A Serge of Interest


When choosing sides in the great ideological clashes of the last century, few escape free of guilt. Corpse mounds gather wherever you look. The Holocaust here, the gulag there, then rather further from view, the Bengal famine, the genocides of the Congo, Armenia and Indonesia; and the faceless countless casualties of poverty. The minority who kept their intellectual and moral integrity during the era were those who steered clear of the Scylla of ravenous capitalism and its fascist outliers on the one side, and the Charybdis of tyrannous Stalinist-Maoist communism on the other.

In literature Orwell and Camus are rightly revered here, risking their lives in the fight against fascism, voicing a clear denunciation of totalitarian communism, whilst never losing sight of the democratic socialist alternative. A third name, however, goes largely forgotten. That of Victor Serge. Just as much a man of action, wisdom and honour as both. Arguably a more gifted novelist than either. Unquestionably far closer to the physical heart of struggle and revolution. He suffered a great deal more for his honesty, too.

Serge’s life would make an incredible tale if he had never published a word. As it was, he was a writer of extraordinary power and piercing lucidity, his memoirs bursting with the lyrical flair of his novels, his novels coloured by his extraordinary firsthand experience. A key player in, and perceptive critic of, the defining European revolutions of the century.

Victor Kilbachich was born as he lived: stateless. His parents were Russian exiles in Brussels, exiled from the motherland for their anti-Tsarist revolutionary activity. All his life he would write in French, while his greatest dramas played out in Russia. His parents were both dirt-poor and fiercely intellectual, activists to their core. By his own reckoning, ‘The conversations of grownups dealt with trials, executions, escapes, and Siberian highways, with great ideas incessantly argued over, and with the latest books about these ideas.’ From his father he inherited a deep respect for science; from his mother a love of literature. He described himself as a troublemaker and ‘evil-doer’ as a younger child, learning his chief commandment ‘Thou shalt fight back.’ Such was the family’s poverty that his older brother died of malnutrition. Here was something to fight back against.

The teenage Victor cleaved to socialism which ‘gave a meaning to life: and that was: struggle,’ along with his friends, overworked and restless apprentices, or else urchins involved in petty criminality. The hardcore, and Victor was one, became disgusted with the Belgian social democratic party and its support for the genocidal Congo adventure. Alongside young toughs—with such romantic-grimy nicknames as Octave ‘Out-of-luck’ Garnier, Rene ‘Carrot-top’ Valet, and his closest friend Raymond ‘Science’ Callemin—Victor found a new home for his rebellion in the anarchist underworld of the day.

Anarchism was a then-thriving subculture in sections of the working class across Europe, from Moscow to London. This was ‘illegalist’ anarchism, activism unashamed of criminality and violence: activism of the knife, bomb and revolver. Victor had shown a flair both for organisation and for writing, moving from Brussels to the movement’s epicentre in Paris, and writing inspirational and analytical articles for journals such as Le R évolt é and L’Anarchie.

In his descriptions of his anarchist comrades Serge shows his particular genius for capturing character: Catalan comrade Miguel Almeredeya,

‘…incarnated human achievement in a measure so far practically unknown to me. He had the physical beauty of the pure-bred Catalan—tall forehead, blazing eyes—allied with an extreme elegance. A brilliant journalist, a captivating orator, a capable libertarian politician, adroit in business, he was able to handle a crowd or fix a trial, to brave the bludgeons of the police, the revolvers of certain comrades or the spite of the Government…’

The hardcore of militants connected to Serge teamed up to become the ‘Bonnot gang’ internationally infamous for their armed robberies, hold-ups and heists. They were the first gang in the world to use a getaway car, later immortalised in a film by Jacques Brel. Victor was not personally involved in any of the robberies but declared his support for their actions: ‘I am with the wolves.’

The end results were failure, death and imprisonment for most involved. ‘Carot-top’ had a 12-hour shoot-out with police before turning his gun on himself. Ironically, Victor was beginning to accept the ultimate futility of these actions just as he was arrested along with the rest of his gang, chained in a famed mass trial of 1913: the so-called ‘bandits of anarchism.’ Despite having no role in the robberies, Serge was sentenced to five years in prison, while his best friend ‘Science’ Callemin went to the guillotine, taunting journalists with the sneer, ‘A beautiful sight eh, to watch a man die?’

So began one of Serge’s many stays in prison or exile, where he was to spend ten of his fifty-seven years on earth. The regime in Melun on the Seine was petty, monstrous and brutal, inspiring his first great novel Men in Prison. On release, he went straight to Barcelona, great serendipity, just as an anarcho-syndicalist revolt was breaking out. Here, still writing for anarchist newspapers, he took the pen-name ‘Serge’ which was to last him the rest of his lifetime.

The revolution failed, and Serge, now despairing of anarchism’s capacity to succeed, ended up in a French labour camp as a ‘Bolshevik sympathiser’ before even meeting a real Bolshevik. Once free, Serge went forth to his ancestral homeland to join the only workers’ revolution which seemed to have triumphed.

Serge was a Zelig of revolutions, suddenly and strangely at the very heart of their most dramatic scenes. Within weeks of his arrival, he was drawn to the fiery heart of power and struggle during the Civil War; observing the desperation on the streets of a Petrograd under siege, whilst jostling and arguing with leaders in the makeshift new corridors of power. He meets everyone, Lenin (‘cranium high and bulging, his forehead strong, he had commonplace features … and a surpassing air of geniality and cheerful malice’) Trotsky (‘all tension and energy, whose metallic voice projected a great distance, short sentences that were often sardonic and always suffused with a spontaneous passion’) and countless other leaders now otherwise lost to collective memory.

Serge once again took on the role of both organiser and writer in the Civil War. In the heady intellectual freedom of the revolution’s earliest days, anarchists were respected as allies, though Serge now primarily identified with the Bolsheviks. Serge had given his support to Bolshevism as the best hope for the world of workers revolution, but he never joined the Communist party and kept at every stage his defining scepticism of centralised power, a true libertarian to use that now much-soiled word. Serge proclaimed, ‘In Petrograd we expected to breathe the air of a liberty that doubtless could be harsh and even cruel to its enemies, but was still generous and bracing.’ But it was here he first learned of the harsh deadly clashes between principle and necessity, between freedom and survival in a revolution under siege. Painfully aware of this tension, it informed his most poignant writing.

Active in revolutionary regiments who were shooting deserters and imprisoning opponents, Serge accepted the need for revolutionary discipline in the face of assault and even briefly supported the dreaded Cheka secret police, and the infamous suppression of the sailor’s revolt at Kronstadt. But he argued these were grotesques born of necessity, that freedom of assembly and association had to begin again at the first opportunity. That, of course, did not happen. He came to intrigue with his friend the great writer Maxim Gorky (whose ‘grey eyes held an extraordinary wealth of expression … the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution’) in arranging leniency for comrades who had fallen foul of the revolutionary courts.

With the war over and the Bolsheviks victorious, neither the bureaucratic elite nor Cheka showed any signs of easing or sharing power. A disillusioned Serge threw in his lot with the Left Opposition, with their demands for independent trade unions, free association and democratic accountability in the workplace. No demands were met, and the Oppositionists were derided and ignored (though, at this stage in the early 1920s, not yet imprisoned.) By Lenin’s death in 1924, Serge was already sidelined. He went instead to visit communist oppositions in other countries, working and arguing with Gramsci and Lukacs. His decision to return to Russia and redouble his efforts of rebellion just as Stalin was tightening his grip on power in 1926 was either heroic, foolhardy or both. He was shunned on the streets by his former comrades, and betrayed even by Gorky, who he now denounced as ‘an algebraic cipher of himself’ alongside other ‘writers in uniform.’

From thereon, Serge was imprisoned once more, this time by those he once fought alongside. He was brutally interrogated. Prison turned to internal exile in rural Orenberg with his teenage son, his wife losing her mind. It is likely that Serge’s life was saved from being one of the millions murdered in Stalin’s purges by an international campaign for his release by a small but dedicated band of supporters, who included for a time Andre Gide (his status as a ‘foreigner,’ was probably, just this once, an advantage). Serge chronicled the show trials with clear sight, the cowed witnesses with their ‘lunatic statements … a deluge of delirium,’ but his readership was tiny.

Serge lived out his final days in exile in Mexico. Shunned by both the right and the dominant Stalinist left, Serge found it difficult to find publishers for his work, though supported by Dwight McDonald in New York and Orwell in London. Most of his novels went unpublished in his lifetime. He did still write however for smaller journals such as The Partisan Review, Horizon, and Polemic—a rebel to the end.

Serge’s memoirs, reportage and journalism alone would make him a writer of great value, but he also captured his tortured and cataclysmic world into novels, a form in which he excelled. Aside from his masterful flair for characterisation, one of Serge’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to capture the multifarious perspectives of the many different figures of whom he is writing. A critic of the ‘bourgeois novel’ which focusses on one (usually privileged) individual, Serge always sought to inhabit and convey the minds of many at the same time, shifting viewpoints and mindsets, a voice of the people in the true, rather than the caricatured socialist-realist sense. The minds are always alive, as John Berger has noted, ‘It was methodologically impossible for a stereotype to occur in Serge’s writing. The nature of his imagination forbade it.’

In the shorter novel Conquered City, set in Petrograd amongst the darkest, despairing and starving days of the Russian Civil War, his style is at its most fractured, closer to the modernism of Woolf or Mayakovsky. Men In Prison, inspired by the jails of France, is Serge at his most sensuous. With the politics in shadow, he provides an unflinching glare at the strange ritualistic corruption and degradation of jail, a vision to rival and surely influence that of Genet. Unforgiving Years finds Serge at his most epic, shifting between the perspectives of NKVD operatives caught in their own inner turmoil about their duty to the revolution, and the passion of their lives and where this has led them, as well as the bombed-out residents of a dying Berlin in the war’s final hours. Its dark ruminations on the ‘intercontinental, chemical, satanic’ deaths of World War Two here reach a peak of expression, reaching forth into a beguiling metaphysics. Never taking the easy route, his protagonists are not usually outright rebels such as himself, but those involved with atrocities and embroiled in the system, tortured by conscience and contradiction. Serge achieves a poetic fluidity in exploring these dark states of the soul and mind.

For many, his crowning novelistic achievement is The Case of Comrade Tulayev, his account of the madness and paranoia of the Great Purge and the Stalinist show trials. Here, Serge harnesses his innate anarchistic abhorrence of bureaucracy into the deadliest satire. The assassination of party functionary Tulayev sets off a farcical, arse-covering chain of accusation, recrimination and elimination of party members, all of them innocent of the crime in question. Here, Serge’s ability to highlight the humanity of all his cast, even those involved in the most sordid, dishonest and murderous acts, is at its finest. Even Stalin himself, referred to as ‘The Chief,’ is not a sadistic monster, but rather dogged, dogmatic and narrow- minded, the weight of history and a warped and stagnant system burying him along with the others.

Serge’s was the lonely voice of conscience, as given in the voice of despairing NKVD agent ‘D’ in ‘Unforgiving Years’. ‘The end justified the means – what a swindle. No end can be achieved by anything other than the appropriate means. If we trample on the man of today, will we do anything worthwhile with the man of tomorrow?’ But much more than this, he did so with a true artistry, an artist who, again in the words of the agent ‘brings light to the caverns, hope to the graveyards, balm to the wounds, places a love incarnate among broken beings, an irrefutable reason beneath the cataracts of absurdity.’

Why then is Serge so neglected? Susan Sontag attributed it in part to the distrust in the modern day of the polymath; you can be a revolutionary or a writer, but you can’t be both. Also, as a multinational nomad, Serge was neither a Russian, Belgian nor French writer and so was apt to fall through the cracks of literary departments.

I would argue it takes something more than this for neglect of such powerful writing. His remaining a revolutionary to the very end takes with it a whiff of suspicion for the literary liberal elite. He is tainted by the crimes of communism despite being one of the very first to point them out, and one of the first to fight against them. His tortured support for Trotsky’s suppression of Kronstadt is given as damning evidence. But, as Serge was to argue, the ultimate choice at the time was between the Red Army and the White Army. Which to choose? Even the most sainted have their flaws. Orwell’s hatred for Stalinism led him in the end to compile a wrong-headed literary blacklist for American intelligence services. Camus’s ambivalence towards Algeria gave him a blind eye toward French atrocities in their last colonial outpost.

It’s easy to celebrate the heroic last stand of the Paris Commune, less easy to defend a revolution defending itself through a desperate savagery. Liberals hold the ‘germ of Stalinism’ was there from the revolution’s beginning. Serge’s retort:

‘Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?’

Serge’s work was the most powerful literary expression of this point of view; a lost voice that deserves to be heard.

[First published at 3:AM Magazine, 2021]