition of singularly talented theoreticians, propagandists, activists, and orators because of his multiple talents. Identified as the historian of the Left Opposition (1), journalist of the revolution (2) and novelist of the revolution (3) it is immediately apparent that Victor Serge wore many hats. He utilized diverse forms to express his view of the nature of the social, political and economic system established in the thirty years following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Serge was a pamphleteer, historian, novelist, journalist, poet, biographer, and memoirist. He was at once Russian, Belgian, French and Spanish; anarchist, syndicalist, Bolshevik, Left Oppositionist, prisoner and refugee.
Throughout the darkest decades of the twentieth century, Serge retained his optimism and dignity, his conviction that human destiny would brighten, and that socialism would triumph. He remained an unrepentant revolutionary Marxist, following the tradition begun by Marx and continued by Trotsky. Yet he was unorthodox enough to see early on that the revolution was producing an emergent totalitarianism, and that guaranteeing individual liberty was a primary task in a collectivist society. In practice, for Serge, that meant following Rosa Luxemburg's position, that liberty is tested above all when it is secured for one's enemies.
There is no Sergism. All the contributors to this volume are enthusiastic about Serge's thought and his writings, but there is no recognized theoretical tradition within the left identified as Sergism. The breadth of Serge's life work lends itself to diverse strands within the critical antiStalinist left. His attraction and his contribution are appealing because Serge never compromised his commitment to the creation of a social order that would enhance human dignity, reject privilege, defend freedom of thought and improve man's condition. In short he wanted the broadest democracy possible, socialism. He held to his values and openly criticized his present and former comrades who reneged on their vision. In this Serge remained consistent his entire life. If that weren't enough, he left a treasury of writings which express these thoughts and traditions in vivid, expressive and even inspirational prose.
This is the first anthology of critical essays on Serge to be published in the English language. In less than a decade several of his novels have been published in Russia, and new editions of Serge 's The Case of Comrade Tulaev (Journeyman Press), Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks, Pluto, Writers & Readers), and Russia Twenty Years After (edited and introduced by Susan Weissman, Humanities Press, 1996) have appeared in English. Bill Marshall's Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent (Berg) was published in 1991 and Susan Weissman's Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope will be published by Verso shortly. With this volume, Critique joins and advances the discussion opened by the publication in English of Serge and Trotsky's correspondence, edited by David Cotterill (4), and the Autumn 1994 issue of Revolutionary History which featured Serge's political booklets on Lenin, the Chinese Revolution, and planning and democracy. (5) The debate on Serge's revolutionary contribution is now well on its way, and we hope it will continue. While Serge's writings and practice spanned the first half of the twentieth century, we believe his critique and ideas are relevant and timely, and belong in the discussion that is emerging in the post-Soviet period about the future of socialism. The euphoria which greeted the so-called victory of the market has evaporated, and from the funeral pyres of Stalinism and Social Democracy, the appeal of socialism, in deed if not in word, is returning. Workers in Russia, France, even the United States are looking for an alternative to capitalism, however tentatively, one that is nonhierarchical, non-exploitative, non-alienating and allows ordinary working people to be in control of their destiny. It is hoped that these essays, which attest to Serge's honesty, clarity and political engagement may assist this process.
This anthology on Serge begins with three testimonials written for this work. The first two are by Serge's son and daughter, the third, by his comrade from the POUM. Both Serge's children live in Mexico today.
Jeannine Kibalchich's tribute to her father is bittersweet, the product of a child who was deprived too long of parental presence. It is a moving and haunting memorial which gives the reader a glimpse of Serge's ideas translated into personal practice. It also identifies Jeannine Kibalchich as a gifted writer who inherited her father's talent.
Vlady Kibalchich, the renowned Mexican artist and muralist, shared most of Serge's political experiences from internal deportation (in Orenburg) to expulsion to Europe, where they both were on the run from the NKVD and the Gestapo. As a brilliant young Marxist activist, Vlady's relationship with his father had a political as well as a personal dimension. "We lived in the tail of Trotsky's comet," Vlady once said (6), and the relationship he had with his father was akin to the relationship Trotsky had with his son and comrade Lev Sedov. In this short piece Vlady wrote for the inauguration of the Trotsky Museum in Mexico, he views Trotsky's life as a work of art filtered through the lens of Serge's ideas.
John Eden, a British film maker and Serge enthusiast, began work on a documentary film about Serge in 1989. The stated aim of the film, to commemorate the centenary birth of Serge in 1990, was to "celebrate his work as a novelist, poet and historian, and to document the recovery of his novels confiscated by the GPU." A bold undertaking, it took Eden to the United States to meet Serge scholars, to Mexico to meet Vlady, and to the USSR and then Russia to interview Serge's surviving relatives, comrades and friends. Although the film was never funded to completion, Eden was able to further the search for Serge's missing manuscripts, recover his NKVD file from the Orenburg KGB, and turn the house where Serge lived in internal deportation in Orenburg into a Serge Museum. John Eden's contribution to this volume documents this extraordinary journey in search of Victor Serge.
Wilebaldo Solano is a surviving POUMista who remembers Serge's commitment to them during and after the Spanish Civil War. Though he was not in Spain, Serge nevertheless belonged to the POUM, wrote about the Spanish Civil War and worked hard in France to organize solidarity for the revolutionaries in Spain who fought Franco and were stabbed in the back by the Stalinists. Solano's testimony to Serge's influence on the Spanish revolutionary militants and his writings in the wake of the terrible defeat is an important historical document. Solano was greatly influenced by Serge's writings, especially his French prison memoir Men in Prison, which Solano said interpreted his own experience of captivity in Montauban.
The second section of the book contains critical essays on Serge's literary work. Richard Greeman outlines Serge's development as a novelist and situates him within the tradition of the committed revolutionary writer and marks his place in world literature. For Greeman, Serge was the bard of the revolutionary generation whose literary testimony recorded a full epoch of historical struggle. The power of Serge's writing, according to Greeman, is its ability to inspire future generations to take up the struggle for a just world.
Neal Cornwell's brief study of Serge's novels suggests that not only was Serge the bard of the revolutionary generation, he takes his place within the Russian literary tradition and is the closest we can come to glimpsing what Soviet literature might have been like had Stalin not imposed the socialist-realist straitjacket on those writers he allowed to survive.
Ian Birchall defines Serge's contribution to the cultural movement unleashed by the proletarian revolution of 1917 and his assessment of the proletcults. Although the notion of a proletarian culture has been widely debated and criticized, Birchall shows how Serge uniquely understood that its importance was not in the production of sterile doctrines or even mediocre literature, but in cultural practice, in the working class expression of itself, its world and its own historic task. Birchall concludes that Serge's own cultural practice reveals a socialist tradition that is neither Stalinist nor social democratic, a tradition and a debate begging to be renewed.
The literary section closes with a provocative article by literary historian Alan Wald, whose highly regarded study of the New York intellectuals follows the route of former Trotskyists who became right-wing Mensheviks (Cold War liberals) and worse. Looking at Serge's published writings in the forties and his relations with the New York anti-Stalinist left, Wald suggests that Serge was on a similar, though ambiguous trajectory, which Wald characterizes as between a Third camp socialist and a 'non-revolutionary lesser-evilist,' though Serge's allegiance to the ideals of October prevented him from completing the familiar journey.
The third section of this book traces the development of Serge's political practice and views from his early anarchism to his mature reflections on Stalinism. Luc Nemeth traces Serge's "long and difficult evolution from anarchism to Marxism" by examining his relations with the anarchist movement in prewar France, his disappointing experience in the failed Barcelona insurrection of 1917, and his attempts in the USSR to convince the anarchists to support the Bolsheviks, and when they didn't, to intervene on behalf of his persecuted anarchist comrades. Nemeth stresses that Serge's ideas may have changed but his allegiances and personal relations with his former comrades did not. Philip Spencer locates Serge within the revolutionary Leninist tradition which he contends is a broader and richer political current than the caricatures of it. Spencer examines Serge's critical and reflective allegiance to the Leninist Party, and calls Serge a 'libertarian Leninist', arguing that within the Leninist tradition there coexisted radical democrats who resisted totalitarianism, and authoritarian doctrinaire Leninists who accommodated Stalinism. Spencer claims that Serge's Leninism was the more coherent and attractive strand, worth rescuing from the margins of history.
Guy Desolre develops a theme put forward by Luc Nemeth, which stresses the way Serge's concept of loyalty in friendship informed his political practice. Desolre makes use of Michel Lowy's concept of 'elective affinity' to define Serge's fidelity to his friends and the creation of the Sergian milieu. Serge's circle of friends was also his sphere of influence and those within it shared certain political views, including a hostility to entryism. Desolre discusses Serge's relationship with the Fourth International from the first meetings prior to its founding, when Serge represented the Russian section, to his break over what Desolre contends was Serge's total solidarity with the POUM. Desolre infers that Serge's friendships with Andres Nin and Hank Sneevliet influenced his political positions. According to Desolre, even Serge's allegiance to basic Trotskyist tenets was shaky, since Serge considered the question of defence of the USSR unimportant, and did not accept Trotsky's degenerate workers state thesis, though he agreed that a political, not social revolution was necessary. Desolre then examines Serge's relationship with Trotsky through the prism of Serge's political positions and Serge's political milieu of friendships, and concludes that the break between Serge and Trotsky was not due to mere misunderstandings but to political divergences between Trotsky and the Sergeian constellation of solidarity and fraternity.
We include in this volume an article first published in 1963 in International Socialism by Peter Sedgewick, who translated Serge's Year One of the Russian Revolution and his Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Sedgewick also prepared the Serge-Trotsky correspondence for publication but died before seeing it to print. Peter Sedgewick was one of the first and most profound thinkers to recognize Victor Serge's unique contribution to socialism and in this particular article, Sedgewick makes the simple case that Serge was an ethical, principled socialist, worthy of being emulated. Sedgewick makes no attempt to categorize Serge as a 'state capitalist' as Sedgewick himself was, or anything other than an outstanding socialist writer/activist who was neglected and ignored primarily because of his tenacious opposition to the bourgeois order, and his healthy suspicion of political stereotypes. These characteristics made it difficult to identify Serge with one or another political tendency. In fact, Sedgewick antedates and opposes the notion that both Nemeth and Desolre develop of the role Serge's friendships played in the expression of his political ideas. Where Desolre's view that Serge's fidelity to his friends formed his political sphere, Sedgewick makes the point that Serge's associations straddled so much of the political spectrum that Serge was either held in contempt or disregarded altogether. What Sedgewick sees as important in Serge was above all his allegiance to immediate reality and the human conditions behind the political debates. In his activity, like his writings, Serge eschewed narrow sectarian grouplets just as he avoided opportunist careerism; neither principled isolation nor professional political careerism interested him.
Suzi Weissman follows with an analysis of Serge's mature reflections on Stalinism, gleaned from his unpublished work left behind in his Mexican archive. Although Serge was preoccupied with understanding the character of Stalinism, Weissman shows how Serge was equally attempting an analysis of the global conjuncture during and after the Second World War, in a world most of his comrades thought was impossible. The experience of Stalinism and fascism changed everything and Serge feared that a terrible form of authoritarian collectivism was taking hold. Trotsky did not believe that Stalinism could survive the Second World War, but didn't live to see nor understand the contours of a post-war world that included both Stalin and Stalinism. Living at a time when incomprehensible events - the shoah, blood-purges, and atomic bombs - demanded a deeper analysis than was forthcoming from Trotsky's surviving co-thinkers, Serge attempted to theorize the tendencies he perceived as essential to understanding the modern world, from a Marxist standpoint. Would post-war social democratic nationalizations give rise to the same concentrated control of production that created frightful totalitarianisms? Would anti-imperialist struggles lead to the extension of Stalinist and hence anti-socialist societies? Weissman critically examines Serge's perceptions in his final writings, concluding that although he was sometimes wrong, he was engaged in a vital renewal and re-examination of Marxist thought in order to comprehend the transformed global context.
The last section belongs to Serge himself. John Manson's sensitive reading and translation of sections of Serge's diary or Carnets gives English readers a glimpse of the scope and depth of Serge's concerns from 1936-1939, with special emphasis on his thinking in 1944. This volume ends with Serge's last published piece, Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution, written to commemorate and reflect upon what thirty years had wrought. Published in the French review La Revolution Proletarienne in 1947, Serge's retrospective records the ideals of October and the reality of the Stalinist reaction. Serge shows what was attempted and where it went wrong, and manages to conclude on a hopeful note that Serge insisted was realistic.
There is no attempt in this volume to present a single or even unified view of Serge's ideas and political practice. The contributors belong, in some sense, to many of the strands within the non-Stalinist left which formed Serge's own milieu. We hope that the different interpretations of Serge presented here will provoke further examination of both the controversies and ideas which animate the readers' own political praxis.
1: Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: The Course is Set On Hope, Verso, 1996.
2: Ernest Mandel, "Victor Serge, Un Modele de Journalisme Revolutionnaire", Colloque
International: "Victor Serge: Vie et Oeuvre d'un Revolutionnaire", Universite' Libre de Bruxelles,
22 Mars 1991.
3: Richard Oreeman, "Victor Serge and the Revolutionary Novel".
4: David Cottetili, Editor, The Serge-Trotsky Papers, (Pluto 1994).
5: Victor Serge: The Century of the Unexpected, Volume 5, No 3, Revolutionary History, Autumn 1994.
6: Private conversation with Suzi Weissman, Mexico City, May 1987.