Victor Serge lived an exemplary life as a revolutionary and was a witness to some of the most significant moments of that century of defeat and crimes against the working class. Particularly significant was his documentation in both his fiction and in his journalism of the ‘midnight in the century’ of the Stalinist purges
And what a curriculum vitae! Born in Belgium to revolutionary Russian émigré parents Serge quickly joined the ranks of the anarcho-syndicalist movement and was jailed for his participation in the terrorist activities of the Bonnot gang. On his release he participated in the quickly destroyed embryonic Spanish revolution, was imprisoned in France, joined the revolution in Russia in 1919 and quickly switched his allegiance from anarchism to Bolshevism. He was a Comintern agent in German’s ‘missing’ revolution. Becoming involved in the left opposition he was persecuted and was eventually sent into exile in Orenburg. One of the few to survive the purges he found his way again to France and then into exile in the Trotskyist coterie in Mexico City where he died in 1947.
He wrote a multitude of novels and pamphlets and was an active participant in everything he describes in them - from revolutionary massacres to the Stalinist death camps. As Serge himself notes ‘I have undergone a little over 10 years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing. On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and the future than ever before,’ (Serge – Memoirs of a revolutionary).
Yet aside from some interesting literary forays into understanding Serge’s work and legacy there has been little attempt to analyse his politics or to really take on board some of the lessons that Serge holds for those of us who maintain a commitment to the history and the future practice of revolutionary politics. The work of Suzi Weissman and Richard Greeman have in their different ways recovered the pristine Serge from the grime that has surrounded his reputation. Surprisingly however, those untruths and slanders against Serge came not only from Stalinism but more importantly from within the camp of Trotskyism where for a variety of reasons Serge was slandered as a dilettante, a traitor and an accomplice of murder – not least in a very important book to orthodox Trotskyism – Elsa Poretsky’s memoir of her husband the NKVD agent Ignace Reiss and his comrades. Certainly his repudiation by Trotskyism is a tragedy as there were many lessons that Serge consistently tried to teach to the movement which have still not been fully addressed.
Serge was a revolutionary among revolutionaries but his important lies in two things – the fact that he survived and the fact that that survival allowed him to document his survival. In fact Serge, at various historical moments, was at the centre of the vortex of the twentieth century – the Spanish, German and Russian revolutions, the advent of Nazism, the revolt and suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, the degeneration of the USSR and the tragedy of the left opposition – and particularly his experiences inside the prison camps and on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad at the beginning of the purges. Certainly his standing with Trotsky suffered from Serge’s inability to keep his mouth shut about what he truly felt about Kronstadt, about Serge’s own relationship to the POUM in Spain, and importantly to the fact that he felt that the USSR was not a workers state, however degenerated, but comparable to fascist dictatorship.
This experience points to the importance of Serge. That his unparalleled experience of the camps – and his experience of talking to those in the camps – Mensheviks, anarchists, Workers' and Left Oppositionists led him to a unique view of the nature of the Soviet Union. And essentially this was a bureaucratic collectivist critique but one not formed from looking in from outside but one formed within the camps themselves by that first generation of exiles who were exterminated by the tyranny of Stalin. And what’s more – Serge also recognized a truth highly unpalatable to orthodox Trotskyism - that the seeds of dictatorship and tyranny were a direct consequence of the actions of the Bolsheviks before the advent of Stalinism. Hence his defence of soviet legality and the plurality of parties, his objection to the rise of the Cheka, and his huge misgivings about a Kronstadt suppression which he defended but which he felt had been a sign that the counter-revolution was already beginning.
Whatever his agonies about his own role and the Left opposition’s role in losing the epochal battle against tyranny Serge never gave up hope. In his last days his greatest comrade was Trotsky’s widow Natalya Sedova and together they looked for a new kind of politics free of the filth of slavery. His novels (specifically The Case of Comrade Toulayev and Midnight in the Century) are not only political testaments but hugely important literary masterpieces of experimental modernism – the very kind of novels that the turncoat Karl Radek at the Soviet writers congress of 1934 would denounce as the vile work of the bourgeoisie. More than that – they prefigure the great anti-totalitarian fiction of the late twentieth century. Like Orwell Serge had seen the working class ‘in the saddle’, and he never surrendered that commitment to working class emancipation. But he was also clear that that negative political emancipation from Capital meant nothing without examining the positive liberatory content of our own socialism without which our revolution will also be destroyed. At the heart of this is freedom of expression and debate and the willingness to accept opposition and dissent. As Craig Raine once said in his poetic analysis of Pasternak’s legacy under Stalinism – whether Cheka, KGB, NKVD – what else are they but ‘the filth in a thousand disguises’. Serge’s work is a victory against all secret police forces – inside our minds and without.