Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901–1941: Victor Serge. Translated and edited by Peter Sedgwick. Oxford University Press. 42s., 401 pp.

Victor Serge’s personality and life were typical in an extreme way, almost improbably so. From the middle of the last century onwards the Russian revolutionary movement produced a great many men who spent a considerable part of their lives as exiles abroad, as deportees in Siberia, as prison-inmates. Their ideas and personalities differed in many ways, but one thing they had in common: to be true to themselves was for most of them an obligation. They despised those personal advantages which are gained by accommodation to the existing order.

Serge is a personification par excellence of this attitude and of the fate that followed from it. He was born in Western Europe, the son of a Russian émigré. As a very young man he spent five years in a French prison for his participation in the activities of an anarchist group. He went to Russia in 1919, and later, after 1922 he worked for the Comintern in Germany and Austria. In 1926 he returned to the Soviet Union, and—as he belonged to the Trotskyist Opposition—became more and more isolated. In 1933 he was deported to Orenburg; a campaign in France organized on his behalf saved him from prison and death. In 1936 his captivity ended and he was banished from the Soviet Union. But in the West too he was isolated, was incapable of conforming. He did not become a professional anti-communist of the Arthur Koestler kind. Neither was he in agreement with the Fourth International. He died in Mexico in 1947. Peter Sedgwick, in his introduction, writes of his death: “Doubtless feeling himself ill, Serge hailed a taxi, sank back into the seat, and died without telling the driver where to take him. His family found him stretched out on an old operating-table in a dirty room inside a police-station. Gorkin recounts what he looked like: his upturned soles had holes in them, his suit was threadbare, his shirt coarse. Really he might have been some vagabond or other picked up from the streets. Victor Serge’s face was stiffened in an expression of ironic protest and, by means of a bandage of cloth, the State had at last closed his mouth.” One cannot help thinking of the lines of Brecht:

“Gingen wir doch, öfterr als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd,
durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt,
wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung.”

It is not so much Serge’s theoretical views that are significant, as his personality. Writing of his early years in Paris, he says: “Of Marx I knew practically nothing”, and although he obviously did study Marxism in his later years, theoretical thinking hardly played an important part in his life. If anybody, he certainly can be termed a “revolutionary romantic”.

The chief attraction of his person lay in the fact that he was such a sincere and unequivocal representative of this type. Modern bourgeois society has produced two extremes; to use Goethe’s words, the “Kenner” and the “Enthusiast”. The extremes of professionalism and amateurism, or political romanticism and realpolitik, have also dominated the revolutionary movement: it too has had its characteristic romantics and its bureaucrats. There is no easy way to liquidate this schizophrenic split between objectivity and subjectivity, when an active revolutionary mass movement is lacking. Only a few could escape this alienation ; of these, Lenin was the greatest example in our century.

Of course, profound historical understanding and real revolutionary activity are impossible within the terms of bureaucratism or romanticism. One of the main hypocrisies of Stalinism was the creation of a system in which bureaucrats posed as revolutionary romantics, and employed romantics, who for their part posed as theorists. (The ideological amalgam of Stalinism combined the vulgarized Marxism of the German Social Democrats with the romanticism of the Russian narodniki.) Serge’s diametrical antiposition to this hypocrisy makes him—in a certain social and anthropological sense—the “anti-stalinist” par excellence. The monstrosity of Stalinism—and at the same time its positive historical significance in a certain period—lay in its formally conservative nature: Stalinist “centrism”—as opposed to Trotskyist “leftism” and Bukharinist “rightism”—was concerned with the conservation of Party and Power; principles and human beings were regarded as of secondary importance. Serge’s outlook was just the opposite. His absolute, emotional opposition to Stalinism produced an understanding which was most remarkable as a corrective (it was certainly not in itself sufficient to provide a historical interpretation).