Telling Socialism's Story
Resurrecting the novels of Victor Serge.
Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
The Course Is Set on Hope
WHO NOW READS Victor Serge? The novelist is nearly unknown these days, even among the most literate readers. Few of his titles--"Men in Prison," "Birth of Our Power," "Conquered City," "Midnight in the Century," "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," "The Long Dusk"--can be found in bookstores. His once classic "Memoirs of a Revolutionary" has fallen far below the memory horizon.
Born in Belgium in 1891, Serge was the scion of a family of eminent Russian exiles (his uncle Nikolai Kibalchich, for instance, was a famous nineteenth-century conspirator against the tsar). His first ideological commitment was to the proletarian anarchism that flourished in western Europe in those days, and so he became involved with a notorious group of "social bandits," the Bonnot Gang, who were mainly involved in bank robberies and shootouts with the police. In 1913, after the most famous "anarchist trial" of the time, he went to jail in France, the experience that produced his first novel, "Men in Prison."
Serge was freed when the advance of German troops encouraged his guards to run away in 1916, and he went to revolutionary Russia by way of equally insurrectionary Barcelona (the experience that produced, in turn, "Birth of Our Power"). The Bolsheviks were in the saddle in the former tsarist empire, and he gave himself to the new dispensation heart and soul. The former anarchist bandit became a functionary of the new regime--and the result was "Conquered City," a nearly unique work: a mystery story set among the police agents of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB.
But Serge also saw that a moral gap separated the Bolshevik dictators from their promises of democracy and improvement in the people's welfare. He became a supporter of Trotsky and ended up again in prison, with his next novel, "Midnight in the Century," a description of life in the Gulag. "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" (the favorite of many critics) is an account of Russian communism at the moment when the worst Stalinist purges began.
In 1936, following protests by Andre Gide, Andre Malraux, and Romain Rolland, Serge was released and allowed to leave Russia--one of the very few cases to anticipate the similar destiny, decades later, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He went to Spain in time to see the revolutionary movement there caught between the grindstones of fascism and Stalinism. Along the way, as he developed serious differences with the exiled Trotsky, he began to insist that the Bolshevik experiment had been antidemocratic from the beginning. It is largely thanks to Serge that the early Bolshevik massacre of dissident sailors at Kronstadt in 1921 is known to the rest of the world.
With the fall of France to the Nazis, Serge fled to Mexico, where he died in mysterious circumstances in 1947, very likely murdered by a death squad of Mexican Communist cab drivers, whose activities were later revealed in the Venona decryptions of KGB messages. In his last years he was a contributor to the anti-Communist New Leader and Partisan Review. By the time of his death he belonged to the group perhaps best described as "anticipatory neoconservatives."
ALL OF WHICH presents a problem for his biographer, Susan Weissman, in her "Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope." Weissman remains a partisan of the radical left, wearing her politics on her sleeve, and she does what she can to preserve the image of Serge as never anything except a full-blown radical. But she is also conscientious--and even somewhat courageous: Accompanied by Serge's son Vlady, a painter in Mexico, Weissman went to Russia after the fall of communism and searched relentlessly through the archives for documents on Serge's case, including lost manuscripts. In the course of her research, she turned up quite a bit of new evidence about Stalinist terrorism in the West during the 1930s and 1940s.
The result in "Victor Serge" is a fine book that no one is likely to read. Serge's natural audience among general readers has forgotten that the novelist ever existed, while the bedraggled ends of the socialist left--who do remember Serge, as they never forget or forgive anything--demand that he be resurrected only to be attacked. For example, take a look at the unpleasant hatchet-job performed on "Victor Serge" in the Spring issue of Dissent, organ of the recusant anti-anti-Communist school of Irving Howe.