At Liberation’s Heart: A (Self) Portrait of Victor Serge

“I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries and written twenty Business Relationships. I own nothing . . . . Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness..” 1 – Victor Serge

Victor Serge, arrested in France, 1912Victor Serge,, 1912From the beginning of recorded time, there has been no society whose government was not considered to be part of a divine or natural order. Every ruler’s power was believed to have some kind of spiritual or divine origin. Though this outlook was undermined from the English Revolution onward, it was not decisively overcome until revolutions swept Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century and ended the reign of kings.

Victor Serge, a life-long revolutionary, was born Victor Kibalchich in Belgium in 1890. His parents were impoverished Russian dissidents, always reading, always agitating, always on the move. He inherited the intellectual traditions and commitments of those who sought liberation by political change. He was self-educated, worked as a typesetter, editor, and later writer, and began his career as a revolutionary by participating in workers’ demonstrations in Brussels, France, and Paris. He was a participant in many of the revolutions in Europe. He was also the lasting voice of their experience. For him, words were not abstract but conveyed the tangible reality of suffering and hope:

For me, learning was not something separate from life, it was life itself. The mysterious relationship between life and death became clear through the very un-mysterious importance of worldly goods. The words ‘bread’, ‘hunger’, ‘money’, ‘no money’, ‘credit’, rent’, ‘landlord’ held in my mind a crudely concrete meaning.2

Nor were Serge’s ideals abstract. They were a direct expression of his experience. As he discovered in the three years he was in prison under sentence of death:

We never live only by our own efforts, we never live only for ourselves; our most personal thinking is connected by a thousand links with that of the world. You never depend only on yourself, you never live only for yourself, and you have to realize that our most personal thought, that we most own, is bound by a thousand bonds to that of the world. And he who speaks, he who writes is essentially writing for all those who are voiceless.3

This outlook sustained Serge as he and millions of others, gave their lives to establish the first human-made utopia, free of hierarchical oppression and inequalities of every kind, made exclusively by all men and women for the benefit of all humanity without reference to spiritual or natural powers.

When released from prison in France, Serge went to Spain, took part in the Barcelona general strike, and was again arrested and imprisoned as he passed through France in 1916 en route to Russia and again imprisoned, this time without trial. In 1919, he finally reached Russia, the location of the most significant and successful revolution in the world.

In Petrograd, we expected to breathe the air of a liberty that would doubtless be harsh and even cruel to its enemies, but still generous and bracing. But on arriving we read a sign saying: “We are the dictatorship of the proletariat . . . we will not allow anyone that false democratic liberties demanded by the counter-revolution. We tried to justify this by the state of siege and the mortal peril; (but even this) could not justify acts of violence towards men and ideas and the extinction of all freedom.”4

Nonetheless, Serge soon found work in publishing and then within a year was participating in fighting against the White armies in the defense of Petrograd. As he recalled:

“I spent my nights with the Communist troops in the outer defenses. My wife, who was pregnant, resorted to sleeping in an ambulance in the rear with a case holding a little linen and our most precious possessions, so that we might be reunited during the battle and fight together in the retreat along the Neva River.”5

The Soviets were finally victorious in October, 1919. Serge’s fellow soldier and co-worker in establishing the Comintern Press service, Vladimir Mazin-Lichtenstadts’ last message reached him after the battle: “It said: ‘He who sends men to their deaths must see that he himself gets killed’ . . . . [He had been killed in the battle, and Serge remembered] “what Mazin said in the worst days of our famine when we saw old folk collapsing in the street, some holding out a little tin saucepan in their emaciated finger: ‘All the same,’ he told me, ‘we are the greatest power in the world. Alone we are bringing the world a new principle of justice and the rational organization of work. Alone, in all this war-sick Europe, where nobody wants to fight any more, we are able . . . to wage wars that are truly just’.”6

Serge named his son Vladimir after Mazin. Mazin, Serge and so many others felt, for the first time, men and women were explicitly forging their own world and their own history. They believed that they would no longer be subject to the inner and outer dictates of nature and convention.

As the Communist Party put it, they were creating a “new man”. The goal of the revolution became not just to achieve certain social objectives, but to realize a new level of human transformation. The purpose was not just to produce a utopia but to produce, as well, a human being purified of all the kinds of egotism that had existed in earlier human history. The Russian (as similarly the German, the Italian and later the Chinese and Cambodian) people were to become new kinds of humans in a new kind of society. This was to be accomplished according to goals and logic determined by and for human beings. Truly, in all the world’s history, nothing like this had ever happened. It was a completely new situation. There was no history to consult. People could not absorb what was happening, even as they were caught up by the state and consumed utterly.

Serge, however, saw the darker side and its implications:

The Russian Revolution, the only one that had succeeded, had suffered too much famine, waged too much terror, and strangled too much freedom in its early years . . . . Scapegoats had to be found. Out of defeat came the lying, the suppression, the demoralizing discipline that ruins consciences. Nobody talked about the basic fault. The whole Party lived on the involuntary bluff of functionaries whose first concern was not to contradict their superiors . . . . Misinformation ascended stage by stage through the whole hierarchy . . . . ‘We are prepared,’ each told the one above though nothing was prepared. . .7

Serge himself soon found himself surrounded by informers, murderers and those soon to be their victims.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary “The truth was [by 1920] that emergent totalitarianism [Serge was the first to characterize the Soviet state with this word.] had already gone half-way to crushing us . . . . What with the political monopoly [of the Bolsheviks], the Cheka [the secret police] and the Red Army, all that now existed of the ‘Commune-state’ of our dreams was a theoretical myth. The war, the internal measures against counter-revolution, and the famine had killed off Soviet democracy.”8 The growing intensity of state persecutions led Serge to get assigned to work in Germany as part of the Communist effort to establish a socialist government there and end the threat of fascism. He worked in Germany and Austria from 1922 to 1926, but, after the failures to defeat fascism there, returned to Russia, and went back to work at Comintern.

In Russia as elsewhere, utopian/revolutionary societies, in the name of the purity of their visionary mission, almost immediately began to eradicate vast numbers of their own citizens. Every such revolution, communist or fascist, established a large secret police apparatus to root out the corruption of the party in power’s radical goals. The first to be destroyed were, almost always, the earliest of the party’s warriors. In the end, millions upon millions would be imprisoned and destroyed as a totalitarian police state emerged. Serge saw all this clearly, even as his commitment to relieving the hardship of workers and creating a society based on freedom and equality never wavered even slightly.

Serge remained a useful writer for the government, but had been a political outsider for a long time. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928. This meant he no longer had access to state services including food stores, residence permits, transportation, clothing. He could therefore barely manage to provide for his family and himself. This was a huge change in his existence; as he explained: “These constituted five years of resistance waged by a solitary man — surrounded by his family, that is to say by weak creatures, against the relentless, overwhelming pressure of a totalitarian system.” And this suffering was intensified by Serge’s inner isolation. “Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached. As for the idea . . . that a new despotic state had emerged from our own hands to crush us and reduce the country to absolute silence — nobody . . . was willing to admit it.”9

In 1933, Serge was arrested and with his family was exiled to the prison-town of Orenburg in the Urals. From there he could see what was happening:

The persecution went on for years, inescapable and driving people crazy. Every few months the system devoured a new class of victim. Once they ran out of Trotskyites, they turned on the kulaks; then it was the technicians, the former bourgeois, merchants and officers deprived of the useless right to vote; then it was the priests and believers, then the Right Opposition . . . The GPU [secret police] next proceeded to extort gold and jewels, not balking at the use of torture. I saw it. These political and psychological diversions were necessary because of the terrible poverty. Destitution was the driving force.10

“In this atmosphere, my wife lost her reason . . . She pushed back a cup of tea with revulsion — ‘Don’t drink it. It’s poison.’ I managed to get her admitted to an excellent clinic, but it was full of GPU people curing their own nervous difficulties by exchanging secrets.”11

At this time, Serge turned to writing a number of novels that, for a long time, he kept secret. Fiction, he felt, gave him the opportunity to look deeper into the hearts of people he had encountered on the path of revolution and to articulate subtleties of their inner life in a way simple history could not. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, he explored the lives of men and women caught up in the show trials of the great purges. Here one character explains the horrifying false confessions of his former colleagues:

Old Bolsheviks were imbued with party fanaticism and Soviet patriotism to such a degree that it made them able to undergo the worst tortures without a possibility of betraying the Party. Their very confessions attested to their innocence. The vast majority of Bolsheviks allowed themselves to be shot at night, refusing to play the sordid game of confessions of political complicity. A few walked to their death while mutilating their consciences so as to go on serving the Party. . . . If there were conspiratorial plots here and there, they were hatched to the GPU itself . . . . Once the first Bolsheviks were assassinated, the rest had to be assassinated too since they were witnesses who would never be forgiven. . . . It was impossible for people outside this system to understand that revolutions and totalitarian systems create a quite different sort of individual conscience.12

They believe that they are still serving Socialism. Some of them hope that they will be allowed to live. They have been tortured . . . . No, they are not cowards . . . . They are true, that is, still true to the Party, and there is no more party, there are only inquisitors, executioners, criminals . . . . They assure themselves that it is better to die dishonored, murdered by the chief [Stalin] than to denounce him to the international bourgeoisie.13

Serge and his son were lucky to escape with their lives. The fame of his writings in France caused leftist intellectuals, Gide and Malraux among them, to protest his imprisonment. He was sent to Belgium. In Brussels, he found a different world. “All those blazing ideas, all those struggles, all the bloodshed, wars, revolutions, civil wars, all our imprisoned martyrs — and all the time in the West, here nothing was changing, and the tasty rice tarts in the baker’s window told of the drowsy permanence of things.”14

But for Serge, Europe was now far less safe than it had been. Stalin’s grip in Russia was absolute and Serge was increasingly surrounded by secret agents and treacherous former friends who were eager to betray him and have him killed. In his extraordinary last novel, Unforgiving Years, he described the feelings of a former communist agent whom his former comrades had turned against.

Everything is falling away from me, everything: the commanding ideas, the Party, the State, the new world under construction, the hard struggles of men and women caught … like soldiers on the front line under fire, taking shelter in the trenches, stubborn and exhausted, at war despite themselves for the sake of hope. And the hope betrayed!15

It is hard not to recognize some great inner despair here, but Serge never expressed this publicly in anything but his fiction. He believed that all men and women should live free of oppression, and no matter the corruption of one or another manifestation of efforts to reach that goal, he never gave up.

Serge left France as the Nazis entered. His mood was almost cheerful:

Our flight is accompanied by a sense of release bordering at time on gaiety. . . . Now it is all over: the rotten tooth has been pulled out, the leap into the unknown has been made. It will be black and terrible, but those who survive will see a new world born. . . . All at once, I re-experience the deepest and most invigorating feeling of my childhood . . . . I grew up among Russian revolutionary exiles who knew that the Revolution was advancing towards them, inexorable out of the depths of the future. In simple words, they taught me to have faith in mankind and to wait steadfastly for the necessary cataclysms.16

Serge was again fortunate. Friends helped him and his son to obtain a visa to Mexico and to find a place with his son on the very last ship to leave Marseilles for the Americas. As ever, utopian ideologies and their disappointing toxicity were not at the heart of what concerned him. As he wrote:

I examined the problem of life and death. I considered the mystery of an individual’s life which emerges out of the great collective life and seems to disappear and perhaps does disappear while life goes on endlessly renewing itself, perhaps eternally. I had the feeling, and still do, of having come to a vision of these things that is nearly inexpressible in philosophical terms, yet right, immense, and reassuring.17

Victor Serge lived in Mexico in great poverty but relative peace. He was sustained by the generosity of friends and occasional writing jobs. He was able to complete one of his most celebrated works, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. In 1947, as he was going to meet his son, Victor Serge, a man who never a true home in this world, died in the back seat of a taxi cab.

Notes

1. Serge, Victor. Conquered City. Translated by Richard Greeman. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1975. Back cover.

2. Serge, Victor. Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Translated by Peter Sedgwick & George Paizas. New YorK: New York Review Books, 2002. p. 1

3. Ibid p. 53

4. Ibid pp. 82-3

5. Ibid pp. 107

6. Ibid pp. 111-112

7. Ibid pp 203-204

8. Ibid pp.255

9. Ibid pp. 283-4

10. Ibid p. 320

11. Ibid p 321

12. Ibid pp387-389

13. Serge, Victor. The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Translated by Willard Trask. New York: New York Review Books. p.71

14. Memoirs, p. 378

15. Serge, Victor. Unforgiving Years. Translated by Richard Greeman. New York: New York Review Books, 2008. p. 17.

16. Memoirs, p.306

17. Ibid. p.341

About Douglas Penick

Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), and about spiritual searches amid social collapse (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. Shorter works have appeared in Agni, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Levekunst, Utne Reader, Tricycle, and elsewhere. His website is DouglasPenick.com.

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