Lorna Scott Fox
- Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope by Susan Weissman
Verso, 364 pp, £22.00, September 2001, ISBN 1 85984 987 3
In The Long Dusk, Victor Serge’s novel about the fall of France, his alter ego Dr Ardatov escapes death just as the author did, on a boat out of Marseille in 1941. One of Ardatov’s companions, a much younger woman, Hilda, joins him on deck. She says something intense, he counters with something pompous. With a familiar irritation, she thinks: ‘I wish you were thirty years younger. I wish you were as you are and also a brute … I wish to understand so much less.’ Régis Debray echoes her annoyance when he writes, in a 1985 introduction to Serge’s notebooks or Carnets: ‘I’d have wished, I won’t say for more heart and less intelligence, but for him to have been a little less the conscience and a little more the witness of his time, as of himself.’
That’s as reproving as it gets towards Victor Serge, one of the few revolutionary figures to emerge untainted from the last century. As such, he is becoming the subject of a tiny, belated cult. He was in fact an unparalleled witness, at least to his time. But he was an unpopular man. It’s precisely what one might adore about him – the tolerance, the internationalism, the political sagacity, the ability to be both artist and doer, the attachment to the ideals of workers’ democracy and freedom of thought – that galled many of his contemporaries. At best, they resented the high-minded priggishness he lent to his character Ardatov. At worst, they thought Mr Perfect must be hiding something, and he was accused at different times (and by different factions at the same time) of being a terrorist, a centrist, a White agent, a Nazi agent, a Stalinist agent, a social democrat, a Trotskyist, even (gulp) a Gaullist. After his death in 1947 he was forgotten for decades, being useless to either side in the Cold War – all probity and no PR.
Susan Weissman is even more discreet on personal matters than her subject was. Like most modern Serge commentators, she views him primarily as a misunderstood political figure, and suggests that to look deeper into such a private person would be mere speculation, titillation and exposé. Thankfully, there is one passage, describing an interlude of safety at the Villa Air-Bel in Marseille, during that escape from France in 1941, in which we seem to see this elusive man, not just feel his intelligence. Before he was forced to leave for compromising the American Emergency Rescue Committee effort by his alleged Trotskyism, there had been five months of ‘work, political discussions and surrealist games’ (Breton’s presence at the Villa attracted the Deux Magots crowd of a Sunday). Varian Fry remembered a ‘dyspeptic but keen-minded old Bolshevik . . . At the house he talked for hours about his experiences in Russian prisons . . . or discussed the ramifications and interrelations of the European secret police . . . Listening to him was like reading a Russian novel.’ Mary Jayne Gold, a contributor to the Committee, was a bit shocked that both Breton and Serge ‘had almost courtly old-school manners . . . so ancien régime’. Lévi-Strauss, meeting him afterwards on the Capitaine Paul Lemerle, expected to be intimidated and found himself before a ‘principled old maid’: ‘That hairless face, those fine features, that light voice combined with the stiff, fussy manners, presented the almost asexual character I was later to recognise in the Buddhist monks of the Burmese frontier.’
The monkish air fits Serge’s indifference to worldly success, but not the obstinacy of his involvement in the world. Serge was a neither-nor man whose tensions didn’t resolve into neutrality. He was culturally both Western and Eastern, ‘un homme déchiré d’Eurasie’; a man of the masses who was always lonely; a preacher who toted a gun in the siege of Petrograd. He went all out for what he regarded as necessary, if not desirable, at every turn, but he always had reservations, and his conversions were never complete. He amassed rather than switched identities, as anarchist, libertarian socialist, Leninist Bolshevik, Left Oppositionist and revisionist seeker for new formulas at the edges of the Fourth International.
Victor Lvovich Kilbalchich was born in Brussels of Russian émigré parents in 1890. He was educated at home by his Spencerian father and socialist mother in a utopian atmosphere devoted to the fulfilment of ‘History’, a formation to which he remained loyal despite some well-founded doubts, by the end, about historical determinism. In his classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1942), the vanquished Victor finds himself able to look back on his itinerary ‘without the obscure certainties of childhood . . . having become noticeably shaken within me’. He remembers being angered, as a child, by poverty and unfairness. At the age of 12, he met and became inseparable from Raymond Callemin (alias Raymond la Science) who would be guillotined in France in 1913 as a member of the anarchist-outlaw crew La Bande à Bonnot. Serge disapproved of the group’s ideas and tactics and had come to view Callemin as more adversary than friend; but when he was arrested as an ‘associate’ along with them, after a spate of robberies and killings, he kept his mouth shut, refusing to distinguish himself from anyone targeted by bourgeois justice. He was sentenced to five years. At the time, he had been working as a printer’s assistant, teacher and agitator in Paris, where he wrote the first of thousands of pages of political journalism. This episode, the first of his imprisonments, was also the source of the first of the misunderstandings. For all the heroism of Serge’s stance, certain anarchist outgrowths have still not forgiven him.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.