Review of Victor Serge: the Course is Set on Hope by Susan Weisssman (Verso £20), Tribune, 14 September 2001

The life of the revolutionary, journalist and author Victor Serge was truly extraordinary. Born Victor Kilbalchich in Belgium in 1890 to exiled Russian revolutionary parents, he first achieved notoriety in his early twenties as a member of a gang of individualist anarchist bankrobbers in France, for whose exploits he was jailed in 1913. On his release in 1917, he went to Barcelona and participated in an unsuccessful anarcho-syndicalist uprising, then returned to France and was arrested and jailed again. Released once more in 1919, by now disillusioned with anarchism, he made his way to Russia, joined the Bolsheviks and became a leading figure in the Communist International, playing a key role as a propagandist in its doomed attempt to foment revolution in Germany in the mid-1920s.

Back in Russia in 1926, he joined Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which was engaged in a bitter struggle with Stalin inside the Soviet Communist Party. After its defeat, as Stalin consolidated his grip on power, he stayed in Russia, under constant threat of arrest, writing a history of the Bolshevik revolution and three novels based on his experiences as a young man. Eventually, in 1933, he was arrested and exiled to a remote village. An international outcry followed, and in 1936 he was expelled from the Soviet Union (without the manuscripts of four books completed during his incarceration, which were seized by the authorities), eventually finding his way back to France.

In Paris, he collaborated with the exiled Trotsky – and fell out with him – and wrote three more novels and three other books offering coruscating left-wing critiques of the Stalinist regime. He escaped from Paris under German fire in 1940 and left France for Mexico in 1941 where he continued to write prolifically until his death in 1947.

Most remarkable of all, the literary products of this extraordinary life were not mere hack work: they include some of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary is one of the most compelling autobiographies ever written, and the best of his novels – Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, Conquered City, The Case of Comrade Tulayev – have deservedly acquired a reputation as classics of political fiction.

Susan Weissman, an American academic, writes about Serge as an unashamed enthusiast. Her new biography concentrates on the development of Serge’s relationship to the Soviet Union: there is little here on him before he arrived in Russia in 1919, on his personal life or on his literary oeuvre as such. Weissman’s emphasis is legitimate – the Soviet Union was Serge’s main preoccupation for his last 30 years, and he was a pioneer of critical Left analysis of Soviet society – and her research is thorough. She is particularly good on the deadly intrigues of Stalin’s secret agents against the Trotskyists and their allies in the 1930s and on Serge’s bust-up with Trotsky at the same time.

If there is one let-down, it is that the book plods. It is not simply that Weissman’s account lacks the panache of Serge’s own writing. A bigger problem is her penchant for labouring points of Marxist doctrine. She takes it as axiomatic that the Bolsheviks were right about just about everything as long as Lenin was alive, and she spends an inordinate amount of effort defending Serge against accusations that he deviated from this or that article of Leninist faith.

Unfortunately, the effect is to undermine her claim that he remains more relevant than ever today. To show that Serge in the 1940s resisted the heretical temptations of anarchism – or, heaven forbid, “Right Menshevism” – might be the way to effect his rehabilitation among card-carrying Trotskyists. But it is hardly the strategy to adopt if you’re trying to convince the rest of the world. The Bolshevik revolution is a dead duck. Serge is worth reading despite, not because of, his (by the end wavering) faith in it.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.