The return of the steadfast radical

Matthew Price writes frequently for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Like novelists George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, vagabond writer and radical Victor Serge was a seminal witness to the catastrophes of totalitarianism. But today Serge is undoubtedly the least known of the three. The economics of publishing have been not kind to Serge: "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," his great novel of Stalin's purges, has long been out of print, as has his most remarkable work, "Memoirs of a Revolutionary." (My battered, disintegrating copy is held together by a rubber band). Serge, it seems, has no place even in the dusty corners of secondhand shops; finding used editions of his work is often a fruitless task.

But among a small legion of dedicated scholars and writers, interest in Serge remains steadfast. Journalists Adam Hochschild and Christopher Hitchens have long carried his banner, reminding us that Serge is one of the 20th century's greatest political writers and a vigorous, unbowed tribune for a humane socialism. Serge sounded an early alarm about the cruelties of the Soviet Union but never joined the shrill chorus of ex-communists. He remained a proud, thoughtful man of the left, whose faith in Marxism never dimmed. By his own characterization, he was an "intransigent," a disposition that often left him lonely and isolated.

After he died in 1947, an obituarist in the journal Modern Review wrote that Serge's "chef-d'oeuvre was his own life." This is not an exaggeration: Serge's journey reads like something out of an Alan Furst thriller. Russian by ancestry -- his anti-Czarist parents fled Russia in the 1880s -- but Belgian by birth, he was variously an anarchist, a Bolshevik, a Trotskyist. A rebel to his bones, he invariably found himself in trouble wherever he set down. Before the Russian Revolution, he lived in Paris on the margins, a denizen, as he pungently described it, of a "vast world of irregulars, outcasts, paupers, and criminals." He wrote, edited, agitated and was jailed for his connections to a gang of anarchist bank robbers. An organizer and activist (even, for a time, a Comintern agent) in the early days of the Soviet Union, he would become one of its most profound critics. Though a supporter of the revolutionary cause, Serge never ceased striking out against the perversions of revolution, a stance that earned him countless political enemies. Jailed, banished to the arid plains of Central Asia, then exiled and hounded across Europe in the '30s by Stalin's goon squads, he paid a high price for his dissidence: The Stalinist press reviled him and timid publishers refused to print his books. Despite the sympathetic advocacy of Dwight Macdonald and Orwell, Serge would struggle to the end. He died, as he was born, a stateless man.

The best account of his life remains his "Memoirs," and one hopes its re-publication wins Serge the wider readership he deserves. Hochschild, who provides a tender and judicious introduction for this new edition, rightly calls Serge's "Memoirs" "his masterpiece ... [which belongs] on the same small shelf as the other great political testaments of the twentieth century, books like Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' and Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia.' "

But in its force and idiosyncratic splendor, "Memoirs" surpasses those classics. An impassioned work of burning intensity, Serge's "Memoirs" charts not only his own harrowing odyssey through the revolutionary maelstrom of interwar Europe but also the tragic fortunes of an entire generation of leftists and fellow revolutionaries, many of whom disappeared into the vast network of Stalin's jails, were murdered or committed suicide as their revolutionary hopes were extinguished. ("I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent and historical character, has often overwhelmed me," Serge movingly wrote of his dead comrades.)

Literary critic Irving Howe once observed that Serge "was primarily an observer, a superior journalist from whose books there emanates the heat and turmoil of historical immediacy." "Memoirs" is a supreme confirmation of this judgment. Not least, Serge's pages are valuable for his superb portraiture of the gallery of intellectuals and political radicals he encountered in his travels, among them Hungarian revolutionaries Bela Kun and George Lukacs, Italian activist Antonio Gramsci, French novelist Henri Barbusse and Andreu Nin, the martyred Spanish Marxist (the book practically doubles as a who's who of international communism), as well as the prime movers of the Bolshevik Party: Nikolai Bukharin, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev.

Serge excels at the brief sketch. Consider his compact yet utterly vivid evocation of Lenin: "Practically bald, his cranium high and bulging, his forehead strong, he had commonplace features: an amazingly fresh and pink face, a little reddish beard, slightly jutting cheekbones, eyes horizontal but apparently slanted because of the laughter lines, a grey green gaze at people, and a surpassing air of geniality and cheerful malice." On the nasty Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (the Soviet secret police), "a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor."

For the contemporary reader, "Memoirs" still offers one of the finest -- and most terrifying -- accounts of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into murderous tyranny and bureaucratic strangulation. Like many of his generation, Serge saw the revolution as a hopeful development, and he went to Russia an eager participant. But from the first, he recoiled at the Bolsheviks' ruthless suppression of their enemies on the left, their authoritarianism, their violent contempt for dissenting voices. Though he joined the Communist Party in 1919 and fought in the defense of Petrograd, he wrote that he felt a "sense of danger from inside, a danger within ourselves, in the very temper and character of Bolshevism."

Through Serge's eyes, we watch as his hopes for a "democratic and libertarian revolution" are savagely foreclosed: By the mid-1920s, there was nothing democratic, libertarian or tolerant about the Soviet regime. Of course, even Serge granted the inevitability of a certain degree of terror: He wasn't the least bit deceived about Bolshevik methods, which he felt necessary, given the blasted state of a country rent by civil war and chaos. But the formation of the Cheka -- one of the Bolsheviks' "gravest and most impermissible errors" -- and the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising of Russian sailors in 1921 left him dismayed. He had a deep reservoir of sympathy for these "impassioned dissidents of the Revolution" and their demands for freedom of expression and devolution of state power back to the workers.

Though Serge remained a member of the party for most of the '20s, he never renounced his independence of mind. Alas, Serge was in the minority on this score. All around him, party members scurried for official sanction -- and lost their senses. "The majesty of the Russian Revolution disarmed its supporters of all critical sense," he tells us. "[T]hey seemed to believe that approval of it entitled abdication of the right to think." Serge's inspired defenses of this right would cost him dearly.

In 1925, Serge threw his lot in with the Left Opposition, which had coalesced around Trotsky as he jockeyed with Stalin for control of the party. Serge's goal was, as he puts it, "to rescue the spirit of liberty within." Today, it is hard to accept his arguments that the revolution could be saved at all. Yet his devotion to revolutionary ideals remains almost poignant. His accounts of secret meetings with fellow comrades as they debate doctrine and ponder alternatives are riveting. Amid the swirl of flying abstractions and arcane faction fights, Serge's capacity to convey roiling human passion never dims; whether he is writing about allies or enemies, his subjects live and breathe.

His sad chapters on life in the Russia of the late '20s pierce and haunt his readers. Paranoia and finger-pointing are rampant; party members turn on each other, recklessly hurling charges of betrayal. Summary executions and jailings decimate Serge's dwindling fraternity. He encounters a former Cheka agent, now in opposition, whose mind reels with conspiracy theories and secret plots: "I follow his chain of reasoning with the secret uneasiness that one feels in the presence of some lunatic logician. And I observe that he has the inspired face of a madman." These lines chill us.

Somehow, Serge managed to stay at liberty until 1928. (One marvels at this fact). But with Stalin firmly in power and Trotsky banished, the game was up. Expelled from the party, relieved of all his duties, Serge would spend the next five years writing in secret -- taking the measure of a decade of strife, terror and fervor. A remarkable flurry produced three novels and an invaluable history, "Year One of the Russian Revolution." Exiled to Orenburg in 1933, he nevertheless carried on with his work as witness and writer. After French intellectuals organized a campaign to win his release, Stalin expelled him in 1936. But even in freedom, Serge's life was one of privation and struggle. Most of the leftist press in France, where he settled until the Nazi invasion, refused him. He broke with Trotsky, criticizing the Fourth International. He wrote searching polemics about the decay of capitalism and democracy in the West and the totalitarian nightmare -- both Nazi and Stalinist -- engulfing Europe.

A fraught escape after the fall of France led him to Mexico, where he wrote the extraordinary "Memoirs" -- "for the desk drawer." (It was published posthumously in 1951.) Yet never, when he had every right to, did he indulge in self-pity; there is a breathtaking absence of despair in this book. For Serge, defiance was synonymous with hopefulness, and the ringing words of his "Memoirs" carry with them on every page the acid sting of his stubborn bravado.

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