Victor Serge: The Spirit of Liberty
By Jared Marcel PollenAugust 23, 2022
Born in Belgium in 1890, of Russian, Polish, and Montenegrin ancestry, Victor Lvovich Kibalchich was a vagabond from birth and a true internationalist, having lived in — and been kicked out of — half a dozen countries during the course of his life, usually for his subversive activities. And although he wasn’t Jewish, he would have easily earned the Soviet’s antisemitic epithet “rootless cosmopolitan.” His father, Lev, was a member of the imperial guard and a sympathizer of the People’s Will (whose revolutionary forebears had been Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky); Lev fled the Russian Empire after the organization was implicated in the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. One of the men hanged for his involvement in the plot was one Nikolai Kibalchich, a distant relative.
The young Victor came of age during the so-called Belle Époque, a bored, bloated era of dubious peace, as Europe crept thirstily towards war. The Belgian colonization of the Congo, the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the French partition of Morocco, the assassinations of William McKinley and Elisabeth of Austria, the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair, and the moon-murdering, proto-fascist tracts of Marinetti — all heralded Europe’s imminent descent into violence. The feeling that characterized this period, Serge would later recall in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951), was one of nerve and electricity, a sense of the oncoming self-immolation of the old world, but also of hope and renewal, a sense that humanity could remake itself out of the ashes of ancient tyranny.
Like many people of his time, Serge spent most of his life caught in the gears of history. But unlike most people, his conscription was not involuntary. He was forever thrusting himself into the action. Influenced by one of Kropotkin’s pamphlets, he embraced anarchism and libertarian individualism. He then went to Paris, where got in with the city’s “illegalist” milieu in the derelict quarters of Montmartre. Going by the name of Le Rétif (“Maverick”), he led study circles in the Latin Quarter and helped pump out propaganda for an organ called l’anarchie. The slums under Sacre-Coeur, Serge recounted, were seedy and utopian, full of brothels, cafes, fights, and ideas. Though it was “shot through with contradictions,” Serge was drawn to anarchism because it satisfied the “childish” desire to “live differently” and “gave us a hold over the most intense reality: ourselves.” It offered, in other words, an ostensible chance to live out the Rousseauian dictum: Be yourself.
Bliss it was in that dawn, but not for long. After a shakedown by the police, Serge and his friends were arrested for their affiliation with the infamous Bonnot Gang. Refusing (not for the last time) to squeal on his comrades, he was sentenced to five years in a French prison. (Serge would later dramatize this period in a novel, The Lost Men, which he wrote 20 years later while living in captivity — again, on the Eurasian plains — but it was confiscated by the authorities and has never been recovered.) When he was released in 1917, he headed to Catalonia to take part in a short-lived anarchist insurgency (it was at this time that he took on the nom de guerre Serge.) He was then reinterred when he came back to France and was ultimately shipped off to Russia, in exchange for French prisoners of war who were still being held there, just in time for the beginning of the new Soviet experiment.
Arriving in St. Petersburg in 1919, he was befriended by Maxim Gorky, who had been a witness to the events of 1917, and was soon upbraiding the Bolsheviks for being “drunk with authority” and “starting bloody despotism all over again.” Serge steadfastly opposed the reestablishment of a secret police (the CHEKA) and the party’s growing hostility towards a free press, but he was nonetheless convinced that Bolshevism was the only game in town as far as global revolution was concerned. Being a polyglot, he was given a job in the international office of the Comintern, often translating personal messages from Lenin, whom Serge described as having “laughter-lines” and slanted eyes, a face shaped by “cheerful malice.” The next few years were ones of rapid disenchantment, as the regime became more and more conspiratorial and terroristic, and the cold menace of Stalinism was already beginning to take root. Serge spent much of his time on foreign missions, mostly in Berlin and Vienna, where he made friends with Antonio Gramsci, and Georg Lukács, who advised him not to return to Russia simply for “the pleasure of voting defiantly.”
Like many people of his generation, Serge can be said to have broken with the party after the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny in March 1921. He became a member of the Left Opposition, the faction officially formed in 1923 (with Trotsky as its de facto head) that would define itself against the growing influence of Stalin and the emergence of a new kind of tyranny within the state, a tyranny that sought not just the abolition of public and private life but the colonization of the mind. Though Serge was not necessarily the first to have identified this, he is credited with having given it a name: “totalitarianism.” It might surprise some to learn that the term originated within the Marxist left. But, as is so often the case, struggles that eventually become defined by their ideological polarities on the left and right begin as conflicts within the left.
Indeed, it is all too easy to forget that it was those on the left who first identified and sounded the alarm on the appalling turn that the revolution had taken — some as early as 1918, when Rosa Luxemburg tongue-lashed Lenin for his abolition of the Constituent Assembly; or in 1920, when Bertrand Russell visited Russia and synthesized what is still arguably the finest critique of the Soviet state in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920). Though Serge conceded that the fault of the revolution was not in the stars but “in ourselves,” he refused to indulge in hindsight or teleological readings of history: “To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse […] is this very sensible?” The dictatorial turn of Bolshevism may have been inevitable, and few would wish to dispute it, but overlooking the protests of those who envisioned a different course disables one from understanding the tragic element that is often embedded in historical ironies.
One of the many ironies of Serge’s own life is that he never intended to become a writer. He didn’t start writing seriously until he was nearly 40, the point when most writers hit their stride, yet he produced more in a decade and a half than most do in a lifetime. By his own account, the moment Serge finally “became a writer” occurred while he was hospitalized in 1928, after the first of what would be many imprisonments. He vowed that if he managed to survive, he would devote himself to writing, at which point he “mentally sketched the plan of a series of documentary novels about these unforgettable times.”
What followed was a trilogy of novels written in French and published in Paris: Men in Prison (1930), Birth of Our Power (1931), and Conquered City (1932). These novels, composed while the author was living in “semi-captivity” in Leningrad, chronicle the agonies and enthusiasms in the early years of the revolution. Serge had renounced writing after arriving in Russia, demoting (in true revolutionary fashion) words in favor of action, and it was only the deepening feeling that he might soon be killed that took him back to the desk. By that point, the once-blossoming avant-garde had withered and was being gradually replaced by Socialist Realism; and Serge’s friends in the literary milieu, like Gorky and Mayakovsky, had either been broken or forced to change profession.
Serge’s next long internment began in early 1933, when he was arrested in Moscow and interrogated in the hellacious Lubyanka prison. After refusing (again) to turn informer, he was shipped off to an administrative camp in Orenburg, a town on the Ural River near the Kazakhstan border. His time in Orenburg would be the inspiration — if one can use the word — for one of his best novels, Midnight in the Century (1939), about a group of dissident revolutionaries banished to the darkness of the Eurasian steppes, like Milton’s renegade angels, who refuse to surrender their socialist ideals even in the abyss. The “midnight” spoken of here refers to both to the nadir of the revolution and the simultaneous triumph of Stalinism and Hitlerism, as well as their eventual collusion in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Refusing to endorse the party line, Serge was denied work and was therefore free to write. He had access to basic materials and, funnily enough, lived off the postal insurance payments for the manuscripts that were repeatedly “lost” on their way to Paris. Serge continued to be remarkably productive during this time, writing verse, the now lost The Lost Men, as well as The Whirlwind, another novel chronicling the revolutionary year of 1920 (also confiscated by the GPU and, as far as we know, destroyed). Serge never rewrote the lost novels, though he later recomposed all of his poems from memory and published them in the 1938 collection Resistance, proving that poetry can indeed breed in captivity.
Though he disdained the idea of “literature” as a commodity and a bourgeois enterprise, Serge often had no other means of supporting himself. Pressed under the weight of works yet unwritten, he wrote and never looked back. Upon receiving a draft of his memoirs, his friend Julián Gorkin pushed him to expand upon such an interesting life and a subject so worthy of elaboration. Convinced that he was writing mostly for the drawer, Serge responded with a shrug: “Other books are waiting.” The speed at which he wrote is surely responsible for the unpolished quality of his prose; his sentences are quick and telegraphic, his imagery candid and unfussed. In reading him, one gets the sense that he is always writing under the wire, the wire in this case being the one holding the sword that was forever suspended over his head.
Serge was also ironically never more productive than when he was living in conditions least suitable to composition (“in the void, lacking the least support, the least real environment,” he later wrote). And while it would be too bold to say that he recovered personal freedom through literature (writing is an expression of the liberty of one’s conscience, but it does not substitute for the liberty that makes writing possible), it became the means by which both the self and the revolutionary spirit could be inwardly enlarged.
Given the grim conditions under which Serge became a writer, and his own modest evaluation of his objectives, it is easy to see him as a mere documentarian, a scribe of the times. But to do this is to make literature the disciple of history and to treat aesthetic achievement as secondary to the interestingness of one’s experience. Serge did not see himself as mainly a historical writer. “[I]t does not allow enough scope for showing men as they really live, dismantling their inner workings and penetrating deep into their souls,” he wrote. “A certain degree of light can only be cast on history, I am convinced, by literary creation that is free and disinterested.” Disinterested, in this case, meant writing without the defensive posture that is needed for political thinking, which is often toxic to imaginative labor.
Poetry and fiction, Serge understood, are essentially irrational; they require dwelling in a realm of uncertainty, which is a mode of thought foreign — and in some cases hostile — to the political animal. “Political intelligence,” he maintained, “subordinates itself to the pursuit of strictly defined social ends. The artist, on the contrary, is always delving for his raw material in the subconscious, in the preconscious, in intuition.” One of the most remarkable — and least appreciated — aspects of Serge’s work is the way it manages to achieve a precarious harmony between these two modes of thinking.
Serge’s work is not just literary, it is essentially literary. But it is not preoccupied with the indulgences of leisurely self-interest. “Individual existences were of no interest to me,” he claimed, “particularly my own — except by virtue of the great ensemble of life whose particles, more or less endowed with consciousness, are all that we ever are.” It is this “ensemble” style, the great human polyphony, that characterizes Serge’s sense of drama. His novels, especially those like Midnight in the Century, sometimes read like Dostoevsky’s The Demons (1872), in which the narrator is a clear participant but never identified, and is thus able to inhabit many consciousnesses, in effect becoming a kind of chorus. It is a voice that undulates between the one and the many, an “I” that is also a “we.” In capturing this “vast flow of life,” Serge saw himself as belonging to the tradition of Russian literature.
In the summer of 1935, “the case of comrade Serge” was raised at the International Writers Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris. It was largely due to the efforts of André Gide, who brought up Serge’s case with the Russian ambassador, and Romain Rolland, who brought up the matter with “Koba” himself, that Serge was eventually released. Not content to let a prisoner go without a confession, Stalin asked the head of his secret police if Serge had admitted to any wrongdoing and must have been shocked to hear that he had not, a fact that actually worked in Serge’s favor as it allowed the authorities to deport him without any loss of face.
Serge was taken to Moscow in the spring of 1936, stripped of his citizenship, and promptly sent back to Belgium. This transfer came at the right time: a few months later, in August, the first Moscow trials began, inaugurating the Great Purges. That Serge had been deported so soon before the trials began led him to believe, against the suspicions of many, that the purges had not been planned but were a spontaneous eruption of Stalin’s paranoia. Between 1936 and 1939, Serge moved between Brussels and Paris, writing anti-Stalinist polemics that were often difficult for him to get published, as well as campaigning on behalf of the POUM, the quasi-Trotskyist militia (the same one Orwell fought for) that was battling the fascists in Spain.
In June 1940, as the Wehrmacht closed in on Paris, Serge was forced to flee, this time to Marseille. His first few weeks there, he hid out in a ruinous villa on the outskirts of the city with other artists and intellectuals, including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and André Breton (also an old friend). The summer was bleak. In August, Trotsky’s skull was smashed with an ice-pick, and a few weeks later, Walter Benjamin, who had fled to Spain through the south of France, committed suicide. Serge nonetheless noted a feeling of exhilaration, knowing that a new era of liberty would emerge out of the catastrophe. “Have faith in mankind and wait for the necessary cataclysms,” he wrote. “Now it is all over, the rotten tooth has been pulled out, the leap into the unknown has been made. It will be black and terrible, but those who survive will see a new world born.”
During this time, he wrote for help to Dwight Macdonald, who had published his work in The Partisan Review. As a communist, Serge was ineligible for a visa to the United States, despite the support of people like John Dewey and Sidney Hook. Macdonald eventually managed to secure him passage to Mexico, which, given the recent murder of Trotsky there, provided no guarantee of safety. Serge successfully escaped France in the spring of 1941, and after being waylaid a few more times along the journey, eventually reached Mexico City that fall.
The next seven years would be the most productive of his writing life. He wrote his memoirs (his magnum opus), and collaborated with Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, on a biography of the Old Man. He also finished three novels: The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1949), about the beginning of the purges; Unforgiving Years, unpublished until 1971; and Last Times (1946), based on his experiences waiting for an exit visa in the gray markets of Vichy-controlled Marseille. The last was written “not from any love of literature,” Serge said, but as a record of survival — “[f]or this age must be witnessed: the witness passes, but his testimony manages to endure.”
Indeed, by that time, most of the witnesses had passed: Adolph Joffe, Serge’s old comrade in the Opposition, committed suicide in 1927; Andrés Nin, who had helped found the POUM, disappeared in Spain in 1937, likely murdered by Stalin’s agents; the men Serge served with in Orenburg were never heard from again; Gramsci had died, Trotsky had been axed, and hundreds more whose names are not known to us were erased from history. At the end of his life, Serge remained one of the last of a revolutionary generation.
On the evening November 17, 1947, Serge dropped off a poem at his son Vlady’s house, then briefly met with Gorkin on his way home. After they parted, Serge, suffering from chest pains, hailed a cab, got into the backseat, and died before he could tell the driver his destination. Aged 56, he had managed to escape the assassin’s bullet. When Gorkin and Vlady found his body at the police station the next day, a bandage had been symbolically placed over his mouth, though according to Gorkin, one could still see the “imprint of a bitter irony, an expression of protest” on his face. With no nationality on his papers, the Mexican officials could not legally bury him, and so classified him as a “Spanish republican.” (Serge defied authority even in death.)
In his final years, he came to believe that the tyrannies of the time would outlast him. He had lived long enough to see the old ideals — the “blossoming of the self,” the “harmonious life under the sun of liberty” — ground into dust. In spite of this, he showed little regret, and refused the suggestion — which some, even Trotsky, had briefly allowed themselves to entertain — that the whole struggle had been for naught. He also disdained any identification of himself as a victim because that “binds a victim to his torturer, the man on the scaffold to his executioner.” Serge lived the bulk of his existence on the underside of life, but unlike Orwell, with whom he is often compared, his time there was not investigative or journalistic; it was vocational. “I am sorry for those who grow up in this world without ever experiencing the cruel side of it,” he wrote, “without knowing utter frustration and the necessity of fighting, however blindly, for mankind.” One has to visit the lower depths to discover the point from which the demand for human dignity originates, and what it truly means to seek justice.
Crucially, he denied the easy temptations of fatalism and despair: “the only meaningful life lies in conscious participation in the making of history.” This requires, among other virtues, a willingness to suffer and a refusal to betray one’s conscience, and the ability to maintain a sincere and uncorrupted hope in the capacity to imagine and project one’s own freedom. If Serge’s work is still worth reading, it is precisely because it affirms these universals, because he remained independent in his idealism and never allowed himself to be pressed into the service of an ideology. His work has always been a testament to the spirit of liberty, to the individual’s stubborn endurance against the tyrannical systems that seek to crush them. Serge could have easily been lost to history, but his unwillingness to go quietly has left us with a body of work that makes him impossible to forget, and because of this, he has indeed survived.
Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness: Stories (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (2022). His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Liberties (forthcoming), Tablet, and 3:AM Magazine. He currently lives in Prague. Twitter: @JaredMPollen.
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