The Conscience of a Revolutionary

Notebooks: 1936-1947 (New York Review Books Classics) BY Victor Serge. edited by Claudio Albertani, Claude Rioux, Mitchell Abidor, Richard Greeman. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 672 pages. $24.
The cover of Notebooks: 1936-1947 (New York Review Books Classics)

“I often feel like I’m being suffocated in my magnificent desert.” So wrote Victor Serge to Dwight Macdonald of his exile in Mexico. For Serge, exile was nothing new; he’d been a persecuted militant for most of his life. But his simultaneous opposition to Stalin and refusal to renounce the revolution left him isolated in the stifling hothouse of the country’s left-wing exile community. Macdonald tried to find Serge publishers in the United States, but with little luck. (Of the editors who rejected his manuscripts, Macdonald wrote, “There’s nothing here but cowardice on the part of these sheep.”) Cowardice; it’s a word Serge felt perfectly described many of his fellow exiles. In the collection of his notebooks from Mexico recently published by NYRB Classics, the word shows up more than once. The “cowardice of intellectuals,” as he writes in an entry from 1943, defies reason. Its roots, he decides, are a fear of “taking a firm stand and seeing clearly.” Beneath all their posturing, writes Serge, is a fear of commitment—something from which intellectuals recoil.

By contrast, Serge is all commitment, though of a particular type. He is committed to revolution, of course (Claude Lévi-Strauss, on the boat from France to Mexico with Serge, calls him an “incorrigible Marxist”). But underlying this militancy is a commitment to the individual seen as a collective hero and the product of generations of struggle. “In Serge’s world,” his longtime translator Peter Sedgwick once wrote, “politics is composed not of statements but of persons.” If people, not just revolutions, are centuries in the making, bearing the traces of prior social relations, of political domination and uprisings, it’s important to chronicle them as flesh and blood. Serge’s writing—pamphleteering, poetry and novels, histories, an invaluable memoir—composed as he ranged from one revolution to the next, unsettled enough to earn the name “conscience of the revolution,” is defined by this commitment. An awkward fit within the strictures of Bolshevik discipline, it’s this principle that makes Serge’s worlds so full, a record of the masses of militants he’d known.

Socialists who valued abstract ideas over concrete people were, for Serge, the mocking inverse of this ethic. In the claustrophobic exile community, he was forced into close quarters with people he felt fit this description, and trained his invective on them. In a 1944 issue of Politics, a small magazine started by Macdonald after he left the Partisan Review, Serge reviewed his fellow Mexican exile Jean Malaquais’s now-obscure War Diary, an account of his experience after being conscripted into the French army at the start of World War II. Although Serge calls the book “bleakly honest” and “powerfully” written, he doesn’t like the diary. It’s bitter, an attitude that not only reflects the experience of war, but also “defines the personality of the writer,” a disposition at odds with Serge’s conception of socialism. He quotes Malaquais: “I think I have no great love for men; which is not to say I don’t love man.” The statement—self-absorbed, elitist—reveals, for Serge, a rottenness of soul, an antithesis to his humanist ethos.

Though Malaquais might not have been a fair target for such reproach—he had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the anti-Stalinist Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), a group Serge supported—and was no bourgeois, having eked out a hard living as a laborer, his attitude in the War Diary typified their spiritlessness. “This need of comforting himself by contrasting to the unworthy concrete individual a Man in the abstract whom he can love, is related to his tendency to react to human beings in a depressed and cruel way,” he writes of Malaquais. “Despite his socialist ideology, Malaquais’s naturalism is pessimistic—monotonous and also unjust, for people are richer and above all more contradictory than his vision of them.”

In an entry from the Notebooks written one year before the review was published, Serge recounts a conversation with Malaquais after a night at the movies. Malaquais tells Serge that he’s begun writing a novel on “the desertion of the revolutionaries”—Malaquais’s phrase for explaining why opposition figures capitulated to Stalin. Serge notes to himself: “I wanted to answer him that he’s not enough of a revolutionary himself to deal with such a subject, which in any case is a false one. That with his propensity for describing man in the darkest colors he risks writing a very bad book, inventing desertions and problems that can’t be found in the real world.” The old Bolsheviks, unlike Malaquais, never fathomed abandoning the revolution; after all, as Serge once wrote, the sole meaning of life was the socialist struggle—for what would a militant abandon it? Serge thinks Malaquais is projecting. He’s not a revolutionary, but a coward.

Born in Brussels in 1890 to Russian anti-Tsarist exiles, Serge followed in his family’s footsteps. As a young man, he became involved with the Belgian Socialist Young Guards, the youth wing of the Belgium Workers’ Party. After leaving the Young Guards over a disagreement—Serge opposed the annexation of the Congo, while the Party supported it—he moved to France and became an anarchist. He worked as an editor of the magazine L’anarchie in 1910, and shortly thereafter was arrested as an associate of the anarchist Bonnot gang. The “bandits” had committed a series of robberies and murders for which Serge’s close childhood friend Raymond Callemin would be executed. (In Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Serge, mortified, recounts saying to Callemin, who has just been sentenced to death, “You live and learn.” In response, Callemin “broke into laughter: ‘Living is just the problem!’”) Serge was innocent, but despite disapproving of his comrades’ activities—in his memoir, he calls their violence a “collective suicide,” and was hostile to several of the group’s leading figures—he did not protest the charges against him. For this, he was sentenced to five years in solitary confinement.

By the time he emerged in 1917, revolution was finally in the air. After several months in Barcelona, where he participated in a failed anarcho-syndicalist uprising, Serge made his way to Russia. Characteristically for Serge, the route was not straightforward: Before he reached Petrograd, he endured a year in a French wartime concentration camp for violating the expulsion order he’d received upon his previous imprisonment. When he eventually arrived in 1919, his multilingualism was quickly put to use in the Communist International. Even as he became an acerbic critic of Stalin, he would consider himself a defender of the revolution until his death in 1947.

But, although Serge had already begun criticizing anarchism while in France, he remained a sympathizer, and the limits on civil liberties that accompanied War Communism aroused his concern from his first day in the new Bolshevik state: “joined the CP as an anarchist because it was the sole force carrying out the revolution. Right,” he writes in the Notebooks, adding “Concept of double duty, defend the revolution, combat its flaws from within.” “Double duty” was his term for such discomfited placement—joining the Bolsheviks as an anarchist, working with members of the party’s central committee while occasionally trying to intervene on behalf of the unjustly persecuted.

Serge always insisted, as the Notebooks make clear, that while Bolshevism contained the seeds of Stalinism, it also “contained other seeds, other possibilities of evolution.” Such was his conviction, romantically pursued across thousands of pages as he moved from Russia, to Germany in the lead-up to the failed German Revolution of 1923, back to the Soviet Union and the Left Opposition led by Trotsky, to imprisonment, internal exile in Orenburg and then external exile in France, and finally, Mexico.

In their introduction to the Notebooks, Claudio Albertani and Jean-Guy Rens write that the central theme of the Notebooks is “the contradictions between the fragility of the subject and the demands of collective action.” But one wonders if Serge wouldn’t object. As they note, he wrote about himself not for the sake of discussing “his personal difficulties but rather to make clear his perspective as a narrator, his place on the global chessboard. On page after page, the Notebooks demonstrate a stubborn fidelity, a total allegiance, and a passionate attachment to the revolutionary project.” There is, of course, a fragility to Serge’s person: In the Notebooks, Serge, aging, is too poor to even send a telegram. We see him persecuted and blacklisted by Stalinists after he and his fellow Trotsky-ish exiles are labelled a Nazi fifth column during the war, intensifying their emergent anti-Communism. Yet for Serge, there was no contradiction between his vulnerability and collective politics. The meaning of life is struggle; the individual is, in fact, collective; and the intelligentsia of the Russian revolution is characterized by “its sense of individual life integrated into the course of history.”

In an obituary for Trotsky—who, despite a late-in-life falling out, remained for Serge the embodiment of the best of the Russian intelligentsia—Serge outlines his ideal. “All his life he gave one the feeling of a man in whom thought, action and his personal life formed a single solid block, one who would follow his road to the end, on whom one could always absolutely depend.” While this is high praise, the greatness of Trotsky’s personality, as Serge sees it, was “a collective rather than an individual triumph.”

Though Serge finds such heroes everywhere in the Soviet Union, in Mexico he sees their opposite wherever he looks. André Breton, who travelled with Serge across the Atlantic, is a typical, even representative, offender. With his social maneuvering and intellectual dilettantism, Breton becomes Serge’s model of intellectuals’ cowardice. His move from a friendship with Trotsky to what Serge viewed as a fashionable Stalinism typifies the failures of his class. Writing on Breton, Serge complains that he is

completely stylized. A personality that is nothing but a pose, deliberately fabricated and put on like makeup. Lacking a real personality. Always performing, the world is a stage for him. But if the actor is nothing but his role, there is no longer an actor, there’s nothing but a fictional, false person. It’s not surreality that’s achieved, but unreality, inconsistency. . . . Bits and pieces of Marxism, astrology, Freudianism, Sade, and the NRF picked up at the flea market of hackneyed ideas. . . . Remarkable representative of decadence.

Serge applies this criticism to the entire intellectual type, those after-dinner heroes who risk nothing. In his notebooks, men of letters “exist only through a sounding board.” They become Stalinists because it’s trendy, condescending to others at meetings, forever playing surrealist word games at parties. “People live on clichés without ever wondering what they might once have meant.” Supposed militants have sclerosis, their politics are “nothing but a revolt of literary cafés.”

Underlying this contempt is the fact that, as both a committed anti-Stalinist and unrepentant revolutionary, Serge is unable to get published anywhere. “I’ve come to wonder if my name alone won’t be an obstacle,” he writes. He produces great works—his memoirs, his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev—“for the desk drawer.” “There are times when I have the crushing sensation of an impasse closed off at both ends. It’s no longer an impasse, but a vast prison yard,” the Notebooks lament. Though forced out of the struggle in the Soviet Union into the bitter skirmishes of the exiles, he is unwilling to surrender. “All that’s left [of] me is a brain, which no one needs right now and which many would prefer perforated with a definitive little bullet.”

Yet he never falters in his commitment to bear witness. Some entries reflect a rethinking in the direction of a more democratic socialism, as one of the Notebooks’ translators, Mitchell Abidor, recently noted, but Serge defends his choice to back the revolution. On the deck of the ship to Mexico, in 1941, he meets with militants to “paint a portrait of Ilyich” Lenin, telling them “we are defeated only in the sense of fighters in a great army that has time on its side; that we mustn’t let ourselves feel defeated but maintain victory in our souls.” Even as he senses his end might be imminent, in an entry a year and a half before he died of heart failure in a taxi, he insists there are “still too many things to do, to know, to understand. This thirst seems to me to be as just and pressing as a duty.”

All this contributes to a sense of hauntedness. Serge writes of the seventeenth-century Old Believers, who, “rather than betray their faith, gathered in the forests of the north and were burned alive while singing psalms,” and their descendants appear in entry after entry. There are “dead men piled on dead men” (he repeats the phrase). “Five years ago today I left Russia, not suspecting that two months later I would infallibly have been executed like almost all those I left behind me—good companions in struggle, of an astounding human quality,” runs an entry written on his way to Mexico. At the Day of the Dead festivities two years after Trotsky’s assassination, he remarks that “calaveras resembling L. T. were sold on the streets as well as little cardboard coffins containing a dead Trotsky made of sugar.” (Serge’s daughter Jeannine, repulsed at first, eventually eats one—life must go on.) There are too many deaths to be counted, and some entries are little more than a notice of another comrade’s demise, followed by a remembrance of their time together. It’s a continuity from his childhood, where “on the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged.” No one understands this condition save his fellow exile, Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s widow, but she is in engulfed in sectarianism and mourning, so Serge refrains from “touching on the numberless dead. Despite us, they rise up: the tomb of a generation is always present.”

It’s this contrast, between the executions and disappearances and suicides—so many suicides that even a cat throws itself off the ship to Mexico into the sea—and the faux-political amusements of the intellectuals that he cannot abide. Of a Surrealist text called “Is suicide a solution?” Serge writes disgustedly that “I was right in saying in Literature and Revolution (1930) that proletarians and revolutionaries think of conquering the world, of fighting, and not of the solution of suicide, which is that of young, maladjusted, or desperate bourgeois or petite bourgeois.” But, he adds in a parenthetical, something “completely different” is “the suicide of a revolutionary, which can be a solution . . . it’s the way a life was lived that defines the value of the period placed at its end.”

This conclusion echoes a long meditation in Memoirs of a Revolutionary on the suicide of Serge’s fellow Bolshevik A. A. Joffe. Suffering from chronic illness, Joffe killed himself in November 1927. In his suicide note, addressed to Trotsky, Joffe writes, “Human life has no meaning except insofar as it exists in the service of something infinite—which for us is humanity.” Feeling he had not wasted a single day in pursuit of anything else, his ill health had at last made him too weak to fight on. Perhaps, he hoped, his suicide would serve as his final act in service of the infinite. “I have no doubt that today my death is more useful than the prolongation of my life.” Though suicide was deeply frowned upon, if not forbidden, by revolutionary ethics, Serge praises Joffe’s reasoning. “There has been no better expression of the revolutionary’s communion with all mankind in all ages,” he concludes.

But the grandeur of Serge’s judgement (“no better expression . . . in all ages”!) shouldn’t be taken to mean he was above the muck of the day to day, some world-historical saint, all grimace and manifesto. Just the opposite: Serge’s strength is his immersion in the quotidian frustrations, grudges, slights—and joy, too—of the world. That Serge is simply alive shines in his writing in a way often absent from that of his contemporaries.

His is the world of living, breathing people. As in his other writing, the Notebooks’ character sketches are memorable, even gossipy. Gide, whom Serge meets in France, has a “kind of languid sadness and, at times, a cheekiness at the corner of his mouth when it hangs half-open.” Diego Rivera is “a kind of clergyman . . . an overgrown child (mental age: twelve).” Later, Serge recalls the time Picasso avoided being seen with him, a persona non grata, at the Deux Magots café. Even as some entries are traditional political analysis—dissections of the latest news of the war are a frequent subject in the Notebooks, for example—his attention to real people, in all their contradictions, shines through. An entry on his battles with Stalinists (final line: “You see that I was right to tell you that The Nation was Stalinizing itself with its new board”) is followed by a longing address to his romantic partner Laurette Séjourné, who, along with his daughter, couldn’t get papers to join Serge in Mexico until March 1942. “Do you remember that gray afternoon? We were good together, intimately so, neither exalted nor jubilant, and Paris was gray.”

Susan Sontag wrote that we’re interested in writers’ journals because we’re interested in writers’ souls, and that’s because the writer is “the person to whom we look to be able best to express his suffering.” It’s not hard to imagine Serge diagnosing our yearning toward suffering souls as misguided: bourgeois individualism, no doubt. But though he was an accomplished writer—his standing was why he, unlike many others, escaped Russia, a fact he found “humiliating”—his notebooks serve another purpose, one Serge would have appreciated. They are a reminder that the committed revolutionary was also a human being, scribbling love letters, complaining about blowhards and cowards, even while urging himself onward into new battles. If the intellectuals he hated are all pomp and posture, frustrated, powerless actors in search of an audience, the Notebooks are a glimpse into what Serge, in a 1944 entry, notes is a subject he wanted to write about, but never had the chance to: the psychology of a militant.

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin.