Above: On the boat to (eventually) Mexico (1941), Victor Serge on the very far left of the photo. The passengers also included the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the artist André Bréton.
Notebooks: 1936-1947 by Victor Serge, reviewed by John Cunningham. The Notebooks are translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman, and published by New York Review of Books, 2019. Paperback, £17.99.
Any publication of works previously untranslated into English by Victor Serge can only be welcomed. Serge was a Belgian-Russian whose life is both a chronicle of and an eye-witness to the struggle for socialism in the Twentieth Century with its victories and, too numerous, defeats. Beginning as an anarchist, Serge moved to Russia shortly after the end of WWI and became a committed supporter of the Revolution. After a spell in Vienna he returned to the Soviet Union and became increasingly alarmed at the rise of the rise of Stalin and the degeneration of the early values of the Bolsheviks.
He supported, for a time, the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky and it was probably his reputation abroad as a writer that saved him from a grim death in the Gulag. He was imprisoned and deported to Soviet Asia and finally expelled from Russia in 1936. Eventually, like his one-time ally, Trotsky he landed up in Mexico, one of the few places on the planet prepared to accept left-wing refugees, arriving in Mexico City on 5 Sept 1941 (Trotsky had been killed by a Stalinist agent the year before on 21 Aug. 1940). All of this is recounted in his excellent Memoirs of a Revolutionary (which ends around the time of his arrival in Mexico) also republished by New York Review of Books. Anyone wanting to know about Serge’s life should read this, probably before reading the Notebooks which, mainly, fills in the gaps regarding his final years in Mexico. Serge died in November 1947.
There is much to admire about the man, his life, his commitment, honesty and principles and – as is certainly the case with the Notebooks – his writing. And yet, despite all this, I cannot help but feel a nagging doubt. Something prevents me from totally embracing Victor Serge the man and the legend in the way I would like to. It cannot be his writing. Whether he writes about an old comrade from the Left Opposition who died in the Siberian wastes shouting his defiance to the four winds or his visit to a Mexican village with its many customs, traditions and festivals he is a superb and often moving writer. His descriptions of the Mexican countryside, its volcanoes, flora, fauna and the remains of ancient civilisations – Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and others – are alone worth the price of the book. There is, however, something about Serge’s political stance that, despite my admiration for a life devoted to the cause of socialism, kept me thinking while reading this book that he had got something wrong.
First of all, there is Serge’s refusal to join the Trotskyist Fourth International. Serge is hardly alone in thinking that the creation of the FI was premature, the organisations prepared to join up were too small and isolated and in some cases, as in France, were riven by factionalism and personal rivalries. He attended a preliminary meeting of the FI in Amsterdam along with Henk Sneevliet the Dutch revolutionary but both men thought the time was not right and withdrew. Sneevliet later was to die at the hands of the Gestapo. Trotsky’s biographer, the Pole Isaac Deutscher, held similar reservations to Serge and, likewise, did not join the new grouping.** This is not the place to go over arguments for and against the establishment of the Fourth International, this is an old debate, and Serge’s arguments (and those of Sneevliet and Deutscher) and those opposed to them deserve serious consideration which cannot be accommodated in a short book review.
Yet, despite a certain poignancy to Serge’s opinions the question must be posed: concretely, what were the alternatives? In Mexico, Serge was able to gather around him a small group of like-minded activists mainly drawn from emigres from France and Spain – talented, dedicated individuals like Marceau Pivert and Julián Gorkin (former editor of the POUM newspaper*) but they had even less impact on events than the Fourth International and the likes of James P. Cannon of the American Socialist Workers’ Party of whom Serge appears to have a low opinion. The POUM emigres in Mexico and Serge’s own group Socialism and Liberty seem to be no more immune to factionalism and internal friction than the FI. By the time of Serge’s arrival in Mexico any possibility of a rapprochement between him and his collaborators and the FI was almost certainly out of the question. For the remainder of his life Serge remained in Mexico, stuck in a hostile environment (Serge received a number of death threats), isolated from the world and even isolated in their country of exile. They had no voice, only a limited circulation newspaper, no money and hence no influence.
Of course, there is a history here. Trotsky had broken with the POUM (and in particular its leader Andres Nin) during the Spanish Civil War. Around the same time he also broke with Serge in circumstances where, in at least one instance, Trotsky’s judgement must be called into question. There were disputes about Kronstadt and issues connected to Serge’s translation of Trotsky’s pamphlet Their Morals and Ours and Serge was never drawn to the idea of the ‘French Turn’***. There were also accusations from Trotsky and others of Serge’s supposed ‘irresponsibility’ in the matter of the assassination of Ignace Reiss, a former operative of the Soviet secret police (the GPU) who was in the process of ‘coming over’ to the Left Opposition. Whether these differences could have been mended by Serge and Trotsky meeting face-to-face in Mexico is one of those ‘what if’ questions that cannot be answered given Trotsky death while Serge was still struggling to escape from an increasingly beleaguered Europe. Whether or not Serge and his comrades could have influenced the FI is another ‘what if’. They would have had to contend with a certain factionalism centred on the tough, hard-talking Irish-American Cannon but in alliance with Shachtman and others such as Albert Goldman (of whom Serge speaks highly) things might have been different. We will never know and Cannon and Shachtman had already parted company by the time of Serge’s arrival. What we can say with some certainty is that Serge remained isolated and, for its part, the Fourth International went on to have a chequered history, punctuated by a series of splits and today the various organisations claiming some kind of lineage to the FI are small and insignificant. In truth, the FI never amounted to very much despite the sacrifices, heroism and dedicated hard work of its cadres around the world and Serge’s Socialism and Liberty group amounted to even less.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Serge retained warm feelings and considerable political sympathy for the ‘Old Man’ (i.e. Trotsky) and this is partly manifested in his numerous visits to Natalia, Trotsky’s widow now living in isolation – except for bodyguards – in their former house-fortress in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan, which Serge describes as a ‘haunted tomb’ (page 91). Writing some time in 1939, Serge had this to say of his break with Trotsky:
I was outraged by Their Morals for its assumption of possessing the truth, its intolerance and aggressiveness devoid of critical sense, though at the end of the essay there are some fine and moving pages. I said as much to some Trotskyists, who wrote about it to the Old man, and this immediately earned me some sharp attacks. What was saddest about them was they were always insulting and always based on incorrect information. It would have been so simple to say that we are in disagreement on this and that point, but the Old Man and his supporters had become completely incapable of speaking in such forthright language. The terrifying atmosphere of persecution in which they – and I – lived inclined them to persecution mania and to the exercise of persecution (44-45).
Trotsky didn’t hold back on his criticisms of Serge: His ideas about Spain were ‘Menshevik’ (24 Dec. 1937, letter to Cannon); he was trying to manufacture ‘a synthesis of anarchism, POUMism and Marxism’ (New International, April 1938); he was a ‘strike-breaker’ (‘Discussions with Trotsky’ in Writings of Leon Trotsky Vol. 1937-8, p. 287); he was ‘hopelessly confused’ (Socialist Appeal, 17 Feb. 1939) and in the Bulletin of the Left Opposition (no. 73, Jan. 1939) Trotsky penned an announcement clearly stating that the FI had broken definitively with Serge. I will say no more about this otherwise what started out as a book review will end up a political treatise (and probably a very bad one). There are some suggestions for further reading at the end of my review.
Serge offer us a number of interesting and insightful pen-sketches into various personalities, mainly of emigres from Europe or of those left behind, often to an uncertain fate: the German writer Anna Seghers; her husband the Hungarian sociologist Laszló Radványi (who worked with György Lukács in Berlin in the 1930s) who Serge accuses of being a GPU agent; he reminisces about his acquaintance with the Russian writer Alexei Tolstoy; the surrealist Andre Breton; the English surrealist painter Leonora Carrington; his close friend Fritz Fränkel, founder member of the KPD (German Communist Party), who inspired Serge to look at questions of psychology and the role of the individual in history (some of the most interesting writing in the Notebooks); he is scathing about Diego Rivera (and doesn’t even rate his murals) and says almost nothing about Frieda Kahlo. There are also fascinating discussions about the war and what would happen after it finished. Contrary to what often appears to be accepted wisdom not all Marxists expected an era of revolution. Serge thought that the war had demonstrated the internal weaknesses of Stalinism and, for a time, he expected the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was even speculation that the Red Army had recruited thousands of German deserters (from the ranks of POWs) who were lined up ready to launch the decisive final assault on Nazi Germany (of course no such body existed). Unsurprisingly, he reserves his most vitriolic criticism for people such as the Stalinist thug David Siqueiros who organised the first (unsuccessful) assassination attempt on Trotsky. At one point he even visits Trotsky’s assassin, Jacson / Mornard (real name only discovered later – Ramond Mercader) in prison, where he appears to enjoy an incarceration not far removed from a five-star hotel. There were persistent rumours that Jacson was to be sprung from prison something which he wished to avoid as this would almost certainly mean his death at the hands of the Soviet secret police. He was only released in 1960 and duly received the award of Hero of the Soviet Union.
This is a fascinating book, at times it makes for uncomfortable reading, although I suppose this depends on whether or not you like your politics to be comfortable. Many issues are raised and not always answered but again if you like nice, compact answers to difficult, multi-faceted questions then Victor Serge is not the person to turn to. Commenting on the death, in the USA (July 1943), of a former acquaintance, an ex-member of the Socialist – Revolutionary Party (S-R) called Axentiev (Serge gives no other name) he remarks on his use of a quote from the German writer Gottfried Lessing, ‘It’s not so much grasping the truth that’s important, but rather maintaining a constant striving towards the truth.’ This could aptly serve as an epitaph to this volume and to Serge’s life but I’d rather leave the last word to Trotsky, writing back in 1937 and answering some slanders about Serge put about by the Frenchman Jacques Sadoul writing in L’Humanité, the paper of the French Communist Party. Trotsky ends his defence of Serge with these words, ‘The Comintern is doomed to destruction. The Sadouls will desert the sinking ship like rats. You will be among those whose names will be linked to the revival of the liberation struggle of the working class!’ I would like to think that these sentiments represent the real and lasting (if subterranean) feelings – regardless of what happened later – between Trotsky and Victor Serge.
* POUM: Partido Obreras Unidos Marxistas / Party of Marxist Workers’ Unity. Marxist political party and armed militia in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Leading figure was Andres Nin who was tortured and killed by Stalinist agents in Catalonia. Trotsky broke off relations with the POUM because of their policy of joining the Popular Front government.
** Isaac Deutscher’s reservations about the formation of the Fourth International are briefly articulated in the third volume of his Trotsky biography The Prophet Outcast (page 413). At the founding conference (3 Sept. 1938) the two Polish delegates argued the case against establishing the FI based on a document written by Deutscher (who did not attend). Serge’s opinions are similar to those of Deutscher.
*** ‘French Turn’: the idea that the various parties of the FI should ‘enter’ Social Democratic parties in an effort to overcome their isolation, gain political influence and recruits. The results of this tactic in France were disappointing but there was some success in the USA.
Dissident Marxism (Zed Books 2004) by David Renton has an interesting chapter on Serge.
The Ideas of Victor Serge: A Life as a Work of Art (Critique Books 1997) ed. Susan Weissman.
Their Morals and Ours (Pathfinder Press, 1986) by Leon Trotsky. This edition contains extracts (Appendix 2 and 3) from the arguments between Trotsky and Serge over this pamphlet.
Memoirs of a Revolutionary (NYRB, 2012) by Victor Serge. Essential reading.
It should also be noted that Serge has written a number of excellent novels, in my opinion the best is The Case of Comrade Tulayev.